Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How are your students doing?

Two articles in last week's Chronicle of Higher Education (2-11-2011) reminded me that it is time to check in with our students.  At this point in the semester, after at least one test and a month of classes, student issues arise.  One article identifies the "Ghost Student" who has never or rarely shown up to class.  Who is this person?  Why are they on your role and where did they go?  The other article identifies the risk-adverse student (the "grade grubber") who has dropped or is about to drop a course because of an impending low grade. There are pressures that mold students into these types.  For the first, outside pressures--family issues, job stresses, and other problems--interfere with that student's ability to focus academically.  For the other, such a student may risk losing a scholarship or grant due to the GPA requirement.  Says Noah Roderick, "It is not that this generation of students isn't exposed to risk; it's that the risks students could be taking--in their thinking, writing, and course selections--are being displaced by fear of the dire consequences of falling below unnecessarily high GPA requirements."

A provocative (and philosophic) answer to these disappearing students is forwarded by Ronald Barnett, in A Will To Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty (2007).  In this book, Barnett tackles an assumption in higher education that many of us have worried about over coffee and tea: where is the student motivation?  Where is their will to learn?  Barnett argues that the will to learn can be either lost or gained during a student's course of study.  Students fight anxiety (made worse by continual, high-stakes assessment) and complexity in an era of "fast learning" when the space and time for learning is compressed (citing Hassan 2003).  Students counter these pressures by developing a sense of commitment, passion, and engagement with their own education.  They move past the syllabus shells of course descriptions and learning outcomes to become "self-creators of their own experience"; they become authentic learners with their own authentic, individual voices.

What about the teacher's role in all of this self-development?  First, we need to not get in the way--and forgetting to treat each other (students and colleagues) can certainly interfere with internal motivation. And second, we construct the learning space, so recognizing that the "will to learn" is a key part of the learning process is essential. We may assume that students come with us with certain dispositions listed by Barnett: the will to learn, to engage, to listen and to explore, the will to continue forward with their education (or, in the current lingo, to become life-long learners).  Still, these dispositions are under attack and need to be nurtured. We too have to pay attention to the pressures of risk, complexity, and anxiety.  We battle these with our commitment to students as autonomous individuals, people with whom we can connect and inspire.  Barnett places great store in the idea of inspiration, an idea that at first glance leaves me skeptical (it's not easy to teach composition in an inspiring vein).  However, his definition of inspiration includes the implicit care and determination that we communicate to our students as well as our overt enthusiasm for our subject.  When we regard students with humanity and solicitude, we bolster their own self-efficacy.

I have been maturing as a teacher. New experiences bring new sensitivities and flexibility...
-- Howard Lester

This is all well and fine, but what does this have to do with pedagogy?  We want to give students space and time to learn--to become their own educated selves--and in doing so, we may need to fight external pressures to compress time, limit space, increase content, and employ high-risk assessments. If we give our students this gift of time and space to learn--whatever that means in our own disciplines, whether group or individual projects, discussion time, creative and low-risk assignments--let's make sure we are explicit with them.  If we create a learning space for students, be explicit about why and how they should use the opportunity.

And then ask them how it went...

Friday, February 4, 2011

Participatory Learning

Vin60, Flickr
"Brick wall

Students learn by participating in their own learning process (otherwise, do they learn by sitting in class as still as bricks?) The Tenn TLC will be addressing participation in two upcoming workshops: one on assessment and one on lecturing.

What do these topics have to do with participatory learning?

First, lecturing is a primary mode of teaching, especially in large classes of undergraduates.  Donald Bligh's oft-cited study of lecturing (What's the Use of Lectures?) assesses decades of research to determine how well the lecture mode meets "four logically distinct kinds of objective: 1. The acquisition of information, 2. The promotion of thought, 3. Changes in attitudes, and 4. Behavioral skills."  Of these four objectives, research shows that lecture only meets the first: acquisition of knowledge.

Bligh concludes:
It does not follow that teachers should never lecture or even that the time allocated to lecturing on a timetable should not exceed that allocated to discussion. That is a matter of judgement in particular cases.... But the acquisition of knowledge from lectures or any other method, is not an end in itself. It follows that lecturing should always be pursued as a means to some other end.
This conclusion has far reaching implications for lecturers' attitudes, techniques and preparation. In particular almost every lecture must be prepared and given with a clear idea of how it is to be combined with discussion or some other method. ...Planning a series of lectures, even by visiting speakers, without planning their follow up, is a useless activity - unless you have touching faith in the subsequent initiative of the audience to do that job for you.

What about the other three objectives:  promotion of thought, changes in attitudes, and behavioral skills?  We can ask the question, how can we get students to participate in their own learning, by asking about these objectives.  How can we change behavior, so that students learn more deeply?  How can we change attitudes, so that students value their learning?  How can we change the ways students think, so that they think critically and creatively?
With a generation of students driven to perform on standardized testing, on top of the grading system, we face students who learn mostly for extrinsic rewards.  And we know that extrinsic rewards do not insure deep, lasting learning (Bains 2009).   We must reverse the trend and offer students intrinsic rewards.  To do that, they have to participate.

This leads to our second workshop: assessment, in particular, classroom (formative "in process") assessment.  How will we know if attitudes, behaviors, and thinking processes are changing during a semester if we do not ask the students?  We can tell to some extent by the product (homework, quizzes and such) and we may be able to observe attitudinal and behavioral changes, but only in our classroom, since they are not observable once they leave class (and are less observable in an online course).  I recommend simply asking the student: are you studying differently for this class?  Are you thinking differently?  Are you valuing this educational experience?  See what they say!

Check out two related talks (both with fascinating animation)--one on educational paradigms:

The other talk is on motivation:

One last thought from Barr and Tagg (1995): "A paradigm shift is taking hold in American higher education. In its briefest form, the paradigm that has governed our colleges is this: A college is an institution that exists to provide instruction. Subtly but profoundly we are shifting to a new paradigm: A college is an institution that exists to produce learning. This shift changes everything. It is both needed and wanted."