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...

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