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Helping Students Grow as Learners
With this framework, I spent less time picking out homework problems from the textbook (a standard practice in accounting) and more time devising strategies that help students become answerers of their questions, promote self-direct learning, and make class time intellectually stimulating. Students still learned accounting, but this time they learned about themselves as learners too.
Lifelong learning, like biking, is more about the ride than the destination. Integrating zest influences what students think and motivates them to start the journey. Strategies attending to grit, growth mindset and sweat influence what students do by helping them advance along the paths of learning, now and in the future.
You can teach facts and concepts all you want, but what’s most important in the end is how students think about that material.
They say hindsight is 20-20. Evidence suggests otherwise. Awareness of cognitive biases is a first step toward helping students see what’s around, approaching, and behind more clearly to make better learning decisions.
Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn. ~ Herbert A. Simon
As educators, we know reading, reviewing, and “looking over” the textbook or notes are weak, passive learning strategies. I can tell them that passive strategies aren’t very effective, but telling isn’t as powerful as seeing that for themselves.
Every term there are students who ignore advice, skip the learning resources, underestimate the challenges, overestimate understanding, and study insufficiently. Every first accounting exam triggers Groundhog Day, where students (this time about 12%) have fallen into (some might say they dug) a hole that’ll required extra effort to escape.
Should teachers be concerned with their students’ ability to learn? The answer to that question depends on a teacher’s belief about the primary goal of teaching.
Can doing well lead to a rebound of doing poorly? Meaning, might students feel licensed to “let up” in a course after doing well? Or might thinking about studying be associated with less actual studying? Or, is doing well in one course associated with licensed behavior (like reduced study time) in another?
Helping Teachers Grow
Before I gathered data and dug into the literature, I was firmly convinced the assessments in my course require more than surface strategies. Now I’m not so sure. If students are unaccustomed to deeper learning, how can I help them develop or expand their learning strategy repertoire? What can I do to move our expectations and beliefs about learning closer together?
One of the most common analytical approaches taught in business programs is SWOT Analysis. Students are asked to identify an organization’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. The results identify strategic, proactive actions the firm can take to improve. Andy Molinsky, author and speaker, recently blogged about the need for entrepreneurs to apply the technique to themselves, asking entrepreneurs to consider their blind spots, weaknesses and opportunities. SWOT can be a useful exercise for mid-career teachers too.
“At its heart, self-reflection requires that you question your assumptions and your habits and ask whether they are useful in dealing with the world around you… In order to truly improve as a [teacher] you must do the hard work of questioning some of your most deeply held assumptions and beliefs…”
Relationship matters. Recognizing students’ prior knowledge and experiences builds mutual respect. Personal connection minimizes distance and promotes trust.
We can influence perceptions about our discipline and shape students’ understanding of themselves as learners. What systems and practices help students identify and celebrate their growth as learners?
Too many people succumb to the mistaken belief that being an effective teacher comes from natural, unteachable traits that belong only to a lucky few—the good looking, the fiercely social, and the incredibly talented. It’s easy to fall prey to this misconception. In reality, being an effective teacher is under your control, and it’s a matter of emotional intelligence (EQ).
An optimistic teacher is motivated by the opportunity to ignite student interest, recognizing that what worked one term may not work as well with another cohort, so it’s important to develop a set of alternatives.
I wonder how many of my students are dealing with “if only” remorse? Catching problems early, in knitting or academics, saves a lot of heartache. Some students may be trying to salvage a semester dotted with “holes” like poor attendance, weak study skills, procrastination, insufficient time or effort.
Teachers need to leverage the power of enthusiasm. A teacher’s passion for the subject is important. But I think peer interest can be more powerful because students can more easily relate to peers.
It’s not possible to script or control how things will proceed when students are solving problems in class. As I relinquished control student interest and engagement grew. It was scary at first. Eventually I saw that loosening control doesn’t mean bedlam will occur.
When we report grade distributions and make cross-student comparisons, we increase the stress and pressure experienced by introjection-oriented students. The external comparison-as-motivation works as long as the student is a “winner.”
Attending to student interest isn’t about “entertaining” students as much as it’s about engaging students through teacher immediacy and employing instructional strategies that promote interest. Schussler puts it this way: “Engagement in learning involves formulating a deeper connection between the student and the material whereby a student develops an interest in the topic or retains the learning beyond the short term.”
I suspect there’s a significant cohort of faculty in higher-ed who mistakenly believe the focus of engagement is akin to Kumbaya around the campfire. Kumbaya is engagement in schooling, not engagement in learning. A schooling emphasis centers on showing up, talking for points, and surface intellectual activity. Engagement in learning goes much deeper.
“Holy cow, this is what students feel like!” I forgot what an awful feeling it is to believe that you are in over your head. When was the last time you were a novice?
There’s a lot that sets the Millennials apart from prior generations, but the real question I want an answer to is this: Have faculty always longed for “better” students? And closely related: Have teachers always thought back to their own time as students as the good old days when students were serious, worked harder, etc?
Syllabi & Policies
What happens when teachers overlook or disregard the significance of the emotional ebbs during the semester? Student energy wanes and class preparation falls. Unprepared students can’t engage effectively, resulting in weak class discussions. Flipped instruction becomes less effective when students aren’t motivated or prepared. A common instructional response is to resort to lecturing, which may further decrease students’ energy and motivation.
A gentle reminder of the importance of first impressions and the subtle ways negative, implicit messages can quickly mar the learning environment.
Take some time to reflect on how you would characterize the tone of your syllabus and what you could do to make it more learner-centered.
I softened my makeup exam policy about five years ago. It consists of one line. “Makeup exams are only given under exceptional circumstances.” When I changed the policy I feared many students would seek extensions or request makeups. That hasn’t happened. Instead, I find myself dealing with the question of how to define an exceptional circumstance. “I know it when I see it” has worked until now.
“The classroom works best when students and teachers perceive it as a place where there is a continuing conversation among interested people, similar to what one might have with friends. A sense of community is not created by rules and laws but by a sense of mutual respect and tolerance” ~Singham, M.
I believe the best way to plan instruction is to ask myself two big questions. What are the course goals? What are the specific learning objectives? How these questions are answered provides the foundation for all the other decisions in the course.
If policies are supposed to prevent these unproductive behaviors, why do students still engage in them? Are there reasons why policies don’t work?
Teachers grade participation because grading it is the only way to get it, right? Embedded in the desire to promote classroom interaction are deeply ingrained assumptions about grading and its effects on participation. If we believe students only do work that’s graded, it follows that we must grade participation to motivate students to speak up.
“Rather than blaming lazy students or bad teaching for the growth of Internet-facilitated student cheating,… We must change the underlying economy of cheating.”
The literature suggests teachers should routinely exhort students about the importance of attendance. This is more effective than penalties in motivating students to attend. I’m hoping continued messages from me, about honesty, character, integrity, may have some positive impact.
Teachers are in a unique position to provide opportunities for students to practice discourse, as part of discipline-based learning. Now, more than ever, students need opportunities to learn how to discuss topics with reasoned statements, supported by evidence, without resorting to name calling and hostility.
Discussion pedagogy continues to intrigue, inspire and challenge me. There is so much good work being done!
Reflection is a key to advancing learning from the interactions.
The teacher isn’t solely responsible for ensuring the discussions are successful.
“The most distinctive feature of questions during discussion is that they are open for discussion rather than closed for answer.” Dillon, 1998, p.125.
Do you have the authority to set or change some or all of the questions on your feedback instrument? If so, when was the last time you did? Do you ask the same questions in different courses? Why or why not? I recently examined my forms, reviewed our university’s question pool, and made significant changes. It was interesting and eye opening. I highly recommend going through this exercise during a break, not mid-semester (speaking from experience).
I introduced the cheat-sheet index card policy a couple of years ago, as a way to reduce stress during the quiz and promote active study strategies. The goal was to get students thinking about the material earlier and differently, prepare more effectively, and perform better on the quiz. Unfortunately the strategy is, as my kids would say, an Epic Fail.
For the past year or so I’ve been allowing students to use a note card, essentially a “cheat sheet,” when completing the single in-class “exam” in my microeconomics course. I put exam in quotes because I refer to the assessment as a quiz. It’s essentially an exam; it carries the same weight as a test. But, like calling an assignment a warm-up instead of homework, naming it a quiz makes it somewhat less scary.
By approaching my problems with “What might make things a little better?” rather than “What is the solution?” I avoid setting myself up for certain frustration.
Teachers need to consider how we can raise students’ awareness of cognitive biases, and we need to be aware of own tendencies toward mental shortcuts and foggy hindsight as we approach the end of another term.
A 2015 article in Inside Higher Ed reported only 28% of employers think graduates are well prepared in oral communication (AAC&U survey of 400 firms). The accounting education literature refers to this problem as the expectations-performance gap. The gap persists for many reasons. This post considers just one: misplaced priorities.
If I teach technical content and students develop mastery but they lack “skills” like the ability to communicate informally, have I met my professional responsibility?
In Minds Online, Michelle Miller writes about the “third shift” problem in online learning. The first and second priorities are work and family, in either order. Schoolwork is the third shift. It’s often relegated to the night or whenever the first two “shifts” are completed. It means school work is getting done when the student is tired. I like the analogy. It’s pertinent in other learning contexts, not just online.
Running a race embodies so many parallels to learning. Students start the term with big plans and high expectations. They go out hard. Then we reach the 2-mile mark. They regret poor choices, doubt their ability, and consider quitting. I see fatigue in my students’ faces. Attendance is down. Illness is up. The semester feels very long and the finish seems far away. What can I do to help my students finish the term strong?
It’s Thursday. I’m asking questions about the homework. My students are looking back at me with blank faces. No one is volunteering. I’m starting to feel some frustration. Why isn’t the class cooperating like usual?
All content isn’t equal. Not to mention, just because we cover it, doesn’t mean students have learned it. I’m not suggesting necessary content should be cut, but rather that teachers should be really thoughtful and intentional about depth and breadth of content.
I believe many teachers grade homework because they assume if it isn’t graded, students won’t do it. There is some truth in that, but I am starting to think this is an assumption that warrants testing.
How many of our students view college with a “failure is not an option” mindset? If more students shared this mindset, would learning be enhanced?
Want to get students thinking? Or perhaps more accurately, want to find out what they are already thinking about? Ask them to ASK questions!
It’s easy to write a “no screens” policy, with harsh penalties and stick it on the syllabus. Finding ways to help students connect with content, making lessons that are relevant to today’s students, and actively engaging them in the learning process each class period is much more difficult. But if we do that, we may find the lure of the phone and students’ habitual checking for updates will be less urgent during the few moments we share with them each week.
When it comes to assignments, less may indeed be more. I am a firm believer in working hard. Assigning numerous small assignments can mean students are routinely engaging in course content. But, many small assignments can also become so “routine” that they are drowned out and possibly ignored. When was the last time you thought about the number of assignments in your course?
Highly specific syllabus policies that attempt to cover every possible scenario encourage loophole finding. (Think IRS tax code.) Inflexible policies have an implied message we may, or may not really intend: “I don’t care what is going on in your life. This is the deadline. Deal with it.” Highly punitive policies may encourage fraudulent excuse making. Rigid policies may discourage fraudulent excuse making, but at what cost?
Policies outlining the consequences may seem proactive, but aren’t they really reactive? We believe students will behave a certain way, our policies are responses to those beliefs. Instead of policies that react, I’d like to focus on practices that prevent or limit unproductive behaviors.
If we focus on poor behaviors in the syllabus, we probably shouldn’t be surprised if students behave in ways we seem to expect. Do we want students to do the work, in order to avoid losing points, or are we hoping students will develop a desire for learning? What will happen when the negative consequence is removed?