Friday, October 7, 2011

More on risk-taking and learning

In this morning's edition of Inside Higher Ed, Nate Kreuter writes a column about the importance of failure in the classroom.  The ideas in the column (along with those in Brian Croxall's blog which Kreuter links to at the end of his piece) resonated with me both because of what I have said about risk and failure in the past and more so because of some recent experiences I have had with students on my campus.

All but a handful of first-year students at BYU take a course known as American Heritage to fulfill a particular general education requirement.  It is a tough course, particularly for freshmen, because for most students it requires a depth of learning that they are unaccustomed to and which stretches them in what they feel are uncomfortable ways.  Consequently, students frequently voice complaints about their scores on exams and writing assignments.  

Over the last year, those who administer the course have worked closely with BYU's Center for Teaching and Learning to redesign the course, particularly its assessments.  On the whole this process has led to tremendous improvements, which in my estimation are based on very sound pedagogical principles and which are likely to lead to better learning and better attitudes among students.  One of these changes has been to structure writing assignments in a way that initial writing assignments are low stakes (about 10 points each), build students core writing skills by providing valuable feedback on the writing process, and are directly connected to more hefty writing assignments which come later in the semester (i.e. students can use the writing they have done for the initial assignments in later assignments).  It is a good model and likely to lead to good outcomes.

Here's the problem--faculty members and teaching assistants in the course haven't done much to make this visible or public for students.  In other words, they have built the course to encourage students to take early risks in their writing, risks which can ultimately benefit students; however, they haven't attended to what Kreuter argues are two of the most important things educators have to do when creating a "failure-safe" classroom:  they have neither modeled risk taking or publicly addressed the value of "failure." Consequently, over the last few weeks as scored essays have been returned to students with percentages of 30, 40, & 50 (the average across all sections was around 45%), they have panicked and thought "I've never 'failed' a writing assignment before."  This emotional reaction has been so strong in some cases that the student has ignored the useful feedback provided on the essay, feedback that would pay big dividends for later writing assignments, and complained.

Maybe I'm naive, but things may have been different if a couple of things had happened early in the semester and again just before essays were returned

Clear reminders about the truly "low-stakes" of these assignments:  The first two essays were worth a total of 30 points (10 and 20 points respectively).  That is a whopping 5% of the total 600 points available for students to earn across the semester.  One could argue that students could figure this out on their own, but the 30 seconds it would take to explain this in a lab section would do much to help students see the assignments as "safe."  And, if they see them as safe they are much more likely to take productive risks in their writing and learn more.

Frequent discussion w/ students about the type of feedback they are receiving and its value:  Many TAs have mistakenly assumed that students will immediately see value in the feedback provided and use it to improve their writing in the future.  While some students undoubtedly were mature enough to do so, others likely see any degree of critique as a personal attack on their identity as a "good student."  Time spent inducting students to their role as learners (e.g. welcome and receive feedback, use it to improve, etc.) could shift perspectives and help students interpret feedback in more useful ways.  And, this is a message that should be re-iterated to freshmen again and again during their first semester on campus.

Public sharing of risk-taking and failure stories by faculty members:  Students need to know that failure and risk are a part of any good academic experience and that, more importantly, people survive and benefit from them.  Never underestimate the power of a well-told, genuine, and believable story.

Open discussion about the structure of the course and the rationale behind it:  Good course design is much more likely to lead to desired outcomes when learners are partners with teachers in the overall process and understand the pedagogical strategy being employed.  If writing assignments are structured to build upon one another and to provide good feedback on the writing process, that's an important thing for learners to know--it's foolish to assume they will figure it out on their own.  Instructional strategies shouldn't be secrets we keep to ourselves.  Making them visible to students both orients them to the learning experience they will have in our classroom and facilitates metacognitive activity that makes students better learners even after they leave our classes.

To be fair, there is probably little that faculty members or TAs could ever do to completely eliminate student complaints like those I've heard over the last few weeks.  There will always be students who are so wrapped up in being awarded the same coveted "A's" they received in high school that no amount of discussion about deep learning, the value of feedback, or the importance of failure could ever change their perspective.  But, if we were more intentional about helping first-year students adopt revised perspectives about learning--that it is risky, dependent upon failure and feedback, and sometimes painful--we would both hear fewer complaints and see more students becoming the types of scholars we hope leave our campuses when they graduate

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