Friday, December 7, 2007

Learning and Motivation, part II: "Falling without getting hurt"

(This is the second post on Marilia Svinicki's Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom. Here's part I, on how learners come to question or abandon their existing beliefs.)

One of the more provocative chapters of Svinicki's book concerns how to help students develop skills. One model used to do this is the mimicry of experts: Students observe the techniques and modes of thinking that experts in a field use and attempt to copy them. Svinicki writes:

Another problem with the use of expert models is that learners can get a false sense of their own level of understanding if all they do is watch the model. How often have you heard students say, "but I understood it when you did it in class!" This illusion of understanding is a pitfall of expert modeling. Because so many of the false starts and wrong paths never get articulated during expert modeling, students don't learn what to do when things go wrong. Part of learning any skill is learning how to cope with failure. In learning a dangerous sport, like gymnastics or rock climbing, one of the first things taught is hos to fall without getting hurt. Students are taught how to roll with the punches. We should provide an equivalent education for those learning intellectual skills, how to fall intellectually without getting hurt. (pp. 72-73)

For teachers of philosophy, this is a richly suggestive passage. First, philosophy teaches skills (among other things). The skills will vary from course to course, but certainly careful analytical reading, logical reasoning, critical thinking, intellectual sympathy, argumentative writing, etc. are among the skills philosophers try to instill. I find Svinicki's student comment — "but I understood it when you did it in class!" — to be very familiar. For example, student papers can reproduce arguments discussed in class, but it is often apparent from students' inability to analyze the argument, pose objections, etc., that their level of understanding is not as strong as they had anticipated.

And this is where her remarks about falling "without getting hurt" become relevant: Philosophy is a risky discipline to study, I think. Because it teaches skills, it's cognitively risky, demanding that students step outside their familiar patterns of thought and belief. It's personally risky as well, since philosophy deals with questions about which people sometimes have strong opinions, opinions rooted near the core of their identities. In philosophy, "false starts and wrong paths" are the norm for beginners. (I imagine many of us encounter students coming to philosophy for the first time who know these risks and are not especially engaged with the course because they fear these risks.)

But at the same time, students can't genuinely master philosophy without taking some risks, and I wonder how effective we are at encouraging and rewarding risk taking, and when students fall, how to ensure that it doesn't hurt. In short, how can we make the study of philosophy safe for students?

Here's one example of a common feature of teaching that might discourage intellectual risk taking. Student Y and student Z write papers, and both receive, say, a B on the paper. Y and Z decide to take advantage of your rewrite policies and submitted revised versions of the original paper. Y's paper gets a B+: Y tidied up some of the paragraph structure, fixed the typos, and provided a slightly better reply to an objection to her thesis. Z's paper gets a C: Z undertook a wideranging revision of her paper, revising the thesis in light of criticisms, dealing with new texts (perhaps some of them were even unassigned), etc. But the result is less coherent than her earlier paper: harder to follow, more disjointed, etc. So despite Z's more ambitious efforts to delve more deeply into the issues, her efforts backfire gradewise, whereas Y's more superficial revisions reward her.

Grading is one facet of teaching that makes Svinick's remarks about falling without getting hurt valuable. In order to learn to walk, you have to be willing to fall down. How do we help students fall down?


  1. One quick way to help students fall softly is to guarantee that their grade will never get worse because of a rewrite.

    I remember my hardest fall as an undergraduate, and I think there's a lesson in it. During my last semester, I took a graduate course in which we covered the professor's new book. I started writing a term paper that raised an objection to his book, only to realize how he would defeat it. So I started another paper—and a third—both with the same result. When I tried a fourth time, with the deadline approaching, the only reason I couldn't figure out how he would respond was because my paper was so unclear and poorly argued that he wouldn't know what to respond to. But that's the one I turned in, because I didn't want to turn in an objection that I could answer myself. The professor agreed that my paper, to put it mildly, was not very good.

    In retrospect, those first three papers would all have been perfectly fine. They all explained his position, raised an objection, and explained how his position could deal with it. There was nothing earthshaking about them, but they were good philosophy.

    I suspect, though, that many students share my undergraduate self's attitude. They think that 'Here's an objection that doesn't work' is not an adequate thesis. Maybe we should explicitly tell them that it is. After all, undergraduate papers are not typically supposed to be publishable papers. They are basically polished reports of the student's thoughts on a topic, not ground-breaking research (this Onion article notwithstanding).

  2. That's a good suggestion, David. I think one general lesson implied by your comment is that students can very easily fall and hurt themselves if we fail to give them precise expectations — and in particular, if students have an inflated sense of the tasks we ask them to undertake, then they're more likely to feel that they've fallen short. We should definitely underscore that philosophy proceeds best when it proceeds in small steps, and this goes doubly for the work of beginners. I've certainly seen many student papers that are much too ambitious. We probably can't offer too many reminders about the need to narrow the scope of one's work, about how it's better to argue a small point well than to argue a larger point poorly, etc.

  3. Hi, great discussion, great topic. I blogged this piece on the Long 18th. You can find it at

    Keep up the great work, DM


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