Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The perils of being maverick-y

While I don't consider my teaching style or methods particularly radical, some features of my teaching are a bit maverick-y. I don't grade all my students' work. I require them to review one another's work. I let them develop questions for the final exam. I let them choose (some) course content.

But one of the perennial challenges of teaching in a conscientious and open-minded way is that students come to us with very fixed expectations about what college (or high school) are about, what learning is, and what the roles of instructor and student are supposed to be. And these expectations can be very tough to dislodge.

I was reminded of this by Maryellen Weimer's post about a sociology instructor who tried some unorthodox methods that students resisted. The methods themselves are only a little outside the box, but certainly not unheard of. The general idea was to have the course be more student directed,“a classroom environment focused on knowledge creation rather than the transmission of information where students felt part of an intellectual community that balanced support and control."

The students, rather than seeing this as a change to learn more or better, resented
 the need to comply with what looked to them like a set of idiosyncratic expectations. Students find great comfort in being able to predict what teachers will require them to do.
The most capable and prepared students were actually the most resistant:
instead of being the most receptive to change, honors students may be the most resistant. “Honors students are granted that designation specifically because they are skilled at understanding and enacting/exploiting the institutional and normative student role.”
(I have to say that's also been my experience with many high-performing students: They are highly skilled at understanding how 'the system works' and are thrown when an instructor won't conform to the system. In the language of intentional learning, they are performing or conforming learners.)

I imagine that for many of us instructors, this is a familiar story: We experiment with non-standard methods or approaches, students resist these methods or approaches, the methods or approaches end up failing because students didn't engage with them. What makes this especially frustrating is that if you are conscientiously trying to innovate and one's colleagues elsewhere in the institution are not, you're swimming against the tide of student expectations. As Weimer remarks, “it is a lot of work and an inconvenience to students when what occurs in a single class is significantly out of step with the expectations encountered throughout the majority of the institution.”

This raises a whole host of issues, but here are a few questions we might entertain:
  • Should teaching methods and approaches be more standardized? At universities, academic freedom is not intended to extend to teaching methods. You don't have the right to teach badly. But I sometimes think that university faculty act as if this freedom extends to teaching as well, in effect giving faculty the same autonomy in the classroom they are given in their research. Is this a good policy? Colleges and universities say they want high-quality, innovative teaching, but how successful can such teaching be if it's anomalous, isolated, and set up to fail because students won't engage with methods that are unfamiliar and ask them to meet different expectations? Perhaps the only way to make educational innovation pedagogically successful is to have everyone at an institution doing it. (I gather that's the approach at places like Evergreen State.)
  • Learning is a permanent change in one's cognitive repertoire or effectiveness. You can't learn what you already know. So no one learns by repeatedly doing what she can already do. How do we sell students (particularly those whose picture of education is consumerist and credential-oriented) on the idea that learning requires some challenge or discomfort — that the process of learning has to be disorienting to some extent? How have you done this?
  • Is it sensible to try and justify unorthodox methods or approaches to students? What have you tried in an effort to get student buy-in for these methods or approaches?


  1. These are very interesting questions to raise about innovation. At my uni we are constantly being encouraged to be 'innovative' by the higher-ups, but we get little institutional support on the ground and I have experienced just that kind of resistance from students for establishing what they perceived of as unfair, because unusual, expectations--in particular, most recently, for a wiki-building assignment I used that I intended precisely as a way for them to be more directly engaged in and responsible for their own learning in the class.

    But if we had to wait for some kind of general institutional transformation, (a) we might wait forever, and (b) our own creativity in working out innovations suitable to our disciplines and classes might be overwhelmed with bureaucratic rules about what innovation should specifically look like. I'd hate to have pedagogical methods imposed on me by people who don't know the particular challenges of teaching the material I work with. It seems to me the best we can do, when we try something new, is make sure that we explain as clearly as we can in annual reports, memos attached to course evaluations, conversations with chairs, etc. what we have done and how it seemed to affect the dynamics of the course.

  2. I feel that an innovative classroom can be challenging to students when we ask them to learn not just new content and new skills but an entirely new system or approach to learning and assessment. When I first learned to write essays, teachers emphasized form. Did I write topic sentences? Did I use evidence well? As I gradually mastered the form, teachers began to grade my work more holistically, commenting on my content and arguments.

    If you ask a student to write a new, innovative kind of essay, students have to master the form before they can really take advantage of it. So do you begin by grading the essay itself, or do you grade it based on how well they have mastered the form?

    In short, students invest energy into learning any new form, new way of writing, thinking etc. Just because a student can write an English paper doesn’t mean they can write a lab report. Certain skills will carry over, but not all of them. So perhaps the key is to recognize, reward, and encourage learning at this meta-level as well. In some sense, this is what a learner centered classroom is all about. But I think we forget that.
    This can be particularly problematic if teachers don’t make clear how students will be assessed (and therefore don’t make clear what the expectations are).

    I had several classes as an undergrad and grad where teachers told us to do whatever we wanted for our final project. I didn’t like this at all. In one sense you might argue it’s the ultimate in the learner centered approach; on the other hand, it often feels like the teacher is simply too lazy to write an assignment or to clarify the class’s goals and expectations. This was especially true when this project was the majority of our grade so that the risks of failure were great. In fact, in these classes I tended to write very conservative essays. Because again the risk of getting it wrong or doing something the teacher didn’t like were simply too great.

    I wouldn’t think anyone reading or writing for this blog would design that kind of courses, but nonetheless the expectations and purpose of an innovative assignment need to be more carefully explained than assignments students have been doing for years.

    Maybe it’s safer to introduce innovation in smaller doses? Numerous, small assignments spread out over a quarter or semester will give students the time to master the form and learn the expectations by doing. It also makes the innovation seem less risky, since students have the time to master it and experiment with it.

    Thanks for this blog. I love it.

  3. Is the resentment as significant when you explain to the students the reason for the approach that you're taking? My experience has been that if I explain why I'm doing what I'm doing students are far more likely to go along with it.

  4. I'm sorry for the length of this--it's something I've been working on!

    There are some nice discussions of exactly this sort of experience here

    I work in the faculty center at a large research institution and taught philosophy for many years. At my center, we have had very good results with introducing Team Based Learning in a large number of classes (see here and here ). TBL courses are a very different experience for most students and many have had horrible experiences with group work that they bring to these classes.

    We've found that when faculty do a few things right at the start, it makes a big difference. We suggest these to all of our faculty who are making changes toward active or student-centered teaching.

    1) Set expectations the first day of class
    If you are going to use an active learning technique of some kind, use it right away. That sets the expectations for students in a way that telling them you will be doing so doesn't. They know you aren't kidding. If they don't like it, they can drop the course (at least at a large school like ours).

    2. Explain why you are choosing to run the course this way. Several of our professors (including a philosophy prof) have essentially replicated the discussion found here . The professor asks the students which of the following they think is most important:
    a. Acquiring information (facts, principles, concepts)
    b. Learning how to use information and knowledge in new situations
    c. Developing lifelong learning skills.

    And then have students discuss their answers.
    In the classes I've observed, most students choose b and c, and many of those who choose a do so because they think it's necessary before b or c could happen. Then the instructor explains how they feel their pedagogical choices will further those goals.

    3. Midterm evaluations of some sort
    Get feedback from the students during the semester and address it. If they suggest something that would be simple to accommodate, do it. If they want something changed that you disagree with, tell them why you aren't going to accommodate it. When I did just this in my classes, my evaluations jumped significantly.

    Many of our decisions seem like random choices meant to make them jump through hoops from the student's view. In my experience, when we give them a chance to voice their thoughts we show them respect in a way that they appreciate, even when we don't change anything that we're doing. I think they also increase their reflection on their education.

    4. Similar to anonymous's suggestion: frequent feedback.
    If there are frequent low-risk assignments, students know how they are doing in the course, and that tends to lower their stress.

    5. Along the same lines, it's sometimes helpful to have them do short reflection exercises (even if they're nongraded). Sometimes student pushback comes because they can't tell that they're learning anything. They know what it feels like to learn in a normal class, but have no measure of it in a learner-centered or active class. Pointing out to them that everyone did a great job on a hard essay question, or even having them do occasional minute papers reflecting on their knowledge can sometimes give them an opportunity to see how they are learning.


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