Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Anechoic Classroom


After 24 years of teaching I have any number of cheap gimmicks to get students talking in class: group projects, problem solving exercises, staged debates and a few time-tested chin-scratchers that can prompt them to heave their hearts into their mouths.  I've even been known to fake the occasional bout of laryngitis. But I confess to being stymied by the spring section of my first-year honors seminar.  A more somnolent lot you will not find.

The cynical explanation for a class of non-talkers is they aren't doing the reading and don't wish to be found out.  I know this group is doing the reading, however.  I can tell by the quality and thoughtfulness of their written work.  I know you sometimes run across the odd silent student who seldom says anything but is actually processing things on a deep level.  But I've never run across an entire roomful of such people. I don't think that's it.

Okay, theory number two: they are terrified of saying something dumb. In Why Read, the University of Virginia Professor Mark Edmundson dubbed this "The Tyranny of Cool," and I've blogged on it before.

I recall something like it when I was an undergrad.  I would get so excited by an idea and overrun it with heedless enthusiasm.  This of course was very uncool.  Thank heavens, I never had a professor take me aside and ask me to sit on my hands, but I was painfully aware of the eye-rolling and sighs from my classmates.

So I resorted to writing "S.U." (Shut Up) at the top of all my daily notes in a British literature course, only to find myself 20 minutes later experiencing the sickening self-realization that I was once again breathlessly in mid-sentence.  Perhaps a little of this dynamic is going on in the honors seminar.  I've seen a few of the students hold back and self-edit, but no more than you would expect with any group of image-conscious 18 year-olds.  No, I don't think that's it either.

So this leaves me with theory number three: I'm the problem.  They're deferring to my authority as the professor.  That's not surprising, I guess. The teacher-centered model has long been the default setting in American higher education.  Here the professor's expertise is the single-most important thing in the room, not student learning.  It could be that my students just expect me to be in charge, to determine the questions and to put my "expert's" imprimatur on the official interpretations.  And, quite frankly, that's an all too seductive trap to fall into as a professor.  Who doesn't like it when others genuflect before your brilliance?

So there's only one thing to do:  I have to take myself aside and ask myself to sit on my hands. I have to hand them the power.  Come Monday, it's S.U. all over again.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Answering my Holden

So last week in the first-year seminar we talked about the various kinds of learning strategies that students use in college. Surface learners do their best to memorize and regurgitate the material they suspect will show up on an exam, operate in survival mode and often feel a great deal of dissatisfaction and boredom with their college experience.   

Strategic learners, on the other hand, are adept at gaming the system, intuiting what the professors want to hear, and often have a glittering GPA without learning much more than how to obtain a glittering GPA. And they're just as bored and unsatisfied with college.

My first-year students recognized and even self-identified as these kinds of learners.  They were a little less able to recognize something called deep learning, an approach that is internally motivated, personally satisfying and often transformative. Deep learners don't ignore grades, but they don't operate solely for the grade.  They keep their eyes on the prize, which is seeing themselves grow and develop as they take in new information and make new connections.

One of my students was quick to object.   Her Holden Caufield phony alarm went off.  She sniffed and said, "That sounds great, but a lot of my professors teach in ways that make me act like a strategic or surface learner."  Her objection has been eating at me all week, mostly because I know she's right. Telling my students to become deep learners in an institution that does not always reward deep learning is a sure way to persuade them that whole concept is bogus.

I wanted some way to respond that was genuine because I do believe that deep learning can happen even in a bad class.  I had this experience as an undergrad.  A subject could be so interesting that even weak teaching couldn't kill my enthusiasm for it. Plus, I know that many of my students have been deep learners at one point or another.  They just don't recognize it when it happens because they lack any language to name it.

So this week I came up with an exercise for identifying when deep learning occurs.  I had the students answer four questions:
  • What new idea has really caught your attention or made you curious this semester?  This is the stuff that makes you want to learn deeply.  This is where your passion lies.
  • What were the ideas or information you found yourself thinking about outside of class?  If you're thinking about something outside of class, it clearly made a deep impression on you (also, it means you are making connections and finding ways to apply the material).
  • What do you feel proud of this semester?  Chances are what you take satisfaction in is an instance of deep learning.
  • What would you like to do better and how might you do this?  Set achievable personal goals.  Make them things you want for yourself and no one else.  Remember, deep learners are intrinsically motivated. They learn for themselves.
After some free writing in response to these questions, they shared their ideas in small groups.  It was remarkable.  This is an 8:00 am class and they often slump into class  half-asleep and a little resentful.  But they wanted to talk about those subjects and achievements that mattered to them: brain chemistry, psychological theories, medieval history, improved writing skills...  Really, no fooling.  That's the stuff they were talking about (and with every sign of keen enjoyment).

Once again I seem to have lurched unaccountably onto a good idea.  To quote Holden, “I don't exactly know what I mean by that, but I mean it.” 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Breaking Radio Silence

I'm not sure why I've gone so long without posting.  The semester came to a close, the lassitude of Winter Break came and went, and a new semester began.  I often thought about and dismissed topics to write on, but nothing itched and scratched at me enough that I had to set it down in words.

I learned a couple of things in that writing program years ago.  I learned that I lacked the ambition necessary to become a serious writer, but I also learned that you can't wait around for the muses. Sometimes you need to start without them, so here goes:

This new semester has begun well (they always do). I'm especially keen on my Humanities 102 section. The students have really taken to Dante.  We finished the Inferno on Tuesday and this morning they will be commencing their CFDs (crappy first drafts) for their unit synthesis papers.  So today I'll be doing in-class triage, hopping from student to student and answering queries on thesis statements, citing evidence, formulating  body paragraphs.

My other courses are going well, although I'm a bit perplexed by my first-year honors class.  They're a quiet bunch, but their written work is thoughtful. Sometimes you encounter the odd quiet students who offer only one or two comments the entire term, but you're astonished when you read their work. They've actually been listening and thinking deeply about the subject.  There's that old saw about "still waters," I know, but I think it's more a peculiar cognitive style. They prefer to hear an entire spectrum of ideas before they venture their view.  Being a Chatty-Cathy myself, I'm a little mystified by these sorts of people.  But this semester it's like I have a whole room of them.  They just keep blinking at me with their big, moist doe-eyes. It's as if they're saying,  "Keep talking, teacher boy. We'll let you know when we've got something to say."

I'm also pleased with some of the things happening in my freshmen seminar.  I had these students for a three-credit seminar last fall, and I meet with them for one 50-minute period a week during spring semester.  I really like this set up.  It means you can teach them through the whole developmental cycle of their first year in college. You actually get to see them changing.

This week, for instance, we were discussing chapter two of Ken Bain's What the Best College Students Do, which describes various student learning strategies.  Some students try to survive by memorizing just what they need to pass the tests (surface learners); others are geniuses at figuring out how to game the system for higher grades (strategic learners), but a few (deep learners) are having an entirely different and far richer experience in college.

We talked about these approaches to college learning and went over some of the research on intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation.  What struck me was how quickly they recognized what Bain described.  They had no language before to discuss their dissatisfaction with how they were learning, or even why some courses, subjects and professors were more engaging to them than others. Once they could name what they were experiencing, most spoke of wanting something more satisfying than "plug and chug" or gaming the system. They were so hungry for something better.

One of my first-year students even wrote in her response that she recognized herself as a strategic learner, someone focused solely on grades and working the system.  She said during high school she never took a risk, never went out of her comfort zone, and never shared an opinion for fear it would be the wrong answer. Everyone was thrilled with her GPA and she graduated with honors, but she confessed to secretly feeling like she hadn't learned a thing.  At the beginning of this semester, I asked each of my freshmen to set a personal goal for the term.  She had set a goal of earning a perfect 4.0.  In her response this week, she asked--very humbly--if it were too late to change her goal.

I wanted to frickin' cry.  Lord know this job has its frustrations.  But every now and then...

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...