Friday, April 12, 2019

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.  But yesterday in First-Year Seminar I decided to give up on that project and--rather than remind them for the one-thousandth time it's about growth, not grades--I just allowed them to grade themselves.  I mean if you can't fight the mindset of GPA uber alles, join it, right?

So I typed up a learning report card based on ideas in the text for our seminar, Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek's wonderful The New Science of Learning: How to Live in Harmony with Your BrainDoyle and Zakrajzek use the latest research to explain learning based upon what cognitive science knows.

Among the topics they cover are the relationship between sleep and memory retention, the effects of multitasking, and the role of diet and exercise on learning.   A key idea in the book is that learning means constructing neural pathways, an activity aided by active processing of information over time and in multiple ways. Translation: it means reading about, writing about, discussing and elaborating upon recently-learned material.

My students tend to look at learning as a matter of storage and retrieval, as if the brain were a warehouse.  The analogy that emerges from The New Science of Learning is that the brain is more like a muscle.  It needs proper nutrition and rest between regular workouts over time.  That's how you achieve optimal performance. Indeed, one of the things I like about this text is that it speaks of learning in terms that many of my students already treat as gospel in their approach to athletic training.

The learning report card covered three areas: Readiness for Learning, Approaches to Learning and Habits of Mind.  Students had to give themselves a grade (0.0 to 4.0) on a number of formative sub-criteria and then average it together for one summative assessment.  Then, based upon an their grades, they were to make suggestions about where they saw room for improvement.   Here's the report card:

Give yourself a score (4.0 = excellent, 1.0 = needs significant improvement) for each criterion and an average on each category.

Readiness for Learning                                          
1. Sleep (a regular pattern of 8-9 hours per night).
2. Nutrition (daily breakfast; daily consumption of green leafy vegetables, fruit, whole grains; limited refined sugar and saturated fats).
3. Exercise (semi-regular physical activity: i.e., running, workouts, walks, yoga, etc.).
4. Social Support (a support system of friends and family that care about and connect with you).
5. Openness to seeking help (connecting with professors, using support center, etc.).

Approaches to Learning
1. Internal motivation (learning for one’s own reasons rather than focusing on the grade).
2. Distributed Practice (building long-term potention by short practices but over time).
3. Focus (avoiding multi-tasking in-class, studying in non- distracting environments).
4. Active processing (using annotation, summarizing main ideas, reworking material into new forms)
5. Using study groups or paired studying (harnessing power of communal learning).

Habits of Mind 
1. Curiosity (find yourself thinking about material outside of class, asking questions in class).
2. Seeing connections and patterns (have made connections between ideas in various classes).
3. Growth Mindset (do not avoid difficult tasks or courses, but challenge yourself to achieve, trying do your best as opposed to trying to just get it done).
4. Can identify areas of growth in understanding (knowledge) or skill level achieved this semester (i.e., writing, research, math, public speaking, etc.).
5. Can identify one or more academic achievements that gives a sense of pride and satisfaction.

One of my favorite students (who I have more than once chided about fetishizing a 4.0 GPA) gave herself an overall grade of C+.  She's a great student, straight As, but she always plays it safe.  

We had a nice talk about taking a risk by registering for something that wasn't a requirement for her major or graduation. "Why not take a Me course?" I asked her.  "Why not take something that you know is outside your comfort zone?  What about an acting course, a Woman's Studies course, a course in something you've always been curious about?  How about you sign up for piano lessons, calculus, theology, or history of the Middle Ages?  And why not take it pass/fail so anxiety about the final grade won't matter that much?"

She looked at me kind of funny.  The idea of taking a class that appealed to her or seeing education as a chance to grow or expand herself was somewhat of an alien concept.  

I heard once about a college with an unusual January-term.  Every year students were required to take a four-week elective course that was far outside their major or comfort zone: juggling, dancing, etiquette, Haiku, story-telling, cooking omelets...

Given our budget strictures this unique approach is unlikely to happen at my institution, but good heavens what a much, much-needed idea. 

Okay, so here's a cost-free way we might address this need.  Most students have anywhere from 20-35 percent of their undergraduate education made up of elective credits (not major, not gen. ed. core-- just elective credits).  Let's re-brand these as "personal growth" credits.  And let's start talking about this part of the college experience as the place where you get to explore the you you want to be. 

\Wouldn't cost us a dime, but it might--might--begin to change the way students think about the aim of their education.

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