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Jan 3 / Peter Hoffmann

Thriving in the classroom

Carl Freeman, a treasured colleague in the biological sciences and intrepid “warrior” for better teaching at Wayne State shared an article he really likes with us here in the Dean’s office: “Thriving in the Classroom” by Laurie Schreiner. I finally got around reading it today, and was happy to find that it expresses many of ideas I have had trouble putting into words.

The main idea of the article is not too surprising to us who have spent some time in the education “business”: Students who are engaged and proactive in their own learning are happier, more successful students. As Schreiner puts it, the difference is between the student who is an “active, self-regulated learner” and the student who “learns passively”, seeing learning “as an activity whose outcome is under someone else’s control“. It is this latter phrase that caught my attention, because it really captures what is going on. The student whose main concern is “what is going to be on the test” has abdicated his control over his own learning to the instructor.

But blaming the student does not get us far. It is true that some students take to higher education as fish do to water, while others never “get it” – but as educators we need to find a way to engage both types of students. Does this mean we have to teach the class in two ways – one way for the engaged and one way for the dis-engaged? I don’t think so. Both students will benefit from an engaged, active learning environment. The disengaged student just does not (yet) know how to be engaged in learning. We can and should think about how we can explicitly teach students to do just that.

Schreiner makes the following suggestions: (1) “Look beyond behavior” – the argument is that the student’s in-class engagement is only the tip of the iceberg. What is more important is their mental engagement with the material – much of which may happen outside the classroom. Just because an overeager student may raise his hand every 2 minutes, does not necessarily mean the student is really mentally engaged. How often have we been disappointed by  the eventual demonstration of understanding of some of these overactive student, and, by contrast, have been impressed by a student who generally seemed very quiet during class. This is not to mean that we don’t want active student engagement in the classroom (quite the opposite), but that there is more beneath the surface.

This is a good argument for frequent “formative assessment”, i.e. quick ways, not linked to a grade, to see if students get the materials and have thought about it. More about this is a future post.

(2) “Engage students intentionally” – Here, Schreiner points to three components that promote “intrinsic motivation”: Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness. According to Schreiner, “This … translates to classroom practices that communicate to students that they are capable of mastering the course material, … have choices in how they might demonstrate that [mastery], and that the instructor cares about them and is supportive of them.”

For me, the take-home message here is that we should not “dumb-down” teaching, but that we should “step up” – i.e. challenge students to learn in an environment that “simulates” real situations as much as possible, have them stretch a little, but be there to help them master material that they themselves may have never thought possible. In other words, let’s try to promote excellence, not by cutting down “unworthy students” through impossible tests, but by giving them challenging tasks, actively engage them, while being there for them, like a coach, to help them when they stumble.

I tried something like this in my most recent (undergraduate) computational physics class, where I coached students to learn programming, culminating in advanced projects in areas of active, cutting edge research. With a judicious choice of topics and a little bit of simplification (keeping the essentials) of the problem, and, finally, hands-on coaching, students surprise themselves (and the instructor) how much they can learn and grow during a semester.

(3) “Teach students how to engage” – This is tricky, but essential. To begin with, it would be good to have a conversation about how we could do this. One part could be to explicitly tell students at the beginning of class what “engaged learning” in the class really means. This would have to go beyond admonishing them to spent so many hours on homework etc. Rather, we need to find ways to demonstrate what an active, engaged learner actually does. Then have them practice it. This can be done in the classroom, through active learning exercises, but needs to go beyond the classroom as well.

Too often, we do not really engage the students,don’t tell them what “deep thinking” about the material really means and then are surprised when understanding is superficial at best.

(4) “Create seamless learning environments on campus”  – This is something that goes beyond the individual instructor. However, as a faculty, I often felt ignorant about student life, i.e. what other resources students have to help them academically, psychologically, and socially, and how I could leverage these resources to help students to better in my class. I am still not sure how we can do this better, but I know we need to, so send me your ideas…

If you want the read Schreiner’s paper, here is the link: