Teaching Communities and Failing Students

Student Failure: The New Old Way of Teaching

Last week at our first Teaching Circle meeting of the semester, we focused on student expectations and failure. There are many sub-categories that fit these inter-connected topics: grading, attendance/absenteeism, why students don’t try harder, school policy versus individual instructor policy, why students resist change/innovation, and much more. We talked for nearly two hours about these central issues, and how they might be addressed in the classroom.

The biggest issue, and one coming under increasing public scrutiny, is student failure. This is a landmine issue for teachers, because, while we want to set high standards and clear expectations for our students, we also don’t want them to fail and some of us even dread the fallout emotional battle that comes with student failure. John Rosemond would say that we are experiencing the products of the “psychological parenting revolution” (which bled into our teaching methods) of the 1970’s and 80’s. This makes us afraid of hurting the feelings of our students, and by extension, afraid to let them fail. For related articles, read the below:

Are We Raising a Generation of Helpless Kids: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/Mickey-goodman/are-we-raising-a-generati_b_1249706.html

Teaching Students to Fail Better: http://www.iste.org/learn/publications/learning-and-leading/issues/Feature_Teach_Your_Students_to_Fail_Better.aspx

Tales of Spectacular Failure: http://www.npr.org/2012/03/06/146880518/try-and-try-again-3-tales-of-spectacular-failure?sc=tw

Married to this idea of failure are grading policies and student absenteeism/attendance policies. Nostalgically we discussed our undergrad and graduate days, when attendance was not a requirement or only loosely monitored. Back then, if we wanted a good grade we had to make it to class, make sure we had the notes, or meet with our professor to get/turn in assignments, which were always set ahead of time by the syllabus. That is, our success or failure was totally in our hands. Now, student attendance has become connected with performance: just by showing up, to some instructors (and certainly in the minds of many students) counts as “effort.” Should we grade participation? In addition, the focus on engagement and group work requires that students be present to actually engage. Or does it? How might we engage students in and out of the classroom? Finally, university policies have changed such that they are more and more requiring that attendance be mandatory and that instructors revise their individual policies to reflect university mandates on attendance.

So we have many dynamics at play here: effort, attendance, student failure, and the various methods of considering all these factors when planning our courses. This, in addition to considering how we foster a creative, active, and engaging learning environment and address these, among myriad other, teaching and learning issues. Phew. Enough for you?

We turned our discussion to requiring attendance versus engaging students. Several instructors offered their personal policies on attendance: some don’t even take attendance and give it no reward or punishment, some have very strict attendance policies, some use a middle ground of points, percentages, and grade scales tied to attendance and participation. There is no perfect way, though we discussed how we might create a learning environment that students want to be part of, are compelled (intrinsically) to be there and thus help us put less emphasis on attendance and more on engagement. None of us wants to be the attendance police and spend class time checking off a list of names. We want our students to be there because they realize they need to know what we have to teach them. But we are frustrated and timid about not setting a specific policy for students to follow (what happens if they aren’t compelled to show up? Few of us have the confidence in ourselves and our students to be so hands-off concerning attendance).

There is no one way of doing this, but one professor talked about tying in-class assignments and scaffolding foundational content and concepts with performance expectations. He sets up assignments so that a student cannot move on to the next level without completing the prior level, and to do that, they must come to class. He gives them the defined milestones and a calendar to achieve them, assignments that move them through these levels of knowledge, assessed by conceptual tests, essays, and final projects. Though in some cases a student may try to “catch up” near the end of a unit and thus rush through material, in general he finds that students move through the material in concert and with enthusiasm. I speculated that in some cases it is the relationship with the instructor (trust, respect) that allows for looser “policies”; what works for one instructor may not work for another without building trust and respect.
We spent some time discussing innovation, ways we try to implement new scholarship on teaching practice and student learning, and of course, technology that can help us do that. We acknowledged that ofttimes students display a distrust of, and at times outright dislike, new ways of learning. This may be because they are used to performing and succeeding in a defined way – the lecture, taking Powerpoint notes, working in groups to complete a project – and when we ask them to think or learn in new ways, they are skeptical or resistant. I think this may be, as most teaching methods are and as I noted above, because of their trust in their instructor; we all know instructors that experiment all the time in their courses and are enthusiastically engaging their students, so why can’t we? So we segued to building trust in students: demonstrating that we know what we’re doing, setting expectations to that emphasize that it is okay to try something and have it bomb (even us teachers have failures!), that ultimately, we all want to continue learning. We talked about building in small successes and achievements that lead to bigger successes and investment of the student in reaching those goals. Ultimately, we were intrigued by the idea that we let our students experience failure in order to give success a more genuine sense of achievement on their part.

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