Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Learning Isn't Alchemy

Every semester, when I get my new crop of students, I see a few people who have an odd idea about what it means to participate in my classes. It's not most of them--not even a quarter, most semesters. It's also not that these are the most accomplished or the most needy students. This odd, preconceived idea about the classroom and the coursework is just as likely to be found in an honor student as it is in a student from one of my universities' academic outreach programs.

These students tend to think that completing the assignment is the same thing as learning the material. They think that just filling out a worksheet, or turning in a draft of a paper, is the same thing as learning the skill that the assignment sets out to teach. I'm sure that in a lot of cases, the two happen so indistinguishably that it is very hard to separate them. If you follow along in class, you take notes, and you do the homework on time, most reasonably intelligent students will both learn the material and complete the work at once.

That doesn't mean they're the same process, though. I have seen students who work through the assignments on time, but who clearly don't grasp what they are asked to do. The paper will include a prompt such as: "This paper must describe a problem and propose a solution" and the final paper, on time and cited correctly, will be a report on a problem with no solution present. Eventually, with work and tutoring, these students usually grasp the concepts I'm teaching and move forward. They learn, through misunderstanding the goal of an assignment, that completing the assignment does not mean that they've mastered the skill. Usually, they also learn to ask more questions at the beginning of the assignment next time, so that they can avoid being asked to re-do the assignment (or worse, being told they can't).

Similarly, I have had students whose intuitive grasp of concepts has been so solid and so fast that the work feels like pointless, bureaucratic paperwork to them. Sometimes, they don't turn anything in at all. Other times, they turn in something that ignores the nuts and bolts of the assignment--the length, number of resources, or formatting--but that brilliantly displays all of the critical thinking and rhetorical technique that the assignment is designed to provoke. Once, one of these problematic students wrote a persuasive essay which had the topic "Why you should accept this essay with no research sources and give me an A". It did everything except the research that the assignment called for.

These students need just as much help separating the learning from the assignment as the first group. They need to learn that the hard work, the deadlines, and the rules apply to them, too. They need to learn that sometimes, just sometimes, giving someone what they ask for is just as important as proving that you understand the skills that you are being asked to showcase. Usually, they have to be dragged around kicking and screaming until they understand that part of what they are supposed to learn is discipline, work ethic, and the culture of the university they are attending. Eventually, they do get it. (I was one of these. It took a few years, but I did get it.)

Neither of these groups is easy to work with, but neither of them is unable to be reached. Nor are they a large group, given the total number of students I work with. They're more likely to be a few outliers on the top and bottom of the grading curve. Sometimes, they are students who were keeping up like normal, but who hit a wall with a certain concept or assignment. They aren't the only students who fail to grasp the difference between the lesson and the assignment.

The third group in this category is the hardest one for me to deal with. This group equates doing the work right with learning the concept, but they don't take into account the way feedback works. They tend to try to turn in an entire learning unit's worth of work at once, assuming that since they finished the final draft of a paper, the rest of the supporting work will also be accepted, even though it's late. For whatever reason, these students do not realize that the reason they might be asked to write a rough draft, or to respond to an online discussion post, is so that they can take the feedback they get and apply it to the next step in the learning unit.

There is a back-and-forth process that occurs in a class environment. It doesn't matter if it's an online class or a physical one. It happens in large lecture halls where the professor doesn't know your name, and it happens in Montessori schools. Regardless of the level of feedback a student receives, the feedback informs future choices that s/he makes when working on assignments. Even if it is just exam results posted according to some anonymous ID scheme, the feedback says "You did it" or it says "You need to keep trying".

I'm not saying that the classroom model doesn't matter here. I do believe that the smaller classes, classes where the students form a real relationship with the teacher, do lead to better learning. It's not because they're smaller, though. It's because the feedback is more extensive, more personalized, and more informed. This is a function of the smaller class, not an inherent trait of it. A poorly trained teacher, or a student who does not value the feedback process, can still get as little out of the small class as the large one. It's not alchemy. It's not magic. It's a function. A process.

For the students who think that the assignment and the learning are the same thing, that push to receive credit for late work makes sense. They still did all the things, so they think that they should reap the rewards. Everything got completed. They don't understand that the process was supposed to be a two-way communication, and they often get upset if they can not receive credit for the portions of the work that are significantly late. With patience on both sides, it is sometimes possible to show them that the reason they can't earn a grade for the late work is because the grade is based on participation--not on completion, but on the active give-and-take of receiving feedback and incorporating it into the next step.

Teaching these students why the feedback process is important is time consuming. If the student is resistant to the idea, it can be more draining than dealing with the rest of the class's questions put together. And it doesn't always work. Sometimes, the student still just doesn't go with it. The reduction in their scores is too distracting, or they fear that they won't do as well under this system, or sometimes, they just resist. It's not their fault. We don't condition our students well to receive feedback.

The public school system is partially to blame for this--my generation and was the last one that experienced being held back a grade. By the time my little brother was going through school, just two years later, students were only held back when their parents elected to hold them back. At least, until high school. The kind of feedback that is most valuable--the right of the teacher to say "You didn't learn this yet, do it again" is no longer present.

Standardized testing gets some of the blame, too. Teaching to a test takes the emphasis away from concepts and integrating knowledge and puts it on regurgitation. It teaches students to practice until they can deliver a product--a list of memorized facts--not until they have grasped a technique or synthesized and evaluated information. It blocks us from being able to talk about processes.

It's not just the public school system that's to blame, though. Self-help and DIY instructions, internet tutorials, and other autodidactic tools put people into a feedback-free zone. Truly self-critical, motivated autodidacts can flourish in this kind of environment, because they will be as hard on their own work as a teacher would be. For most of us, though, it doesn't work. We lack the outside input that allows us to drop our delusions and really see where our lack of knowledge lies. We stop separating the assignment from the learning.

The university environment is also, in a lot of ways, set up to fail the student when it comes to feedback. Too many instructors skip out on feedback, giving only the most minimal grade justification. Sometimes, this happens because the instructor herself doesn't understand the back-and-forth process. Sometimes, it's a function of other factors, such as having to teach a class load of 18-24 credits per semester while working a "part time" position and making half of what the "full time" (12-15 credit/semester) faculty makes.

Still, if the feedback is there, even if it is too brief, it does its job. Better some than none.

That leads me to my last point. The people who have contributed the most to the attitudes of students who fail to recognize the value of feedback are the instructors who don't provide it at all. I had a few of them (thankfully only a few) when I was in school. Anyone who has been through an American high school has probably had at least one teacher that fits into this category. They were the teachers that always had homework, that always had firm deadlines, that stressed the importance of due dates and then stacked them close together to keep us working. And then, they were the teachers who never graded anything.

I can still remember working for five weeks on a research paper in my sophomore English class in high school and not receiving feedback on my rough draft until the day before the final draft was due. I can remember college courses with two or three essay assignments where the grades from the first essays did not come in until the final essay was already due. Worse, I can remember the occasional graduate course where a term paper would be due at the end of the semester, and it would just disappear into a black hole. It never appeared in my department mailbox with notes. It never came back via email. No one wanted to sit down and conference about where I would go with that line of criticism.

I had done the assignment, I must have learned.

This isn't to bad mouth my alma mater, either. I had my classes where I received prompt, firm, and helpful feedback. The professors that had a firm grip on this pushed me to new intellectual heights and often, the hard line they took with my reasoning in the research papers for their classes helped my creative work more than any amount of craft workshops could. I'm not saying that graduate school was all bad for me, or even that it was mostly bad. I'm just pointing out that the feedback gap transcends all levels of education, and that it prevents real learning.

In my classes, I promise students a ten day turn-around time on all of their assignments. I buy them donuts when I fail. I know this doesn't work for every instructor. Some people have class loads that make this impossible. The reason I put a ten day limit on myself is because that is typically five days shorter than the time I give students between the rough draft and the final draft on a paper, and I want them to have a full business week to work with my feedback before I look at another paper.

The point is not to make everyone grade on a ten day turn-around. The point is that we need to provide feedback early and often, and we need to give students time to incorporate that feedback into the next phase of their work. If we are incapable of that most basic teaching skill, we deserve to be fired en masse.

Teachers, youth leaders, camp counselors, coaches, professors--we are all alike. We're in positions of leadership that require us to shape the people we work with as mentors while evaluating their progress objectively. If she do not provide those evaluations in a timely way, so that the student can practice incorporating criticism as part of the learning process, we create people that do not learn. If we do not say "no, do it again" or "this attempt failed," then we create people who can not cope with failure.

The responsibility is on us. If we lead anyone over a cliff with our silence, then it's not because they are incapable of learning. It's because we are incapable of teaching.