Thursday, September 5, 2019

Student Buy-In Strikes Back

An Arstechnica article is making the rounds essentially about student buy-in. There are several layers to unpack here.

First, here's a link to the article: College students think they learn less with an effective teaching method They don't even realize they've learned more.

The key point of the article is that students liked lectures more, but did statistically better when taught via active learning. The article ends with suggesting that instructors give a short lecture on the benefits of active learning to deal with the issue.  Giving a pep talk is a good starting point, but not enough.

Why do we even need to work on student buy-in? The overarching reason is because teaching is a cultural activity. When people walk into a classroom, they have default, often unacknowledged assumptions about what is "supposed to happen." Deviations from the norms can create tension.

We need to unpack this further. In math, we have Math anxiety that messes up a lot of students. In general, we could describe this as having fixed mindsets about intelligence. "I'm not a math person" or "I learn best when shown all the steps that I can memorize..." come up as signals of this. This matters when we get to a point where students get stuck. Getting stuck is exactly the point where we have to confront our images of ourselves.  Getting stuck has been implicitly learned as equivalent to being stupid. The "smart" ones get it fast, and if you're not fast you're not smart. This is actually something that comes in education research (under the heading "Nonavailing beliefs", which are beliefs that inhibit or do not support learning).

When an instructor uses active learning that sets students up to have to make sense of something actively, then it's natural for students to get stuck sometimes. And when students get stuck, all those issues mentioned above get activated.

Another layer is the "answer getting" culture we've created. Much of school success has been about getting the answer. The most common questions that are asked in class are "What's the answer?" and "Is this right?" Rarely is it about, "Why is this true?" or "How else could we approach this idea?" So when we ask students to process ideas at a deep level, rather than crank out answers, then it creates yet another tension -- "Is this going to be on the test?"

Smart has been co-opted. Let's re-co-opt smart. Smart is working on ideas and problems, getting stuck, trying new ideas, collaborating, and so on... Smart is thinking of education as a journey. We need to educate students (and parents) what being smart is. With growth mindset research, we have a framework to have productive discussions about this.

Teaching is also a system. So if you teach X, but test Y, there's a problem obviously. But life is more subtle. If we focus on process in active learning, but test the easy-to-test things for whatever reason, then our assessments are saying we value Y, but our activities are saying we value X. Actions speak louder than words, and assessment is where you put your money where your mouth is as a teacher. The point here is the conditioning students go through is not just about what happens in class, but about the whole experience. Assessment is one of the big pieces of a class, and affects how students view learning. It's not just what activities we use in class. We also need to align our assessments (both summative and formative).

Perhaps one of the more troubling ideas from the article is that students can't identify they learned more. This made me pause.  This isn't new news, but it's a reminder.  Let's think about this.  In almost any other context this is truly odd. If you're learning to play the trumpet and are learning to hit high notes, you know when you've learned it. Of course, there's nuance in learning music, so I'm not trying to make it a binary learning outcome. But if students don't recognize they have learned more, it's a sign that there's more than just the specific teaching that's not right. One thing that jumps out is feedback and coaching. Students need regular feedback that they are learning and making good progress. Pointing out successes regularly and equitably is essential and goes a long way. "We learned this... Way to go, and we learned this because we worked on it, got stuck, and figured it out. That's smart!"

Now all this sounds like I might be blaming students to some extent. I'm not. Not in the slightest. This is about unpacking the layers of our system. Circling back and putting the layers together, we get the outcomes our teaching culture is designed to achieve, whether we realize it or not. We still have holdovers from the roots of the industrial revolution, where our model for education was created using a factory model. You know, bolt on the knowledge and you're good to go. But our goals are different today, and we are shifting towards humanistic education. That is education for developing people as human intellectuals.

Student buy-in is generally about this broader cultural shift. When students walk in the door it's our job as teachers to help them make this transition in mindset and purpose. If we just change the way we teach, and don't inform students, it's on us if they walk away with a bitter aftertaste.

How to get started? Let's get practical. After all that blabbing above, we need things we can do in class that work.  Linked below is a post from earlier this summer with a collection of links from what to do on Day 1 to ongoing strategies to digging deeper into Math Anxiety.

Student Buy-In In Practice Overview

And just yesterday I wrote a letter to students that can be used as a starting point to get students on board.

Letter: Dear Student