Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Ongoing Student Buy-In Strategies

"I learned how to face my problems, not run away from them; although it can be frustrating at times, if I persevere I can solve problems." - Calculus Student

"The most impactful thing... is the idea of productive failure. The idea that you learn more when you don’t get things right the first time has been beneficial because I can just relax and try things. I tend to get over worried with just getting the right answered rather than trying to deepen my understanding of concepts so the ability to fail gives me a lot of freedom." - Calculus Student

In a previous post, I wrote about a way to open a course. In this follow-up post, I share a few strategies to keep students going through the term on the path of growth mindset, productive failure, and dedicated practice. Mindsets are at the core causes student buy-in issues. When students don't buy it, it's often because they don't like being stuck or that being stuck implies there is something wrong with the problem, them, or the teacher or all of the above and more.

Math anxiety as something connected to student buy-in is one of the issues I feel math instructors ought to consider carefully. One reason for this is that math anxiety and other non-availing beliefs (i.e. beliefs that inhibit learning) are factors that affect how students engage on a daily basis. For example having the beliefs that "only geniuses can understand math" puts a person in a frame of mind when doing math of purposely not trying to understand what is going on and only memorizing. So even if the activity you designed is superbly crafted in every possible way, a student's beliefs could neutralize all that. "So, what do I need to memorize for the test?"

Further, mentioning some good advice on day 1 has some impact, but normally fades. Existing habits of mind and beliefs have inertia and durability. These take time to process. Hence, there exists a need for an integrated, long-term plan. Below are some ideas that might help you build your plan after day one.

Have students write a math autobiography early in the term. The idea is to get to know where your students are coming from, what kinds of experiences they have had, and see if they have had positive or negative experiences in Math. These assignments ought to be graded for completeness only, and instructions should indicate that the point is to be honest so you, the instructor, can understand where students are coming from. Math autobiographies also offer students an opportunity to look back and reflect, and it's an opportunity for instructors to affirm and appreciate what students have had to go through prior to arriving in their class.

Productive failure and growth mindset videos are another useful source for activities. In an earlier blog post, more than 10 videos are compiled around the theme of growth mindset and productive failure. One way these can be used is to assign 2 or 3 at a time, and ask students to write about what they learned and some personal reflections about their mindsets. These videos can be spread out over time, and students can be asked to do several assignments. Having videos of different people from different walks of life say the same sort of this adds credibility and weight to your messaging. It's one thing if you say it. It's another when you say it, and also John Legend says it, and Michael Jordan, and Carol Dweck, and Jo Boaler...  A chorus of voices is stronger than one, and offers a variety of perspectives.

Including productive failure presentations or written work as part of class and the course grade is another way. Students can present instances when the have been stuck, and share what they gained or learned from it. If presentation time is not something you can do in class, then students can be asked to submit something in writing about a mistake or something they were stuck on and what they learned and discovered from the process.

Lastly, instructors can chime in regularly, say once a week or so. There's plenty to highlight. The videos and student work are great opportunities to add further insights and affirmation. The instructor can also share personal stories about how they handled being stuck, and the value of practicing with intent and persistence.

And there's more instructors can add in. There's also reminding students to be good communicators, to be patient with being stuck, to be good listeners, to be sure that they are inviting their group mates into the discussion, and to practice hard and with focus like when they are doing their hobbies.

There are caveats of course. Not all students like this topic or put in an honest effort. Some write what they think you want to hear. What these assignments are for is to provide an opportunity for students to take the next step. Instructors can't force students to learn anything, whether it's Math or productive failure. But we can invite students in to a larger, more meaning view of learning, and many realize that they can do Math.

In the aggregate, students are exposed to a variety of positive messages throughout the term, while also reflecting on their own experiences and thinking. They have plenty of chances to adopt a different mindset. When students learn that there's no such thing as a math gene, and they have the capability to do something to make themselves successful, it's empowering!  And that's one of the best things you can teach to anyone.