Thinking about What Happened. . .

students in lecture hall

When a discussion didn’t go anywhere.

When a group couldn’t seem to work together.

When the answer was wrong.

When the grade was unexpected.

When not all that many students are paying attention.

Teaching Professor Blog When things don’t go as planned or turn out as expected, the first response tends to be emotional—anger, embarrassment, frustration, disappointment. After riding the emotional wave, it’s easy to just let the tide go out. But when things go awry, those are times when critical reflection can offer insights that lead to learning.

Cultivating accurate self-assessment is a challenge whether you’re a student or the teacher. Objectivity comes hard when the analysis focuses on what happened and your role in it. Some folks never do find their way to that place where they can accurately see what happened, how they contributed to it, and what perhaps they should have done differently. And yet, being able to honestly confront reality makes it possible to learn from experience, whether good or bad.

Part of the needed perceptive analysis comes with maturity, which is why so many of our younger students don’t have it. Most them default to blame—the teacher, the textbook, fellow classmates, the course, the department, the school—almost anybody or anything but not themselves. A few teachers have been known to do the same—blame the students, the department, course evaluations, research requirements, low pay, large classes, online courses. Many factors do influence what happens in any situation, but routinely leaving oneself out of the equation is not a mature, growth-promoting response.

Is the ability to confront oneself a skill? Can it be learned? Can it be taught? I’d say yes to all, and I also think teachers can play a significant role in helping students develop the ability to accurately assess what happened and their part in it. This can be accomplished without creating a special topics course or a major project within a course, although those are possibilities, depending on the curricula. It can be as simple as raising the question, providing space for reflection, and following up with written responses or conversation.

For example, imagine a group project where students are not only using interaction and collective effort to learn content, but the group experience is also being used to help students learn how to work with others. Students could be asked to consider an important incident that occurred within the group. They write, briefly describing what happened. Then they answer questions like these: What did you do as this event unfolded? Would you do the same thing if something like this happened in another group? Are there other actions you could have taken? Would any of those actions improve what happened?

I used to use an interview project in my communication course in which students were interviewed for positions by classmates. To add a few more points to their interview grade they could write down one question they were asked in the interview, share highlights of their answer, and then imagine being asked the same question. Could their answer be improved? How? By saying what?

A version of this could involve any number of class activities and events. For example, consider one of those days when the discussion never got off the ground. What happened? Why did it happen? How do we keep it from happening again? With the teacher modeling this kind response, the conversation may help students see that when a discussion is “boring” and they’re not participating, they are part of the problem. When students would complain to me that someone in the group wasn’t participating, I’d turn it around to them. Yes, that group member is part of the problem, but what could you be doing differently? Did you or anyone else in the group invite the person to share his or her opinion?

This doesn’t always have to be negative. Some students (and teachers) have trouble giving themselves credit for making a difference, for seeing what needs to be done and stepping up to the plate. Small assignments and short discussions that regularly ask what happened help all of us become keen observers who pay attention to what’s happening and understand that whatever we do or don’t do plays a role in the outcome.