April 14th, 2009

A Shift in Emphasis: From Product to Process


I’ve just put the May issue of the newsletter to bed, but I’m still thinking about an essay submitted by Huntly Collins, a journalism prof at La Salle University. Actually what Huntly shared was a much longer essay she’d prepared for her third-year review. I just culled a few prize paragraphs. Despite being a new college teacher, (it’s a second career after a highly successful one as a reporter), Huntly has learned some lessons that still escape others who have been teaching for years. Take this one for example.

“Among the lessons learned as I’ve worked to grow as a teacher is that the process of learning is often as important as the end product. For me, this is a radical change. As a journalist, all that mattered to my editors and me was getting the story, getting it right, and telling it in a compelling way. All eyes were on the story, not on what I might have learned in the process of doing it. When I first arrived at La Salle, I put a similar emphasis on the end product in my journalism classes. Even though I tried to take into account the place where students were starting, I focused almost exclusively on the quality of their stories, not on the process of their own development in getting the stories.

“Today, however, I take as much pride in my students’ sometimes halting efforts toward the goal as in their ability to reach the goal. The terribly shy student who, despite his fears, stands to read his story to the entire class is engaged in important learning. The Dominican student, who is writing in a second language, may not turn out the perfectly polished story, but she becomes an effective communicator when she pulls at our heartstrings by the tale she tells. The C student, who seems oblivious to much of what I teach, emails me after she has graduated to ask, ‘What was that Robert Frost poem you read to us on our last day? I really want to remember one line.’ While that student may not have produced the best work in the class, she took away from the class something important, even if it was that single line from Frost’s poem.”

Such an important insight—we do tend to get so focused on what students produce be that a paper, presentation, problem solution, or creative project. But isn’t the real, as in enduring learning, what they learn as they work to produce that product? I regularly forget that great learning can still occur even if the final product is flawed. Great learning is not the inevitable outcome of flawed work. When students breeze through something, expending little time and even less effort—they don’t learn much. But important insights emerge out of struggles to learn that aren’t always completely successful. So does that mean we’re grading the wrong thing? Maybe students are right—effort should count. Now there’s a Pandora’s box.