April 1st, 2010

Changing Attitudes about Learning


Following up on the previous post, I wanted to write a bit about how teachers might intervene with those students who don’t believe they can learn something, whether it’s math, writing, French, economics, or whatever it is you teach.

Too often we underestimate the power of having a teacher who believes you can learn. But believing in some students isn’t easy. So many chips are stacked against them. After teaching a while, most of us get pretty good at guessing who is and isn’t going to make it in our courses. But we also learn, although sometimes forget, that students are in charge of their success or lack of it in a course. They are the ones doing the learning. This ultimate control over the learning process allows us to face them honestly. We can lay out the criteria for success—what a student must know and be able to do by the end of the course. We can offer descriptive feedback. “Here’s where you are and here’s what you need to do to get where you need to be. And yes, you do need to do a lot, but I am here to support your efforts. I can teach you lots of things that will contribute to your success.”

Students with little faith in what they can do need to experience success. Most already have plenty of experience with failure. Teachers need to design tasks that challenge but tasks that can be accomplished, if not completely, then in bits and pieces. If you don’t believe you can do something, having somebody tell you that you can isn’t usually persuasive. But if someone points out your progress, you still might not be convinced that you’ll succeed, but that progress does give you something to be reckoned with. If a poor writer comes up with a fine sentence, and I ask where that sentence came from, the student will often say, “Oh, I just got lucky.” “No,” I explain, “good sentences aren’t born of luck. That came from within you. Now you must find the place from which that came because I’m pretty sure there are more like this one in that place.”

Finally students need to be disavowed of the notion that academic success is a function of ability—that the bright students have big brains and those who aren’t bright, well, they have small brains. The variable that determines success in college is not brain size but how hard that brain gets worked. Sometimes it helps to get students started by challenging them to work hard on one thing—to spend twice as much time on a paper than they usually do, to see what happens when they come to class prepared and ready answer the study questions, to commit to doing all the homework problems—just so they can see that hard work does makes a difference, provided it does.

Do you have other ideas and suggestions that can help change attitudes about not being able to learn?