April 9th, 2014

Creating Learning Environments that Help Students Stretch and Grow as Learners


The March 12, 2014 post raised issues about those students who really don’t want to work with others in groups … “lone wolves” as they’re called in the literature. Your responses raised a number of issues. I thought it might be worth exploring some of them a bit further.

Many of the comments defended the lone wolves, pointing out that their good academic performance could be compromised by having to work in a group. Did anyone comment about those social learners (whose existence is also well documented in the research) who do well working in groups? We require those students to spend time listening and learning alone, experiences that potentially compromise their academic performance.

There were also comments about introverted students. If you look at the references at the end of that post, I don’t think introverts and lone wolves are always one and the same. A lot of lone wolf behaviors aren’t all that introverted. However, I do understand and endorse current interest in introverts and our need to help them they find their places in active learning classrooms.

The issues raised by our exchange are larger than lone wolves, introverts, and groups. The diversity of learning needs present in every classroom (physical and virtual) confronts teachers with a sizeable challenge. How do you respond to different learning needs in shared learning spaces? The obvious answer is by providing a range of different learning experiences, not expecting learners always to demonstrate their mastery of the material in the same way.

  • But how balanced is our response?
  • Do we tend to require more learning experiences that mirror our preferred approaches to learning or those endorsed by virtue of being widely used?
  • Do we tend to favor learning approaches that work best for the bright, capable students?
  • How often do we select approaches in light of learning needs?
  • How regularly do we analyze our choices?

I’ve also been thinking about the extent to which learner preferences should be honored. Introverts will likely find their way to places and professions that don’t depend on group collaboration, but that doesn’t mean they never will have to work with others. And what about those students who would rather be told than have to read, is reading a skill they can do without? I guess I’m still of a mindset that college is the time to be developing a wide range of learning skills. It’s not about changing innate preferences, making introverts into extroverts, or turning hands-on-learners into abstract thinkers. It’s about equipping all students with skills that prepare them for a future of learning lots of different things under lots of different circumstances.

We already have a pretty strong educational commitment to taking students out of their comfort zones. We require them to learn content they don’t like or think they need to know. We make them work on skills they don’t have and do activities they don’t think they’re going to be very good at. Students with serious test anxiety still take tests. Shy and reticent students get called on in class. And some of us make introverts and lone wolves work in groups.

Most of the students we’re teaching aren’t particularly aware of themselves as learners. They don’t have strongly established learning identities. In others words, they still have much to learn about themselves as learners. Will that learning occur if we defer to preferences and let them learn as they think they learn best? How many of us had experiences in college where we developed an interest in content we’d never heard of and developed skills we never knew we had?

I think we owe it to our students to put them in environments that cause them to stretch and grow as learners. Those aren’t always comfortable places, but they are a necessary part of the process. I also think we should create classrooms that give all learners the best chance of succeeding. Everyone reaches for the same high standards, but there are different paths that lead to the top.

I like how that sounds in theory, but I’m not sure how it works out in practice. We respond to the diversity of learning needs in large classes as we teach multiple courses, continue our research, and provide service to our institutions and professions.

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