April 8th, 2011

Standards and Pedagogies of Student Engagement


A colleague raised a very interesting point in response to the February 17 post on evidence-based teaching. That entry explored some of the reasons instructional practice is not better informed by research findings.

My colleague was writing about learner-centered, or student-centered, pedagogies that include a range of strategies that involve students in the learning process. There is ample evidence that these strategies not only effectively engage students, they change the quantity and quality of what students learn. But many faculty do not use these strategies, and my colleague thinks it’s because they believe these approaches lower standards, diminish rigor and encourage learning at a very superficial level.

During workshops, I hear a similar concern expressed. Faculty worry about strategies that “pander” to students, meaning the strategies make it too easy for students, don’t offer enough challenge, don’t develop rigorous intellectual skills. Example: you put students in a group and give them a set of probing discussion questions—opened-ended queries that expose a host of ideas for further exploration. In five minutes, they are done after what has to have been a very superficial discussion.

More effective group discussions
I seem to keep writing this, but I think that’s a design problem rather than an inherent indictment of students discussing content in groups. You could make that discussion activity more robust in a variety of ways. For example, the instructor could have students write down their answers and identify two or three passages in the reading that support their analysis. The groups would tackle different questions and then explain their question and answer to a second group, which then generates a follow-up question for the first group to discuss. The groups could then post their answers on a discussion board to which the teacher raises follow-up questions that are discussed electronically or the next time the group convenes.

It is absolutely true that the teacher can offer better answers to discussion questions than students can. At issue is whether students learn to answer discussion questions by listening to their teachers answers. I keep contending they may learn some but the real learning occurs when students participate in discussions and get feedback on their contributions.

Students object to the learner-centered strategies because they think they are having to do the teacher’s job. “Why should we sit around in groups trying to come up with examples when the teacher could just give us a list of good ones? Isn’t that the teacher’s job?” It’s much easier to copy examples than to generate them which means this approach can make students work more, not less. Of course, teachers also work more because they have to figure out how to get students to come up with good examples in a timely manner.

Benefits of rubrics
Let’s consider a second example: Rubrics. Lots of faculty eyebrows raise at the idea of essentially giving students the grading criteria for an assignment. “Doesn’t this fall into the category of telling students exactly what you want, thereby making it easier for them?” That depends on the rubric criteria.

If the criteria say that the paper should be 900 words long, with at least two primary sources correctly cited and no content from Wikipedia, those are decisions the students don’t have to make. But if the criteria specify that “an A paper will contain coherently constructed paragraphs that advance a position on the topic and support that position with evidence,” that tells students what they need to do, but it doesn’t make writing a carefully crafted paragraph any easier. The argument in favor of rubrics is that students aren’t spending time wondering about what they are supposed to do, they are spending time trying to do it … which is exactly where their efforts should be focused.

Rubrics really start to make sense when students are given a role in constructing them. From that process they learn assessment skills that will serve them well after college. Will students develop substantive rubrics the first time they try? Probably not, but again that’s a design issue. It makes sense to give them a teacher-generate rubric first, then have them apply a rubric to some writing samples, then maybe they co-construct a rubric with the teacher and finally they construct rubrics on their own.

My colleague pointed out that not much discussion of standards and learner-centered strategies has occurred. I agree and welcome you to continue this conversation.