September 8th, 2011

Student Learning in Progress: Deciding When and How to Intervene


I’ve been a bit surprised as I continue to work on the new edition of my Learner-Centered Teaching book at the number of things I still haven’t figured out in the 10 years since I first wrote the book. There are some challenging conundrums associated with implementing these approaches.

Case in point: deciding if you need to intervene when students are working (alone or in groups), and then deciding what form that intervention should take. If you’re trying to be a more learner-centered teacher, the goal is to not always tell students but let them discover more things for themselves. If teachers always intervene when students are not doing it right, then what students learn is that it doesn’t really matter if they mess up, the teacher will tell them how to do it correctly. Unfortunately, they won’t have a teacher doing that after they graduate.

The first thing learner-centered teachers must decide is whether or not to intervene. And I think that can profitably be differentiated a bit further. Students may be pursuing a content issue in a direction that leads to a dead end or side tracks them from the main issue. Or, the inefficiency may involve the process students are using. For example, students are not really debating issues—someone in the group suggests an idea and everybody else just agrees. An approach like that leads to poor decision-making whether it’s an individual making the decision or a group.

The decision of whether or not to intervene is always affected by the details of the situation but when students are going awry in the content, I’m wondering if there isn’t less justification for intervening. Aren’t these the kind of mistakes from which students can learn a lot? But when the process students are using doesn’t work well, I am more motivated to intervene. If the process doesn’t work, then that almost always compromises the learning potential of the activity or assignment. I also think if you let student make the process errors, follow-up is essential. It isn’t always obvious to them that those errors have compromised the quality of their work.

It is less clear to me what teachers should do when they decide to intervene. I wouldn’t rule out just telling them it’s wrong or that what they’re doing isn’t working, but that shouldn’t be how teachers always intervene. Asking students questions is a possibility. You do need to be sure that you don’t ask questions only when there’s problem. If that’s a pattern, it will be an easy one for students to recognize. The point of questioning is to get students to think about what they are doing and that’s valuable whether they are doing it correctly or not.

A less obtrusive way of intervening is asking for analysis of the approach after the fact. Ask your students to review and assess how they approached a problem. Or ask them to identify any ways they pursued an answer that did not work and what, if anything, they learned from those missteps. You also can query students about their process, and how the process ties to the product. Ask “How did the approaches your group used affect the quality of the work?” “What other approaches might have improved its quality?” “If assigned a problem like this, how would you recommend others approach it.”

The question of when and how to intervene in the work of individuals and groups when the goal is developing student awareness of how they do the work of learning remains a tough one. I keep thinking there should be guidelines or benchmarks that we can use or at least apply when those situations arise. Like so many other aspects of learner-centered teaching, the situation often comes up when we least expect it and if, for example, a group is not appropriately engaging with the task, you need to deal with the problem sooner rather than later. This means you may not have time to thoughtfully analyze the situation which is why thinking about it in advance can be helpful. It’s just I’ve been thinking about this for some time now and still don’t see these decisions as clear or easy.

How about you? How do you determine when and how to intervene?