September 28th, 2011

The Question of Control in the College Classroom


The August 24 post, What Does Your Syllabus Say About You and Your Course?, in which I asked a series of questions designed to encourage revisiting the syllabus in terms of its role in setting course norms and establishing the tone of the course generated some interesting responses. I am always pleased when a post stimulates reaction, including disagreement. This is how we learn and grow as professionals. It also makes blogs worth reading, in my opinion.

I do have to say, however, that I found some of the assumptions embedded in the responses troubling. I have been thinking about the issues they raised and thought it might be useful for us to continue the conversation.

Several of the responses asserted that teachers need to control students and the processes by and through which they learn because students can’t be trusted. Here’s a comment that illustrates this sentiment: “If the purpose of your syllabus isn’t to state your requirements in such a way that it’s a defense against shenanigans, I would suggest you are a very new prof.” A later comment by this respondent as well as others indicated that the problem has been individual students, not whole classes. But class policies affect everyone. If policies are in place indicating a lack of trust in all students, what kind of impact do they have on students who are trustworthy? What kind of messages do they convey about teacher-student relationships? If the teacher doesn’t trust students, can students be expected to trust the teacher?

In some of the responses there was the sense that students are not mature, responsible learners. That they won’t do what they need to do to learn and they won’t act responsibly in class. How many of your students could be characterized in this way? All? Most? Some? Let’s say that this claim is true of a significant number of students. Does that mean students cannot learn to be more mature and responsible? If they can, then the question is how are they best taught? How likely are they to learn maturity and responsibility in an environment where the teacher makes all the decisions for them?

If students are dependent learners and prone to act irresponsibly with respect to learning, they should not be given more control than they can handle or be asked to make decisions for which they are not prepared. I don’t know any parents of teenagers with newly minted driver’s licenses who given their children keys to the family car Friday night and say, “Have fun. We’ll need the car back Monday morning.” Beginning students are in no position to select course textbooks or say what they might want to learn about a content area. Becoming a mature, responsible learner is a developmental process. The question is when and how does that process start or continue in college?

Behind that question is another one: Do teachers have the responsibility to teach students how to learn or is our only obligation to teach them what they should learn? Actually the two are inextricably linked. When we teach the scientific method or the writing process, we teach the how and what simultaneously. So I suppose it’s more a matter of degree with the decision being whether we let them learn by implicit suggestion or explicit instruction.

The value of comments presenting different perspectives, like those posted on the August 24 entry is that they cause us to revisit what we believe and why. I still believe that teachers have the responsibility to teach students lessons about learning—both lessons about how to learn and lessons about those conditions we know to be conducive to learning. I believe those lessons are best taught not by seeking control over students and their learning environments but by involving them in decisions and by providing guidance and feedback that will improve their decision-making.

  • Yvonne Bobb-Smith

    I agree with you. It is important to teach how to learn. I think the conditions which we set can be exposing learners to life skills. I always say to students that the semester, the classroom, the syllabus offer a dress rehearsal to real life. What you put in, you will get out! Another thing is the setting of broad rules so that we can both communicate effectively and organize our relationships harmoniously. In which case, I expose myself to criticism, very much the way they are exposed. When we agree to rules or guidelines, students and I are together in process of learning and teaching. While I know there may one or two dissenters present, they themselves find room to negotiate, if needs be, when they are aware of what binds us temporarily as student-teacher.

  • David H

    I teach at the Community College level and I see many students who are not prepared, either from their high-school curriculum or from a lack of maturity (or more commonly both). That said, I find the notion that treating such students as children by applying all sorts of strictures and external restrictions runs counter to my sense of what college means. Such attitudes do not foster wonder, they foster resentment. More importantly, they do not foster critical thought or the maturity these students need.

    It bothers me when, as I read in a couple comments on the previous post linked in this article, an attitude of enjoying teaching a subject and sharing this enjoyment–even to the point of actually learning something from the students–is demeaned and belittled. If you feel you have to do that to justify your approach to your students, then in my class, I'd ask what that says about you, since it says very little if anything about me.

    And I do teach how to learn–in my case (teaching English) I very often have to help students un-learn bad writing and reading habits. I have high standards and I am proud that when my students leave my class with passing grades they seem to do well in subsequent classes too. But I am most proud of the fact that they are learning to think for themselves and, since I am open to learning from them, they astound me each semester with insight and good reasoning skills. I allow them, even assign them, to evaluate my course, the subject matter and goals–not that I'll necessarily change anything, but so that we can discuss how and where learning occurs. Self-reflection and considering all angles of an issue are key to my approach. The students who do not or cannot rise to a passing score still feel respected and I have had many come back for help in subsequent semesters. A "my way or the highway" approach is not my style and I am proud that this philosophy has not, as one commenter on the previous post argued, fostered an entitlement mentality in any of my students.

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