Thursday, January 07, 2010

Teaching Quiet Students

I need to return to writing my book, a draft of which I'm committed to finishing in the next couple of months. So this will be the last longish blog post for a while. I will continue to write shorter things about technology or about news items that pique my interest. But otherwise, this space will be quiet.

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When I was teaching the large intermediate microeconomics course (about 180 students) in the late 1990s, I'd spend some time in class asking students questions, waiting for some brave soul to volunteer an answer. Sometimes nobody would. One semester I had a female student whom I remember because she ultimately became an online TA for me and her voice was very distinctive, very much like Amy Irving in The Competition, though for the life of me I can't remember her name. This student invariably would raise her hand after I'd pose such a question and she would give a thoughtful response. It got to the point that I wouldn't call on her immediately, hoping some other student might give it a go. She was so good she may have intimidated the others from trying. She was gutsy and had the smarts.

On at least a couple of occasions she came to my office to talk one-on-one. Self-assured and on the ball in a setting most students would find unnerving, she was quite nervous in these one-on-one sessions, which I know because she was shaking visibly. Shakespeare surely had it right that All the world's a stage, but I suppose each of us gets to "choose" where it is that we have our stage fright. I believe at the time I felt, "What is she worrying about? I'm not very intimidating." Indeed, I'm not. But with hindsight I can see that it was more a matter of circumstance than anything else. Those one-on-one sessions were of consequence for her and perhaps a little more unpredictable in format than the in class sessions. The performance anxiety probably would have happened even if I was a total pussycat. In fact because she was good and talented with the economics she wanted to be judged seriously, or so I inferred. She wanted to sail over her own high bar. She was the source of her own performance anxiety.

Of course, she was not unique in that. When I started to write this blog I did so without anyone else knowing about it for a couple of weeks and cranked out quite a few posts. Eventually I let some people know and got positive reaction from them. Then some others whom I didn't know "found" my posts and a few said good things about them. All of a sudden, I had writer's block. I had to live up to a standard that I didn't even try to create. Nevertheless, it was paralyzing for a while. The good thing with writing is that you do it alone and so can put the readers out of mind, most of the time. With face-to-face encounters, obviously you can't pretend your audience isn't there.

Thinking about performance brings to mind Ethel Merman in There's No Business Like Show Business - "nowhere could you get that happy feeling, as when you're stealing that extra bow." For people where performance is reward, the stage fright beforehand plays the role of necessary evil that gets them keyed up and ready to deliver. They grin and bear it. Others put on an act as a form of self-protection. They adopt an outer persona that differs from their inner being. They aim to please the audience without putting their inner being at risk. When I was a college student I thought most other students were this way, as I've written about previously. As a teacher there is a question of whether part of the job is to get these students to shed their outer skin, at least for the purpose of the course. I'll say a bit more about this below.

These I used to think were the main varieties. Of course, there were also more extreme forms. Some folks don't experience stage fright in a context where most others do. It may be ho hum for them, been there-done that, and without the novelty it's just an ordinary interaction where none of us would feel it's a performance. Or they may have emboldened themselves by desensitizing to certain forms of criticism. My mom had a lot of that in her and I remember my wife referring to my mom as a tough old bird. Such folks can seem heroic, performing in instances where the rest of us can't or won't. But they may also lack sensitivity to certain situations where the rest of us will be more aware.

The other extreme is the person who really suffers through performance, perhaps because he is not prepared, perhaps because he is not skilled enough, but also even if skilled and prepared because performance itself is painful and unrewarding or perhaps because if skilled and prepared then performance might seem superfluous. As a student, particularly when at Cornell and especially in the political thought and philosophy classes I took where I was outside my own realm of proficiency, I was awed by the notion of the quiet genius, invariably a woman, who would write brilliantly but not say a word in class. There were a few students like that, though I only became aware of them when the professor would hand back our papers and make some off the cuff remark about the really excellent ones (not mine).

I believe most of us rotate through many if not all of these scenarios or at least we've tried out the various roles on occasion. But then one seems to prevail either out of conscious choice or, more likely, because we fall into it. In classes where I was proficient in the field I was not shy. In grad school I was one of the few students who raised his hand a lot, at least in microeconomics, which became my area of expertise. I was comfortable there so I asked questions congruent to my own thinking. I had no intent in doing that to intimidate my classmates, but I believe sometimes that was the consequence. If you have mental agility you show it, or so was my implicit belief.

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When you are teaching your target often is yourself as a learner or, if you try hard to be broader than just yourself, your target is your conception of students. Actually, in most cases what you try to do is focus on the subject. You teach the subject first and foremost. Thinking about the audience is only a secondary consideration. Perhaps, when thinking about teaching from the conception of Bruner's Spiral Curriculum, the role of considering the audience is to place the particular instruction along the spiral. Specifically with microeconomics, we teach courses in Principles, Intermediate, and Graduate Theory, though there can be substantial differences in difficulty and coverage within any one of these categories, depending on the economist teaching the course.

It was teaching the Intermediate course that initially fueled my interest in learning technology. The typical section I taught in the early 1990s had about 60 students. The course worked spectacularly well for about 5 of them, who would tell me it was one of the best courses they had taken on campus. For the vast majority, maybe as many as 50 students, the course was a struggle for them and, based on the exams they wrote, it was also largely unenlightening. For the rest, these students got by with the minimum possible effort or they didn't get by at all. The kids in the first category were, with a few exceptions, either kids who wanted to go to grad school in economics or engineering students (meaning the math was no problem for them) who had an interest in social science. The course was (and still is) required of all students in Business. In that the aim is to provide a solid economics foundation for the various business disciplines, a sensible goal, at least in theory. But the students found the subject abstruse and didn't see the relevance. This made the teaching almost combative. These were the bulk of the students in the middle category.

I came to appreciate later that this was the situation in many required courses for students outside the major, with perhaps the quintessential example being organic chemistry for pre-med students. However, I learned that the problem was much broader than this. The first summer when I became an administrator in the SCALE project and interviewed SCALE-affiliated faculty, many of them reported their students were too passive in class and that it was difficult to get discussion going. They were trying teaching online because of the promise that students would open up more in that setting, which in turn would encourage better discussion face to face, or so they hoped.

I was not very happy with the situation in my own class. I wanted the results to be excellence across the board, where what we had in fact was a broad base of mediocrity. The question I asked myself that served as my motivation was whether the outcome was driven by me - there as a better way to teach that middle group and I needed to change my approach to find that better way - or them - my teaching was fine but the students were approaching the course all wrong. I didn't know the answer then. And I still don't. By the time my thinking about teaching had evolved sufficiently to really be able to test the proposition, I was no longer teaching the intermediate course. However, within a year or two of embracing learning technology I had a pretty strong view of what I should be doing. This was based on an incentive approach (after all, I am an economist), where the goal was to move students who were not in that elite category up a notch or two. With this mindset, the student issue is either a lack of effort or the effort is misdirected or the student simply doesn't have the smarts to figure this stuff out. Incentives don't help for the lack of smarts, but they can help with the other two. However, I never really verified this on a student by student basis. The class was too large to do so. I only had aggregate data to support the conclusion. There would be a need to have an extended conversation with each student individually to really verify this.

Indeed, I did not see teaching as having such extended conversations with each student till this past semester, though I had taught small undergraduate courses previously (a Discovery class, freshmen only and no more than 20 students, and two Campus Honors Program classes with 15 students, all of these classes in Principles). I probably wouldn't have figured out to have such conversations this time around either except that the course wasn't covering a standard topic. (While we ended up not covering all of these, some sense of the course trajectory can be had from looking at the assigned readings.) Without feeling obligated to achieve specific coverage there was more freedom to stray and react to student writing where the student was rather than force their ideas through some gateway I specified. Here I'm talking about my reactions to what they wrote. I had freedom in responding. Doing so helped me to reconsider my preconceptions.

The class (17 students in total) had more quiet students than I had expected. There were also several very glib students, who could easily have had a back and forth conversation for an entire class session had I let them, which may have encouraged some students who might have been vocal in other settings to remain on the sidelines and simply follow the discussion.

Though they were quiet in ensemble settings they did participate in the online writing. And here is an interesting thing. As writers, some of them became risk takers. They strayed more from the path than the other students in the class and produced some very interesting pieces, probably the most enjoyable for me to read among all that was produced. In contrast some of the glib students struggled with the writing, more than I would have anticipated. Based on this, here are some tentative conclusions.

The decision to handle stage fright by putting on an act has some unsettling consequences, at least on some individuals. These students intuit this downside from an ethical or a behavioral perspective and conclude they want no part of it. They thus opt to be quiet rather than put on an act. When they are sufficiently comfortable, they will open up. That might take quite a while (months, not weeks). Trying to rush that can be counterproductive. Writing is very helpful for these students. They are apt to open up there much sooner than they open up face to face.

In contrast, students who are quite glib face to face may struggle with writing because they have to confront which persona to show, an issue that they don't deal with face to face. Indeed, when there is a persona switch that can be quite emotional, a powerful experience but also a difficult one.

There is the further observation that some people would rather be reflective and react only after they've chewed things over. They literally prefer to be listeners. In some of our readings - the stuff by Peter Drucker and Peter Senge especially - we learned to prize listening. I'm not especially good at it myself in face to face larger group settings and especially early in the semester I found it quite a strain to manage the flow of the discussion in the class and listen intently to what individual students said at the same time. So I would aim to get the gist of what they were saying and let some of the detail fall through my fingers. I was much better able "to listen" to the individual students when reading their blog posts and I believe my written comments in response indicated that. The upshot is that if listening is such a value we should encourage it.

So I would say the teaching goal from 1990s to get all students in class to participate in the class discussion needs to be modified. The students are their own best arbiters of the participation decision. Having a private channel for reflection in addition to a public channel for class discussion seems to me to be much superior to having only one channel. The next time I teach I will surely do that, even if the content of the course is more prescribed and I do have obligations to cover certain content.

Finally, I'd like to combine these observations with some things Atul Gawande has been preaching in the medical field but that I believe apply in a straightforward way to the situation I've described here. (Gawande was on Charlie Rose a couple of nights ago, mostly talking about checklists in promoting his new book. But he did reiterate that where medicine is practiced well and at low cost doctors communicate with each other about their patient's care.) The two channel approach doesn't scale well at all.... if done on a course by course basis. It might scale reasonably well and engage many more students if they were in cohorts across courses and then it is done on a cohort basis. With all the reform that people seem to want with learning, that seems to me the most promising change, yet it is getting scant attention. We need to talk about it much more.

1 comment:

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