This article was originally published with Faculty Focus on June 8, 2015. Ideas of this article come mostly from my interaction with our faculty, as well as participation in the “Make it stick” reading group led by Dr. Bob McKelvain. We encourage you to participate in Adams Center events in which such ideas are discussed.
For years there has been talk about shifting a professor’s role from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.” But as some teachers leave the center stage, they may not move to the side as guides. Instead, they may find themselves hovering above students as helicopter parents hover over their children. While a complete lack of guidance is not a good idea, excessive guiding could turn constructivist scaffolds into new forms of crutches.
Here are a few suggestions for providing students with the proper balance of challenge and support.
Allow chaos. Students should learn to tolerate some uncertainty and vagueness in the learning process. “Figuring it out” is part of the learning. While you don’t want to be deliberately confusing, you also do not have to oversimplify some necessary complexity in order for students to learn. Some vagueness can encourage creativity. In our university, some of our professors, such as psychology professor Jennifer Shewmaker, have even started to experiment with what we call “free-range assignments.” With this approach, students are not prescribed a detailed set of assignments. Instead, they get to define what kind of assignments they will hand in, as long as the assignments illustrate their mastery of the learning outcomes.
Embrace desirable difficulty. Desirable difficulty is something that cognitive scientists believe is helpful for learning (Brown et al., 2014). Do not step in too quickly to help the moment a student appears to stumble or starts to complain that something is too hard or they “don’t get it.” Reflect first whether the task is indeed prohibitively difficult, in which case you would need to add some prerequisite training. If the task is appropriately difficult, communicate that to students and expect them to persist in seeking answers.
Increase accountability. There are things students have to learn to do. For instance, if technology is used heavily in class, students should learn to perform some tasks, such as clearing the cache of their browsers. If I argue that students should increase their digital literacy of the type of tools they will likely use in the workplace, most professors would agree. However, some professors may direct students to support professionals at the slightest suggestion of a problem. Eventually these students learn to go to others for answers rather than try to solve problems on their own. The bottom line is: help students, but don’t teach helplessness.
Reduce redundancy. Students sometimes treat the course syllabus like those terms of service agreements that are so pervasive on websites and apps. They accept it without actually reading it. Admonitions that “It’s all in the syllabus” do not help. However, just because students choose not to read the class syllabus does not mean you have to repeat an instruction 20 times in a course. You can post certain instructions (how to participate in discussions, for instance) once, quiz them if needed, and be done with it. Do not repeat the instructions every time there is a class discussion.
Remove crutches. Professors should help students learn the process of finishing a product without having to rely on constant feedback and guidance. One of our professors, Suanna Davis, recently shared with me a brilliant approach for gradually empowering students to do independent work. Davis has six major assignments in her class. Each assignment involves, say, four steps. For assignment one, she asks students to submit their work for each of the four steps so that she can provide detailed feedback to make sure they understand the process. For subsequent assignments, she gradually removes requirements for some of the steps. For the last assignment, she asks students to submit only the final paper, which she grades with a rubric. As she reduces and removes process-related requirements, the steps for the assignments are still included in the schedule until the final project, even though they are not required to turn anything in. By doing so, she teaches students the enabling tasks for completing their assignments, while empowering them to work increasingly independently.
Mix pull and push. There is certain information you want to push to students, but it is also reasonable to expect them to pull other information. You do not have to send students the syllabus again and again when they request it, especially if it creates a distraction for students who have already obtained what you want them to have. Instead, include a syllabus or orientation module online and ask students to download or view such instructions themselves when they need it.
I understand that educators walk a tightrope between supporting students and challenging them to be more self-directed learners. Yet it is not impossible to eventually find a good balance. Like building skyscrapers, you start by having scaffolds, but eventually, you want to remove the scaffolds and let students stand on their own.
Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., and McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press.