Monday, December 3, 2012

Changing Student Learning Strategies

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, David Brooks took on the challenging subject of how people change (  It has generated a large number of comments from readers (in part because he chose to begin the column with the controversial story of a largely deadbeat dad who got fed up with his children's failures and so sent them a letter in which he disowned them).  One particular paragraph jumped out at me, as I wrap up Phase I of transforming my Introduction to Rome class from lecture-based to a student-centered class.  Wrote Brooks, "People don’t behave badly because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape."  This describes perfectly what I've observed about my Rome students, much to my frustration.

At the very start of the semester, I had the students watch a short recorded video titled "How to Avoid your Own Decline and Fall"--basically, tips for success in the class.  I discussed in detail how to watch the videos (take notes!  watch them in a quiet space that allows you to focus!) and gave advice on a range of issues like attendance, keeping up with the assigned work, etc.  We then duly discussed this video in class.  Yet, when push came to shove (i.e. when midterm season hit in about week 6 of the semester and, suddenly, the students' time management skills came under the gun), they ignored every single thing I had told them about how to succeed in the class.  As soon as we handed back the first midterm (on which scores had been well above the usual median and average, in large part because of the extraordinary effort put in by the students to prepare in addition to the extra practice with the course content during class), I let them know that the second exam was going to be significantly more challenging.  I told them the historical stats on the exam, in part to challenge them.  I reminded them that it would not be possible to cram and do well on the exam for all but a few of them.

75% of them ignored me.  They convinced themselves that what I was saying wouldn't happen to them.  Perhaps they thought they were the exception.  Mostly, though, I think they knew that their behavior was not going to have good results but they couldn't change.  Repeatedly, I've had students in my office telling me that they wished that *I* had done something to force them to stay on track with the assigned work.  When I asked them whether they thought that it was a fair of me to expect a college student at UT to be able to follow a syllabus and manage their time, they conceded that it was; but then repeated their desire to have me provide an external structure that would take the choice away from them.  The scores on the second midterm were right in line with what they were for cohorts who took the class as lecture-based--surprising given all the extra learning opportunities and study help that the current cohort has.  Once again, I repeated my advice to avoid cramming.  Many of them would have seen the negative results of their efforts to cram.

I expected that at least some of them would see the second midterm as a wake-up call and mend their ways.  Nope.  If anything, their behaviors worsened.  They stopped attending class (it was not longer mandatory) and seem to have completely checked out.  They then tried to cram for the third midterm in the 24-48 hours before the exam, during a week when they likely had several other exams and projects due.  The results were abysmal.   Despite being told repeatedly that their strategies would not work; despite being told what strategies WOULD work, they refused to change their ways.  At the same time, many of them wished that I would force them to change. The issue wasn't that they didn't see the problems with their learning strategies; it was that they didn't have the self-discipline to change them when they were feeling pressure from other directions.

One of the major changes in the spring is a result of my realization that I cannot bring about change in student learning strategies simply by reason (or data).  They hear it but they don't believe it, and they don't have the self-discipline to change (not unlike the diabetics who refuse to be compliant despite knowing the short- and long-term consequences for their health).  They need someone else to impose structure and discipline on them.  On the one hand, I feel like this is a skill that college students should have.  On the other, I acknowledge the reality that they don't and recognize that they only way they are possibly going to learn it is through experience.  I have begun to think about my class--one which will be taught in the fall alone in future semesters--as a kind of bridge course between high school/community college and UT (though, to be fair, it enrolls as many upper division as lower division students at present, something I am hoping to change in the fall).

One of the main course objectives going forward will be to teach students good learning strategies.  I will do this, in part, by imposing a lot more structure on the course.  There will be homework modules that must be completed before each class.  There will be weekly quizzes.  Emphasis will be shifted somewhat away from midterm exams and towards the day to day learning.  There will be a comprehensive final, but it is my hope that students will learn experientially that doing assigned work and studying weekly makes it much easier to learn and apply larger chunks of content.  I am also reading a lot about how to motivate and sustain change.  The message seems to be that it happens by reinforcing positive behaviors, so I am brainstorming about ways to do that.

Perhaps the clearest lesson from my current cohort of students is that I can't reason with them to change their learning strategies.  Even the experience of doing poorly on exams does not persuade them to change their behaviors.  Instead, it persuades them that the "flipped" model must be to blame; or my expectations must be too high; or the tests are too hard; or the lectures that they can't learn except from a professor lecturing in a classroom.  Only about 10% of them will even begin to confess that they bear some responsibility for their less than stellar performance.  The new tactic will be to force them to change their learning strategies (or quickly realize that they are going to fail the class) and hope that, somewhere in there, they will figure out how to manage their time and be able to adopt these strategies without the external, grade-driven structure.

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