The F-Word and Its Importance to Learning

Let me be clear before I begin: this is not a post where I bash students. This is a post where I express my befuddlement of student decision-making.

Some context: I teach a 300-level Educational Psychology course. It is required for the major and minor in Education and counts toward the Psychology major and minor. It is designed to be taken after 2 foundational education courses and one in-school practicum. I’ve taught this class (and a more rigorous version of it for graduate students) approximately 14-17 times over the last 3 academic years. It is indeed the course I teach most often. It is therefore the course for which I’ve received the most course evaluations. My average rating for this class is a 4.6 out of 5 (my average for other courses that aren’t as content heavy is a 4.9 out of 5).

The course is usually at capacity with a small wait list. I often have 25 students in the class, save the last two times I taught it where I had about 17 students in each class. The mean and median grade in the course is always a B+…except for the last two times I taught it. These last two experiences were also different than the prior 12-15 experiences because sophomores (as opposed to juniors) constituted the majority of the student demographic.

Educational Psychology, like most of my courses, is all about skill development. Thinking skills and writing skills. More specifically, it is about interpreting the content and expressing your interpretation in a comprehensible and supported fashion. My tag line for the course is “If you sell it, I can buy it.” The students come to understand that all I want them to do is adequately defend their beliefs. This involves a high level of metacognitive thinking, reasoning, analysis, and synthesis. It is the final two that trip them up. Students are so used to summarizing and describing, they have little experience with analyzing and synthesizing. They have been asked to share their opinions often, but they have not been asked to justify them in a scholarly manner. I therefore repeat the following phrase many times throughout the course: “I don’t care what you think. I care why you think it”.

The assessments of the course are designed to measure their increasing cognitive skills. They are required to write reflections on course readings 5 times during the course (they choose which times) within which they synthesize 2 readings. The syllabus clearly states that these reflections are not a place to give their opinions of the readings. On the contrary, they are a place where they should discuss why  different theories [mis]align with one another. They have a hard time differentiating this from comparing and contrasting. The reflections total 10% of their final grade.

Other assessments include a 2-day/4 hour classroom observation of another college course where students must figure out how theories translate to pedagogical practice. They are asked to identify where they see theories ‘in action’ and analyze why a professor makes the pedagogical decisions they do. This assignment is worth 25% of their grade and occurs two thirds of the way through the course.

Students are also alphabetically assigned to a small group (2-3) that presents an assigned reading for the day. The readings are theoretical reviews and are as short as 4 pages. Presentations last 45 minutes. This assignment is worth 10% of their grade and is the assignment on which they do the best.

There is a final essay and a final exam for the course, each worth 25% of their grade. The essay is a persuasive essay in which students must advocate for or against a particular learning theory for a specific age group based upon their developmental capabilities. They are required to support their argument with 2 empirical articles. It is a 5-7 page paper due on the last day of class.

The final exam is short essay (1 page per question) and contains 10 questions, each with different point values. Students are to choose 4 questions to answer. If they choose the four lowest valued questions and get them correct, their maximum score is 50 points or a letter grade of C. If they choose the four most difficult questions and get them right, their maximum score is 100 or a letter grade of A. They have 4 hours to take the closed-note exam. It is designed to be done in 1 hour.

Phew. I say all of that because it is necessary context to understand the purpose of this post. This most recent time I taught the course, I had 4 students drop the class. Now, two of them dropped for medical reasons and went home for the remainder of the term. One dropped one third of the way through the course because he was failing and decided he didn’t need the class for his minor and saw no reason to get a low grade when it was unnecessary. A fourth dropped 85% of the way through the course because she didn’t want the low grade to lower her GPA. She plans to retake the class next fall. Two more students came to my office to tell me they too were considering dropping the course, but I managed to put the course in perspective and they stayed enrolled.

What is stunning to me in this scenario are two things: 1) students even considering dropping a course as a viable academic option and 2) students dropping a course when they still have 55-65% of their grade unaccounted for.

I know many people will read this and say it is my fault as the teacher that students are dropping. I disagree both on a personal level but more so on a pedagogical level. I contacted the students two months before the course began, shared the syllabus and communicated the level of rigor of a 300-level course, especially for sophomores. I shared with them my focus on skills, not content. I gave tips for how to prepare for the course. I provided all rubrics for all assignments before the course even began. Most of all, I gave clear instructions in a multiple of ways, many times. I answered every email inquiry within 12 hours and met with students before and after class to help craft outlines for assignments and to provide tips on how to read course texts. I also give extensive feedback on all assignments.

All teachers want their students to do well and I am no different. But I also want my students to progress and actually acquire some skills they didn’t have before my course. I am less concerned with their final grade and more concerned with their final cognitive state. I monitor their progression via their reflections and pop quizzes (which 50% of do not count against students). I attend to their comments in class and their questions. I alter my daily lesson plans to address the gaps I see in their reflections.

I am therefore stunned when a student comes to me expressing a desire to withdraw from a course before they’ve given themselves a chance to develop. This is especially ironic in a course about the learning process. While they clearly articulate their need to develop self-regulatory learning strategies, they are so in fear of failure, they do not give themselves that opportunity. It would’ve never occurred to me to drop a class in college. Once I was enrolled, I was committed. If I was not doing well in a course, I redoubled my efforts and if that didn’t work (and trust me, there were times it didn’t), I reconciled myself with the fact that I was not going to receive an A, A- or B+. While I of course blamed the professor for their alleged poor teaching/poor instructions/lack of feedback, it never occurred to me to do anything other than complete the course.

I certainly would not drop a course when 2/3 of my points were still available. I like to think I have more confidence in myself than to quit 30% of the way into a process. But then again, I’ve always viewed learning as a process. I am not sure my students view it the same way.

A process involves change over time. It requires adaption and reflexivity. A process is concerned with growth instead of the outcome. While I kept a keen eye on my GPA, I always measured my success by how much I determined I’d learned. And my learning was not restricted to content. In most cases, it was learning about my strengths and weaknesses as a student. I developed strategies and coping mechanisms when the content was a bit beyond me (hello, statistics!). If I ended up with a B- in a course (what’s up, Intro Psych?!?!), I was proud of myself for figuring out how to get that grade instead of the C- I might have earned if I didn’t adjust my study skills.

There has been a lot of chatter circling social media about the value of failure. Indeed, in my Ed Psych course we spend time discussing that very matter within the context of fixed versus growth mindsets and self-regulatory learning. We address it again during our discussion of motivation and self-efficacy. The students understand the importance of experiencing failure to cognitive growth. But they have a hard time feeling it.

While only 1 student has ever truly failed this course (students view a B- or C as failing), I don’t want to be the professor who facilitates this type of experiential learning, but I see the value in it. Failure is where you experience growth. It is when you assess your decisions and their effect on the outcomes. It is when you learn how and of whom to ask questions. It is when you force yourself to be honest about who you are and what you are capable of doing. One must go through failure to develop the skills to get passed it.

I am concerned we’ve established a system that facilitates students walking around it.