It all starts with the instructor having the impression that students are not able to organize their learning on their own. Since the instructor wants the students to succeed, she offers them a clear structure, possibly with bonus points or other kinds of rewards, so they have a safe space with instantaneous feedback to practice skills that are required later. So far, so good.
Now the students are given this structure, and get used to working on problems that are presented in small portions and with instantaneous feedback. They start believing that it is the instructor’s job to organize their learning in such a way, and start relying on the instructor to provide both motivation and bite-sized exercises.
Which the instructor, in turn, notices and interprets as the students becoming less and less able to structure their learning.
At this point it is very easy to fall in the trap of trying to provide an even better, more detailed, structure, so that the students have a better chance of succeeding. Which would likely lead to the students relying even more heavily on the instructor for structure and motivation.
So what can we do? On the one hand we want to help students learn our content, on the other hand they also need to learn to learn by themselves. Can both happen at the same time?
I would say yes, they can.
The first step is recognizing the danger of entering into this downward spiral. There is absolutely no point in hoping that the students will take the initiative and not fall into the trap of relying on us, even if we point out that the trap is there. Of course they might not fall in, but whether they do or not is beyond our influence. We can only directly influence our own actions, not the students’, so we need to make sure to break the spiral ourselves.
The second step is to make sure that we resist the urge to give more and more detailed exercises and feedback.
The third step is to create an exit plan. Are we planning weekly quizzes as homework that students get a certain number of bonus points for? Then we should make sure that over time, either the number of bonus points will decrease, the time interval will become longer, the tasks become more difficult, or a combination of all three. The idea is to reward the behaviour we want just long enough that students establish it, but not any longer than that.
And of course, last but not least, instead of giving students more structure, we can help them learn the tools they need to organize their learning. Be it training skills to organize yourself, or helping them find intrinsic motivation, or teaching them to ask the right questions so they can walk themselves through complex problems until they find an answer.
It’s a pretty thin line to walk, and especially the fourth step might really be out of an instructor’s control when there is a lot of content to go through in very little time and the instructor isn’t the one deciding how much time is going to be spent on which topic. Most TAs and even many teaching staff won’t have the freedom to include teaching units on learning learning or similar. Nevertheless, it is very important to be aware of the vicious circle, or of the potential of accidentally entering it, to be sure that our best intentions don’t end up making students depending on us and the structures we provide, but instead make them independent learners.
The problem that we are addressing is that mathematics is taught to 1300 students from 12 different engineering study programs at once. At the moment, in addition to lectures and practice sessions in both very large and small groups, students get weekly online exercises that they can earn bonus points with. Student feedback is positive – they appreciate the opportunity to practice, they like that they are nudged towards continuously working on whatever is currently going on in class, and obviously they like to earn bonus points they can use on the exam.
However, mathematics is not typically a subject that non-mathematicians are very keen on. Many feel like there is no relevance of the content to their lives or even their studies. And many don’t feel confident they have a chance to succeed.
As I wrote in my recent posts on motivation, both believing that you can succeed and seeing the relevance of things you are supposed to be studying to your life are necessary for people to feel intrinsically motivated. So this is where we want to start.
Since the experience with the weekly online tests is so positive, we want to develop exercises that apply the mathematics they are currently learning to topics from their own, chosen fields. So if they are supposed to practice solving a set of linear equations, students of mechanical engineering, for example, might as well use one from a mechanical engineering case. Or even better: they might be asked to develop this set of equations first, and then solve it. By connecting mathematics with topics students are really interested in, we hope to get them to engage more with matematics.
More engagement will then likely mean that they improve their understanding both of mathmatics itself and – equally important – of their main subjects, where currently manystudents lack the math skills required. At the same time, we hope this will increase student motivation for both subjects.
Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done to first implement this concept and then evaluate whether it is working as well as we thought it would, and then probably modifying it and evaluating some more. But I am excited to get started!