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.
One thing I’ve been pondering recently are vicious circles, especially in teaching and learning contexts.
Imagine this situation:
You observe that your students are not as active as you would like them to be. Hence you change something in your teaching to make them become more active: You act more entertaining, you include more peer instruction, you add clickers. Initially, your students respond, but then you notice that the more effort you put into keeping them active, the less activity they show by themselves. Hence you become even more active.
What is going on?
You might have gotten caught in a vicious circle. So how do you get out again and make them take on responsibility for their own learning?
The first thing to note with vicious circles is that you are caught in one. And that even though there are several players in a vicious circle, you can only influence what you do in reaction to the other player, and how you interpret their reaction. So even though they seem to expect more entertainment from you, that does not mean that you have to provide it.
A good start would be to decide for yourself how far you want to go in “activating” your students, and from which point onwards you think they should really take on the responsibility themselves. And then, all you can do is stick to your decision. Sorry ;-) No, kidding. Basically you’ll have to help them find intrinsic motivation. Which sounds contradictory in itself. But we’ll talk about your options in a later post.