Breaking Out of Classroom Compliance

My 2nd-year class has a bad case of compliance.  About half the class will do whatever I tell them to – without question.  The “without question” part might be why they seem to see learning as an unknowable and uncontrollable force of the universe.

The other half of the class questions me until they’re satisfied that there’s a good reason for the activities I’ve proposed.  Then they go off and do them, sometimes with extra experiments or research thrown in if unexpected results piqued their interest.  I’m realizing, just past my first anniversary as a teacher, that I don’t know how to help students transition from compliance to self-direction.

I’ve been thinking about overhauling my grading scheme.    I want to see my students get better at analyzing their skills and  improving them (i.e. troubleshooting their education).  I liked the idea of trying to create a grading system that would help them do that better.  I was unsure how much homework should be worth, if anything, for lots of reasons (more in another post).  Then something hit me like a punch in the head: buried at the bottom of a post on Think Thank Thunk was a comment by Ron Johnson (no hyperlink).  He said “When we assign grades to things like organization, we are [rewarding] compliance, not learning.

Ouch.  Safety boots

How often have I exhorted my students to think for themselves, to question everything, to question the user, the teacher, even the laws of physics?  Then I give them grades for following orders without thinking.  If they’re not getting mixed messages in all this, I’ll eat my safety boots.

Around the same time, I saw the results from the last test.  Out of twelve students in the 2nd-year class, I had the world’s worst bimodal distribution: seven As and five Fs.  Something had to give.

I don’t think I’ve inflated the grades; I think they’re an accurate representation of skills.  The students who got As are able to troubleshoot electronic devices, either on paper or with a voltmeter in their hands.  The students who failed have lots of skills too, but are inconsistent when choosing which one to apply, or when solving problems that are different from the textbook examples, or when combining several skills together.  The reason I’m going to overhaul my grading system now, not later, is that that those students also can’t seem to gauge how close to mastery they are, and have study/practice strategies that appear random (or sometimes self-flagellating). This is for them.

So, stay tuned for the new system, starting in January.  I know it’s not a magic bullet, but I hope that measuring progress differently will generate some data that will help us figure out what else to do.  This blog is my way to document what I find, get some feedback from colleagues and, with luck, add something to the pool of knowledge that tackles

  • retention
  • synthesis
  • metacognition

from the perspective of vocational learning.  I hope you’ll join me for the ride.


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