Try Pressing All the Buttons (or, how to get my students to stop trusting me)

How do you learn to use a new piece of software (or web service or smart phone)?  I notice that some people press all the buttons, others prefer step-by-step instructions in the form of “press this button, then press that button.”  Some want to watch an experienced user, then experiment on their own (and I’m sure there are lots of other in-between approaches). 

I got to thinking about this because my partner (who is quite uneasy about computers) was trying to email me an address from an electronic address book, but wrote it out on paper then typed it in.  When I suggested copying and pasting, the response was “I don’t know how to copy in this program.”  It’s an interesting point.  Not everyone knows that there are software conventions determined by the operating system.  But in the absence of that knowledge, I think some users would try the “copy” routine that worked for them in other programs, just to see if it worked.  Others would not trust themselves to try something in which they haven’t been directly instructed.

Does anxiety about new technology cause people to not experiment?  Or does the lack of habit/experience with experimenting cause the anxiety?  Or both?

I discussed this with a friend over dinner.  She was describing her attempts to encourage broader use of the electronic media available at her workplace, and is definitely a “press all the buttons” kind of user.  She is not a tech professional, and she is not 22, so the stereotypical answers are clearly inadequate.  I asked her where she learned to engage with unfamiliar technology that way.  Her answer was, “from my long-standing distrust of humans.”  We shared a laugh, but it gradually seemed less funny. 

I don’t think she doesn’t trust people to be honest.  I take it to mean that she doesn’t trust people to be right.  At least not all the time, and not comprehensively.  It connects to a very interesting exchange that happened at Casting Out Nines and Gas Station Without Pumps.  Does trusting our teachers make it easier to learn?  Or harder?

I think a better question is “trust them to do what?”

When I am learning from someone (I include the authors of books), I need to trust that they will respect me.  I also need to trust that they are qualified and experienced with the material. For the sake of my learning, I also need to not trust them to be right.  It’s possible there’s a typo or that the teacher misspoke (or truly misunderstands).  It’s much more possible that what I understood is not what the author/teacher meant.  If I “trust” my teacher to “tell me the truth,” what I am really trusting is my own perception of what they meant — which is highly fallible even if the source material is accurate.  Besides the problem of miscommunication, there’s a deeper problem: trusting a source to be right means reasoning from authority — and that’s faith, not science.  If students are engaged in an un-scientific reasoning process, it undermines whatever scientific content we are reasoning about.

Where it falls apart in my classroom: it’s hard for my students to distinguish between not assuming their teachers are right, vs assuming their teachers are wrong. 

Homework: figure out how to convince students that they shouldn’t trust me to be right even though a lot of their schooling tells them that’s blasphemous; also, convince students that they should trust me to respect them even though a lot of their schooling tells them I won’t.


  1. I think I’m less trusting of textbooks than most people (teachers or students). I reported a lot of minor errors in the physics book I’m learning from, and the author told me
    “An observation: I have a theory as to why you found so many errors
    that others didn’t find. College students are unlikely to find those,
    because they don’t know enough. Physics faculty are unlikely to find
    those, because they know too much (and so skip over minor glitches).
    You on the other hand know a lot but aren’t steeped in physics

    • Interesting points. A few other possibilities: people may be finding the errors and not reporting them. I’ve certainly done this… a combination of being overworked and not having a lot of faith that the publisher would fix errors combine to put this low on my priority list. However, your experience makes me think that it’s more worth my while than I had thought.

      As for why college students don’t find errors, not knowing the material is sure to be a cause. Another reason I have encountered is that my students do not evaluate their sources for anything other than accuracy. Since they are not in the habit of checking for internal consistency, they sometimes don’t notice that two points contradict each other. Though they wouldn’t be sure which point is correct, they should be able to tell that both can’t be correct. That habit of looking for contradiction/coherence is a habit of reading comprehension that I took for granted but recently realized I needed to explicitly teach.

      My students also often don’t check that what they read is consistent with their out-of-school experience. I attribute this to many years of pseudocontext. Again, this habit could help them detect poorly-reasoned or contradictory ideas even when they “don’t know enough.”

  2. I love this!

    It reminded me of a frequent thing that happens in my regular physics classes—students start presenting or talking about some solution that is wrong. Their peers or I start pointing out something wrong with it. They get upset because, “YOU said this was right!” Of course, I rarely say that at all, so it’s pretty impossible that I actually said that. Just being near them while they were working and asking a question or two made them think that I was verifying their work in some way. But I wonder whether that experience makes them start to rely on me as the “physics fairy” less, or whether it is just confirming the fact that they see me as the source of all that is right in physics. And actually, it’s usually the same few students in a particular class who are frequent experiencers of this. Interesting thing to think about.

    • Ah yes — the dreaded “You Said.” One thing that helped this year was attributing authorship and practicing being really clear with “citations” of each other. If someone cited someone else, including me, it gave us an opportunity to talk about “how do you know” that so-and-so said that. Is it from your notes? From a paper they wrote that you provided feedback on? How can you be sure that they said that exact thing? If they did, why would a reasonable person have said that specific thing? Can we figure out the context in which it does make sense?

      I wonder about those experiences too. Do they trust me less afterwards? If they don’t trust themselves proportionally more, I worry that I am just fostering anxiety.

  3. So how do you get your students to trust you about not trusting you? It reminds me of the scene from Life of Brian:

    BRIAN: Look. You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals!
    FOLLOWERS: Yes, we’re all individuals!
    BRIAN: You’re all different!
    FOLLOWERS: Yes, we are all different!
    BRIAN: You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!
    FOLLOWERS: Yes! We’ve got to work it out for ourselves!

    • Ha!! Thanks this made my day. Yes, it’s a lot like that. I think the biggest thing that helped this year was changing my test questions. If I really wanted them to trust their own judgement (and improve their judgment so that it was trustable), I had to stop pulling the rug out by talking about “their” answers in class, then testing them on “my” answers on tests. So test questions changed from “What causes X?” to “According to our model, what is a possible cause of X? Explain using a clear, gapless chain of cause and effect.” The question was judged correct or incorrect based on whether it was clear and internally consistent, as well as actually providing a cause (rather than a definition or description).

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