Back on Track

I’ve been frustrated lately by my lack of focus and difficulty getting things done.  After accidentally venting on my public blog (rather than the private one I intended to use … *sigh*) I realized there were a few factors at play that could shed some light on my students’ experiences.

1 — High stakes can reduce performance.

The beginning of the year feels high-stakes to me because it’s the time when students are forming their first impressions, the time when expectations get set and rapport gets built.   I’m not saying that those things can’t change over the course of the year.  But I think it’s a lot easier to set an initial expectation than to correct it later, especially about my wacky grading system, my insistence that students “not believe their teachers,” and so on.
There are a bunch of fixes for this.  One is to trust that my intro and orientation activities (videos, Marshmallow Challenge, name game, Teacher Skill Sheet, etc.) set good groundwork for productive classroom culture.  These activities are well-defined — I can print out last year’s agenda and have a decent first week, which should lower the stakes on my successive lesson plans.  Another is to document more carefully what I’ve done, so that next year, when I’m going batty with all the beginning of the year logistics, I don’t add lesson planning to the cognitive load.

How this applies to my students: There are lots of situations that they see as high-stakes and in which they underperform (or just procrastinate their way out of).  Tests, scholarship applications, job applications.  Tests are now pretty low-stakes, but it would be great to do the same for job applications, interviews, etc. — maybe by staging a series of “early drafts.”

2 — Success can cause fear of failure

I’m really proud of what my inquiry class accomplished last year.  The same ideas about evaluating claims and making well-supported inferences run through not just the content but the process.  The classroom culture was better than I could have expected.  I want to do the same thing this year.  The only problem is that it caught me so off guard last year that very little is documented (certainly no daily lesson plans or learning activities for the first couple of months — just jot notes of my impressions or student comments).  It’s immobilizing to imagine doing it again without instructions — what if they fail to buy in to the entire inquiry approach?

It feels like there’s a narrow range of introductions that make everything work out, and if I miss it, I’ll have to go back to lecturing.  Hey, stop that laughing!  I know, I rail against my students’ unwillingness to do things without instructions.  In my defense, there is a small difference: they can reassess their lab skill over and over within a few days.  Whatever I do with my class, it affects their trust in me in ways that cannot be fully undone, and I don’t get to reassess that particular moment until next year.

Fix: document my learning activities thoroughly this year.  Next year I might modify them or toss them out, but at least they’ll be there for those days when I just need to repeat something.

How this relates to my students: I’m not sure what to do here besides what I’m already doing: each assessment attempt is low-stakes, and there’s a wide range of possible good answers for almost everything.  The feeling of having fluked into something can really mess with your head (even if, in my case, I think luck was a small element, dwarfed by hard work and obsessive preparation).

3 — No net.

It feels like there’s no net because the peer-reviewed research community” setup I’m using depends heavily on the good-will of the students.  If any significant chunk decided to zone out, the system would not work.  If there aren’t a critical mass of students writing up papers and giving feedback, then there simply is no course.  If I had a group where absolutely no one was willing to make a good-faith effort, then I suppose I could lecture and assign problem sets (yes, I kept them from my first year).  The reality is that that’s unlikely to happen.  My students tend to be highly-motivated and with a wide age range (the oldest easily double the age of the youngest).  They appreciate being trusted to think.

Fix: no fix needed.  Especially in a group of 17 (as I have this year).

I wonder what kinds of things  in my students’ lives feel like there is no net?

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