On Student Learning: Two Weeks In

New semesters are always kind of a mixed bag. As someone charged with leading the class (i.e. the professor) you find yourself acclimating to different in-classroom dynamics as new students and old students, majors and non-majors, come together and intersect in interesting ways. Things that previously worked and worked well don’t as students bring new perspectives and challenges to the classroom. On the flip side, activities that were previously only OK go so well you wonder how on earth they were just “meh” in their previous iterations. As we all know, the stakes get considerably higher when trying out new texts, approaches, and activities.

One of the interesting tensions here is balancing student learning with desired student outcomes. I’m defining the former as stated course learning goals or “what we at the U would like them to learn in general” and the latter as outcomes desired by individual students insofar as these may/may not be aligned with how the U defines student learning. For me this has interesting implications with regard to this essay by Salman Kahn that a friend recently shared online. In the abstract I completely agree with the spirit of the article, but I also fear that its lack of material grounding enables Kahn’s arriving at conclusions that, while valid in a sense, give short shrift to the concrete environments where learning takes place and the degree to which these environments privilege a specific set of outcomes.

OK—what in the world am I referring to? Kahn’s article is based on research that claims most folks have either a growth or a fixed mindset regarding intelligence. That is, most people are either learners that see intelligence as a continual process or as a natural, fixed entity. The former accept struggle and failure as instances for the cultivation of one’s abilities while the latter are much more likely to stick to tasks that reaffirm their native intelligence, i.e. what they are already good at. Binary thinking aside, this sounds appealing in the abstract.

I’d proffer, however, that reality is far muddier. For example, I’d imagine that most every university in the country describes its learning goals in ways that are growth oriented insofar as if one assumes the position that intelligence does NOT grow over time there’d be little to gain in educating most of the world’s population. Put another way, cultivating the mind and the person has always been at the core of education from pre-K on up.

Contrast this, however, with university assessment regimes and the particular outcomes desired by individual students. On the official side, assessment regimes are supposed to measure the effectiveness of classes and instructors in the education of students by meeting set goals. The problem, of course, is that these occur “in real time” towards the end of or right at the end of a given semester. I’ve no doubt that some growth happens within the convenient confines of 16 weeks, but truth be told my own experience has taught me that the most profound, long term gains happen months or even years after a course. To give one example among many, when I was an undergrad I took an absolutely mind-blowing class on African Art with Michael Harris.  In the moment I may have said the class was challenging or worthwhile, but I could hardly conceive of how that course would inspire the intellectual cant of my own work almost 20 years later. Assessment simply isn’t set up to capture true growth outcomes as those who hold the purse strings want to see results now. This, I’d argue, may in fact be antithetical to the idea of the university itself as it’s not a leap to imagine how a system that seeks rapidly developed, short term assessable outcomes most likely does so at the expense of cultivating life-long learning and lifelong learners. It’s simple  logic: if professors are being assessed at the end of semesters and it’s clear that certain outcomes are desired by their institutions, producing those outcomes is essentially part of the job description.

Of course, this says nothing about the goals of students themselves. Students, as the saying goes, are notoriously efficient and most of them, at least anecdotally, fully understand the system in which they operate. To give a hypothetical example, we all know that grad schools do indeed take a long, hard look at grades insofar as theoretically grades reflect students’ learning (they don’t but that’s another story). Students looking towards MA and PhD programs know this and plan accordingly within that framework. A gen-ed course in the History of British Hamster Fur Weaving is appealing precisely because students are exposed to the topic in high school and therefore, by needing to devote less time to achieving an “A” in that course, they free up the extra hours necessary to their getting an “A” in Molecular Biology (admittedly, they may  also have less-academic reasons in mind). In such a scenario their GPAs are preserved and students achieve popularly recognized levels of excellence that set the stage for success in their careers after graduation.

This isn’t to say that courses on the History of British Hamster Fur Weaving aren’t worthwhile: they are. But grades as a measure of achievement emphasize a rather vapid form of student success as, in effect, they incentivize students’ NOT being challenged, NOT struggling, and certainly, at all costs, NOT FAILING. Within this structure “grade inflation” may in part be seen as a chimera much more a product of the system itself than grade-grubbing, undeserving students as students turn towards courses and courses of study where they feel their chances of success are most likely. In turn this has had devastating effects on disciplines and fields of study traditionally seen as “challenging” as these struggle to cultivate student enrollment at the undergraduate level. Byzantine History? Nope. Poets of the French Renaissance taught in Frech? Hardly. African Art? Probably not happening. Again, this really has nothing to do with actual student intelligence or even raw interest. Students are in fact quite intelligent and, like the rest of us, usually pursue a path that best reflects their perceived self-interest. In this case, the carrot of grades and the fixed model of learning they indirectly buttress frequently override long term growth and learning. 

At any rate I’m skeptical of Kahn’s piece and his work in general. I’m much less optimistic about “the Internet being a dream for a growth mindset” as opposed to being a vast repository where even the most misguided thoughts and opinions can be reinforced as many folks seek information that affirms rather than challenges deeply held, fixed world views. I respect his idealism but firmly believe we need a far more radical, material approach to learning and the systems where it takes place.

In the interests of full disclosure, I failed my first test in Professor Harris’s class almost 20 years ago. I met with the professor and he helped me get a clearer grasp of the course and his expectations. Among other things, I actually had to do the reading, spend time memorizing artwork from lecture he shared in the hall, not submit papers printed on my old printer that smudged them, and actively participate in class. Believe it or not,  after I miserably failed the first test I finished the semester with an “A.” Having finished this post, I guess I’d say I’m still be challenged by that class.

One comment to “On Student Learning: Two Weeks In”
  1. This is something I wondered about after my first semester teaching, when a student I worked with repeatedly outside of class became defensive when the prospect of getting a B came up. During all of our conversations I tried to stress the importance of questioning the work throughout the drafting process and allowing the struggle to shape the writing, but we always got hung up on the grade aspect. In that situation, I hoped to break that student out of a fixed mindset, and was disappointed when it didn’t happen. Still, I think progress and learning itself (measurable, quantifiable, or assessable as it may or may not be) suggests a growth mindset is inherent, even when a student displays a fixed one. Unfortunately it seems inevitable that the most valuable lessons come to fruition after our students leave, and that those lessons have little bearing on our jobs.

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