Submitted by Anonymous on September 18, 2012 - 3:00am
Improving college and career readiness among our high school students is one of the great imperatives facing our nation. To meet this challenge, educators, policymakers and business leaders are working to increase students’ academic skills through a host of national and state initiatives, including the Common Core State Standards.
While it goes without question that students need strong academic skills to succeed in postsecondary education, our research indicates that “college readiness” must be more broadly conceived. In a recent study, we interviewed almost 200 community college faculty, staff and students. These interviews made abundantly clear that certain non-academic skills, behaviors and attitudes are equally germane to college success.
Non-academic college readiness is only peripherally discussed by practitioners and policymakers. It remains poorly articulated, leaving new college students unclear about the expectations they will face, and high school and college practitioners unable to help them truly prepare. As educators aim to make the academic skills needed for college readiness clear and measurable, they must do the same for non-academic skills.
In our recent research, we identified four specific areas -- academic habits, cultural know-how, the ability to balance school and other demands and engaging in help-seeking -- in which college faculty had clear expectations of their students. These expectations differed substantively from those in high school, and while meeting them was critical to college success, they remained largely unspoken.
Many college instructors think they already clearly articulate their expectations to students, but our research indicates that behavioral expectations must be made far more explicit and precise. As one student we spoke to -- who dropped out after her second semester -- told us: “they didn’t tell me what to expect, so I didn’t know what to do!” Overall, the evidence points to the need for active, scaffolded guidance so that students can develop the behaviors and strategies exhibited by effective college students.
Take “studying,” for example. College instructors often tell students they must “study hard” for their class. But in high school, studying usually entails completing nightly homework, taking biweekly tests, and completing short-term assignments. College “studying,” in contrast, means completing work independently -- even if the teacher doesn’t collect or grade it. It means reviewing a syllabus at the beginning of a course, developing a plan to complete long-term projects and studying large amounts of material for infrequent exams.
Students who meet the college expectation of studying hard use strategies such as breaking their syllabus into small chunks of material to learn at regularly scheduled intervals, and taking notes in the margins of their textbooks while reading. Instructors should explain these successful behaviors to students on the first day of class, and regularly remind them of these and other important skills, such as recognizing when they need help, and asking for assistance rather than waiting for it to be offered.
To make their expectations sufficiently explicit and actionable, instructors will have to first spend time reflecting upon the non-academic behaviors and skills they expect of their students. Once they have identified their own expectations, instructors can make these clear to students and develop assignments that will help students learn to employ the necessary behaviors. For example, when an instructor asks students to “come to class prepared,” what does she mean? If she means coming to class having completed a reading and being prepared to participate in discussions about it, she can include this expectation in the syllabus, explain it to students from the first day of class, and assign students to write out three questions or observations about the reading to discuss each week.
Institutions can formalize this process by asking entire departments or disciplines to similarly identify and explicate the unspoken expectations to which students are held. Conversations about behavioral expectations could be conducted as part of program review, professional development or the creation of learning outcomes. Importantly, institutions must then make these newly identified non-academic expectations clear to current and future students -- by embedding them into course syllabi and structuring orientation, outreach activities and success courses around them.
Colleges should also work with high schools and state education policymakers to ensure that these non-academic readiness standards are incorporated into ongoing local and state college readiness initiatives. Senior-year transition courses, college-high school partnership programs and Common Core implementation are all avenues through which non-academic collegiate expectations can be clearly communicated to students, and successful skills and behaviors can be taught.
The bottom line is that educators must stop blaming students for breaking rules that they do not know exist. Until students are told the concrete ways college and high school are different, and provided strategies for how they might meet new expectations, there is a danger that all the focus on academic readiness will not lead to real change in students’ postsecondary achievement.
Melinda Mechur Karp and Rachel Hare Bork
Melinda Mechur Karp is senior research associate and Rachel Hare Bork is a research associate at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.
Given the work before us, I will go into my first class today and try to meet my students as simply and directly as possible. Some of this work comes from the past, some from the state, and some from what we in my department have agreed to do. Some of this work will come from what we carry with us, some from what we find blocking the way between us, and some from what we see up ahead. We variously work ourselves into the work of the other.
Education is labor-intensive and expensive because it falls upon the tangled mess of human relationships struggling to find the work that works best. We just can’t know the work before we work it. We hate the work we can’t make work, and we love the work we can. It takes time, and it takes money. And for some, more than others. Work, like love, is what we find when we find ourselves in what others have done.
The best teacher I ever had loved me for my work and I loved her for hers. With a blue pen, I put words on college-ruled pages in a three-ringed notebook. Those words helped me find what I loved about the world. About books. About school. About small towns. About rivers. About music. About words on pages. She met me simply in the classroom and surprised me by what she loved. I knew I could talk to her and she would help me find myself in what others had done.
I know you had a different teacher, but it’s still true.
Let me put it another way. We are always reaching back into what has already been made. We do this with all of our body. It is very hard and very easy. We do it when we want to. And we do it when we aren’t aware we’re doing it. We are always standing together splashing each other in joy and sorrow with what we have made.
But there are also some of us who are pressing our noses against the window of what’s to come. I’d like to see more of us breathing into that glass. I’d like college to be more like that kind of pressing and breathing and working. Let us make work at college a place where we are both in and at and outside that window. What’s out there? Who?
I know money is power and circulates in ways most of us don’t see. You probably have more than I do. Or I have more than you. We certainly have more than they do way over there. Still, we don’t have more than those who have decided what gets taught. Soon they tell us – as they always tell us — that we’ll need to do more with less because they’ll be putting more of their money elsewhere while putting more of their power upon us. After all, it’s their money. And it’s their power. How do they do this? I try not to cry about it.
And by not crying about it, I mean, I try not to cry about the tangled mess of education and power and money and work and how each of us finds our way in the world. It may be that we need better direction or better technology or better learning outcomes or better threats. It’s hard to know really.
But each day, we still show up at the knowledge factory. We know what our work is.
Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of the department of English and modern languages at Angelo State University, in Texas, where he teaches courses in composition, literature, creative writing, and English education.
What can we conclude when undergraduates bemoan, "How did anyone ever come up with this stuff?" Although the students might feel confused or bedazzled, there’s one thing for certain: the instructor jumped over the requisite missteps that originally led to the discovery at hand. This type of intellectual revisionism often depicts weighty concepts and conclusions as slick and sanitized, and, as a result, foreign and intangible.
In reality, every idea from every discipline is a human idea that comes from a natural, thoughtful, and (ideally) unending journey in which thinkers deeply understand the current state of knowledge, take a tiny step in a new direction, almost immediately hit a dead end, learn from that misstep, and, through iteration, inevitably move forward. That recipe for success is not just the secret formula for original scholarly discovery, but also for wise, everyday thinking for the entire population. Hence, it is important to explicitly highlight how essential those dead ends and mistakes are — that is, to teach students the power of failure and how to fail effectively.
Individuals need to embrace the realization that taking risks and failing are often the essential moves necessary to bring clarity, understanding, and innovation. By making a mistake, we are led to the pivotal question: "Why was that wrong?" By answering this question, we are intentionally placing ourselves in a position to develop a new insight and to eventually succeed. But how do we foster such a critical habit of mind in our students — students who are hardwired to avoid failure at all costs? Answer: Just assess it.
For the last decade or so, I’ve put my students’ grades where my mouth is. Instead of just touting the importance of failing, I now tell students that if they want to earn an A, they must fail regularly throughout the course of the semester — because 5 percent of their final grade is based on their "quality of failure." Would such a scheme provoke a change in attitude? Absolutely — with this grading practice in place, students gleefully take more risks and energetically engage in discussions.
And when a student (say, Aaron) makes a mistake in class, he exclaims, "Oh well, my quality of failure grade today is really high." The class laughs and then quickly moves to the serious next step — answering: Why was that wrong? It’s not enough to console an incorrect response with a nurturing, "Oh, Aaron, that’s not quite right, but we still think you’re the best! Now, does anyone else have another guess?" Instead, a mistake solicits either the enthusiastic yet honest response, "Congratulations, Aaron — that’s wrong! Now what lesson or insight is Aaron offering us?" or the class question, "What do you think? Is Aaron correct?" Either way, the students have to actively listen and then react, while Aaron sees his comment as an important element that allows the discussion to move forward.
I often refer back again and again to someone’s previous mistake to celebrate just how significant it was. If we foster an environment in our classrooms in which failing is a natural and necessary component in making progress, then we allow our students to release their own genius and share their authentic ideas — even if (or especially when) those ideas aren’t quite polished or perfectly formed.
After returning a graded assignment and reviewing the more challenging questions, I ask students to share their errors — and the class immediately comes to life: everyone wants to show off their mistakes as they now know they are offering valuable learning moments. What’s more, in this receptive atmosphere, it’s actually fun to reveal those promising gems of an idea that turned out to be counterfeit.
More recently, I’ve asked my students to intentionally fail — in the spirit of an industrial stress test. I now require my students to write a first draft of an essay very quickly and poorly — long before its due date — and then have the students use that lousy draft as a starting point for the (hopefully lengthy) iterative process of revising and editing. When the work is due, they must submit not only their final version, but also append their penultimate draft all marked up with their own red ink. This strategy assures that they will produce at least one intermediate draft before the final version. Not surprisingly, the quality of their work improved dramatically.
When I consult with or lead workshops for faculty and administrators, they are drawn to this principle of intentionally promoting failure, which inevitably leads to the question: How do you assess it? The first time I tried my 5 percent "quality of failure," I had no idea how to grade it. But I practiced what I preached — taking a risk and being willing to fail in the noble cause of teaching students to think more effectively. I passionately believe that assessment concerns should never squelch any creative pedagogical experiment. Try it today, and figure out how to measure it tomorrow.
In the case of assessing "quality of failure," at the end of the semester I ask my students to write a one-page reflective essay describing their productive failure in the course and how they have grown from those episodes (which might have occurred outside of class — including false starts and fruitful iterations). They conclude their essay by providing their own grade on how they have evolved through failure and mistakes (from 0 – meaning "I never failed" or "I learned nothing from failing" to 10 – meaning "I created and understood in profound, new ways from my failed attempts"). I read their narratives, reflect on their class participation and willingness to take risks, and then usually award them the surprisingly honest and restrained grades they gave themselves. To date, I’ve never had a student complain about their "quality of failure" grade.
To my skeptical colleagues who wonder if this grading scheme can be exploited as a loophole to reward unprepared students, I remind them that we should not create policies in the academy that police students, instead we should create policies that add pedagogical value and create educational opportunity. And with respect to my grading failure practice, I found no such abuse at the three institutions in which I have employed it (Williams College, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Baylor University). On the contrary, if implemented correctly, you will see your students more engaged, more prepared, and more thoughtful in class discussions and in life.
Beyond the subject matter contained in the 32 to 48 courses that typical undergraduates fleetingly encounter, our students’ education centers about the most important creative feat of their lives — the creation of themselves: Creating a mind enlivened by curiosity and the intellectual audacity to take risks and create new ideas, a mind that sees a world of unlimited possibilities. So we as educators and scholars should constantly be asking ourselves: Have I taught my students how to successfully fail? And if not, then: What am I waiting for?
Edward Burger is the Francis Christopher Oakley Third Century Professor of Mathematics at Williams College, and is an educational and business consultant. Other practical ways to fail and inspire students to make productive mistakes can be found in his latest book (co-authored with Michael Starbird), The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking(Princeton University Press).