Sunday, August 28, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: Readjusting Expectations

Programming Note: I'll be taking a break from writing weekly Bad Female Academic posts, mostly because I don't have anything left to add. That's probably because I'm teaching again and am trying something completely new, trying to create a course based on peer-driven learning. So instead of Monday posts on gender in academia, you'll be treated to posts on my ongoing adventure in allowing my students to decide for themselves what we're going to learn and produce in our class.

Week one is over, and I'm staring down the reality of week two. Last week was hit and miss. The students seemed to really respond to Paulo Freire and the idea that there is, in fact, a different way to learn (well, lots of different ways to learn, but you get my drift). When I told them to pull out their cell phones and start texting their answers to question and that those answers would appear (anonymously) on the overhead, it was like I had just cured cancer. A teacher who was encouraging them to text, to use the technology that was most available to them and with which they were most familiar with? I blew their minds. 

Their blog posts (sorry, not public) on their initial reactions to the class and the readings were positive. One of my favorite quotes from a student was that they'd been trained to sit and not talk in class the same way a dog is trained not to pee on the rug. Another student also astutely observed that learning technology is only useful if it allows us to learn in new and different ways, instead of recreating more efficient versions of the banking concept. There seemed to be a consensus that the class was different, exciting, terrifying, would be a lot of work, but it was work they were willing to undertake because they "knew" (or at least claimed to know) that it would mean that they would learn more. Students were emailing me to ask about contract grading or if we could use tumblr instead of blackboard. I was psyched. 

Then came Friday. This, I said, is where the hard work begins. Now we have to start making some decisions and actually designing our course. What, I asked, do we need to decide? In my first class, there was silence. Absolute silence. I am proud to say that I waited it out, but it was painful. I have a number of students in the class whom I had last year, students who I know have something to say from reading their blogs, and yet, there was nothing. We finally got through a list, and their job over the weekend (I didn't want to call it homework) was to participate in a discussion (online) about each of the elements we need to decide on, offering ideas, brainstorming, and, you know, discussing. Communication, I reminded them, is a key element in making this class work.

My other class was better; I barely had time to get the question out of my mouth when a hand shot up and said: "Grading! How will we be graded?" We all laughed. This class had already proposed to break off into smaller groups, and each group would/should have a technologically savvy person in it to guide communication and innovation. They also want me to agree to learn something; one student offered to teach me how to weld. Another student asked if we were limited to our physical classroom in which to hold our meetings. We got threw the list and they, too, had the responsibility of discussing their preferences online so that next week, we can start narrowing our options and making choices. 

The discussion, thus far, at 9:30 PM on Sunday night, has been a relative failure. Very few students have even post or participated. I created an internal wiki to share other innovative class and project ideas, so they could be inspired (I know, make it all public! I'm working on it; most of this is really, really new to me, too). I'm not even sure anyone has looked at it. Most of the suggestions that were made were vague and not well articulated (We should read about Class, Poverty, and Wealth because it looks interesting). I was ready to throw in the towel, declare this whole experiment a failure when I took a step back and remembered that this is really, really new for them, too. No one has ever asked them their opinion on what they should learn or why they should be learning it. While I might have been completely exhilarated by the opportunity as an undergrad, I was a massive dork (still am, obviously). My students will need a little more patience and guidance before they believe that this is for real and that this can and will work. 

I also have to remember that I no longer run on a student's clock. Did I honestly expect an excited and intelligent exchange of ideas by 2 PM on Saturday afternoon, the first weekend of the school year? I did, and there is my problem. As the weekend has drawn on, the discussion has gotten more interesting, and more people have posted. I half-expect to wake up tomorrow morning and find that the whole class has been decided while I slept (not likely, but you get the idea). The whole idea of this class is to let the students run the show. Of course the students aren't going to work at the same times I would do my own work and preparation for the course. I need to readjust my expectations to meet their reality. My only fear is that they won't give themselves enough time to actually discuss; they will just post something and forget about it. 

Communication, true honest communication that represents an exchange of ideas, is something that is completely foreign to these students, both outside, but especially inside, the classroom. When I told them that I had commented on each of their blog posts, they stared at me in disbelief. It never occurred to them that one of the great strengths of social media and other technologies is to truly level the playing field between professor and student. I am just one voice in a sea of voices all sounding off on the issues in this course. The work that they produce isn't simply to earn a check mark or credit towards a letter grade at the end of the semester. We're all readjusting our expectations, and these things take time. 

Time, and patience. And, the strength not to lose faith at the first sign of trouble. 


  1. I think that maybe you can look at the vague answers and ideas as new moments of empowerment. If they know they want to read about class, poverty, and wealth, then maybe each of them could conduct some research to find articles/books on those topics to field to the class. And if they do things at the last minute and it bogs the process down, then have them think, write about, discuss this issue: how does a group function if time limits aren't met? what should the deadline be in order to create effective debate/collaboration? what should happen if someone doesn't meet the deadline? Make the decision-making part of the learning process.

    And let them know they're going to experience some growing pains and maybe even some failure, but failure is okay!

  2. I've tried this sort of thing, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it hasn't, and it is scary but if you can stick it out it is worth it; I want you to "win" because this is what college is supposed to be - challenging and empowering.

    I think tsasser it right - work with the thin bits of this class, poverty and wealth; there are several pathways on from that headline (let's see, its 14;10 here in Ireland so your class won't see this before they go in, so these shouldn't be spoilers..) I hope they would ask "what do we read about this Class etc..?" "How do we find stuff to read..?" How do we evaluate he worth of what we find..? There are also the questions about "How do we schedule this reading so we get it done.."

    Right now, I have a 4 week, intensive, Early Start class in Irish history for visiting US students. I have a ball of readings in Blackboard, and this week each reading is being taken by three students who will post on BB a summary/mindmap of the reading. I have, 11 articles, and by Weds afternoon, we'll have three summaries of each on BB so even though every student only has to read 1, every student can benefit from seeing the main points of all the material. I told them we're doing it, and we're doing it this way so that the class can cover a lot of reading quickly.

    I'm not giving my crowd a lot of freedom to design their own course, because it is only a 4 week course, but in full semester courses, I'm more and more confident that crowdsourcing or peer enabled learning can work.


  3. I was wondering if you have a list of general standards that you need to assess at the end, and that they need to demonstrate. This is a writing course, right? So the content is mainly a vehicle for learning and demonstrating research and writing skills. Can those standards be made explicit and then students can use them to check their own process, decisions, etc. against? Or am I way off track here.

    Do you read/follow @thinkthankthunk? He is big on standards, feedback only grading, etc. He teaches high school math and science but has some ideas that might help you with your process (or just your confidence)

  4. "I need to readjust my expectations to meet their reality."

    The fact that you are giving the students the freedom to design the course is one thing. But can't your expectations and their reality be mediated? How about including them in a real-world discussion about expectations? What would the students be willing to adjust in order to meet some of the demands of your reality?

    That's a learning experience, too.


  5. Thank you everyone for your support and suggestions. This has been an adjustment, and today, like I think every day I teach this class, is going to be an adjustment.

    The online discussion did not get better. There were a few more posts, but not many. All I could say was, you don't voice your wants/desires in some form (in class, out of class), then it won't be taken into consideration. This may seem harsh, but I can't make them talk/write/participate, not if I want it to be truly student-driven. Their peers are just as ruthless as I am; they all agreed.

    So, we continue on. Both classes are heading in completely different directions, so we'll see how it does. One class is needing more direction while the other has been sent off on their "own" already. I'll be writing a more complete update at the end of this week or beginning of next.


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