Friday, October 21, 2011

Peer-Driven Learning: I'll Need to Drive a Little More

We're at the half-way point of the semester. Mid-term grades are in. One of my classes handed in their "required" paper, while the other class has begun their presentations. I have some thoughts about how each class is going and how I will be doing this class next semester.

In my "stronger" class, the presentations have been excellent. The discussions have been interesting and the the students are clearly interacting with the material in ways I could never have hoped they would had I assigned them the same thing. Class participating seems a little better, though dominated by a handful of students. I'll have to "encourage" the students to find a way to include more of their peers in the discussions. No one has dropped the class. There have been no complaints about attendance or students not doing their "fair share." It's amazing.

My other class, we started with the required essay. This was a MISTAKE. Yes, it was a mistake that the students directed, but it's a mistake that I won't allow happen in the future. Here's why it was a mistake. Students wanted to get the required paper out of the way first, and as a result, the class turned into a traditional course, mostly directed by me. The students weren't engaging with the subject. Students stopped coming. Some students didn't even hand in an essay. The course became too much like a normal class, so they treated it as such. 

Now, we're on to projects of their choosing. The difference is incredible. Students who never said a word are engaged and excited. Attendance isn't a problem anymore (except for a few who I think are going to withdraw). The lesson is, do the unconventional first, because then they'll be hooked and more likely to produce good work, even on their "traditional assignment." I will still given students the choice of what they work on, how the project is formatted, how they are ultimately graded/evaluated, but I think I will set the schedule for them from now on.

I'm fascinated by this video on motivation. What worked with my students was to let the students do exactly what Dan Pink recommends (Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose), the results were impressive. In my "stronger" class, we never talked about grades. Not once. In my other class, grades became their incentive/reward/profit. And it didn't work. There was little autonomy (at least, they didn't perceive that there was; they saw that they were required to write a traditional essay and thus lost their autonomy), little desire for mastery (meh, writing, rather than mastery or attempting mastery of a topic that they are interested in), and their purpose was simply to get a paper out of the way and get the grades. 

Now, I'm trying to figure out how to provide this same kind of environment in my other classes. 


  1. I have been thinking about and planning my learning-centered, largely student-autonomy hybrid Spring FYC class. I was thinking that I would begin the course with the required book (Stephen King's On Writing) and the writing assignments that I had created around it; then, at midterm, I would hand the class blog over to them and let them go. My thinking was that the required reading and writing would give them a foundation upon which to build their part of the class. But you may be right that we need to hook them with the autonomy and choice that they have been denied for so long in order for them to accept and value and maybe be more confident in their ability to do the work that we want them to do. Wow, I have a lot more thinking to do before I commit this class to paper--and just when I thought I had it figured out ;)

  2. I am really interested in your method. I teach writing at a community college to ESL students. I model how to write a well written piece and use an anchor passage, too. Then I tell them to practice using the skills on their own by writing an essay. Would you say that is what Dan Pink recommends (Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose)?
    I think for this semester, I am going to give them a schedule of essays due. Every week they must write one and hand it to me to see if they are improving. I also need to see where the need is. I don't always get it. What do you think?


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