By mid-term you as an instructor often have several sources of information about your students’ experiences in your course. You have their homework, exam, and paper grades, and you may have their input on a mid-semester feedback form. These sources may show you what research bears out: novice learners often have a different idea of what doing the work in the course entails than you do. So how can you use that knowledge to help move your students forward productively?
In some cases you may want to refer your students to the Learning Resources Center for special help. But you may also want to consider some class activities that demonstrate and provide practice in the various learning processes and skills needed to succeed in your discipline. To experts like professors these processes and skills are invisible—a concept known as expert blind spot. And we as experts can often presume that what is familiar to us is obvious to our students. Below are some ways to help students develop the skills needed to do meaningful work in our disciplines:
Help students think about their own thinking. The practice of thinking about one’s thinking (metacognition) is a powerful aid to learning, and making students do this work explicitly can help them develop this habit. In quantitative work, occasionally ask students to explain their reasoning in words for each step in solving a problem, either in writing on homework or orally to a fellow student during class. When students are preparing to write essays, have them analyze writing samples for thesis, claims, and evidence. Consider having students read each other’s work with guidance on critique, or have students evaluate some samples of their own work using a rubric. In class discussions, ask students to explain the reasoning behind their comments.
Model the thinking processes and specific skills needed for your course. Show students how you work in your discipline. Demonstrate a close reading of a piece of fiction or model how you read a journal article. Show them how you interpret a data set. Solve a sample problem in class, showing students how you ask yourself questions and try alternate paths. Bring to class a stack of drafts of a manuscript you’re working on, illustrating your own revision process. Students often assume that learning should be easy—we need to show them the kinds and amount of effort required for learning, even for us.
Allocate some points on assignments based on the processes of learning rather than the products. Assign some points on problem sets or in-class exercises to students’ explanations of steps of a problem, thus forcing them away from “plus and chug.” Give students credit for identifying and/or generating thesis statements and evidence in portions of written work. Include drafts of papers as part of the grade (think about peer review, another powerful tool, as a way to lessen your grading burden). When students are doing design or engineering projects or major term papers, have them keep a journal or portfolio of their ideas and drafts and include it as part of the grade. Students know what you value by what you grade, so if you want your students to develop the thinking habits and practices for your discipline, help them focus their attention on the process, not just the product, through your assignments.