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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Are We Afraid to Let Students Make Mistakes? | The Teaching Professor Blog

Photo: Maryellen Weimer
Maryellen Weimer, PhD reports, "We  know students are afraid of making mistakes, often dreadfully so. And so we talk a good line about the learning potential inherent in mistakes."

But are we afraid to let students make mistakes? Is it just a problem with students not wanting to be wrong, or does our need to control learning experiences keep students from making mistakes?

A study reporting on the challenges biology teaching assistants confronted when they started using inquiry-based approaches in labs uncovered this barrier (among others) that compromised their use of the approach. The TAs “felt responsible for protecting and controlling student learning experiences.” (p. 219) “TAs struggled to allow students to experience the failure inherent in doing science, providing information and directions rather than giving students ownership for seeking information and making experimental decisions.” (p. 219) Although these findings are in one science field, I don’t believe being afraid to let students make mistakes is unique to science education or to TAs.

The Teaching Professor Blog
Here are some reasons why I’m wondering if this might not be a more widespread faculty fear. First off, as noted in the article, in some ways the costs of failure in the classroom are higher than they are in the lab. If an experiment goes awry in the professional lab, the scientist starts over and does it again. It’s all part of the job. In the classroom lab, if an experiment goes belly up (or more generically, when learning goes awry in any classroom), there’s a summative consequence. The student gets a low grade, and that’s of concern to most of us.

Another reason that emerged from the study was time pressure. Said a bit more bluntly, with all that content to cover, we don’t have time for mistakes, especially “dumb” ones, the kind novices frequently make. So we “guide” the learning—rather than waiting around for students to seek out the information, we give it to them. Instead of giving students space to ask irrelevant questions and ponder various alternatives—we steer the learning with leading questions.

Source: Faculty Focus

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