Deepening Our Understanding of Student Learning: Triads

January 12, 2009

At first, I felt like the process of preparing for the conversation and the discussion itself helped me do two useful things:

  • Pinpoint my current issue: how to balance clarity and complexity, scaffolding and open-endedness
  • Consider alternative ways of approaching assignments that might help address that issue

Let me offer a very concrete example. I had posted excerpts from both progress reports on students’ research and their final papers, and my comments on them highlighted my sense that students were struggling to move beyond their existing models of how to write a research paper and to move beyond my own insufficiently complex module about research.

In the course, I [developed] a module outlining the interdisciplinary research process, and then asked students to come to class with questions about the process. I was distressed to discover that their questions did not in any way reflect the complexity of what I thought I’d shown them [in the module]. Quite the opposite. [In their progress reports] they asked about how much research was enough. They wanted to know how to find materials that would prove what they believed. They wanted to know how they would know that their interpretations were correct. How many sources of what kind did they need to find? What if they couldn’t find an article that said what they needed it to say? Their questions suggested that they saw research as a process of finding proof of something they had already decided, and that pursuing a research project was primarily a matter of finding enough materials to satisfy the instructor.

Rina noticed a similar tension, though in a different way:

  • “I noticed in both the progress reports that their voices were much more–well, in the first place, they wrote in the first person which I think in some ways opens up. It is kind of an opening space where your traditional analytical scholarly discourse removes that first person and makes it seem like you have to make assertions and you have to be convincing.
  • “Whereas, in the project report, there is more freedom to actually explore and make visible the process of thinking, what each student is thinking as they are constructing it.”

As the discussion progressed and we began to explore the issue of structure vs. open-endedness [in outlining the research process], they helped me see that there might be a different way to approach the task of doing research:

  • “On the one hand, it looks like it is much more mechanical, and then how do you synthesize all that, but, on the other hand, maybe asking the synthesis question isn’t the right question. Maybe by chunking it up, you are actually allowing them to be more self-reflexive, a little more inquisitive, a little more precise about where the complexity came up for them.
  • “It just seems to me if that is the one course they get in their undergraduate experience where they don’t have to write the typical paper, that that might actually serve a purpose.”

It may be difficult to see in this small example, and as with any discussion, a good part of what happened occurred between the lines and in my thoughts afterwards. Our conversation occurred while I was designing a new course on immigrant novels. Originally, I had developed a collaborative assignment in which groups of students would work together to create a sort of teachers’ guide about immigrant novels. It was a highly structured assignment that would have led students to think about the genre of immigrant novels but kept them on a very clear track, with a purpose and focus imposed by me and relatively little room for exploring their own interests or living with uncertainty and complexity.

But a month later, I reheard this conversation in my mind, and completely redesigned that project, building on the comments that Rina and Teresa offered. I was especially taken with Rina’s comment about how important it might be for students to have “freedom to actually explore and make visible the process of thinking.” I’d been focusing so much attention on how I could make my thinking process visible to my students, but this comment emphasizes the importance of giving students opportunities both to watch themselves think and to show me their process.

The result is a series of small tasks that eventually will be gathered together into a final portfolio. Students’ research will not yield a final paper, only a collection of materials that documents their exploration of a novel they choose from a list of immigrant narratives. Each of the small tasks is modeled in class before students complete it individually, and this provides some of the scaffolding and structure that I felt students needed. I don’t know yet how well this will work, but it’s clear that the idea is rooted in the conversation I had with Rina and Teresa, and that the discussion was, in turn, rooted in looking at just a couple of short excerpts from student work.

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