Marilia Svinicki’s Learning and Motivation in the Classroom

I haven’t done a teaching post in a while, so I decided to highlight Michael Cholbi’s excellent twopart series at In Socrates’ Wake, which discusses how to motivate post-secondary students first of all to abandon their existing understandings of a subject, and second, to develop the skills and self-confidence necessary to enter into what I’d call the disciplinary understanding of that subject matter. 

Svinicki’s argument should remind us that the learning process for our students often consists as much in abandoning earlier conceptions as it is acquiring new ones.  This kind of insight into our students’ tradeoffs should make their resistance to our teaching more explicable, and might also explain why students will cling to earlier, more rudimentary models of understanding (say, the 5 paragraph essay form) that may seem utterly unsuited to the tasks that we assign. 

Cholbi emphasizes the risky nature of this learning process for philosophy undergraduates, and picks up on Svinicki’s notion that the beginning student must learn how to model herself on others, while also being given the ability to “fall intellectually without being hurt.”  Yet as Svinicki also suggests, the student who attempts to model herself on the self-designated expert (i.e., you, the instructor) often finds that her half-articulate understanding of some exchange during classtime will instantly evaporate the moment she has reached the door.  Here’s Cholbi’s comment:

I find Svinicki’s student comment — “but I understood it when you did it in class!” — to be very familiar. For example, student papers can reproduce arguments discussed in class, but it is often apparent from students’ inability to analyze the argument, pose objections, etc., that their level of understanding is not as strong as they had anticipated.

This is a very familiar problem for me as well, especially when I am attempting to teach students some piece of counter-intuitive critical theory, and one of the main reasons why I assign students at this level group research projects and presentations, so that their modeling and feedback comes not just from me but from their peers, as well.  It’s also why these kinds of assignments work better incrementally than all at once.

But Cholbi raises an interesting question at the end of his piece: how should we reward risk-taking in our grading of student responses?  Should the safe and unambitious paper, neatly typed and with perfect MLA form, win out over the ramshackle and frequently out of control paper that might possibly have an interesting thought in there, somewhere, in its smeary pages?  How much of our grading involving student intellectual risk-taking is either a reward or a punishment for our own undergraduate behavior? 

[incidentally, don’t miss David Morrow’s response and bonus link to the Onion at the end of the piece]



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