Wednesday, 27 April 2016

transitioning students to independent learners at ACURIT

So, I have spent the last couple of days immersed in Augustana's Conference on Undergraduate Research and Innovative Teaching hosted at the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta. It is an interesting conference for a number of reasons but above all, it gathers both students and faculty to discuss teaching practices and the place and impact of undergraduate research. A couple of themes arose for me for during the conference. One was the desire to move students from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset: Students often come to university thinking that they are gifted in a few disciplines and topics and that it is impossible to develop other areas of their intellect. Students with a fixed mindset are typically those that have a performance orientation whereas those with a growth mindset have a mastery orientation. Students who have a mastery orientation tend to have better academic success. I have heard so many students complain or think that they cannot do math. Or other students indicate that they cannot write. And the students think that is a fixed property of themselves. It is so odd because if you are coming to university, you are coming to learn how to do something you cannot yet do. So, it implies that you should have a growth mindset - that you can grow abilities that you do not yet have or that are under-developed. It reminds me somewhat of the Perry Scheme of Intellectual Development in which students come to university with a dualistic understanding of the world in which they are fairly certain of their knowledge but then transition over their four years through stages of multiplism (everyone is entitled to their own opinion and  grades simply reflects the opinion of professors) through to relativism and  commitment in relativism in which students understand that some opinions are better informed than others and that context matters when it comes to matters of judgment.  The Perry Scheme is interesting in that students' certainty in knowledge first decreases markedly in the multiplism stage and then slowly increases as they move through relativism and commitment.

Our primary role as undergraduate researchers is to develop students into independent learners over the course of their four years of an undergraduate degree. I often tell students that, really, their professors are simply professional independent learners. This is what a researcher is - someone who understands how to go about generating the knowledge required to answer their own questions - the ultimate independent learner.

A couple of students presented their independent research experience doing field research in the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica at the Piro Research Station this past term. Two of my colleagues take a class of 12 students every other year down to the station to conduct research on the flora and fauna there after the students spend weeks preparing their research question and the methods they need to gather the required data to answer their question. It was interesting to hear the students at the conference describe their transition from expecting their instructors to tell them what to do, to give them their question and methods to independent learners who knew how to go about gathering what they needed for themselves. One student indicated the difficulty they had in transitioning to trying things out without knowing for sure that they had the correct approach or answer. The other surprised themselves at how she became comfortable doing the best she could with what they had prepared and adapting their question and methods as needed.

So, the question I came away with from their presentation was how do we support and nurture our students' transition to become independent learners as these two had done? When I attempt something similar, though at a lower level in my first and second-year biology courses using team-based learning, students are initially very disoriented at needing to use my reading guides (lists of learning objectives and keywords for the assigned reading). Many don't yet know how to read for learning nor how to actively engage with their reading. I have to teach them how to read and make notes for themselves and explain that it is not the notes themselves that are important but rather the process of constructing the notes that produces learning. Also, students are initially uncomfortable with being held accountable for their assigned reading with readiness assurance tests (RATs) that they write before I, as the instructor, do any teaching. Even though these RATs are worth a very small amount of their final grade (often a fraction of a percent) they stress out at not knowing for sure whether or not they know it completely. Students do not seem to have an understanding that learning something takes time and active effort. And those formative assessments are useful in informing them what they do and do not know. The team discussions of the freshly learned material are formative learning experiences which also informs them what they do and do not know and thus what they still need to work on in order to grow their skills and abilities in the subject matter.

I wish I knew how to alleviate the stress levels of my students when they are in that uncomfortable space where they are not yet sure of their knowledge because they are still learning it. Part of the problem, I think, is that so many of my students in biology are keen on getting into a professional programme (e.g. medicine or dentistry) and due to the competitive nature of those programmes, there is no forgiveness for not getting it immediately right and scoring a perfect grade. No matter what we do at Augustana with our liberal arts and sciences curriculum designed to give students the opportunity to explore and develop students'  knowledge and intellect, it seems that the expectation and requirements of professional programmes dampens students' curiousity and ability to explore their own interests and develop their own intellect. Which is odd, because I think professional programmes really do seek to admit those students that are intellectually flexible and have breadth and depth of knowledge.

I don't know what the answer is. All I know is that to continue teaching with integrity I need to continue encouraging students to adopt a growth mindset and give themselves the freedom to explore their heart's desire.


Coutinho, S. A. (2007). The relationship between goals, metacognition, and academic success. Educate~, 7(1), 39 – 47.
Kloss, R. J. (1994). A nudge is best: Helping students through the Perry Scheme of intellectual development. College Teaching, 42(4), 151–158.
Schraw, G. (1998). Promoting general metacognitive awareness. Instructional Science, 26(1-2), 113–125.
Weimer, M. (2009). Mastery and performance orientations. Faculty Focus (Oct 22).