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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Learning to trust students

I have many objections to super-large lecture sections (which, unfortunately, are my University’s response to higher student enrollments) but probably my biggest gripe is that they provide a huge disincentive to have students write. Even with masters-level teaching assistants, and even if papers are short, I don’t think any but the most masochistic professors would want to deal with grading for that many students. But one of the reasons that I have become so interested in Web 2.0 tools like blogs and wikis is that they have the potential to get students writing, but without the need for me to monitor every word. So for my 500-seat Principles of Micro class this fall, I plan to give students the option to write blogs or participate in discussion boards. Given the size of the class, my thought is that I will give students a choice of four semester projects: one option will be volunteering for Junior Achievement, one involves participating in a class blog about economics around the web/in the news, one will be a discussion board on economics in popular culture (music, movies, TV), and one will be more traditional problem set assignments (through Aplia). I am still trying to figure out how the blog and discussion board projects will work (like how often they will be asked to post, how I will grade their efforts, etc.), but I'm pretty excited and hopeful that this will be a great way to get students to start seeing economics all around them.

However, a few weeks ago, I was telling a friend about my plan. She asked how in the world I was going to keep up with all my students' posts, pointing out that even if the majority of students choose the JA or problem set option, I'm still likely to have well over a hundred students either posting to the group blog or participating in the discussion board. My response was that I have no intention of reading every single post and comment; the whole point is to have students read what their classmates write and build the discussion on their own.

My friend was extremely skeptical - I think she believes that students won't take it seriously, or will write stuff that is "wrong", and it will therefore be a waste of time. I have to admit that I worry she is right. But I have also thought carefully about these assignments and I believe that the interactive nature of a blog or discussion board is a good fit for what I'm trying to do. The point is for students to see how economics is a part of their lives, how the economic way of thinking can be applied in a multitude of ways and to a variety of circumstances. Each blog or discussion board entry will be one student giving an example (with some explanation of how it ties into the class); if the example is not a good one, I have no doubt that other students will let the author know, so there should be no need for me to weigh in as 'the expert'.

Still, I am definitely anxious. This is going to give students a more open forum than I have ever done before and I'm trying to trust that they will not abuse it. I'd certainly love to hear from anyone who can ease my mind about this!


  1. I say go for it!

    I've been thinking a lot about developing a stronger bond of trust with students and the challenge of doing this in the course of a semester. My inclination has always been to devise "fool-proof" assignments rather than activities that promote learning first.

    I'm very persuaded by Ken Bain's observations in his chapter on how the best professors treat their students, but letting go of control mechanisms and trusting students is hard - especially when we know that some will betray that trust.

    Allow me to quote from Bain: "Trust also produced little if any worry on the part of teachers that students might try to trick them. While some professors seemed limited in their choice of pedagogical tools by some worry that a student might be able to cheat the system, the highly effective threw caution to the wind and did what they thought would benefit learning" (140-141).

    I don't know about throwing caution to the wind, but I want to use learning as the primary criteria for how I select and program assignments.

  2. It's definitely a struggle but I think that using learning as the primary criteria is the right path. I do find it sort of interesting that it IS such a struggle - I'm not sure why we professors are so cynical of our students! My reading of Bain is that students often perform up (or down) to the expectations we have for them so that begs the question of why we don't expect more...


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