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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Giving students the 'why'

Over on Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok has a post about the discomfort humans sometimes feel in following computer algorithms because they don't understand the underlying logic. He starts with the following anecdote:
Once the boss told me to deliver package A then C then B when A and B were closer together and delivering ACB would lengthen the trip. I delivered ABC and when the boss found out he wasn’t happy because C needed their package a lot sooner than B and distance wasn’t the only variable to be optimized... It isn’t easy suppressing my judgment in favor of someone else’s judgment even if the other person has better judgment (ask my wife) but once it was explained to me I at least understood why my boss’s judgment made sense.

My first thought upon reading that was that my husband would definitely say I am the same way - whenever he suggests doing something a certain way that is different from how I would have done it, he says I make my "87 percent face" - that is, he can tell I'm only 87 percent convinced that his way is possibly better (the 87 is just random). But when he takes the time to explain exactly why his way makes sense (usually because there is some information missing that I don't know about and he does), I'm almost always fine with it, which makes him frustrated that I can't just trust his judgment in the first place. And I don't know what to tell him - all I know is that if I can't make logical sense of it, I don't like it.

And then, as I was sharing Alex's post with my husband so he could laugh at me, I had an epiphany. My students are the same way! When I ask them to do something that is different than what they are used to (which I tend to do often), it can make them uncomfortable and frustrated. But when I explain why I am asking them to do it, what the purpose is and how it will benefit them, they still may not like it but they don't complain nearly as much. This is one reason I spend a lot of time explaining to students in my data analysis class why we are using the Team-Based Learning approach.

I think this may be part of why my current writing class seems to be going more poorly than in the past. I know I haven't taught in a while but I've been a little bewildered at how much more students in this class seem to be complaining than I remember past classes doing. For example, I'm currently in the middle of grading their second writing assignment and comments from several students indicate that they were very frustrated when working on it. It's a short data report in which the students discuss some aspect of the most recent BLS Employment Situation report (details here if anyone is curious). The prompt tells them that they are an analyst at a consulting firm, asked to write a short article for a monthly newsletter that goes out to clients, who are businesspeople.They have to get some data and make a graphic to give the recent employment numbers some historical context but other than that, I leave it up to them to decide what they specifically want to focus on. We do discuss the BLS report in class, and prior to that class meeting, I ask them to submit a one-sentence headline that identifies whatever they found most interesting or important in the report. The idea is that they should then use that as the starting point for their essay. Of course, many students don't take that assignment seriously so they still struggle to find an appropriate focus.

This is the first 'real' economic writing assignment for this class (since their first assignment is more of an open-ended / opinion essay about what they consider good writing). The students read a chapter from the Wyrick text (The Economist's Handbook) about writing a short descriptive report and we go over an example in class (albeit on a completely different topic). But there seem to be more students than usual who are frustrated that, as one student put it, "they are writing blind" because I haven't given them more guidance about what to write.

What's frustrating for me is that what these students consider lack of guidance, I consider a feature of the assignment, not an oversight - I want them to decide for themselves what is interesting or important about the data and think about what is or isn't appropriate for this audience and context. But now I think part of the problem may be that I wasn't clear enough that learning to make those kinds of decisions for themselves is one of the objectives.

One reason it didn't occur to me to talk about that much is that basically, I got spoiled. It dawned on me that the last several times I've taught the writing class, at least half the students were survivors of my data class, which meant that a) they were already familiar with my teaching style and b) they had already learned to be relatively comfortable with ambiguity (which is something I harp on a lot in the data class). So I didn't need to spend much time talking to them about that aspect of the assignments in the writing class; they already expected that from me. But this time around, I don't know any of the students, and they don't know me, so I think I'm going to need to have a discussion with them about why my assignments are structured the way that they are.

How transparent are you about the reasons behind your teaching style?


  1. This post really touched me. I have noticing this with my students since years ago. Interesting activities are demanded by them but, at the same time, they don't want to take the very same activities. It's good to know that you aren't alone. By other hand, yes, it would be great to have more pro-active students. Amazing task this you gave to them.

  2. My students also balk when not given explicit instructions. Unfortunately, they have become dependent upon the structure that many teachers impose on them. I do have the discussion with them. I tell them that very often there is more than one way to get to the "correct" answer. I try to impress upon them the importance of creativity in thinking and also confidence in their own abilities and decisions. Often, they are still uncomfortable with the lack of structure, but they undersand the reasoning and they try to embrace it.


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