“Struggling Students” vs. incompetent teachers

For a training at my job at a community college tutoring center, I recently read “Struggling Students Can Improve By Studying Themselves,” from the Chronicle of Higher Education (gated link here). My training required that I write a journal response to the article. Long experience has taught me to adopt a diplomatic approach with my bosses, so I eschewed criticism of the article and instead essentially summarized its main points in the journal response I submitted.

But while I’m diplomatic in order to survive as an employee, I’m also critical in order to live as a rational animal. So here’s a summary of the article and what I actually think of it.


“Struggling” presents a supposed-breakthrough in pedagogical research which finds that students perform better when they 1-receive immediate, specific feedback on their performance, 2-have to respond to that feedback to show that they understood it, and 3-are “coached” to “think critically about their own studying.”

Short version of my actual response:

Duh. How is this not basic, common knowledge among educators? What are students paying tuition for if not critical engagement?

Longer version of my actual response:

The SLR strategy described in this article makes a lot of sense to me and agrees with my previous training as a tutor. SLR is similar to “metacognition,” the practice of thinking about thinking and learning about learning, which is basic to progressive education.

By “progressive education,” I mean a pedagogy in which students and teacher(s) are peers and co-learners–that is, the Socratic method. The teacher’s role is to facilitate a critical discussion of the subject material, e.g. raising such questions as “What is the overall idea of this text? What are some competing explanations or alternative ways of thinking about it, and how do they compare with this one? What kind of assumptions do we and/or the text bring with us, and how might those assumptions be challenged? How does this text frame the issue, and who benefits from that framing?” The teacher’s expertise is helpful insofar as she acts as a sort of guide as the conversation traverses the territory of its subject matter. For instance, she might jump in as two factions begin a heated debate and say, “Hold on. Rhonda is saying X, and Terrence is saying Y. The same dispute exists between Plato and Aristotle, when they argue over Q vs. R. Given this larger perspective, how can we reframe your disagreement in a way that leads to productive engagement?” Still, her expertise is secondary: the students have smartphones or at least library cards, and they can look up whatever info they need without too much help. According to the progressive or Socratic model, then, the real value of a teacher is not in her knowledge but in her ability to model and facilitate thoughtful, critical discussion. And of course an integral part of such discussion is self-reflection: “Why and how are we learning about this?”

The alternative, authoritarian model is the model that most people grew up under: a knowledgeable teacher stands before a classroom of ignorants students. The teacher talks, words pouring out of his mouth like water from a faucet, and gradually the students are filled-up by his knowledge.*

It’s worth noting that, despite the fact that SLR is in itself progressive and Socratic, the overall framing of “Struggling” is deeply paternal and authoritarian: rather than thinking critically about learning in its entirety, students are coached on thinking “critically” (i.e. with a problem-solving orientation) about their study habits, in much the same way that a worker would be exhorted to think critically about workflow-efficiency without ever thinking critically about who benefits from her work. Teachers are quoted describing foolish, short-sighted students who at first rebel against SLR, only to realize “by the end of the course…that it works out for their benefit,” i.e. they acknowledge that they’ve been forced to do SLR for their own good. Here’s another gem from the middle of the article:

Mr. Zimmerman has spent most of his career examining what can go wrong when people try to learn new facts and skills. His work centers on two common follies: First, students are often overconfident about their knowledge, assuming that they understand material just because they sat through a few lectures or read a few chapters. Second, students tend to attribute their failures to outside forces (“the teacher didn’t like me,” “the textbook wasn’t clear enough”) rather than taking a hard look at their own study habits.

Notice the framing here: rather than it being the teacher’s responsibility to clearly explain the material to students who attend lecture and do the readings, it’s the student’s responsibility to do, well, whatever it takes to understand the material. I’m not saying it’s false that students will get higher grades when they go the extra-mile in studying and concentrate on their options rather than their constraints; I’m just pointing out that this “hard look” is only going in one direction.

Mr. Zimmerman goes on to note that “training students to monitor their learning involves much more than simple nagging,” which implies that nagging is the basic ingredient to which other tricks are being added. An administrator adds, “At a certain point I realized that tutoring and counseling are not enough. I thought that we needed to be more intrusive.” Because without nagging and intrusive control, those stupid, ignorant students will never, ever learn. (Sigh.)

Aside from authoritarian framing, “Struggling” reveals an impressive pedagogical ignorance on the part of teachers (and reporters for the Chronicle). Such practices as “fast, accurate feedback,” having students “demonstrate that they actually understand the feedback that has been given,” and tying performance-feedback to the content of the class are presented as cutting-edge revelations. Yes, you read that correctly: giving feedback, checking student comprehension, and connecting your lecture to the content of the class is apparently considered pedagogical jujitsu by many professors. Given this fact, we should ask ourselves: “What on earth were they doing before this study came out?”

The answer to that question is as obvious as it is lamentable: they were operating under the authoritarian model, droning at their students, a la Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, assuming that their expertise was the same thing as competence and blaming their students for their own failure.

These educators deserve our criticism: their pedagogical incompetence and arrogance are part of why school is, for most people, analogous to wage labor rather than a liberation from wage labor. They are in the business of killing minds.

But they will soon deserve our pity, when their jobs are outsourced to robots. MOOCs like Coursera, which use online videos of prestigious lecturers coupled with automated quizzes and crowd-sourced essay grading, are poised to displace flesh-and-blood faculty. When your pedagogical model consists of talking at students, you’re easily replaced by a video of someone else talking at students.

Diplomatic version of my response:

The “self-regulated learning” strategy described in this article makes a lot of sense to me. As a student myself, I think that using the constructs and vocabulary of SLR provided in the article will help me in thinking critically about what I’m studying and how to pursue it.

SLR coincides with my previous tutor training. Working with students to think critically not just about the immediate subject matter before them but also about the way in which they’re engaging that subject matter–e.g. “So based on what we just did, I noticed that you did such-and-such. Did you notice it too? How can we strategize about this?”– seems like an effective way to put students in the driver’s seat of their own education.

The SRL strategy is similar to “metacognition,” the practice of thinking about one’s thinking and learning about one’s learning. The specific practice of constant, immediate feedback to students on their performance is similar to the “reflective listening” techniques I learned as a caretaker for developmentally disabled adults. This practice gives patients immediate feedback on their performance, a sense of being heard and therefore valued, and an outside perspective.

Overall, I already try to use the strategy of SLR with my students as much as possible, asking them open-ended questions to guide our sessions and working with them to set goals based on their larger academic motives. Having read this article, I will have a new vocabulary for thinking about how to engage students in a dynamic learning conversation. I think that strategies like SLR which make students integral partners in the learning process are on the right track.

*I pass-over here the fact that the authoritarian model is, in practice, not really about knowledge at all, but rather about training students to obey authority figures. It’s not a coincidence that the modern factory, the modern school, and the modern prison all came into being at about the same time.


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