Moving from “Harder Working Students” to “Students Working to Learn” – Undoing Illusions of Rigor, Part 3

20 Nov

Throughout “Dysfunctional Illusions of Rigor,” Craig Nelson consistently directs readers’ attention to two core concerns  – instructors’ assumptions about teaching and about learners.  That focus continues as Nelson attends to instructors’ presumptions about characteristics of good, hardworking students.

Dysfunctional illusions of rigor 6.  It is essential that students hand in papers on time and take exams on time.  Giving them flexibility and a second chance is pampering the students.

In righting this illusion, Nelson began offering all first year biology students the option of taking major tests a second time:

“Students kept the better of the two grades. Performance improved markedly. I ultimately saw that studying twice for exams (which not every student did) taught on average more content than another lecture would have. I then started giving both exams in class time. Once this approach to exams proved successful, I adopted it in all courses.”

Nelson developed this approach – a version of cumulative testing – by

“…asking myself what I was assuming when I gave an exam only once to a freshman biology class. It seemed that I was assuming that the student knew what it would feel like to have mastered the content at the university A level, that she had a realistic idea of how long this would take, and that she had control over her own time.

“I hadn’t understood that she might not have full control of her own time if, for example, she were a single parent with two children who caught the flu in the week before the exam, or if she had a real job and was ordered to take extra shifts to make up for someone who had the flu. Thus, the idea that favors privileged students, in the sense that it assumes things that are most likely to be true of traditional age students with limited other responsibilities.

And what of assignment due dates?  Nelson charted out two types of deadlines: those assignments/tasks needing firm deadlines to keep the class functioning effectively, and those for which a range of due dates could be offered so that students signed up for due dates and Nelson arranged time for responding in more timely ways (given that there were fewer assignments requiring comments from him at any one time).”

In unwinding this illusion, Nelson came to face one of the most noisome illusions, a stumbling block for many teachers:

Dysfunctional illusions of rigor 7.  If we cover more content, the students will learn more content.

In taking on the first six illusions, Nelson reminds readers “that learning, student retention, and equity can be strongly increased by adopting active learning, by actively teaching students how to read and write within the framework of the course, and probably by allowing more flexibility on exams and deadlines.” And, he notes, homework must genuinely become “preparing for class” work involving content-related learning, discovery, unlearning and relearning through structured prompts and discussion guides students draw on while reviewing, connecting and extending ideas.  Developing student-active courses does take more up-front work for teachers.  In what is perhaps my still-favourite segment of this long-favourite article Nelson joins the initially laborious process to create active learning plans for inclass and beyond class learning with the coincidentally transformative awareness that teachers develop in uncovering specified deeper and clearer learning objectives:

“I knew that even advanced majors tended to learn relatively little from reading assignments. I decided to try using more detailed study guides. These guides would be of a set of essay questions from which any exam questions over that reading would be drawn in whole or part, thus ensuring that the students paid attention.

“I first set out to write all reasonable essay questions over one chapter. My goal was to list each question that I might have written after just assigning the students to read the chapter. I reached about fifty questions and was not yet done with the chapter. It was suddenly clear to me why. As on my exams typically had previously started at 70 percent when I included several questions over the readings. There was entirely too much material for the students to be expected to learn, and I had not been providing much guidance as to what was important. More appallingly, I realized that I had not decided what I most wanted to achieve by assigning the chapter. Making those decisions required substantial effort but deepened my understanding of my objectives. After the first few chapters, these tasks became easier.

“Soon I was giving the students a set of about twenty essay questions over each chapter well before the exam. Often I told them that some parts of the text could be skimmed, skipped or read optionally. Most important, I often gave questions that asked for more careful analysis, synthesis, and critical thinking generally than I had been able to use previously. Even so, grades quickly rose: A’s began at 90 percent. Thus I found that by using guided reading I could foster out-of-class learning to teach some key aspects of the content more effectively that when I had lectured on it. The fault lay not with my students but rather with my pedagogy. The new approach specified deeper and clearer learning objectives, gave substantial help in seeing how to reach them, and limited coverage both in lecture and by skipping parts of the text.”

Nelson’s research – here and in the 1996 article cited below – represents first generation Scholarship of Learning and Teaching whereby disciplinary and educational scholars draw on multidisciplinary methodologies and methods to understand why and how and when and by what means teachers might provoke high-level learning in college classrooms.  Part 4 of this series will report on a May 2014 meta-study that cogently reports on the “efficacy of constructivist versus exposition-centered course designs,” and then clearly calls for moving away from “to lecture or not” debates and into second-generation research “testing hypotheses about which type of active learning is most appropriate and efficient for certain topics or student publications.


Craig E. Nelson. “Dysfunctional Illusions of Rigor.” To Improve the Academy 28 (2010): 177-192.

Craig Nelson. “Student Diversity Requires Different Approaches to College Teaching, Even in Math and Science.” American Behavioral Scientist 40.2 (Nov-Dec 1996): 165-176.

Uri Treisman, Uri. “Studying Students Studying Calculus: A Look at the Lives of Minority Mathematics Students in College.” College Mathematics Journal 23.5 (1992): 362-372.

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