Tag Archives: May14

Vigor & More Learning for More Learners – Undoing Illusions of Rigor, Part 2

19 Nov

Nelson’s subheading for this second section of “Dysfunctional Illusions of Rigor” could easily have become the title of this post: “Producing Brighter and Harder-Working Students in a Flash.”  The assertion reflects the sentiments of my first CTL supervisor, Joyce Weinsheimer, who titled one of her most popular workshops “Creating the Students You Want.”  I confess to frequently adding my own cheeky subtitles in my head; one of the few I can report here is “…and spend waaaay less time ‘dealing with’ unhappy students or ‘bad’ papers.”  Nelson, too, points out this trade off – in transforming our teaching practices for the classroom and for how students prepare to come to the classroom, we also reshape – quite positively – the teaching preparation and responding work we do outside of the classroom.  Engaging students in “Time on Task” activities can not only demystify – and improve – disciplinary learning for more students it can, most often, decrease a teacher’s workload, while increasing enjoyment during time on task.

Today’s post addresses two additional Illusions of Rigor, with the remaining posts coming on Thursday & Friday.

Dysfunctional illusion of rigor 4.  Students should come to us knowing how to read, write, and do essay and multiple-choice questions.

Context: As Nelson notes, along with students who enter college having completed Advanced Placement (AP), or College in the Schools (CIS), or other types of college-prep courses, increasing percentages of first year students are first generation college attendees who may not have been coached on “doing college” by high school staff or family members. Even with a college-prep background, students are likely not prepared for “university level [multiple choice] exams include[ing] a much greater emphasis on conceptual understanding, applications, and synthesis than was likely to have been possible early in high school when students typically take biology.” Additionally, in writing short essay responses, Nelson observes that students “were used to saying what the text was about but not used to being able to accurately summarize the arguments made in the book” – with summary being a precursor skills to successful evaluation of texts and arguments.

More Realistic View – and an example: Drawing on his transformed practice, Nelson asserts that “producing harder working students” begins when we “teach this [how to read pertinent materials and evaluate arguments and evidence] interactively in class, not just explain them. Because each discipline has its own conventions for how to read a book, how to write papers, what makes a great essay question answer, and more, we each have to do this repeatedly in different courses. In an example mentioned here – and more fully explored in his eternally-relevant 1996 SoTL research, cited below – Nelson points to a colleague who developed a class session in which her students compared texts of various essay responses she had written – all “B” answers – then drafted “ideal answers” for inclass discussion and outcomes-based evaluation.

Via one hour of classtime and a purpose-rich preparing for class assignment, this teacher “converted an average section to a high-achieving one.” Through such a single hour of classtime, Nelson sets out three gains: fewer errors, therefore, less time teacher time spent “correcting” responses; students experiencing less stress when they can move from “not knowing what the teacher wants” to understanding how reading, writing and assignments work; and both students and teacher learning how to focus on discipline-specific materials.  Because of “unhiding the curriculum” of these discipline-specific practices, students express more satisfaction with learning in such course overall.

Dysfunctional illusion of rigor 5.  Traditional methods of instruction are unbiased and equally fair to a range of diverse students of good ability.

Context: Learning is a socially-constructed and interpersonally-conducted endeavor. Think about the labs and research groups you entered into as graduate or early career scholars where you likely floundered a bit as you learned operational norms. Think about the peer review “gatekeeper” paradigms you likely encounter with editorial boards alongside the “ally” practices you hope to cultivate with collaborators. Or, think hard to remember your own early undergraduate confusion within courses linked to the discipline where you have now landed:  Who and what, when and how did people help you to cross confusing and important concept thresholds to land at points of understanding?

In coming to stand in front of a classroom as holders of doctoral degrees, we’ve each successfully developed our views of what practices work in teaching and learning.  Some of us internalize ways we were taught and continue using practices that supported us as learners.  Some of us learned in other ways, and found places where we could thrive in those non-traditional modes.  Many, like Nelson, come to recall our own crooked learning paths as we recognize that new generations of students are still navigating untended, tangled pathways.  Reflecting from the vantage of “tenured professor,” Nelson comes to an understanding that traditional approaches to student learning are, indeed, biased and unfair in ways of narrowing pathways to deep learning for a broad range of students.

equality justice copyMore Realistic View – and an example: Nelson’s reading of Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educationally Unprepared (1990):

convinced me that unintended discrimination is inherent in any assumption that students should come to us knowing how to read the way we want them to read, how to write the way we want them to write, and generally how to do the various tasks required to excel in our courses properly. Uri Treisman’s work [citation below] convince me that even well-prepared students (high math SATs) are often disadvantaged by high school experiences that lead them to work alone. My own high school math teacher taught us that checking your homework with another student is cheating. It was a shock to find Treisman describing years later my solitary approaches to studying. It was an even greater shock to find him suggesting that if faculty didn’t like the usual levels achieved by less-privileged students, they needed to build the social support required for learning.

Also shocking to Nelson? “The idea that courses such as calculus, physics, and biology were thought to be anything but nearly fully objective in both content and pedagogy.” As Nelson notes throughout this article – and addresses via specific examples throughout his 1996 essay – what we now call traditional methods of instruction more likely suit students who have completed AP or CIS course and/or attended elite, college-prep focused high schools.

What to do? The practice Treisman first reported for a calculus class serves as a great starting out model for scads of disciplines: (1) As part of completing “preparing for class” work – problem sets, case study responses, summary of readings, analysis of data, discussion of core questions – all students discuss their work with 2-3 other students. (2) During classtime students do not see an instructor or teaching assistant (re)work the assigned problems, but move into tasks that incrementally advance the learning challenge. Sometimes working as a whole class and at other times individually or in small groups. Sometimes via concept tests. Sometimes via outlining processes via sentences and paragraphs rather than calculations along. Sometimes drawing concepts via maps or invention of diagrams. Sometimes via imagery shared in PowerPoint slides or conveyed via poetry, as in Chemistry Haiku.


Craig E. Nelson. “Dysfunctional Illusions of Rigor.” To Improve the Academy 28 (2010): 177-192. http://books.google.com/books?id=jJXgi2bAM4EC&lpg=PA177&ots=pm51fgP3pb&dq=Dysfunctional%20Illusions%20of%20Rigor&pg=PA177#v=onepage&q=Dysfunctional%20Illusions%20of%20Rigor&f=false

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. http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~slm/AdjCI/Startclass/Diversity.html

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. http://www.utdanacenter.org/downloads/articles/studying_students.pdf

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