Do Your Students Have Harmful Expectations (Part 2)

There is often a mismatch between how we want our students to be changed in our courses, and their expectations of those courses.  This tension can be particularly acute for first year university students or high school graduates taking a MOOC whose expectations about education arise from previous educational experiences which privilege marks over deep learning and individual performance over working collaboratively. 

This second part of two part article suggests some strategies for teachers and educational designers to alter student expectations so that they become more focused on deep learning and the true objectives of the courses they undertake.  

What do we want?

As teachers our objective in running a course is ultimately to change our students.  Changes in higher-level (Bloom-style) cognition are particular important in tertiary, professional, and adult education.  However they can be difficult to bring about.  This article considers one factor which contributes to this difficulty – the (often unhelpful) expectations our students have at the start of our courses – and suggests ways to deal with the difficulty created by those expectations.

What can teachers do?

There are a number of ways we can design and teach our courses so that the unhelpful learning expectations of students explored in Part 1 do not become an impediment.  I would like to discuss these individually in more detail in a subsequent article but below I set out three key strategies you may find helpful.

1. Focus on learning over marks

  • Students need to understand the nature of the learning you hope they will experience, and to value it.
  • Ask students to reflect on the reason they are taking the course and the ways they hope to change as a result of taking the course.
  • Be explicit and honest with students about your goals and objectives for their learning.  View students as collaborators and assistants in your quest to change them, rather than as experimental subjects to be manipulated, coerced or controlled.
  • Have the students explicitly think about where they want to be in the future, so the course learning is seen as essential, and course marks are seen as secondary.  In my own courses I do the following:  first, invite back former students who are now successful to address the class; second, share the successes of current classmates; and finally I ask each student to write themselves a letter about what they hope to be doing in the future, with such to be placed in time capsules and delivered in the future.
  • Limit the amount of time space and predominance you give to marks and discussions about marks.

2.  Focus on high level changes in thinking not just on recall of facts and methods

  • Provide authentic learning activities which align with (and use!) the high-level learning objectives, so that students see and experience the benefits of working towards these objectives.  Eg in a course on Entrepreneurship have students design and market an actual product.
  • Expose students to authentic and compelling role models who share and have benefited from attaining these high-level objectives.  E.g. guest speakers, case studies, successful former classmates.

3. Encourage students to collaborate with peers in a team rather than as a collection of self-interested individuals in a loose group.

  • As much as possible remove mark incentives from the product of the group activity and instead expose and evaluate the process.
  • Build and create community.
  • Model care and respect for others in how you interact as a teacher.
  • Create a culture of students helping students.
  • Draw on real world examples of successful teamwork. There is an established and valued culture of teamwork in many sports you can refer to and which some of your students may well play or follow.  Other exemplars are the teamwork culture of successful organisations (eg Google, NASA), families, heroic responses in times of catastrophe and war, service professions, the scientific community, internet communities such as wikipedia, religions, friendship groups, and families.
  • Identify, praise, and showcase examples of successful teamwork in your course.
  • Have open and ongoing reflection about community and collaboration, as well as help given and received.
  • Use a learning platform such as OpenLearning built around community rather than one focussed largely on a personal learning experience.

In summary students can come into your courses with counterproductive expectations about how they will act and approach their learning, often as a result of their experience in earlier education, and high school in particular (see Part One).  However these expectations can be overcome and replaced with more positive expectations, provided you recognise them and make explicit plans to deal with them, including being open with the students about what you are trying to do.

In all of these case it is much easier to bring about a change in students’ thinking and expectations at times when they when they are most open to change.   For example at the start of a course, and, even better, at the time they first start university, or first commence online education.

Finally it is important that the change be complete and comprehensive.  A half-hearted change applied inconstantly over the activities of a course is unlikely to be successful.

If the strategies I have discussed above for course design and the corresponding changes in teaching practice seem daunting to achieve, I suggest you form a community with peers and support each other, and further that you observe the teaching of those who have already successfully brought about the changes you are aiming for.   For example, in order to learn abut how to bring about change in general, I find it inspirational to watch the teaching and classroom management practices of successful kindergarten teachers, who are masters at altering the expectations of their students.

Click here to view Part One of this article


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Do Your Students Have Harmful Expectations (Part 2) by Richard Buckland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.