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Does Putting the Students in Charge of Their Learning Enhance Transfer?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
1519

Perhaps the UK produces brilliant thinkers like Charles Darwin because they have to search for their purpose, whereas the US produces brilliant doers like Thomas Edison because they know what the purpose is; they are just trying to find out how to achieve it in reality.

Folks:

The posting below looks at the role of goal setting in learning outcomes . It is by Marilla Svinicki,
University of Texas at Austin and is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 25, Number 3, March 2016. It is from a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1002/(ISSN)2166-3327 ] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. Copyright ©John Wiley & Sons, Professional and Trade Subscription Content, One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. Reprinted with permission.

 

Regards,

 

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: The Industries of the Future (review)

 

Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Does Putting the Students in Charge of Their Learning Enhance Transfer?

 

Awhile back I was invited to write for a series my friend, Graham Gibbs of the UK, edits entitled “53 powerful ideas every teacher should know about.” (http://www.seda.ac.uk/53-powerful-ideas ). I wrote a piece about motivation and how it seems to be so baffling for instructors because they think motivation has to be complex. My premise in the piece was that, like many concepts in psychology, motivation seems more mysterious than it really is. Because the ideas for enhancing motivation sound so straightforward (like “make the task interesting”), instructors dismiss them as too simple for such a daunting task as improving student motivation. I thought the piece was pretty clear, as did Graham, but he gave me the most interesting and thought-provoking feedback that it started me on a journey of self and professional reflection.

The first point I made was that motivation starts with a clear goal. This pronouncement is certainly the basis for a lot of instructional design and motivational theory in the US. But Graham challenged that idea and said that UK students don’t get clear goals from their instructors. He described it as “no meaningful specification at all.” Yet the students make the most of the opportunity to explore what interests them (Gibbs, personal communication, 2014).

Can (Building) Robots Teach?

I was really struck by his description of the fairly unstructured nature of the student experience at the elite universities in the UK and the possibly over-scripted student experience at similarly elite US institutions. I was also considering motivation in non-academic settings at the time, and how learners in those contexts often devote many more hours to learning new things and creating many more wonderful products than the average term paper in the US. Take for example the products we have seen in contests to build robots that will successfully destroy all the other robots in a miniature demolition derby. Do these relatively unguided students really learn more than those whose learning we scaffold so closely? Do they understand what they have done? Can they transfer that meta-cognitive reflection and control to other projects?

Now I have to admit that the students in those contests are usually either engineering students or computer design students, and they generally have a very pragmatic approach to problems—they try to fix them no matter what it takes and no matter what standard safety procedures they ignore, as long as they are making progress. (Duct tape as the mark of creativity.) Are they really engaging in the free flow of ideas or do they have real goals? Is it possible that the difference isn’t having or not having goals, but rather working on an interesting puzzle, even if assigned by someone else?

Goal Quality v. Ascription

A former student of mine challenged the notion that self-chosen goals would always be more engaging than other-assigned goals. Using all the appropriate and complex controls, she ended up finding that if the task was interesting and challenging, it could spark interest and effort even if it was assigned and scaffolded by someone else. It is encouraging to think that the goals we set for our students may not be a total loss motivationally. Certainly there is a great deal of data (American studies, however) that students given clear goals will be able to achieve better than those given vague instructions. The clarity of the purpose seems to allow the students to monitor their own progress and adjust when necessary. But the UK students seem to do just fine finding their own purpose.

At this point in my musings I am thinking that Graham and I might have chosen the wrong outcome variables to compare. Perhaps the UK produces brilliant thinkers like Charles Darwin because they have to search for their purpose, whereas the US produces brilliant doers like Thomas Edison because they know what the purpose is; they are just trying to find out how to achieve it in reality. And our very esteemed editor of NTLF, James Rhem, asks if it’s not assigned or self-generated goals, but simply having SOME goal that spurs motivation. That’s worth considering!

 

CONTACT:

Marilla D. Svinicki, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus
Educational Psychology
The University of Texas at Austin One University Station D5800 Austin, TX 78712

Telephone: (512) 471-0557 E-mail: msvinicki@utexas.edu