Struggle can be ‘productive’ — or frustrating

Community college faculty are working to increase rigor in developmental education, write Melissa Barragan and Maria Scott Cormier in Inside Out, a publication of the Community College Research Center’s Scaling Innovation project. Three strategies predominate:

(1) aligning content with college-level course expectations, (2) providing consistent opportunities for students to construct knowledge, and (3) making struggle a part of the learning process. These strategies are not mutually exclusive; rather, they work together to contribute to enhanced rigor.

Some instructors stress “productive struggle,” making  students “wrestle with complex ideas and processes, and capitalize on their misunderstandings in ways that promote in-depth and transferable learning.”

However, others believe struggle frustrates students, especially underprepared students who’ve done poorly in school.

Struggle requires scaffolding, the Scaling Innovation researchers write.

In one developmental integrated reading and writing class we observed, students working in small groups were asked to respond to . . .  the following prompt: “Explain what the author means that many people believe that higher education is ‘the great equalizer.’ Does the author believe this? Do you think that education is an equalizer?”

These questions seized on subtle differences between what the writer reported and believed . . . The questions also asked students to construct knowledge by drawing on their own experiences and by coming to a conclusion about the impact of education on social mobility.

. . . (The instructor) noted passage topics and page numbers in the handout so that students did not spend valuable time trying to find relevant passages in the text. She also actively circulated among the groups to monitor their progress, addressing misunderstandings by redirecting students to the text and asking them to justify their interpretations. Her pedagogy emphasized discovery on the part of students and rarely involved providing students with the “correct” answer.

“Productive struggle” encourages students to “develop a healthy disposition toward uncertainty in their pursuit of skills and knowledge that they will later revisit and apply in other contexts.”

“Rigor is a slippery concept,” writes W. Norton Grubb in a response to the paper. Preparing students for college courses that require deeper comprehension, reasoning, problem solving and transfer of knowledge “requires different pedagogies, rather than more or different content.”

The problem is that there are instructors in virtually every college who have shifted to these classroom techniques, but they are usually isolated and reach relatively few students.

Getting most faculty to change their teaching approaches “requires reform strategies that go beyond individual classroom methods, and that are more collective or institutional.”

POSTED BY Joanne Jacobs ON August 2, 2013

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The example given, where students need to wrestle with the issue of education as an equalizer (or not), is terrible. Not because of the danger that this subject is fraught for CC students (although it most certainly is for many). But because it’s a subject that demands not just opinion (which is appropriate for a reading class) but also research skills that are not taught in reading classes — economics and statistics being obvious ones.

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