What does it mean for a student to practice “self regulated learning”? I have been experimenting with different ways to help students learn to become more engaged in their own learning process. Rather than having “learning applied” to them, I have taken a far more constructivist approach. One of my central goals is to shift a student’s focus from one of extrinsic value and motivation to intrinsic motivators. In my experience, grades are often the focus of student motivation and the tacit purpose for all the work they do in school. When work is assigned, students expect and believe there will be a grade assigned. This trend can be expressed as “I did the work, why did I not get an A”?
Taking several approaches to helping students focus more on their learning, I have decreased emphasis on grades. Now, this may seem impossible and I admit, it has not been easy. However, I have systematically and explicitly reduced the value of grades in my classes as the gold standard of “how am I doing”. This has been replaced with a metacognitive approach to assessment where students are asked to constantly think about their own work in the context of their current abilities and knowledge with an eye to what is possible. This takes the form of class discussions and more frequently and with greater depth, in their blogs. This year, the students have really struggled to move away from the idea of writing about their own learning. Rather, they tend to write about the subject in a “matter-of-fact” way. I find this odd as I have provided plenty of opportunities for students to consider the subject…yet, they feel the need to write about events and “facts” rather than what is going on in their head, or as I like to say-“the ah ha moment. This should be contrasted with the expressed purpose of their blog which is designed to provide a place for them to think about their own thinking, how they have prepared for their learning, how they feel it is working out and what they can do to improve their work. The focus is on THEM rather than what others (peers and students) are doing TO THEM. The goal is to help them become self-aware and critical of their own work.
To reduce the focus on grades, I have minimized objective assessments in my courses” relegating them to the “nice to know rather than what Wiggings refers to as ENDURING. This has been replaced with ongoing formative assessments, and problem/project based learning tasks which are often presented as ill-framed problems. The catch here is that I try not to assign a grade to the students work. Rather, I provide constant narrative feedback as they are working in the labs, and throughout discussions in class. This narrative feedback is detailed and prescriptive with explicit mention of specific student work. This format is intensive and time consuming requiring me to maintain a running log of student practices. However, this has been an intentional shift on my part to try to get students to feel comfortable enough to take cognitive risks in class rather than focusing on whether the work is good enough to “earn” an A or will “I” give them something less (The emphasis on the agents acting upon them rather than the focus on themselves). I have found this to be a way of creating a safe environment for students to exercise intellectual risk taking. After-all, they are constantly assessing their own work and efforts. Yes, they ask for grades but I simply tell them they need to focus on their learning process and what they can do to improve their learning-the grades will follow. After all, who really knows what constitutes an A, B or C.
Now here comes the interesting part. The students have been focusing on their own learning for almost 12 weeks and the time has come when they will need to get a grade. Truth be told, I have known this all along and have had to keep detailed notes of their work. So how does this reflective process get turned into a final grade?
Today, as we had our final class meeting and they presented their original analysis of an interesting problem of their own design, I told the students that there would be one final culminating blog post. This post is a guided reflection that requires them to critically reflect on their journey over the past 12 weeks. The students know we have come to the end of the course and in the end, there is always a grade. And yes, this time will not be different- there will be a grade here as well. The catch is that I have asked them to be brutally honest with this final reflection as they assess their personal journey. This is not to be a comparison with other students but rather, a final critical look at their own personal journey. After all, this is what I will be doing for each of them as I complete a final review their lab journals, final project notes and all blog entries. As I am being brutally honest with their work looking for a progression of learning and an openness to take risks along the way, I am asking them to do the same with their reflection. In the end, they will need to assign themselves a grade and justify it within this final reflection citing specific cases of personal learning. Brutal honesty is the order of the day. As I told them, if when I read these final reflections and I see that we are far apart in our assessments, I will call them in for a final consultation and show them where they have been hard on themselves and how the journey has led to learning that gets at understanding. In other words, this is why you deserve a higher grade. On the other hand, some students may need to supply further evidence that they have attained the level of understanding suggested in their blog. I also let them know that an A+ is like walking on water. That is, you will need to always recognize that this is a journey that never ends. A journey needs a destination and when that destination is reached, the journey ends. In other words,there is always room for improvement, more to learn, greater understanding.
This is the second time I have asked a group of students to evaluate their own journey with the measure being; “Did I give it my all, could I have done more, what would have that allowed me to achieve, what have I achieved”?
Today however, I noticed something interesting in their faces and voices. I had just asked them to give a personal accounting and evaluation of their work over the course of the past 12 weeks. It was obvious that this is not something they were accustomed to or perhaps, had ever been charged with in the past. The idea that they were going to have to submit a grade for their personal work was something new and uncomfortable. Reflecting on recent readings in the literature from the cannon of self-regulation in learning, I am struck by the importance of self accountability for one’s own work. It is so easy to sit back and let someone else give you a final assessment of your work creating the “they gave me a (insert grade other than A). While they have had constant feedback throughout the trimester, the idea that they were going to have to accept responsibility for the quality of their work throughout the class seemed novel. This is something that I will have to explore more deeply. Most assessment programs I am familiar with in the work place require a supervisor to drive the assessment process. The employee receives their review and is then asked to respond. This is largely the same with most assessments in education. Students complete the work, submitting it for a “stamp of approval”, receiving the graded assignment with some hierarchical marking that somehow defines the quality of the work according to some standard. But is it really a “B” or any of the other grades for that matter? As you may have guessed, I am approaching this from the epistemic perspective of a constructivist with a lens that shows me a constantly evolving and emerging truth.
So as I write this from 40,000 feet on my way to San Francisco for the NAIS Annual Conference, I finished my first reading of Self-regulated Learning: From Teaching to Self-reflective Practice edited by Dale Schunk and Barry Zimmerman. The timing could not have been better. This collection of research articles were summed up in the spirit of a discussant at a research symposium leaving me with these points of reflection-All of the studies presented had elements in common. These were:
- Strategy teaching is a key means of promoting self-regulated learning
- Practice of self-regulatory strategies and feedback on strategy effectiveness
- It was imperative that students monitor their application of the strategy
- There was an emphasis on self-reflective practice
The importance of this final reflective process, in which I have charged my students, can be summed up in the following:
“The need for self-reflective practice may be greater in some settings than in others…In less structured environments, student self-reflection may play a more valuable role. Systematic forethought, such as adopting a learning goal orientation prepares a student for optimal forms of self-reflection, such as a strategy instead of a fixed ability attribution.” (Shunk & Zimmerman, 1998, pg. 230).
So for me, the journey continues as I see how I can best help student develop the independence necessary to be effective learners with self-knowledge and awareness to critically assess what they know and what they need to know. After all, this is the world we now all live in.
Schunk, D. & Zimmerman, B. (1998). Self-Regulated Learning: From Teaching to Self-Reflective Practice. New York, The Guilford Press.