Supporting Students IN ORDER TO Challenge Them

The most fundamental of frameworks for successful student development, learning, and growth is the synergistic concept of challenge and support.  Essentially, this concept articulates the critical balancing of two approaches to facilitate learning.  First, If we want to help students grow in substantial ways, we have to challenge them to push themselves beyond where they are comfortable.  Then, in order to minimize the likelihood that they will quit in the midst of this discomfort, we must provide encouragement (support) to help them persist toward their goal. It is equally important to recognize that students need both types of interaction, no matter the ordering of them.  So if we want students to respond positively when we challenge them, we have to have already built a foundation of trust (by expressing a belief that they are capable of success) so that they will be willing to take the risk in responding to our challenge.  In this way, challenge and support function almost like Yin and Yang.  If we want our students to grow, and more importantly take responsibility for their own growth, neither one of these two concepts works without the continuous healthy presence of the other.

In the mid-year first year survey, we asked freshmen how often their instructors had pointed out something that they had done well.  We asked this question because we wanted to find out more about the degree to which students experienced support.  (Last week I discussed one of the questions that addressed the degree to which students’ experience challenge.) The responses were distributed like this:

  • Never – 3%
  • Rarely – 15%
  • Sometimes – 44%
  • Often – 29%
  • Very Often – 9%

Frankly, if you were to force me to pick an “ideal” response distribution, I’d say that I would like to see every student choose “sometimes” or “often.”  At the same time, I’d hope that this response was balanced by students’ indicating that they also experienced consistent levels of challenge. Furthermore, I’d hope that this response was a reflection of our students’ experiences in each course rather than the possibility that our students all had some professors that were uniformly critical and others who were uniformly encouraging.

It troubles me that 69 of the 375 respondents (about 60% of our freshman class completed this survey) answered “rarely” or “never.”  Of course these students may have also been classic screw-ups who rarely or never turned in work that merited a compliment.  But even if that were so, given that human beings need a combination of challenge AND support to successfully take on a challenge and persist through to overcome it, throwing our hands in the air and saying that these students’ work didn’t merit a positive word simply increases the chances that they won’t succeed.

Humbly, I would suggest that our job as educators isn’t to ensure failure.  Instead, I’d suggest that our job is to increase the likelihood of success, especially among those who don’t rise to the occasion on their own or who already had the tools before they got here.

One important detail to remember is that these questions asked students to indicate the degree to which they think they received compliments for something that they did well. That isn’t the same as trying to find out if their instructors actually gave them compliments. Sometimes students don’t recognize the words we say or write as compliments just because of where they are in their own development.  For example, students may well not understand the academic language we often use to describe their effort in a paper as a compliment.

So as you begin to provide feedback to students in discussion, on written work, in online fora, or on other assignments, find ways to provide enough support to gain their trust. For then, and only then, will you be in a position to really challenge them when it matters and push them to excel beyond what they originally thought was possible.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

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