Why I Want My Students to Struggle in Class This Year

Editors Features January 20 / Uncategorized / January 28, 2020

 – Steve Griffiths –

Flipped Learning can make learning new content easier and more efficient because students can interact with the content at their own pace as often as they need to. Also, Flipped Learning can increase the amount of class time available for practicing and deepening knowledge because of the reduced time spent directly delivering content.  I have experienced positive results from using this approach; however, I fear that performance can often be a poor proxy for learning. I have been concerned that many students are not retaining the knowledge and skills into their next years of schooling. In addition, I have noticed that many of my students are not able to readily transfer their knowledge to solve novel problems.  So I went back to the literature and have found some opportunities to improve my practice for this year. In this article, I will share with you some research that has guided me.

Promoting contemporaneous student achievement, harm students’ subsequent performance

A study from 2010 investigated the academic performance of over 10,000 students at the USAF Academy over seven years.  The research identified that in classes where the content taught was narrowly focused on what was assessed, students performed better on the assessment compared to students in classes where the content taught was broader. However, the students who performed better in the introductory courses were found to perform less well in follow-on courses.  Those students who had the deeper curriculum in the introductory course were found to perform better in follow-on courses. A possible explanation is that the deeper curriculum produced students with a deeper understanding of the concepts, and they may have developed better study skills as a result of the more challenging introductory course.

So the take-home message from this study is that a focus on improving students’ contemporaneous performance on assessments by “teaching to the test” may inhibit students’ long term growth.  So my action is to spend more class time taking the learning further by teaching a deeper curriculum.

Students need opportunities to make connections, not just follow procedures

A study from 2005 reported on the 1999 TIMMS Video Study that examined Year 8 mathematics classes in the USA and six higher-achieving countries.  The study observed mathematics classes and evaluated whether questions posed to students had a procedural or conceptual emphasis. Questions with a procedural emphasis simply require students to practice implementing a procedure, whereas conceptual problems require students to make connections among facts, concepts and procedures and transfer knowledge and skills to solve novel problems. One of the findings of the study was that the observed classes from the USA were far more likely to turn conceptual problems into procedural problems by providing students with too many hints. Instead of allowing students to struggle with the problems, the teachers would provide the students with so many hints that the questions were reduced to the practicing familiar, low-level procedures. This is in contrast to higher-performing countries such as Japan and Hong Kong, which had a much greater emphasis on conceptual problems. So the take-home message from this study is that teachers need to take care not to provide too many hints and scaffolding. Again, hint giving may improve contemporaneous performance but may inhibit growth in the long term. Students need to be given opportunities to struggle with problems and make connections between concepts and procedures to solve new problems. 

Effort can be misinterpreted as a sign of poor learning

A more recent study compared student perceptions of learning in an active versus a traditional passive lecture style college physics course.  The study found that students in the active learning class had lower perceptions of learning than those in the passive learning class despite having higher performance on assessments.  Active learning requires a larger cognitive effort in class so students are believed to associate the increased effort with poorer learning. In other words, students can misinterpret effort for poor learning.  As the students’ results demonstrate, active learning was in fact associated with greater learning. The authors recommended that, early in the course, teachers should reassure students that active learning is more effortful, and this effort is beneficial to their learning.

My New Years’ resolution

Based on my reading of the research, I have developed some actions to implement this year.  I am going to focus on creating learning opportunities for my students to struggle. I will look for opportunities to teach the curriculum more deeply. I will resist giving students too much scaffolding and too many hints when they are working on problems that are intended to develop conceptual knowledge.  I will also reassure students that active learning is effortful, and that effort will lead to greater learning. I am prepared for my students to not perform as well on the current assessment because I know that they will benefit more in the long term.

Steve Griffiths
Steve Griffiths
I have been a high school science teacher for 6 years. I am now also teaching digital technologies. I have been flipping my classroom for four years and have made over 1000 videos. My preference is the lightboard. I have presented at a number of conferences and courses on flipped learning. My specialties are video making and designing active learning experiences

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