Transferring the burden of learning

As you may know if you follow me, I am edging closer to a methodology based on the self-assessment for student work. There are a number of reasons for this. This post will focus on just one: I am concerned about the increasing dependency on the instructor, especially in online classes. As students have adjusted to learning in online environments, as they become more comfortable with the technology, I’ve seen the reverse of what I anticipated. While I expected increased familiarity with learning technologies to increase self-direction, it has instead increased communication with the instructor in a manner designed to, shall we say, selectively individualize a student’s experience.

While I am sympathetic to the ongoing need to experience contact with the instructor on an individual level, I am less enthusiastic about answering multiple messages and emails asking for a repetition of feedback I’ve already given through multiple means, both individual and class-wide. There seems to be difficulty applying public or general feedback to ones own work, even when that feedback (like a rubric) is attached to an individual assignment. It is easier to just contact the instructor and ask, “why did I get this grade?”.

For those of us who provide extensive examples, clear directions, detailed rubrics, and continual feedback to the entire class, this insistence on individual comments which (most of the time) simply repeat what’s been already provided, takes up valuable time that is better spent interacting about the subject matter and the discipline.

In my syllabus, I have a list of expectations, which include:

Students should respond to guidance from the instructor, learn from full-group (rather than individual) feedback, and get help from the Help page and college resources as needed.

The ability to apply generalized feedback to ones own work is an important life skill, and yet I often succumb to the quick email or message response. This is because it is easier (and seems nicer) for me to just say, “oh, you just need to cite correctly as noted in the instructions” or “be sure to use only primary sources” than to encourage their independence in a helpful way. I never want to be the type of prof who barks, “read the syllabus!” Providing the information and pointing to it is one way to encourage some independence, I suppose, but it’s still telling, directing, prescribing. I want a slightly different tone.

So today I got a message:

Hello Professor, I do not understand what I am doing wrong on the essay prompts. Can you help me?

Normally I’d go look again at the student’s assignment and my rubric, and answer specifically. But this time, I wrote back:

Sure! First, take a look at the rubric, to see the areas that need improvement.

Then, take a look at the list in my Announcement – do any of those items apply? If so, how might you fix it?

Then, take a look at the work of your colleagues (especially those I put a “Like” on) – notice any differences from your own work.

Then, go to the Help page and look at the samples.

Let me know what you think as you compare your Writing Assignment, and what ideas you might have for what to do for the Final Essay. Happy to provide feedback!

Certainly there is a chance this will be interpreted as “she refused to tell me”, but I hope not. Instead, I hope that I’m teaching how to do what I’ve told them I expect them to do, and in a friendly way.

The burden of learning, you see, shouldn’t be on me – it should be on them. These days I am taking ever more to heart Stephen Downes’ idea that the professor’s job is to model and demonstrate, and the student’s is to practice and reflect. How can they practice if I do it for them? How can they be encouraged to reflect on their own work?

When students write or rewrite something, and send me, say, their new thesis, I am always happy to provide specific feedback, and they really appreciate that. But I’d like to have a better response to the more general “I just don’t get it” message, so we’ll see what happens.

4 thoughts to “Transferring the burden of learning”

  1. My courses are not content / domain specific, more process-oriented, but I do almost no “assessment of” – no quizzes or exams. My students are responsible for providing evidence of their work, which comes through links to blog posts, their place in our twitter hashtag community, web annotation activity, all things where their work is visible via a link (I imagine this approach need not be all open stuff, just that students have to show me the learning).

    I’ve also taking to having them pick a grade to aim for based on a loose rubric, the grade contract approach, and have them revisit and self assess mid-term and end of term, and justify/explain their own self assessment.

    I recently came across the works of photography teacher Bill Jay, who write an essay “Pointing t the Moon” about his teaching practice (

    “The teacher points toward the moon. The student must first learn to look at the moon, not at the finger.”

    I bailed out of a large project of certification, which whether by badging (which I loathe) or by portfolio review, is a passive tense activity. A learner is “certified by” or “assessed by” an institution/teacher/ I tried advocating for a system of self assertion. Alas, they are badging.

    Keep on, I so enjoy how you share your evolving practices.

    1. Hi Alan,

      I love that analogy. It’s so apt, that often we are looking at the finger. I suppose that isn’t bad if one is trying to learn how to point, but otherwise…

      I always felt that the certification we had for the POT program got in the way of learning, ultimately attracting those who just needed certification and did the tasks in an unthinking way. But I try to have sympathy for that, even though I can no longer design to it as an unpaid activity. In fact, my current historical research is related to the opening of education for adults in the 19th century, many of whom were seeking exactly that – a marker to help them move up in the world. While I try to grade more in order to teach than to judge, I don’t want to lose sight of the larger social demand for credentials — I still feel a responsibility to distinguish among those who don’t see the finger at all, see only the finger, see just a moon, or can assess the moon themselves. It holds back my process and so I keep working on it. Because the success in learning, in the 19th century as now, is achieved by self-direction. Where I differ from my more courageous and utopian colleagues is that I still believe this can be done within the system somehow.

      1. Hi Lisa, This is an interesting post. Like Alan, I really enjoy the way you openly share your practice.

        I don’t teach any more but have a lot of online teaching experience and I recognise the problem that you have with dependency on the instructor. My colleagues and I used to spend quite a bit of time trying to reduce this dependency and came up with as many strategies as we could to do this, mainly strategies that involved speaking directly and explicitly to students about this problem, as you have done.

        On the other hand, as long as we have education systems that make students jump through hoops to meet externally imposed assessment goals, I have quite a bit of sympathy for the students, especially those who want to do really well on their assessments and aren’t necessarily lazy.

        Perhaps one way we can address this is to establish a community of practice for the course, where students will support each other and their first port of call will be another student rather than the tutor. I think quite a bit of work on this needs to be done at the beginning of the course, to establish the expectations and ethos, just as in a classroom of young children I used to spend the first two weeks of the school year simply establishing how I wanted the class to learn and behave. It was worth the time spent.

        I agree with you that the burden of learning should fall on the learner, but I also agree with Biesta’s criticism of a culture of learnification, which I interpret to mean abdication of the role of the teacher in favour of students teaching each other. I find Biesta helpful in confirming the importance of the role of the teacher; e.g. he writes:

        “Teaching ‘works’ with something that is strange from the perspective of the student, not because what is given/received is necessarily incomprehensible, but because it is something that comes from the outside or the ‘exterior’ (Levinas, 1969). From the perspective of the student teaching thus brings something that is strange, something that is not a projection of the student’s own mind, but something that is radically and fundamentally other.” P.42


        “… for teachers to be able to teach they need to be able to make judgements about what is educationally desirable, and the fact that what is at stake in such judgements is the question of desirability, highlights that such judgements are not merely technical judgements—not merely judgements about the ‘how’ of teaching—but ultimately always normative judgements, that is judgements about the ‘why’ of teaching.” P.45

        Biesta, G. (2013). Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology & Practice, 6(2)

        So I wonder whether it is the teacher who needs to find independence from the system
        more than the student from the teacher? Just thinking aloud here.

        Thanks for your thought-provoking post.

        1. Jenny, I love how you always give me so much to think on!

          I do have a great deal of sympathy for students, whom I know have been trained to jump through hoops. Perhaps I am romanticising the transition from high school to college, but I do want there to be an expectation of students helping themselves.

          I admit I am wary of what I see to be artificial “communities”, of practice or otherwise. My class is only one of many the students have, and they are usually overloading their schedules. From a visual perspective, the transition to a common LMS means that my class is literally just a link on their Canvas page. My struggles to create community and student interdependence are well-documented; it might just be me but I cannot recreate the friendly (or unfriendly) aspects of Facebook-style social media into my classes. My FAQs, coffee houses, pubs, etc (all just separate, top-level discussion forums) either saw little participation or just provided yet another space for them to ask me questions answered elsewhere.

          I do indeed, as the teacher, struggle to be independent from the system, since the entire environment is now structured in such a limiting way. Creative approaches that necessitate linking out from the system are no longer worth the risk to student privacy nor the necessary deep instruction about how to use the open web safely.

          Instead, I am working with the idea that students can assess/mark their own work, but be responsible for correcting it and helping each other do so. Even today I sent a message to students self-grading their primary sources to be sure to go back to the board, read my comments, and help each other complete their work as needed. I very much like the idea of inviting them to watch each other’s backs, as it were.

          Much of what I do could be interpreted either way. I could be seen as abrogating my responsibility as a teacher by enabling self-assessment and encouraging them to use resources I’ve provided rather than just using me personally. I could also be seen as being too involved as a teacher or being too much the “other”, too interfering with their learning, by determining and providing content, having grades at all, or making weekly announcements judging their work (I do say things like, “some of the sources posted don’t seem to related to the history”, etc.).

          I think what I’m doing here is separating student contact about the structure and content of the course from student contact designed to get a quick and convenient response. Gaining understanding from the materials provided is the main skill in learning the content and habits of practice in the class – I’d like that skill applied to their own work, by them, if that makes sense.

          Thanks as always for helping me thing this through!

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