David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

A Teacher’s New Year’s Resolution: Stop Fixating on the Data

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My 10-year-old daughter reads books at all hours and resists any move to turn out the lights, usually because she’s "right in the middle of the good part." So when I met her teachers last spring, I expected to hear them praise her reading abilities or her adventurous book choices. Instead they praised her diligence in filling out weekly reading logs tracking how much she read.

I share this story to illustrate a common tendency that afflicts elementary and secondary schools as well as higher education: We’re obsessed with quantifiable data, compliance, and surveillance. That misplaced national priority is one of the most penetrating insights of John Warner’s recent book, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.

While the book is centrally concerned with the problems that beset writing instruction, Warner indicts all corners of the educational system with his critique. I highly recommend it to any academics who are looking for classroom inspiration in the new year — and not just those who teach composition.

Most learning is very difficult to catalog and quantify (especially at scale), yet that hasn’t stopped our public-school systems and higher-education institutions from investing heavily in ed-tech’s latest panaceas — from parent portals that keep us updated in real time on every merit and demerit our children earn, to facial-recognition software that claims to recognize whether or not students are paying attention in class. This fall, for instance, Virginia Commonwealth University introduced VCU RAM Attend, a system that automatically tracks students’ attendance by comparing Wi-Fi-connection logs with class-schedule information.

In his book, Warner identifies the dangers that surveillance poses to learning: It’s hard for students to take risks and learn from their mistakes when their every move is being constantly watched and recorded. He also warns that ed-tech can be a false prophet of measurable data. When educators "focus on the thing we can conveniently and accurately count," Warner writes, "we may crowd out more important aspects … that are more difficult to count, and in doing so, distort the entire process."

But the problem with educators’ focusing only on what we can objectively measure isn’t just that we risk measuring the wrong things — it’s that every choice we make sends signals to our students. They pick up on it when their teacher is fixated on, say, whether students have filled out their reading logs. At best, that sends a message that how much they read is more important than what they read or how well they read. At worst, students get the message that the weekly logs, and the value of turning them in on time, are more important than what they might learn from reading a book. In short, our choices as teachers tell students what we value.

Of course, compliance and surveillance are a part of the college classroom as well. The new VCU attendance system is only the latest in a series of efforts by colleges and universities to improve "student success" by making use of the vast swaths of data they now collect about students. As faculty members, we send signals to our students in more subtle ways as well.

I’ve written before about the benefits of frequent formative assessments, and the research is clear on that front. But too often, in the interest of offering guidance and support, we overload students with directives and checkpoints on their assignments. It’s important to offer substantive feedback, but too many checkpoints can leave students feeling like they’re being watched, and can convey a message that compliance is more important than learning.

I’m not suggesting that we go back to the old way of handing out big complicated assignments and telling students, "You’re on your own. Good luck." What I am saying: We need to be sure that the messages we convey to students aren’t counterproductive. There’s value in being clear with students about what we expect, in giving frequent feedback, and in making sure we hold them accountable. But there are costs, as well: Too many directives will make students feel that they are doing the work for us, instead of for their own benefit.

There’s also the danger of circumscribing what students can achieve in our courses. Take scaffolding — a popular teaching practice in which faculty members provide support and assistance for students as they initially try to carry out a task or activity, and then gradually reduce that assistance.

Jesse Stommel, a senior lecturer at the University of Mary Washington and founder of the blog Hybrid Pedagogy, has argued persuasively on Twitter: "We’ve taken for granted that scaffolding is necessarily good. Any pedagogical approach should be looked at with one eyebrow raised. Especially one as widely accepted as instructional scaffolding." He added, "Scaffolding should be done with students, not before they’ve arrived on the scene."

Here, again, is a generally good teaching practice that can have negative effects when taken too far in the direction of compliance and surveillance. The more effort we put into providing support for students, the more we risk holding on too tightly to the conditions of student learning. Especially when we scaffold assignments in advance, before the semester even starts, we can wind up foreclosing all sorts of possibilities — defining in advance what our students will do, and what they won’t do, without even meeting them.

One of the sturdiest theories of human motivation is known as "self-determination theory," developed in large part by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan more than 30 years ago. The theory posits that there are two main kinds of human motivation: autonomous and controlled. Put simply, autonomous motivations are based on our own interests, desires, and ambitions, while controlled motivations arise from other people’s actions (such as a promised reward or punishment). One of the clearest conclusions of the research carried out under this theory is that autonomous motivation is preferable to the controlled variety.

So, for instance, when a student completes an assignment because she is driven by her own curiosity, or even by an earnest desire to master the subject to advance her career, she’ll do better than if she were motivated only by the desire to earn a good grade from the professor. In educational settings, autonomous motivation has been shown to lead to better persistence, higher grades, increased retention, more creativity, and lower levels of anxiety.

"An enormous amount of research," Deci and Ryan write, "has confirmed that, across domains, autonomous motivation and controlled motivation lead to very different outcomes — with autonomous motivation tending to yield greater psychological health and more effective performance on heuristic types of activities."

The feeling of being controlled, of someone else directing and assessing your behavior, flies in the face of every human’s desire for autonomy and self-determination. "To the extent that people do feel controlled by extrinsic motivators," Deci and Ryan write, "their need for autonomy will be thwarted and some negative motivational, performance, and well-being consequences are likely to follow."

What Warner’s book and my experience with my daughter tell me: Even the most well-meaning attempts to provide guidance and support can instead signal to students that the classroom is our space, not theirs, and that what matters is our ambitions, not theirs.

Teaching well is hard work, and one of the more difficult aspects of it is figuring out how much help to offer students, and how much to let them try — and often fail — on their own.

Most faculty members go into teaching because we care about students and want to help them learn and develop. But we can’t let such concerns draw us into surveillance of students — not just because it’s creepy, but, even more important, because students learn best when they pursue and value learning for themselves. So as a new semester gets underway, think carefully about what you’re asking of students, and what you’re signaling to them. As much as possible, the message conveyed by your course should be: This will be a valuable experience for students, one in which they will want to progress for their own sake.

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