Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Power (and Problem) of Discomfort

Educators know that moments of discomfort are very often also moments of significant learning.  Still, it can be difficult to persuade our students of this principle, and even more difficult to persuade them that it is normal to experience discomfort during a class--and that this doesn't necessarily mean that the instructor is doing something wrong.  At the same time, I am learning, we educators must also appreciate the value of comfort to the learning experience.  The tricky part is finding a good balance between letting students settle in and feel comfortable in a class; and forcing them out of their comfort zones from time to time.

In the fall semester version of the flipped class, I did the equivalent of throwing the students into the deep end.  I did explain to them what a flipped class was and how it would improve their learning, but did not really appreciate the extent to which their experience of a flipped class would be so disorienting.  In part, the disorientation came from the space of the classroom itself--a very large and badly designed lecture hall.  It is the kind of room one walks into and expects to hear a lecture from the sage on the stage.  At the front of the class, there is a small podium and two projection screens.  The design of the room encourages focus to be on that stage at the front, and it is very difficult to navigate the seats in the room.  When I didn't lecture, students were confused--even if I had told them at the outset that I was not going to lecture, they somehow still expected it and wanted it.  They also struggled to understand how the i>clicker and discussion questions connected to their out of class work.  To them, it just seemed like a review.  Even when I tried to explain that I was using the i>clicker polls to check comprehension of difficult concepts; and using peer discussion and class discussion to do higher order analytical thinking, they didn't get it.

Going into the fall semester, it never occurred to me that shifting lectures to online would result in such a high level of student disorientation and discomfort.  Yet it clearly did.  As well, it was at a level that was not conducive to learning.  Rather, it was causing frustration, anxiety, and rebellion against the flipped class model.  For my part, I was blindsided and struggled to make sense of their discomfort.  It was difficult for me to understand why they would be so disoriented by such a simple shift of content.  I didn't understand why they struggled to make what seemed to me to be a relatively small cognitive adjustment.  Ultimately, I suspect that there were many causes of their discomfort, including their own choice to cram for exams instead of preparing the work as assigned.  Still, it was incredible to observe how much power the space of the classroom exerts on student expectations.

In re-designing the class for the spring, I took very seriously the issue of student (dis)orientation.  I knew that the only way I could push them up against the edges of their comfort zones was if I let them find a comfort zone.  To that end, much of the first month of this semester has been devoted to orienting the students and meeting their explicit and implicit expectations.  I am lecturing (though I will be gradually shifting away from in class lecture in the coming weeks); every exercise that the students are asked to do has a practice component to it (practice quizzes, they can post until they are satisfied with the grades that will count) and was modeled for them by the teaching team.  I have created numerous written documents and recordings to explain to them expectations for different elements of the course.  A substantial amount of structure has been added to the course, so that students know each week what they will be doing on a given day.

As we start the fifth week, I am pleased with the redesign (but am also keeping in mind that, at this point in the fall, everything was going smoothly too).  I do feel like the students are much more oriented and that they have fallen into the weekly rhythm of the course.  We are getting very few logistical questions (unlike last fall, when we got many for weeks after the start of the semester) and my sense is that the students' know my expectations of them and that I am meeting their general expectations as well.  I have worked hard to let them settle in to the class and feel a sense of comfort, perhaps even make some friends.  Then, once they have that sense of comfort, I can chip away at it from time to time.  I can encourage them to move out of their comfort zone, into a state of discomfort, where most formative learning happens.  I've come to appreciate, however, that the power of discomfort for the learning process only exists if the students start from a place of comfort.

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