Trust the students

One of the things I often struggle with is trusting my students to do what is required. Even the best student sometimes seems to fail to hand in an assignment, or to follow the essay guide, or to use the case studies that I suggested. None of this is their fault, nor mine – it’s just part of the learning process.

We have been drilled over the last few decades to celebrate diversity in the responses our students give us. We tell them that the examiner doesn’t want to read twenty versions of the same essay. We say it’s boring if they choose the same template for their PowerPoints. We encourage the class to move around to break up the lesson into more engaging segments.

Yet when students take the initiative, we frown up on it even if we don’t mean to.

I didn’t ask you to find out about North Korea for your essay on the International Monetary Fund! Why did you include a segment about regolith removal when the essay was meant to be about biodiversity? What do you mean you decided to throw away the assignment and start again with only half an hour to go?

If that sounds familiar – even if it’s just your inner voice speaking, and you wouldn’t dream of saying that to the students – then you’re like me. Because although I say that I want students to be independent, I also like to know that I am helping them. And that can easily conflate into a need to control – sorry, I mean a need to guide.

So when the student does something that is just plain wrong, I get frustrated. Why didn’t they use the example I told them? Why didn’t they follow the essay plan I gave them? Why didn’t they just do the work when I told them to?

That’s when I need to slow down and remember that they are learning. If they don’t make these mistakes, they’ll always struggle to work out where the limits are.

So, this post has been about one simple thing: trial and error. Trust your students not to avoid mistakes, but to make them. And then deal with the resulting errors as a learning experience not for you (in that you change the way you instruct them to avoid the same mistake again) but for them. And eventually, you’ll be able to trust them to do work that is beyond your expectations because it is original, interesting and logical.





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