Role Playing in the Classroom

While I was an undergraduate in the engineering program, I found myself often asking the question “why am I being forced to learn this?”.   Looking back at those courses, the thing that was missing from those lectures was motivation through exampled uses (in the workplace) for the content being taught.  If someone had explained why I was learning to program in Matlab, or why I had to understand multivariable calculous, then I would have been less annoyed of completing the work.

Mark Carnes in “Setting Student’ Minds on Fire,” discussed the positive feedback from using what I would call role playing in the classroom.  Engaging students by placing their imaginations in a certain historical setting.  I believe I’ve had several courses that attempted the same course engagement, and both of them were electives.  For example, a freshman history course I took had a test question that asked for me to discuss the type of conversion I might have if I were at a presidential dinner party prior to the Civil War.  I can’t remember the specifics but I do recall being thrown back when I first read the essay question.  It was the first time I’d seen question like that, and the first time I actually had to sit and think hard about this and recall the characteristics of the people attending the dinner.  However, in an engineering introduction course, in class projects would place us in different setting, such as an industrial engineer back-engineering a toy to determine who it was made in order replicate it, or an inventor required to design a device that could improve the mobility of the blind.  These scenarios required actually research current tools used and understanding the problem of being blind. Perhaps the author has a point, that in order to step out of the current lecture-listen system, the manner of engaging students in learning needs to be reimagined.

Fear of Grades, NOT the Task of Learning

In the article, “The Case Against Grades”, Alfie Kohn emphasized the very fear I have had when taking every undergraduate course, and some of the courses I’ve taken as a Graduate student.  Since my late teenage years, for the past 12 years since, I’ve been a perfectionist about my academics.  I was so perfectionistic, that the very fear of making a mistake on assignments and especially on tests resulted in me making ordinarily avoidable mistakes.  Interestingly, this problem is worded perfectly by Marilyn M. Lombardi, when she reports that students make mistakes on work that are assessed with grades than they ordinarily would in ungraded situations.  I found that I was able to quickly make a connect with what she said with my own experience.  On inclass assignments that were only pass or fail based on attendance, or courses that I would audit, I actually found I learned more and I was less likely to make the same mistakes that I would make on graded assessments.

Furthermore, the motivation by grades alone is unfortunately the only focus students should be expected to have.  Afterall, everything from scholarships to student’s first jobs are primarily interested in grades.  This whole process is circular, so as long as the majority of careers and assessments focus on grades, students too will follow the same path.

Anxiety of Thoughtless Learning

In education, there seems to be a belief that testing students is a method of determining what students know.  While I managed to get through all lower education and my college undergraduate studies successfully, I found timed-testing to be a failed way of assessing my knowledge.  I believe the only thing testing taught me was how faulty I’m capable of being under high stressed, timed conditions.   The stress that would accumulate each day prior to the test and then peak during the test resulted in over thinking the problems and resolving them in (incorrect) ways I would never do on homework or in class problems.   For me, asking the question, “what will be on the test?” was inevitably a way for me to reduce the amount of anxiety I knew I would be experiencing in these traditional test settings.

In Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance, Michael Wesch posits that in order for students to learn, we must step away from “traditional teaching” methods, and identify new ways of encouraging students to learn.  Author Ellen Langer adds that one-way (“single perspective”) teaching has become an institutionalized method of teaching students.  This may unavoidably result in students believing the teachers’ spoken word to be unchallengeable and absolute, thus discouraging the students from reflecting on the material and possibly acquiring unique “perspectives”.  Ellen has an interesting point when she suggests that teaching in a “conditional” manner engages true learning.  From my experience, I believe this has generally been the way a majority of my graduate courses have been managed.  In general, these courses provided open-ended testing and writing assignments requiring a pre-understanding (non-memorization) of course material, forcing me to think about what I’d learned, and in-turn providing my own unique response to the question(s) I was asked.  If this same approach to teaching is utilized at the undergraduate level, students may feel more motivated to strive to utilize 100% of their potential to learning, with less dread of upcoming stress-related thoughtless memorization.