Just Say “I Don’t Know!”

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Two weeks ago, a conference was held on the campus of the University of Virginia. The conference was sponsored by the University’s Teaching Resource Center and the focus was on issues related to teaching and learning. The Teaching Resource Center at UVA has been in existence for over twenty years and sponsors conferences like this one at the start of every semester.

These kinds of events are fairly common on college campuses. Anna Maria College, for example, has a Center for Teaching Excellence and this Center provides programs like this for faculty regularly. The goal of our Center and the one at UVA is to help professors to improve their teaching and to take the time to reflect on their profession.

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a brief article about the recent UVA conference that caught my attention. As summarized by their reporter, Dan Berrett, one of the central themes of this conference was the discussion of how to help  students become active learners. Many of the sessions at this conference included discussion of the research by Dr. Carol Dweck from Stanford University. Dr. Dweck is a leading research psychologist whose work on mind-sets and learning is highly respected. I will discuss Dr. Dweck’s research and theories in next week’s blog.

But what impressed me about the discussions at the UVA conference was the encouragement to professors to help develop our students as lifelong learners by refraining from always providing answers and being willing to say, “I don’t know!”

One UVA professor at the conference shared a strategy he uses in the classroom called “Stump the Chump.” This is an engineering class and students are invited to present problems in class that the professor then tries to solve in front of them. As Dan Berrett described in his article, “As (he)works through the problems, his students will watch him in real time as he pursues dead ends, crosses out equations and starts over, and reconsiders his assumptions to get to the solution.”

The lessons for students are many. They see that learning can be difficult and that it is common for even the most learned to struggle. It models the learning process where answers are not simply found, but thought, analysis, trial and error are often necessary steps.

Strategies like this also help students understand that they are responsible for their own learning. While a college education provides knowledge in various disciplines, it may be more important that students learn how to acquire knowledge. Our graduates need to be discerning about information and open to a lifetime of exploration, analysis, reflection and change.

Finally, exercises like this help students to humanize faculty members. While most professors hold advanced degrees and vast knowledge/experience in their discipline, they do not and should not be expected to know everything at all times. I assume that some professors may be uncomfortable revealing their limitations. But I suspect students will applaud their honesty more than question their ability.

What is clear is that our graduates need to be lifelong learners and acquire the skills and abilities to develop their understanding. Do strategies like “Stump the Chump” really work? I need to do more research, think about it and try it for myself … but honestly, I don’t know!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)


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Guest Wednesday, 23 July 2014