Thursday, March 11, 2010

Not Afraid to Make Mistakes

Imagine what you would be able to come up with if you were not afraid of making mistakes. Think of the creative results you might see when getting it wrong the first time bore no consequence. I don't know about you, but I'd be excited to see what I could do!

I think the traditional model of education stifles our creativity sometimes. Since we so often feel we have to get it right the first time, or else risk a lower grade if something goes wrong, we work more conservatively. But it doesn't have to be this way.

On Monday, I co-presented a TA Mentor workshop with friend and fellow PhD student Terri Oda called "Help! Nobody Understands My Lecture!" I spoke first about what I learned from Tim Pychyl's seminar on lighting the fire for learning. One of Tim's suggestions for fostering the skill and the will of students was to introduce students to the ability to self-monitor their goals. Students should be given moderate challenges with high expectations, be guided as they meet these challenges, but also be taught how to evaluate their own work as they go.

This idea reminded me of a book I recently started reading: Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do. One of the topics I bookmarked for later was the idea of giving students the opportunity to evaluate their work (or have it evaluated by others) before receiving a grade. I think this is strongly related to Tim's idea.

I've seen this model work very well in practice. For example, I took a data structures class last semester, where three assignments were given. The professor used a very specific testing script that we couldn't see while writing our code, and if we didn't happen to try one of his test cases and it ended up failing, our grade would be pretty low as a result. But instead of leaving it that way, he gave us the opportunity to fix our code so the test script worked again. We were allowed to resubmit our assignments until the last day of class. This was amazing -- code I never would have looked back on I now revisited to fix my mistakes, doubling what I learned from the assignments.

This idea should work well in other computer science classes, too. Perhaps students could be encouraged to review each others' written problems before getting them graded. Or industry-like code reviews could be arranged. Or just look at how well the conference-style paper reviewing worked for the open source class I'm taking right now.

I'm going to continue thinking about how I can make my students less afraid to make mistakes, and see if I can test out my ideas in the intro to computers class I'm teaching to arts students this summer.

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