We need to produce learners, not just students

December 21, 2012, 8:00 am

Paul Pintrich was the creator of the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire, which I used as the main instrument for collecting data for the study on students in the flipped transition-to-proof course this past semester. Now that the data are in, I’ve been going back and reading some of Pintrich’s original papers on the MSLQ and its theoretical framework. What Pintrich has to say about student learning goes right to the heart of why I chose to experiment with the flipped classroom, and indeed I think he really speaks to the purpose of higher education in general.

For me, the main purpose of higher education is to train students on how to be learners — people who take initiative for learning things, who are skilled in learning new things, and who above all want to learn new things. My goal as an instructor is to make sure that every student in my class makes some form of incremental improvement in having the dispositions and skills attendant with successful lifelong learning. I care about this a lot more than I care about covering this or that particular content topic in a course.

I even care about this more than students’ grades. In my mind, and I think in the minds of most people who employ my students later in life, if you graduate from university and don’t have the skills or dispositions necessary to teach yourself new things for the rest of your life, it doesn’t really matter what your GPA says: You’re not educated. And if I shepherd a student through the university without putting them in a position time and again to hone these skills and dispositions, it doesn’t matter what my title or my course evaluations say: I’m not an educator.

Some of those skills and dispositions would include curiosity, persistence, mental toughness, independence, and a sense of control over what and how they learn. Pintrich puts all of these under the general umbrella term of self-regulated learning. In this paper, Pintrich lays out four basic assumptions of a self-regulated model of student learning:

  1. Learners are active participants in the learning process.
  2. Learners have the option to monitor and control their thinking and motivations for learning.
  3. Learners have a standard against which comparisons can be made to decide whether their learning is going fine or needs to change.
  4. Learners are mediators between their own personal learning characteristics and their achievement.

This model of self-regulated learning fits very well to what I hope to achieve in all my teaching and explicitly set up to happen with the flipped classroom. The flipped class model puts students into a position where all four of these assumptions are in play, all the time. It forces the issue about self-regulation.

Pintrich has a table in this paper (page 390) that lists some specific ways that self-regulating students self-regulate and the areas in which they do it. Basically, a self regulating learner sets target goals and plans out her work, is aware of what is going on when she works, feels like she has permission and ability to exert control over what she is doing, has the ability to change course if the learning process isn’t going the way she likes, and is capable of evaluating her work independently.

Pintrich doesn’t talk (at least in this paper) about the opposite of self-regulating students. The opposite students would jump into work without planning or setting goals. They proceed in working without much in the way of awareness of what they are doing. They work without a sense of control over the process. They don’t question whether or not their learning process is satisfactory. They might not even have a sense of what “satisfactory progress” even means. And they need third-party validation (professors, backs of books, etc.) to have a sense of whether they have successfully completed their learning tasks.

Surely there’s no debate as to which set of behaviors is the right one for college graduates. And yet it’s striking how resistant traditional models of higher education are to practices that encourage the right behaviors. We say we want lifelong learners — i.e. graduates who can self-regulate — but overwhelmingly our dominant model of instruction involves students sitting in lectures, with no possibility of control over their thinking or motivations, and utterly dependent on the professor for knowledge and validation. We do not put our money where our mouth is.

I think the flipped classroom, once you strip away the buzz-wordiness and the hype surrounding it, is a major step toward a more sensible and effective model of the university classroom. But it doesn’t matter whether we use the flipped classroom, IBL, PBL, or what-have-you — what counts is whether we are training people to be able to learn on their own.  Doing education without this in mind is just irresponsible.

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