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Can instructors learn something from business about student pushback?

June 13, 2013, 8:00 am

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Have you ever tried out a new instructional method or course design – like peer instruction or the inverted classroom – and had not just a few students become discontent but entire groups of students who band together to push back? Or even put together a Facebook group to protest? It’s not pretty. Following last week’s Teaching and Learning Institute, where I talked with several college profs about this and other potential pitfalls of the flipped classroom, I happened to catch this answer on Quora to the question, How does a company handle an anti-marketing campaign like Dump Dropbox? and it seemed to me there are a lot of potential applications of this problem to the problem of mass student pushback.

To begin, the answer’s author says:

1. In public, ignore it.

2. Quietly shore up your messaging on any points where they landed a good punch.

Don’t bring up the campaign yourself, don’t respond to its claims, and do not get into point/counterpoint. If you’re Dropbox versus these guys, all of that would be a losing proposition. Chances are your customers have never heard of Dump Dropbox, and if you don’t take the bait it can stay that way.

If someone asks for public comment, make a very brief statement on the key strengths of your product and then go back to work. If you’re prepared, which you should be, then you know which points you need to focus on. Don’t mention the critics at all.

Here’s what happens if you post a big response:
1. Lots of customers who trusted you before now hear a message you don’t want them to. By responding directly, you acknowledge the claims and imply they have some level of merit.
2. Your customers are now a) slightly more nervous and b) looking at a list of all your faults, no matter how exaggerated. This is not ideal.
3. Your response will only give them ammunition. It’s very much like throwing bullets at the enemy. Anything you say can and likely will be twisted, obtusely misinterpreted, and used against you in ways you might not see coming. What brimstone will rain down if you do make a mistake, you don’t know and you certainly don’t want to.

Ignoring for the moment any comparisons between students and “customers” – and especially between students who are pushing back and “the enemy” – there is some wisdom here for instructors who face this kind of situation.

  • Instead of getting into a protracted back-and-forth with students, stress the strengths of the methods you are using. If you’re doing peer instruction, for example, go to this essential paper to give examples of how student learning has been known to improve under this method. Be prepared to give statements like these – know the literature behind the methods you are using and stress how you intend to help students by using it.
  • Listen to those students who push back, because no matter how bad what they say may seem, there is usually at least a grain of truth in it and something that can be turned into a constructive criticism. And a lot of those students simply want to be heard.
  • Most of all, get back to work and perfect your craft, taking all legitimate criticisms in mind. Students may have a point – there could be something that legitimately needs fixing in what you are doing. Do so and get better.

Moving on:

Your competitors have just dropped in your lap a researched list of all the places that they think you’re weak—and not just product-wise, but strategically. Where they’ve attacked is where they think your customers will best be swayed. After you make sure your pitch is covering those points, you can go to town.

Make blog posts. Loudly roll out features. Up some quota just because you can. If EC2 looks like a problem, talk about the data center power savings and how it’s good for the environment. If it’s about security, talk about some process that you have that costs you extra money but keeps the data safer. If you don’t have one, maybe you should.

You’ve just been told how to get people to like you. If you’re worried, don’t waste the opportunity.

Student pushback is actually a really valuable resource because it tells us exactly where to focus our energies. Sometimes this has to do with the instructional method; sometimes it goes deeper than this to the very assumptions we make about students and how people study. Whatever the case, we don’t have to search around in the dark to find the issues – the students are telling us where to look.

Back when I was first experimenting with the inverted classroom, with the inverted MATLAB class, I had a course blog for announcements and such, with comments open to the students. About one-third of the students really did not like the inverted class structure. One of them left an anonymous blog comment that ripped me and my teaching to shreds. It was hard to take – but there was something in it that caught my attention and cut through my defensiveness. The student made a particular point about how time-consuming the class was and how ridiculous it was to expect a person with a 16-credit load to spend 36 hours a week outside of class working on courses. How can you expect us to do all this work outside of class when we want to have regular lives? And so on.

Aha – there’s the problem. The student was rejecting the assumption – which most higher education institutions make – that students should be spending 2–3 hours outside of class for every hour in class. My design of the course did make this assumption, and the length of the screencasts and the Guided Practice exercises were gauged so that they would take about 2–3 hours a week. (It was a one-credit class.) For me, that ratio of time in class to time out of class is such a natural assumption that I didn’t conceive that students might not agree. For the student, it was a bridge too far. I don’t think I ever won that particular student over. But I think I was able to sway a few more by showing them that I was trying to adhere to a near-universal expectation for college student workloads and not just burdening them down with as much work as I could concoct.

When students resist the instructional techniques or designs we choose, in other words, it’s hard to take – but if we have ears to hear, there’s a kind of communication that is taking place, and an opportunity to take the professional high road and help students come to grips with the expectations we have for them.

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