Focusing on Ideas

While planning a new course this summer, I remembered something from when I was director of Elon’s Honors Program some years ago. Our advisory committee had been pondering the requirements of the program, including how it would be determined whether students could continue in it and retain their scholarships.

We knew it shouldn’t just be a matter of taking the right courses and maintaining a minimum GPA. Instead, we wanted to know that the students were learning and growing.

We decided to ask each student to submit an annual end-of-year report in which they reflected on their recent intellectual and personal development and looked ahead to how they’d be trying to achieve their academic and life goals.

One of the main prompts we asked students was: “Discuss the two or three most interesting ideas you grappled with this year.”

I assumed this prompt would yield rich answers. After all, I knew from student evaluations that they were very satisfied with their Honors courses and they reported continuing their discussions outside of class. I also knew that the faculty were thrilled with the quality of class discussions and student performances.

However, I found many of the responses disappointing. Students wrote a lot, but they rarely talked about ideas. Instead, they described courses they liked because the topics were interesting, the discussions were fantastic, the professor was great, or the project helped them get better at research.

“But what specific ideas were the interesting discussions about?!?” I would ask the piece of paper in front of me. (It was after graduation when I was reading the reflections.) “In these interesting courses, did you encounter any ideas or concepts that changed how you think or see the world?”

What explains this problem? It wasn’t the Honors students – they were smart, engaged, hard-working individuals who built great learning communities and conscientiously wrote their reflections. Maybe the prompt wasn’t worded to get at what I hoped. But I suspect a bigger problem – some kind of disconnect between students’ satisfaction with their courses in general and their ability to retain or articulate the specific ideas that engaged them.

I want all my students to encounter thought-provoking ideas in my courses, and I want them to be able to identify them and tell their friends and relatives about them. I don’t know for sure what will work, but I’m exhorting myself to do two things:

  1. As I design each class meeting, I need to come up with a clear answer to these questions:
    • How am I going to get students to really think today?
    • What’s a big idea l want students to take away from class today?
  1. I’ve got to help students become more aware of the big ideas. I need to refer to these ideas as ideas (so students realize the difference between mere facts and big ideas, and so students think of themselves as thinkers). I can’t let students lose sight of the forest. I need to regularly build their awareness of these ideas (their metacognition, that is):
    • At the beginning of class (“We will be grappling with this idea/concept today”)
    • At the end of class or a discussion (“What are the implications of this idea? Take 2 minutes to write your thoughts”)
    • Periodically (“What were the big ideas from this week/this unit of the course?”)

I’m now heading off to my planning document to put an idea at the top of each class meeting….

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