Saturday, April 16, 2016

My story: "Killing them with kindness" by Kathleen Fitzpatrick



Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Simon Fraser University

This lesson was learned at least 5 years ago. I teach many courses, one of them a writing intensive genetic analysis lab course. The students who take the course vary widely in background; for some this is their first upper division biology lab course and others are about to graduate having already done directed research or a co-op. So each class is somewhat variable in terms of preparation and background understanding.

One semester I had a cohort that was really struggling.  Just helping them through the basics was taking up all of my TA’s time, and my own as well.  Many students were expressing frustration at the workload, and complaining about the course (and me). There were many approaches I could have taken to handle it, but I chose the wrong one. I dropped an assignment, extended the deadline on another and changed the grade distribution. And I announced these changes, explaining my reasons. In retrospect, I think my hope was that they would see that I was really helpful, and responsive to their needs and they would stop complaining about me and my course. This was more aimed at my self-image than their learning.

To my surprise the grades remained the same, despite the reduction in number and scope of the assignment. And despite the extension of deadlines, students were still starting the papers at the last minute and so doing substandard work. I was horribly disappointed, because I really expected the work to improve.  Somehow, I had failed to inspire the class to make a reasonable effort.

In discussion with a very insightful TA, I came to the conclusion that the mistake was actually announcing the changes in the way I had. By dropping some requirements and framing it as a response to the struggles the class was having, I had inadvertently communicated the message that I thought they weren’t up to my usual standards and were not capable of doing the assignments well enough. I had essentially announced to the entire class that I did not believe in them.  So they dropped their efforts correspondingly.

Though mistakes are discouraging sometimes, there is always something to be learned. Since then I have never (I sincerely hope) given the impression that I think a class – or an individual – is incapable of doing the course work. I am sure I’ve made many mistakes since, but not this one.

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