Are Students Really Teaching Themselves?

By Ted Murcray

Research tells us that active learning techniques, combined with lectures and other good course delivery skills, result in high academic achievement and engagement on the part of the students.  However, instructors who implement these techniques often find themselves meeting resistance from both students and other instructors.  It isn’t uncommon for instructors to read comments on course evaluations that say the students were required to teach themselves the material.  Instead of capitulating to the criticism or dismissing that critique out of hand, instructors should lean into that topic and do a bit of investigation.

What does it mean to teach yourself?

Recently I needed to teach myself how to clean my pool filter.  I decided I was more than capable of learning the task with just a little bit of guidance, so I went online and searched “how to clean a pool filter.”  It turns out there are lots of kinds of pool filters, and each one has different processes for keeping them clean.  Out I went to the backyard to look at my filter to decide what kind it was.  I went back in and searched for my filter.  Sadly, mine was too old to have any convenient YouTube videos, but I did find an owner’s manual.  Back and forth between my pool filter and my computer, I went over and over, reading, watching videos, and trying out different tips.  I am happy to say that I successfully taught myself how to clean a pool filter (although it was a messy, challenging process)!

Let’s unpack a little bit about what happened here.  It appears that to teach myself, I went through a few steps that we can use as a model:

  • Determined the objective of the learning
  • Searched for and curated a list of resources to create the curriculum
  • Engaged with the resources to learn techniques
  • Applied the techniques
  • Evaluated my success
  • Re-engaged with the content
  • Repeated the last two until I determined that I had been successful

Applying this to the Classroom

Oftentimes, students believe they are teaching themselves when they have to do the third and fourth bullet points by themselves.  Reading texts and watching videos are characterized as “doing all the work” for the class.  However, in most instances, the instructor has set the learning target, curated the resources, and assigned the resources to the students with the learning targets.  Requiring students to engage with the content independently is just one part of the teaching process, and it should not be characterized as students teaching themselves the content.

Anecdotally, and I don’t have good research on this (it would make a great SoTL project!), students tend to feel they are teaching themselves most often when they have to do the fifth bullet point themselves – evaluate their own success.  Students like to get feedback that helps them determine how close they are to the target, particularly when the learning objectives are not clear, or the topic is broad.  If they are left to do all the reading and take a quiz (that counts as a grade) before they have had the chance to interact with others (particularly the instructor!), they are more apt to say the instructor “isn’t really teaching.” 

Some strategies for the Classroom

If instructors have students engage with content outside of the class meeting sessions, they may want to try some of the following strategies to help manage student expectations and increase positive feelings about the learning experience:

  • Frame it up:  Let students know what “teaching themselves” looks like, and explain how you have curated the resources to be sure their time is well spent.
  • Provide Checkpoint Quizzes: Put some quizzes in Blackboard that are zero points (won’t affect the grade).  Use the feedback feature in Blackboard and adjust the settings so Blackboard gives students feedback on the questions they miss.  Instructors can put in the feedback section which page number or chapter (or timestamp on a video) students should refer back to for the correct answers.  This allows students to check their understanding prior to taking any assessments that might affect their grades.
  • Use Specifications Grading: If instructors feel strongly about providing points for the checkpoint quizzes, they can use a technique called specifications grading.  Determine how many of the items should be correct to determine that the student learned “enough,” and then set that as 100%.  For example, an instructor might decide that students who get 3 out of 5 questions correct gleaned enough of the material, so they adjust all scores of 3 or 4 correct to be 100% as an override grade.  Grading in this way helps students feel comfortable putting in effort even when they are unsure of their competence, and then they get good feedback without negatively impacting their grades.
  • Discussion Board Posts: Set up a discussion board (leave off the requirements to post and comment a certain number of times) about the content.  Encourage students to post their impressions, thoughts, and questions about the content there.  As an instructor, engage appropriately (there is no need to comment on every post), and gather information about what students understand to inform the next class session.
  • Require Students to Bring Questions: Often, students think they are supposed to have mastered the content from the readings or the videos prior to class.  Sometimes instructors want that, so the above recommendations are good fits for that.  Other times, instructors want students to come ready for thoughtful discussions.  In those cases, ask students to come prepared with one to three questions about the material that requires more than a yes/no response.  Students can turn those in beforehand as an assignment, post them on a discussion board, or just bring them with them to the next class session.  This will encourage engagement with the material while also fostering productive interactions in class.

For more ideas on grading, join the Innovative Assessment Practices Faculty Learning Community. Register on the TLC website or by contacting the TLC.

Do you have other ideas about how to engage students with content outside of class?  Post below!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *