Information Sheet #130

March 2, 2001

WHEN STUDENTS FEEL STUPID

I suppose there were several reasons why I was attracted to this short article in a recent issue of the National Teaching & Learning Forum.  Within the last month I have been involved in two separate conversations where someone complained about the college’s “brain-dead” students.  I admit that I have never found that image appealing. Students may not always respond to our assignments with the vigor we yearn for, but I doubt that the problem is a dead brain. 

Whatever the cause of their academic lassitude, all of us know–including the author of “When Students Feel Stupid”--that this classroom problem will not be magically corrected by restricting our evaluations to friendly pats on the back.  On the other hand, we might keep in mind that research in faculty grading practices reveals that over 95% of faculty comments on students’ compositions focus on what the student has done wrong.  I wonder how we would feel if nearly all evaluations on our teaching were cast as negative remarks?  How enthused would I be if at the end of each class session, I received a lengthy list of all the mistakes I made (no one would have a problem spotting my abundant lapses) and rarely received encouragement for the good moments in a class?

One personal anecdote.  During my son’s first year at another ACM school, he enrolled in an American literature course.  My son loves to read and he was looking forward to reading the novels for the course–which also had three major writing assignments.  While my son expressed little enthusiasm toward those composition tasks, he seemed reasonably resigned to that burden as an unavoidable evil.  By the end of the term, however, he swore he would never take another literature course, an oath never amended.  The cause of his disaffection was not hard to find: it was the tone of the instructor’s comments on his papers. 

After the term was over, my son gave me his papers and I keep them in a folder in my office.  On the last paper submitted at the end of the term, the instructor wrote 89 comments on my son’s comparison of the narrators in Cather’s My Antonia and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  Without exception, every remark is either a correction inserted at the point of a perceived error or a hastily scribbled note identifying a mistake in the text’s grammar, sentence structure, phrasing, or thinking.  Written in red ink with large, florid pen strokes--as if the instructor were shouting at the student author--such comments as the following cover the eight-page paper: “You are utterly misconstruing the point of view of the work”;  “Ha! Ha!” (used several times); “No!” (used several times); and “There are some basics of point of view which you must get straight.”  Of course, the instructor was right: my son had serious difficulties finding a language for talking about the narrative voices in these two American novels.  Although I suspect little was gained by this angry assault on a defenseless paper, perhaps the instructor felt his only hope was to trust that the loud volume of his sarcastic advice would somehow awaken this “brain dead” student.  But I am also reminded of Emerson’s admonition that education must start with respect for the pupil.  I would hope that we could keep Emerson’s advice in mind as we read and respond to students’ papers.  –Bob Marrs

In one of those remarkable moments of clarity and insight–which I always recognize because they occur so infrequently that I feel goose bumps on my arms–I learned why students are sometimes so silent in class.  They feel stupid.  Or feel absolutely certain that they are a mere sentence away from feeling stupid and therefore close their lips tightly lest that sentence escape.

This moment of high insight came when I was a student myself in a graduate class.  Already an adjunct instructor at a nearby university, I thought I had a good handle on classroom dynamics.  My academic training had provided me a lexicon for observing silent students: “fraud syndrome” (aka “imposter syndrome”), “lack of confidence,” “inexperience,” “passivity,” and on and on.  All good reasons, I am sure.  But what I learned in that graduate class took precedence over everything else I thought I knew.

Damascus Ahead

The class–filled with practicing professionals returned to school for their doctorates in family therapy and family studies–was debating whether to take an oral group final or the more usual written exam.  The professor had already excused himself from the discussion and so about twenty of us hashed out the pros and cons.  In an effort to find a consensus, we agreed to go around the circle, each stating a preference.

Most had a quick statement that ended with a personal version of “Whatever.”  But then the circle reached two people I had met in previous classes.  Quiet types, rarely heard from.  The first was a man who spoke simply, “I never talk much in class.  You all know that.  I just prefer not making my comments public.  I’ve never been comfortable in offering myself up for. . .”  The laughter of recognition, of “I can relate,” interrupted him.

The next student, a woman, spoke even more simply.  “I hate speaking in class.  I’m always afraid I’ll say something stupid.”  Before I realized I was speaking, I heard myself ask, “Why?”

She answered with more words than I had ever heard her utter on that campus: “Because when I was in fourth grade I did speak up, and I was told my answer was wrong, and I felt horrible.”

Finally, after these public confessions of private fears, the class did decide on an oral final and everyone, including those two quiet students, participated.  I think we earned a group A- for the effort.         

And I learned what was to become the theme for my teaching from that point on: No one is stupid in my classroom.  I don’t wait for a student to confess the feeling.  After all, that grad student hadn’t mentioned it since the age of ten.  I just assume that some unknown number of students in the room are feeling stupid or fearing feeling stupid.

The Response Strategies

I don’t claim to eradicate completely students’ fear of feeling stupid–or FFS, as I’ve come to call it.  (How would I know, anyway?)  But I receive enough feedback from students to assure me that these strategies are probably my most effective responses to the unspoken fears:

1.  Remove negative criticism from the class dynamic.

2.  Listen to every single comment and question and respond respectfully.

3.  Learn student names quickly and use them in class.

4.  Say “I don’t know” as often as possible.

5.  Explain fraud syndrome, if necessary.

Remove Negative Criticism

I simply don’t say anything to a student that is less than encouraging.  A usual assignment in most of my classes is the “30-second presentation.”  Students must create five over the course of the semester and deliver them orally to the class.  They are graded pass/fail and the only criterion for failure is exceeding the 60 second maximum time limit.  (No one has ever failed, because the students time each other and wave frantically before anyone goes over the limit.)

After every presentation, I comment on virtually everything the student did right.  Even if the student flubs horribly, I ignore the problem and comment only on “your poise” or the “open facial expression” or “your use of your hands.”  After the class has heard 10 or 15 presentations, students begin to believe that I am not going to say a single negative thing about anyone’s presentation.

And Then . . .

That’s when the change occurs.

Students relax and get better.  When they do flub, they are likely to say aloud, on the way back to their seat, “Oh, I can’t believe I forgot my ending!” or “I shouldn’t have read from my notes.”  What has happened is that the student has begun to critique his own performance.  And he is much more open to self-criticism than to external criticism.  Indeed, if he hears my criticism, he may feel compelled to put up a silent defense (“she’s too demanding,” or “I can tell she doesn’t like me”).

[Abridged version of an article by Mary Bold in The National Teaching & Learning Forum, volume 10.]


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