Students who avoid trying

Whether for reasons of embarrassment or panic or anything else, I often see students default to an answer of “I don’t know,” “I have no idea,” or “I’m trying to remember what you said before…” I brought up this topic in an education colloquium discussion recently. I mentioned that I struggle to lead group projects with these students, and I’m sure teachers struggle as well. How do you help someone who refuses to demonstrate errors? How do you know where to start?

In line with avoiding fundamental attribution error and applying much research I’ve seen, I strongly believe that these students are capable of performing well. People are capable of significant improvement. The problem instead lies with the student’s distaste with making mistakes. When faced with the prospect of getting something something wrong (sometimes in front of everyone!), they freeze. Not trying to answer saves some temporary, minor embarrassment but prevents significant learning.

To get some more insight on how to slip past that shield, I talked to my senior design adviser this morning. His immediately recognized my problem, noting that there is a high tendency for new graduate students to simply follow instructions and become merely technicians in the worst sense. His advice: build confidence and independence over time with initially small but slowly increasing bites. This advice seems sound, and I’ll attempt to put it into practice and give blog updates.

Two things which still puzzle me: why do people respond to “I want you to take more initiative on your own tasks” by becoming even less independent, and what is the cause of such a defensive wall in the first place? (To the latter, I’m tempted to say its the fear of failure caused by school and especially grades, but I’ll suspend judgement for now.)

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