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Teaching for Successful Learning,
Building a Culture of Success

Julie L. Figueroa

Ethnic Studies Department
California State University, Sacramento

Barbara A. Storms

Department of Educational Leadership
California State University, East Bay

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Faculty can increase the possibility of creating and sustaining learning environments that support effective teaching and critical learning by directing efforts to understand what fosters and inhibits student learning. As faculty, each new semester or quarter, we confront students whose past educational experiences test our ability to teach and their capacity to learn. Remembering that students cumulatively consume good and bad teaching, our goal has been to set up class structures that build on academic strengths and personal experiences so that students can overcome past academic failures, and to foster the necessary academic confidence to sustain long-term achievement.

Despite teaching at two different CSU campuses (Sacramento and East Bay) and working in different disciplines, Dr. Storms, a senior colleague teaching graduate students in educational leadership, and Dr. Figueroa, a first-year faculty member teaching undergraduates in ethnic studies, had similar observations about the way some of our students approached learning. Too often, students expected less of themselves than we assessed they were capable of achieving.

In this article, we relate representative experiences that led us to believe that internalized low expectations can limit student achievement (Los Angeles County Office of Education, 2005). We also share some strategies we have used to help students overcome self-set obstacles. There was little doubt in our minds that taking the time to link student passions with course material and assignments would produce more eager, focused, confident, and successful learners.

The Toll of Internalized Low Expectations

We often heard undergraduate and graduate students label themselves as “A,” “B” or “C” students, and yet they were unable to explain what those labels meant in terms of their acquired academic strengths. Students minimally reflected on the kinds of intellectual pursuits required to attain those grades. Without faculty feedback, grades alone did little to help students understand how to identify practices that assure academic success. A focus on grades seemed to be a detriment to learning, especially for students for whom academic success remained unpredictable but strongly desired. As illustrated below, grades do not foster a confident learner nor sustain learning momentum.

Karina

Karina, a Latina in her junior year in college, enrolled in the course “Introduction to Ethnic Studies,” wanted to know how the midterm grade would influence her final course grade, which she felt would greatly influence her overall academic standing. When I asked her to see the midterm as an opportunity to build on a successful start in the course, she insisted on talking about the exam grade and its weight toward her overall GPA.

I pushed her to think about herself as the learner I observed—someone who came prepared to discuss the readings without fail and whose comments strengthened the larger classroom dialogue. She thrived on academic interaction and honed her thinking and knowledge as she engaged in talking, listening and questioning, yet she saw the course as just that, a separate course with little connection to what she wanted to do with her degree. Karina spent most of her energy thinking about grades rather than about her engagement in class and her mastery in the course.

Despite my efforts to help her reflect on what she was doing well, Karina insisted on holding on to academic practices she had honed prior to college, particularly memorizing lecture and book materials alone, which seemed contrary to the way she demonstrated learning in class. Mostly, my conversations with Karina about her strengths as a learner were disconcerting to her because, as she finally shared, “You are telling me I am smarter than I think I am.”

As with Karina, the next example demonstrates how unexplored educational experiences become barriers for student learning.

Monique

A veteran school teacher completing her master’s degree, Monique was paralyzed by once again being a student. In class she was engaged, asking insightful questions of her peers and providing concrete suggestions for the written work of others. However, she failed to turn in written assignments. Finally she confessed, “I’m just not a good student. I can’t do the work.”

She explained that one reason she didn’t get to her schoolwork was that she had written three grant proposals to fund projects at her school (related to her research project) in the last three months. After I read the proposals and found that they demonstrated all of the skills and activities encompassed by the assignments, we met again. When I told her that I would consider the proposals in place of the assignments, she commented, “But if you do that, then I won’t live up to what my teachers always said.”

I couldn’t resist asking what that was.

“I was always considered a slow student,” she said. “I really don’t expect to complete this degree.”

These were powerful and sad moments for each of us as teachers. While high grades may serve as benchmarks of mastery to faculty, a fixation on them in students can have diminishing returns in their own overall learning. Karina and Monique were reminders that “old” expectations can prevent students from harnessing the power of their experiences to approach learning in a confident and exploratory fashion. When students believe that memorization leads to optimal performance, or when they preempt feedback by not turning in assignments because they believe they will fail, they forfeit the opportunity to embody, sustain and actualize learning.

Connecting Content to Passion

Teaching and learning form a symbiotic relationship that is informed and framed by a collaborative and cooperative partnership between students and faculty. Tapping into what students want to learn and matching that with what faculty want/need to teach creates momentum for sustaining learning beyond the classroom.

Izel

In the final paper for a Chicana feminism course, some students found the most minimal tasks of providing a title, providing a brief synopsis, and summarizing four articles overwhelming. I encouraged them to choose a topic of personal interest as a means of keeping motivated and creating a meaningful experience.

Izel, a Chicana, came to my office to discuss her paper. She was stymied by not knowing how to approach the task. I reminded her that earlier in the semester, I had talked with her after her performance at a Mexican music concert on campus. She had told me about her experiences of performing traditional Mexican dances as a visible way to celebrate and affirm her ethnicity while at the same time sharing her culture with others.

I reminded Izel about that conversation and invited her to write about the connections she saw between ballet folklorico and Chicana feminism. This discussion invited Izel to theorize and articulate the way her everyday reality was constructed. Amazingly, even though the requirements for the paper were unchanged, Izel felt less challenged by and more personally invested in her final paper because she deeply cared about the topic. This involvement, in the end, enabled her to complete the project successfully.

Izel is a good reminder that translating and aligning personal success with the kind of academic success we want to see in the classroom can enrich teaching and learning experiences for both faculty and student.

Helping Students Understand What They Need to Be Successful

Student learning falls flat when faculty neglect to build a connection between the kind of learning happening in class and the ways that knowledge can increase students’ capacity to make critical decisions and meaningful connections to their lives. Moreover, knowing when students need exposure and skill building in particular areas is a critical teaching skill.

Juan

Juan was an elementary school teacher by profession who asked his fifth grade students to research topics via the Internet. When I introduced literature search assignments in class, Juan said he was confident about how to find good sources because he remembered how to use a card catalogue in his days as an undergraduate. However, as a professor who relies on our university librarians to continually help me update my own research strategies, I didn’t take his word or those of his classmates, but instead set up a class in the library for an introduction to current searching strategies and databases. During this class and with ongoing individual support from the librarian—both face-to-face and through on-line support—Juan began to develop effective strategies that reflect current methods for attaining relevant research.

We have discovered that we need to work to help students develop clearer views about what academic excellence requires and how to build skills that can help them be successful both in college and beyond.

Teaching and Learning as Interrelated Events

As long as students lack optimal learning experiences, faculty will continue to confront challenges in their teaching. By brokering authentic learning experiences, we helped students to become more engaged and accountable learners. When students were encouraged to see learning, in part, as a risk-taking process, low expectations became less self-defining, and the students moved toward exploration and hope. As faculty, we recognize that achieving effective teaching and learning goals means tapping into our most accessible and challenging resource, our students.

References

Los Angeles County Office of Education. Teacher expectations and student achievement. Retrieved June 30, 2005, from [http://www.lacoe.edu/orgs/165/index.cfm].

Posted February 10, 2006.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2006 by Julie L. Figueroa and Barbara A. Storms.

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