Student Semester Reflections, Part III (My Thoughts)

This is the third and final post in a series about some of the reflections my students wrote as part of their semester assessments. What follows are my own thoughts based on what I read from them.

When I read these reflections, I’m impressed by how far my students have come since August. Not surprisingly, considering the number of curves I threw at them (including an almost entirely discussion-based classroom environment, a shift away from grades on every individual assignment, etc.), my students began the year very anxious about the class. I feared at times that I was trying to do too much at once and that I would lose them before I ever had a chance to “get them.” Judging by their reflections, though, they now seem remarkably at ease with my system, and a number of them seem to appreciate it, just as I had hoped they would. We have had some ups and downs at times, but on the whole, when I read their reflections on the fall semester, my overall feeling is one of great pride.

I detect a couple of common threads running through many of the reflections in the previous two posts. First, I see that my students (on the whole) are becoming more thoughtful and critical as both consumers and producers of information. They have learned not to accept sources at face value, but rather to interrogate them, research their context, compare and corroborate. They have begun to welcome new and different perspectives as a way of strengthen their own understanding. And lastly, they seem to have developed at least some awareness of the marketplace of ideas. They recognize that for their ideas to carry weight, they must consciously and carefully construct their arguments. They have also learned that their own ideas benefit from the marketplace; the exchange of ideas—particularly written ideas—is a process, and perfection is rarely seen in the first draft (if it’s seen at all).

I’m even more pleased, though, to see that my students are becoming more confident and more independent—both as learners and as people. Although we’ve spent very little time talking metacognitively (it’s something I’d like to become more intentional about), my students seem to be realizing that there’s more than one way to learn, and they’re at least starting to recognize themselves as individual learners—their strengths and weaknesses, etc. A number of them were actually very averse (and outspokenly so) in the beginning of the year, so to see them starting to appreciate—even favor, in some cases—this type of learning environment is exciting stuff!

I’m also very pleased to see them developing their own worldviews. That sort of thing comes through much more explicitly in the government reflections than in the history ones, but I attribute that as much to the age of the students—and the fact that most of them will be “leaving the nest soon”—as to the material. Still, I think that a classroom environment that privileges their voices provides them the space to find themselves, and I value that. This is the first time in my career that I’ve really believed that my students were taking something of real value–beyond the course content, that is–with them when they leave. (I’m afraid that might say something quite negative about my first few years, but it’s true.)

Particularly given how proud I am of these students, it would be easy to “over-extrapolate” the importance of this relatively informal set of reflections. My students are obviously still learning, and we have much work yet to do. That said, this bit of evidence—along with the improvements I’ve seen in classroom discussions and written work—convince me that I’m on the right track with the changes I’ve made to my classroom practice. Going forward, I am wholly committed to the use of the Harkness method in my classroom, and I feel affirmed in my growing belief that de-emphasizing assignment grades and providing opportunities to learn from mistakes are critical if I hope to see real growth in my students.

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