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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Handling Overachievers

Posted by on Wednesday, April 24, 2013 in Commentary.

by Adam Wilsman
(Professor P. is outside flying a kite)


Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

Dear Professor P.,

This is my first year teaching history at Vanderbilt, and I feel I have learned a lot about the students already.  Generally, they are excellent: intelligent, focused, and motivated.  However, I have noticed another common theme: many of them are perfectionists who do not react well to the struggle of learning a difficult topic.  I appreciate that my students are driven, but I have seen their perfectionism manifest itself in negative ways.  They are terrified of failure, and in some cases, they are paralyzed by their desire to do everything just right.  I try to be encouraging, but wonder if there’s more than I can do for these students.  What do you think?

Overwhelmed by overachievers

Dear Overwhelmed,

This is indeed a common issue at Vanderbilt.  And as you note, this kind of perfectionism can be debilitating.  Such students who are afraid to mess up are frequently afraid to even try when things get tough.  This is problematic because the vast majority of students who become experts of a given topic need to struggle through those topics over many years to attain that expertise. That messy part, the struggle of getting to know a topic well, can be especially challenging for these kinds of perfectionists.

In his book, “What the Best College Students Do,” Dr. Ken Bain dedicates a chapter to the importance of embracing failure.  “People who become highly creative and productive learn to acknowledge their failures, even to embrace them, and to explore and learn from them,” Bain explains (p. 100). Bain even cites some famous examples of people who failed in significant ways.  Neil deGrasse Tyson, for example, flunked out of graduate school at the University of Texas before becoming a world-renowned astronomer.

So what can you do as the instructor?  I believe that you can go beyond simply encouraging and assuring your students that struggling is part of the process of learning.  You can cultivate a healthy attitude toward failure and promote an environment that allows for risk-taking in every element of your class.  Here are some ideas:

Discussion: There is much you can do to promote a healthy atmosphere for discussion, a space where students feel comfortable taking risks.

Set clear expectations for class discussions. Express the importance of getting involved in class discussions, whether you’re an expert on a topic or a novice.  In fact, that disparity can be valuable in giving the class a variety of perspectives.

Promote an environment of trust and mutual respect by fostering a sense of personal connection through activities that allow students to become acquainted.  Pair or group activities are especially valuable for this.

Bolster student confidence by using names, being affirmative with students, and balancing student voices by protecting them from interruption by classmates (or the instructor!)

Be mindful of your own authority.  Many students may look to you as an authority figure that has all the answers.  Be sure to underscore the degree to which you too struggle through many of the difficult questions of your discipline.  Furthermore, let students grapple with those complicated questions in class discussions rather than swooping in at every turn to tell them the “right answer.”

Reading: When we assign readings, we often make assumptions that not only will students read them, but they will understand them.  However, a lot of the texts that we require are challenging for students at any level.  What can you do to encourage students to work through those difficult readings and not simply shut down when things become difficult?

Ask that students prepare a “difficulty paper,” after reading.  As explained by Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori and Patricia Donahue in their work, The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, a difficulty paper is a paper in which students “identify and begin to hypothesize the reasons for any possible difficulty” that students might experience as they do the assigned reading.  These papers can guide your class discussions and how you teach particular texts.  Difficulty papers also encourage students to be reflective about their reading process and push them to understand the degree to which struggling through a reading isn’t a problem, it’s expected!

Encourage students to create an inventory of difficult questions or concepts that arise as they read.  You might even do a “muddiest point(s)” exercise in which students write down a particularly challenging question or questions on an index card, bring that card to class, and review its contents with classmates or the instructor.  Whether you ask students to produce an inventory or a muddiest point card, these products can help direct class discussion and can give you a quick sense of the kinds of reading topics with which your students are having the most difficulty.

Writing: Writing is an area in which perfectionists are particularly prone to struggle.  In high school, our students may be able to get by with writing one final draft of a short essay.  In college, good writing seldom looks that way and in graduate school, it almost never does.  For most writers, writing is a messy process in which we draft, re-draft, and re-draft again before producing a polished piece of writing.  What can we do to encourage good writing habits?

Make the writing process more transparent. Too often college writing happens in isolation.  The instructor assigns an essay topic and then does not interact with the writing process again until students come to class to hand in their papers.  However, what happens in-between is in many ways most critical.  In the above model, presumably students go off somewhere and write their essay, often waiting until the last minute to do so.  But most instructors don’t know how students get from point A to point B, and that’s an area in which instructors in fields like English and History can be especially valuable.

What’s the alternative?  Ask students to come to class prepared to discuss their writing. Ask them to bring in their thesis statement and share it with some classmates. Set aside a day (or two or three!) for students to bring in a rough draft.  You may be thinking, “But I don’t have time to give all that feedback!”  While your feedback is valuable, these kinds of formative writing assignments lend themselves well to peer assessment.  Have your students discuss their progress with one another, then the next class period choose another partner to receive feedback from a variety of sources.  Ask some students to share out about their progress.  Ultimately, make transparent a process that too often happens behind closed doors.  Underscore the degree to which good writing is produced by writing a lot over a long period of time and gradually honing that product!

As you can see, there are ways to help perfectionist students to see that the messy part of learning – grappling with complicated issues in class discussion, struggling through difficult readings, and writing through challenging topics – is a rewarding process.  It’s a process that need not be scary, but is in fact a major part of becoming an expert in History, English, Math, or well, anything!

Good luck!
Professor P.

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