As teaching professors, we try to change students, whether it’s a change that increases their factual knowledge, one that gives them a new way of thinking, or one that develops an important new skill. Frustration, ...
Good teaching often relies on productive classroom discussion. However, many of us have experienced dynamics in which our discussions take a perilous turn and a palpable tension settles over the class. The precipitating comment may ...
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As teaching professors, we try to change students, whether it’s a change that increases their factual knowledge, one that gives them a new way of thinking, or one that develops an important new skill. Frustration, stress, and tension frequently accompany change, especially change that involves learning. As a result and as an expected part of our jobs, students ask us for help, which we are happy to give. But, we have to stop short of doing the work students need to be doing for themselves. I’ve been thinking lately about how we determine if we are offering too little or too much help. And here’s where that thinking has taken me.
First, we can assess the quality of the frustration our students naturally experience as they move into these new terrains. We might think of frustration as a thing to avoid. I’d like to suggest an alternative. There are two different kinds of frustration students are experiencing. I use the term “positive frustration” to refer to the inevitable and intended difficulties that we need and want our students to navigate as they learn. We can recognize positive frustration because it’s in line with our course goals. The student who asks for help by saying, “I am really having trouble understanding X,” when X is intentionally challenging and hard to understand, is an example of positive frustration. This frustration is a healthy and necessary part of the learning and change inherent in the course.
On the other side, there’s what I call “negative frustration,” and it’s marked by a sense of being outside our intended goals. An easy example might be the student who says this: “I am totally lost and have no idea what is going on in this class anymore. I’m so confused I can’t even ask a question.” In these cases, and for many possible reasons, the student is beyond what we’ve made intentionally difficult in the course and fallen into deep water where he or she looks more like a drowning swimmer than one awkwardly practicing a new swimming stroke.
Of special concern here may be students making decisions about learning that increase stress and frustration, including missing class, not coming prepared, or working too many hours. These decisions, while not related to the course content, will result in negative frustration. In such cases, we do best to remember that the course content does not matter, at all, until it can be engaged with priority and focus. Much of the time, in these cases, we do well to offer help on navigating shorter-term obstacles so that they do not result in long-term consequences.
In all cases, the students experiencing positive frustration need support and an awareness that their feelings are natural and necessary. For those students, we need not be concerned that we might appear to be offering too little help. Those having negative frustration require an amount and level of assistance that might otherwise be seen as “too much.” We must slow down and go over the basic tenets with these students. They need all the help they can get. Once we assess whether the frustration is positive or negative, we do well to offer what might have otherwise seemed too little for the positive, and what might seem like too much for the negative.
Second, and even more difficult, is the related awareness that, as teachers, we are obliged to absorb the tension that results from challenging our students and moving them in new directions. I am convinced that too many of us become “easy” because we are unwilling to navigate the tensions that are inevitable as we strive to do our jobs well. If we offer help to alleviate our own sense of discomfort that results from the struggles and frustration students are experiencing, we are at risk of offering too much help. However, if we are willing to accept these inevitable tensions, we will learn to offer help not based on our own needs, but in response to what the student needs. Thus, based on student need, even if we offer relatively less help, our help will not be too little, just as any assistance offered toward our own ease is likely to be too much.
By identifying the type of student frustration, and by coming to terms with whether the help we offer is designed to help us avoid tension, or is to assist our deserving students, we can begin to witness the eventual joy of our students productively and confidently navigating the new currents they are learning to swim in our courses.