Flexible Course Debrief (Spring 2013): The Default Path

In both the college and high school classes, I had students who just couldn’t seem to figure out where to start.  These students generally did an early assignment or two, seemed to have a basic understanding of how the achievement system was going to work, and then took a break.  (Interestingly, every student who got behind still managed to turn in poems on the correct dates, so they had some grasp of what was happening in the class.)  Then, later in the semester, they approached me in a panic, and made furious attempts to produce insane amounts of work.  Most caught up, but for them, the class lacked a certain joy and discovery.

I suppose this lack of joy and discovery can happen in any educational setting, but it was clear with these students that instead of feeling empowered by the course, they felt overwhelmed by all of the choices. And most of them came to the class with a genuine interest in poetry, which made things all the more confusing for me.  Why weren’t they completing the class assignments?  Was there a fundamental mismatch between enjoying poetry and choosing which elements to work on?

What I’ve come to understand is that those students were extreme examples of a phenomenon that was a little more widespread: students felt overwhelmed by the choices.  They often didn’t know what to do next, and didn’t feel confident that they were selecting a path that would get them to the grade they wanted, even though they could see all of the options right there in front of them.

As a result, at the mid-point in the semester, I had several people who were more panicked than they were willing to admit.  In one class, the students began talking to each other, collaborating and trading poems with each other.  In the other, the students began commiserating, and seemed to magnify each others’ anxiety.

It occurred to me that students needed some more tools for transparency.  It wasn’t until midway through the course that I figured out that it would be useful to give students a copy of the grading spreadsheet that they could tally their own points in.  Once I did that, several students corrected course almost immediately… they just needed an easy way to track their progress, and even though I was sending a weekly cumulative score (as well as high, low scores, mean and median scores for them to benchmark themselves), they needed to see the points in a way they could tinker with.

But for some students, that additional tool didn’t help.

It occurred to me that one thing I could have done for the students who seemed overwhelmed was to give them a pacing guide.  With two semesters under my belt, I’ve been able to see which achievements were most attractive to highly successful students, and while the course was built so that students could avoid doing all six bookshops if they wanted to, most A students did bookshops.

A few years ago, I read Nudge by Sundstein and Thaler, and they made a compelling argument for default options.  Their research shows that if you let people choose from an overwhelming number of options, they’ll often pick the default or first options rather than sort through the array.  So, the default option should be the one that’s most highly desirable.

I’ve looked at the data of what students have done, and I’ve looked at my own preferences in terms of what I’d like students to accomplish, and have developed a “default path” through the course– basically a way of saying, “Hey, if you don’t want all this choice, here’s what you should do.”  Most of these options were taken by the majority of the students who got an A, but a few reflect new achievements or achievements whose point values were adjusted upwards in order to encourage students in this direction.  I’ll make this available in the course documents and tell students it’s there, but I won’t require them to follow it.  In addition to a list of achievements, I’ve also included a sort of pacing guide, which basically lets them know how they should be progressing.  They can see that after half of the course, they’re not nearly halfway to the point total, but can also see that there are items that they should be working towards.  The biggest bumps in scores usually come at two distinct times– just a bit after halfway, and then again in the final weeks.  Hopefully, students will see that and will trust the process a little more.

Click this link to get a Word doc of the default path:  Default Path Through Course