How do you get students to buy in to self-teaching?

How do you get students to buy in to self-teaching?

I wrote last time that autodidacticism — the concept of a person teaching themselves things that they need to know — is not only an acceptable thing in higher education (despite what many people say), it's actually the one true end goal of higher education. If we design innovative courses and do excellent teaching but never inculcate an ability or the taste for self-teaching in students, it doesn't matter what's on their diploma or transcript in the end: We failed them.

So, how do you get students to buy in to this idea? How do you get students to accept and work within a framework that stresses self-teaching — in the right ways and amounts, and with an appropriate level of instructor support — and not blast you on end-of-semester evaluations or send endless messages to the department chair that you are "not actually teaching the material"?

I think the answer is: You can't.

You can't "get" students to buy in to the idea of self-teaching is because you cannot "get" students to do anything that they don't inherently want to do themselves. If you teach with flipped learning for example, you cannot "make sure students complete the pre-class assignments". We cannot "get" students to study for exams. We cannot even "get" students to get out of bed in the mornings. (I have three teenagers, so I know this one viscerally.)

"Getting students to do things" is the language of command and control. This approach might have worked 100 years ago in higher education — back when university culture was optimized for one group of people controlling another. But we are no longer in an environment where this can be expected to work. That is an objectively good thing, because the assumption of command and control is responsible for some of the worst abuses and inequities that pervade the history of higher education. Good riddance! And let's not put ourselves right back in that culture by making "getting back to normal", which involves retreating back to the prevailing teaching methods from that period, the primary goal of higher education post-Covid.

What we can do — in fact the only thing we can do — is set up an environment, a culture, where self-teaching is something that students want to do because they easily see the benefits, and something students believe they can do because they have, and perceive that they have, a strong level of support from us.

This is hard to talk about with faculty and administrators because it's much easier to adopt the command-and-control angle, and just figure out ways to force students to do what they, the faculty and admins, want. We call it "accountability" but really it's just coercion. Changing the culture of your classroom or your entire academic approach is much, much harder. It involves planting seeds without a guarantee that you'll be around to taste the fruit. It involves making some students (and, sometimes, their parents) potentially mad in the short term because you're playing the long game. So a lot of faculty and administrators who are really enthusiastic in the moment about things like flipped learning or IBL, get right off the bandwagon when we start talking about what it will take to get not just Prof. Smith's History 101 class to be flipped, but for the entire academic structure of the campus to embrace the self-regulation and self-teaching ethos that flipped learning endorses and requires. Having isolated faculty doing that work is easier; it's also doomed, because as we are learning, it turns out faculty can't be expected to work in isolation forever.

So back to the original question, modified: How do we create and sustain a culture where self-teaching is seen as valuable and which is supported by faculty? I've been working at this for over a decade and I can assure you there is no single easy answer. However here are some things that seem to work for me:

  • Keep self-teaching simple and low-level. Students have an innate ability to teach themselves things, but it's raw and needs development. That development best occurs at the lower third of Bloom's Taxonomy level — that is, "Understand" and "Remember" kinds of tasks. I wouldn't expect a student to teach themselves the whole of Calculus; I do expect students to be able to memorize the Chain Rule and, having seen some basic examples through a well constructed text or video, make a reasonable stab at doing one themselves.
  • In class meetings, start where the self-teaching leaves off and stay disciplined with it. Having asked students to handle the learning objectives for the lower third of Bloom, the class meeting then addresses the middle third. Very often there are students who don't believe me when I assign them work that requires some self-teaching. They are free to do so, but the class will not rewind and reteach for them. Pretty soon they get the message and discover that they actually can teach themselves things.
  • Set up a robust communications infrastructure for support 24/7. I don't expect students to have an entirely frictionless experience teaching themselves before class. So it's very important to have a communications infrastructure that allows them to get help at any time. The gold standard is students helping each other learn as they all learn together, with the instructor on the side. On the flip side, students who complain that they have no way of asking questions as they are working, often have a point.
  • Give students a chance to complain about it before the course evaluations. Speaking of complaining, it's natural to do so when you're being pushed out of a comfort zone. So don't let the end-of-semester evaluations be the first opportunity that students have to give you feedback — even brutal feedback.
  • Constantly explain "why". Why are we teaching ourselves the material? students may ask. Isn't that your job? Well, first of all, are you teaching yourselves all the material? Answer: No, just a small and limited amount. Second of all, think about not just now but the future. Who wants to hire you when you're done here? What will they expect of you? Will they want to set you up with a lecture class so you can be fed all the information you need to do your job? Would your employer even have problems well-defined enough to make up such a course? Now forget about your job; think about becoming a parent (or about when you became a parent). Or a homeowner, or any other kind of major responsibility in life. There's a lot to learn. Will it be neatly packaged in a text or a course? Will you want to have another person tell you what to do and what to know? Probably; but that person doesn't exist and can't be expected to arrive in the nick of time to teach you. Like it or not: Your viability as a worker and as a human being capable of contributing something great to the world, hinges on your ability to teach yourselves things.

So if we take students' long term success seriously, we'd better start acting like it, and setting up environments where self-teaching is something students see and want to do.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.