Week Eleven: Past the Curve, Hitting the Learning Stride

In week eleven of sixteen, our students are scoring better on exercises and quizzes. Their favorite grammar rules have been committed to memory and offered in confidence during class discussion. But perhaps most importantly, they’re beginning to approach manuscripts and style sheets with a sense of editorial authority.

Remember in week eight when we asked “Can editing be taught?” The most successful and the most trying types of students were discussed, and I couldn’t give a definitive answer of yes or no. I still can’t, but I can, however, analyze what’s going on with most students who linger in the middle.

The middle of the curve that most students rest at is far from a resting point. Consider the two images that follow.

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 9.53.57 AM

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 9.54.16 AM

When we have a new concept to learn, we aim for mastery on the part of all students. We want that bell curve to resemble another shape that shows improvement, one that’s top heavy. But this is rarely the case. With our grade distribution visualized, the usual bell rings out in a somewhat taunting way. Remember, however, that when a new concept is learned, the shape should shift, not change. Students haven’t been given an opportunity to demonstrate a new level of mastery on the recently-learned concept. We shouldn’t be disheartened.

I’m reminded now, almost three-fourths of the way through this semester, that recognizing this shift is a necessary buffer to the stress of being a good teacher. Even when our students are beginning to change the shape of our curve with higher scores, we need to be reminded that the one-dimensionality of the bell curve is a seductive simplification of the learning outcomes we strive to meet. Slow down around the curve and pay attention to what’s really going on.

Consider the curve of learning throughout the semester as a whole. It’s certainly nuanced with changing shapes and continual shifts, but if we flatten that to understand the level of difficulty in learning our students face throughout the semester we can better support their learning successes and challenges.

First, let me clarify that I’m not arguing for a reductive or simplified approach to planning one’s semester. Planning for surprises and hurdles is encouraged, but like the learning curve in each assignment we should expect our editing classes to feel more challenged by certain learning tasks, whereas others will come more easily. Dr. Leverenz has explained how she anticipates the trajectory of learning for the semester. To paraphrase her, we start students on a challenging but approachable series of editing exercises, introductory material for first-unit quizzes, and a project that is challenging but not in an overwhelming way. Editing mainstream publications was the focus of that first unit, whereas the most difficult of the three units for this semester, the one on academic publishing, challenged students the most but they were allowed a good deal of time and exposure to academic editing, given exercises, shown how to write query letters, and consult their fellow editors so that they had plenty of support and practice time. Finally, the third unit’s project was to edit web pages for a real client, our New Media Writing Studio here at TCU. In this unit our students are learning to hit a stride. Clearly, the challenges they found so distressing in the second unit have made this third one a breeze and their familiarity with the web makes the content for editing a bit more interesting.

So you see, there’s another curve. We shifted the first one a bit and that may have something to do with the second curve (the learning trajectory curve of our semester). The trajectory re-instills a sense of confidence in students. We start with a project of medium challenge, fully immerse students in learning about editing with a difficult manuscript, and now we’re back down to that medium-level, letting them demonstrate to us that the bell curve is in fact shifting.

Maybe it just needed a little regressing to gain some steam? A toy car has to be pulled back so it can launch forward. Maybe our semesters should always be structured this way. The norm seems to be a culmination of the most challenging projects and exercises at the end of a course, when mastery is to be complete. But could we train better editors with this curved trajectory?

Our grades suggest so. Let’s hope these good strides continue.

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