David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Modeling the Behavior We Expect in Class

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In 1961, a Stanford University psychologist named Albert Bandura conducted a soon-to-be famous experiment. He had young children watch adults interact with an inflatable “Bobo” doll in a toy-strewn room. Half of the children observed an adult acting aggressively toward the doll: pummeling, hitting, attacking the defenseless toy with mallets. The other half watched an adult playing nicely with Bobo, as the children’s parents might want them to play with other kids. All of the children were then left alone in the room with the doll. The resulting behavior will surprise no one today: Children who watched the aggressive adult were themselves much more likely to be aggressive; the other children played nice.

The results were part of a new idea that Bandura helped pioneer called “social-learning theory. It revolutionized our way of understanding cognition by showing that learning does not entirely depend on the threat of punishment or the promise of reward. Instead, social-learning theory posits that we learn to behave in large part by watching others. That notion is a commonplace now, influencing everything from advertising practices (using celebrities to show a product) to psychotherapeutic methods (demonstrating problem-solving skills for patients), to the parenting-advice industry (just try to find a parenting book that doesn’t advise modeling appropriate behavior to your children).

We should be thinking about social learning theory in the context of the college classroom. Although so-called observational learning now has widespread acceptance, and there’s been a fair amount written about the benefits of modeling in the grade-school classroom, there is surprisingly little out there on the topic for college instructors.

If how we teach in the classroom can be as important as what we teach, it’s worth thinking about how our own behavior as faculty members might influence our students’ behavior.

The first thing we can do is make a real effort to put aside our fear of being exposed as imposters. “Modeling stupidity,” as Matthew Fleenor writes in a 2010 article for Faculty Focus, is one of the best ways we can provide an example to our students. It’s important for them to understand that learning involves seeking out the gaps in our knowledge. When we, as the supposed experts in the room, admit we don’t know something, we show students that such “stupidity” is an acceptable, even welcome, part of being a scholar.

Fleenor’s article builds on a 2008 Martin Schwartz essay in the Journal of Cell Science titled “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research.” In it, Schwartz argues, “the more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.” Indeed, alighting on a seemingly unanswerable question is often the first step along the way to real learning. As teachers, we should be looking for opportunities to display our ignorance in order to help students feel comfortable “being stupid.” We can then use those occasions to point forward to how we might remedy that ignorance: through research, reasoning, or experimentation.

A second way to model academic practices is to follow another suggestion at Faculty Focus, this one made by Julie Glass: Turn your classroom documents into scholarly documents. Syllabi, lecture handouts, and assignments can all be products of the same methods we want students to adopt in producing their own class documents. At the end of her syllabi, Glass writes, she includes a “works cited” page that lists both sources within her discipline that have influenced course content and articles about teaching and learning that have influenced her pedagogical approach. By “showing our work” right from the start -- by demonstrating that we take teaching seriously as a scholarly pursuit -- we invite our students to take their learning seriously as well.

Lastly, we can let someone else do the modeling for us. Take the time, at least once each semester, to assign students a scholarly article from your discipline. As a classroom activity, have students analyze the article not just for its content, but as an article, from the point of view of its author. What was the author’s goal in writing the piece? What choices did he make at various points? What were her methods? How are the students’ tasks, when completing course assignments, similar or different from this writer’s tasks? Let students put themselves in the position of “real” scholars, and you’ll allow them to start thinking of themselves as part of a broader community of learners, both young and old.

These suggestions are, undoubtedly, just the tip of the iceberg. Almost everything we do in the classroom -- the way we speak, how we make use of technologies, what we demand of our students -- provides a model for them in some way. Although we cannot expect our students to want to be professors (not in this economy, anyway), we can use their natural inclination toward observational learning and influence them through our choices.

Is this something you think about when you teach? I’d love to see other teachers’ examples of pedagogical modeling in the comments.

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