David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

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Look for the Exceptions

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Lately I’ve been thinking that college instructors could learn a lot from psychotherapists. The scholarship of teaching and learning has long built on ideas from the study of cognitive science, but we seem to hesitate when it comes to borrowing from psychology’s applied branch.

But why should that be? Professors and therapists actually have a lot in common. We’re both trying to help people change. And while the nature of that change is different — our students are not our patients, and we are not responsible for their psychological health — there are enough parallels to suggest looking to psychotherapy for ways to help our students improve their academic performance.

All of this occurred to me when I read about the practice — used in both solution-focused brief therapy and in narrative therapy— of looking for exceptions. Patients in therapy bring with them certain problems they are trying to solve. Instead of dwelling on those problems, exploring their origins, and trying to fully understand the patient’s pathology, the therapist instead asks the patient to think of exceptions to the problem. If a couple comes to therapy because they fight about money all the time, the therapist might encourage them to think of a time when they were able to discuss their finances without fighting. Instead of unproductively focusing on all that has contributed to the problem, looking for exceptions calls the patients’ attention to the fact that they may already know how to find a solution. Patients learn to see the otherwise invisible examples of things going well and can work on repeating the behaviors that led to those positive results.

I wondered if such an approach might be helpful in the classroom. After all, so much of the personal feedback we give to students is necessarily negative. We point out errors, show where they can improve, justify their grades by letting them know where they went wrong. That is undoubtedly important. If you’re not aware of your mistakes, you can’t fix them.

But I wonder if, by focusing so often on the negative aspects, we are falling into a “problem-focused” trap, cementing our students’ ideas of themselves as poor students, unable to imagine themselves mastering the skills we find so important. I’m thinking in particular of those students who perform poorly. I realized this past week — as I wrote a litany of negative comments in the margins of a near-failing essay — that I had very few expectations that my comments would convince this student to do better next time. It’s easy to fall into hopelessness with certain students, resigning ourselves to the fact that some of them just aren’t going to put in the time and effort needed to do well.

But we have to remember that our role is, at the very least, twofold: We need to both evaluate and nurture. Even as we deal out consequences for those students who haven’t performed well, who have neglected their work, or who have submitted lazy work — and maybe especially then — we also have to remember that they are still our students. We are still responsible to some extent for their progress, no matter how slow. We should be looking for ways to get all of our students — including those who resist our help the most — to cultivate the habits of mind and of academic work that might lead to better performance down the line.

And although our students do not, for the most part, come to us with explicitly stated “problems” that they’ve asked us to help them solve, we can still look for exceptions. Here are a few ways that we might call attention to the good things our students are doing and make them aware of their potential for improvement.

  • Send out an email to each of your students — maybe halfway through the term — that calls attention to some positive things you’ve noticed the student doing. It can be as little as asking a question in class or always turning in work on time. You don’t need to lavishly praise the behavior; just say something like “I want you to know I’ve noticed,” or “That’s the kind of thing that will serve you well in other classes.”
  • Have student conferences devoted to pointing out the positive. For most students, being called in to see the professor means they’ve messed up. Use your authority to help them see themselves as potentially good students.
  • In addition to pointing out errors on their work, make a point of summing up “successes to build on.” Mention aspects of your students’ work that you would like to see them continue.
  • Create a low-stakes assignment where students have to brainstorm and write about the skills they’ve developed or improved since the beginning of the term. Tell them you only want to hear about the positive steps they’ve taken — the times when they’ve done something they didn’t think they could do, or the knowledge they’ve acquired in the course so far.

We shouldn’t be our students’ therapists. Nor should we see our students as delicate flowers in need of constant praise in order to do the academic tasks that should be customary. We should still hold them to high standards, and give poor grades when poor grades are deserved.

But in the spirit of James M. Lang’s new book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning, looking for exceptions is a minor adjustment to our thinking that has the potential for major effects for our students. When we help students become aware of their own strengths and abilities, we pave the way for them to build on those strengths and abilities. If students start to take more notice of the things that they’re already doing well, those things may not be exceptions for too long.

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