Tuesday, June 20, 2006



(No, not the religious kind.)

I’m increasingly convinced that one of the secrets to success (except for those lucky blankety-blanks who are naturally brilliant) is the steadfast belief that, no matter how absurdly convoluted and hopeless the current situation seems to be, you’ll find a solution. You don’t know yet what it will be, how you’ll find it, or when you’ll find it, but you believe that you will.

On any given day, I usually don’t know what my next blog post will be. But I have faith that I’m come up with something, and a related faith that, over time, enough of them will be good enough to make the weak ones forgivable. (“Ask the Administrator” queries are always welcome, since they’re freebies, as far as topics go. Bring ‘em on!)

Some people have faith in their ability to solve hard math problems. Some have faith in their ability to build stuff, or fix things, or walk into a room and socialize breezily and winningly with whomever they happen to meet. That faith isn’t always accurate, and it’s certainly not always rationally defensible, but it’s functional. (I once heard a major league baseball player comment that no matter how much he respects or fears a given pitcher, every time he steps to the plate, he thinks “I can hit this guy.” The day he stops thinking that, he’ll stop hitting.)

As a new professor, I remember being shocked at a student behavior that never even would have occurred to me: kids just throwing up their hands and walking out of an exam in the first five minutes, saying defeatedly “I can’t do this.” There were exams that kicked my butt – especially in geometry, which I still think is an elaborate prank – but it never even crossed my mind to just walk out in the first five minutes. There have been subjects that tested my faith, and times when pretty serious faith was required. If you don’t have that faith, and the subject doesn’t come naturally, you’re bound to fail.

How do you teach faith?

I’ll grant upfront that there’s a component of arrogance to this kind of faith. When I pick up a book in an area I find interesting, it’s usually with the thought that I’ll be able to understand it, pick it apart, argue with it, and learn from it. That thought is a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition for its own fulfillment. I consider that an okay kind of arrogance, as long as it’s kept in reasonable check.

Too many kids either never develop this kind of faith in their academic abilities, or get it beaten out of them. They compensate by loudly demanding that courses be easy and entertaining. Since they don’t think they can meet challenges, they avoid challenges, and try to de-fang those they can’t avoid. Backed into a corner, they crumble, or cheat, or walk out, or complain to the dean; the one thing they don’t do is suck it up. Then, when they crash and burn, they take it as confirmation that challenges are bad.

The real tragedy of it is that some of the lack-of-faith is actually misplaced. I’ve seen students blossom when they get that first taste of unexpected success; usually, after that, they’re the most motivated in the class. I wonder how many more could have done that, but just never got that first break.

How do you teach faith?

I find this is especially important with students who went to bad high schools where they never did any writing and were told by teachers "You're just a C student" and the like. In writing classes, it tends to lead to desperate plagiarism, even in the case of students who have been doing well all semester; they just flip out and say, "I can't do this." That is, much of it's a socioeconomic class thing. Many rich kids are raised with this "Everything you think and do is beautiful, honey!" attitude, which can be annoying in the classroom, but it rarely leads to failure.

I'm not sure there's a lot any one person can do in a semester to completely overthrow a student's sense of learned helplessness, but I think a little personal attention goes a long way. If I express sincere interest in the topic a student is writing about, or if I say confidently in a private conference that the exam is well within a student's abilities, they might at least give it a sincere try.

The other important thing is to remind students that it's socially acceptable in the classroom to try and fail. These students clearly fear putting forth effort and failing to failing alone, so the instructor has to create a community in which we all see it's reasonable to make mistakes and attempt new tasks. Having them read at one another's work can contribute to this atmosphere.
I agree that lack of faith is a major factor limiting student success (though certainly it's not the only one). The only light I can shed is from my own experience going through an extremely challenging undergraduate science program; many of the courses seemed impossible to complete, but one factor that helped greatly was the support of the college's community, many of whom were just like me and had just been through the same insane courses. By the time I finished the program, I had built a lot of faith in my own abilities. Thus, providing evidence (via the student community, class visits, etc.) that students with similar characteristics were able to be successful may be one way to motivate students to at least try, and then if they succeed they'll have built faith in themselves.
I think what you really mean isn’t so much faith, as is it is perseverance. You hit upon this earlier with the “dutiful” students. Its not that they have faith that they will do well, but its that they are willing to work. I think a major problem with some students is that they don’t think they have to work to attain knowledge. They think it will either come to them instantly or they’ll never get it at all.

Personally, I think a lot of this has to do with culture. We glamorize the geniuses and make it seem as if math is something you’ve known all your life or you never will. The process of learning is rarely if ever displayed s what it is; long, grueling, and hard, but the payoffs are immense.

So maybe that’s the source of the problem right there; many people don’t know learning is a process, they think its either you learn it there or not. The ones with faith, or perseverance, know it’s a process and are willing to take the long road even if its not their best subject.
Great post, and great question.

I would disagree a *bit* with what AWB said. I teach a lot of well-off kids, and most of them know that the "everything you think and do is beautiful" attitude is bullshit. Many of them understand that affirmation without understanding is meaningless.

One thing I've found interesting is that many students (most of whom are well-off) have written in their evals of me how I "always respond to their ideas in class discussions" or something like that.

In short: when they make a point, or an argument, I take them seriously, elaborate on it, acknowledge their contribution to the conversation. For me this is second nature, but enough of them have commented on it as being unusual and/or welcomed... it makes me think that they get a lot of affirmation without understanding, and that they appreciate being heard.

(Needless to say, this is probably even more crucial for less privileged kids, who may not have had affirmation OR understanding!)
I'm not sure I'd call what you describe to be "faith."

I'd prefer to call it "well informed self-confidence."

I would have just said self-confidence, but I've seen a lot of students with a false sense of it. Thus the "well informed" part :)
Obviously, you can't just walk in and lecture on faith. It's an on-going process. In my courses, I start with easy assignments to build up students' confidence levels and then gradually raise the bar.
By modeling it:

By taking questions from students, allowing myself to say "I don't know the answer; let's figure it out."

By asking questions of students and being *patient* in helping them tease out insights, even if the initial responses are way off the mark.

By refraining from showing impatience: I may be impatient with a student's resistance or limitations, but I can't show that. If a student comes up with a hopelessly erroneous response, and other students laugh, I can't: I have to respond seriously, as if the answer has merit, and ask followup questions which nudge the student toward a better answer.

Students, despite their vapor-thin aura of privilege, alienation, and boredom, are actually desperate for and very sensitive to positive or negative feedback. The slightest negative or dismissive feedback can destroy "faith"--the slightest positive or affirmative feedback can build it.
I agree with a lot of what people are saying here, especially Maggie May and cjs. I take every comment seriously, I admit when I don't know something and I try to create an environment where failing is ok, as long as one tries.

I also openly discuss how to approach the material in terms of taking notes (I show them mine) and in terms of organizing it for the exam).

I also teach them how to solve problems in class. This seems to be less common in science classes (at least the ones I've taken or witnessed) but my students really respond to it. They love the opportunity to tackle a problem in a group in class and to get my feedback on their thought process. They also share their solutions with the class and in this way they have a little perspective (similar to A White Bear's comment about reading each other's writing).
"I'm not sure I'd call what you describe to be 'faith.'

I'd prefer to call it 'well informed self-confidence.'"

Ditto. I find the term "faith" to be repugnant.
I think what you are discussing is confidence. And I think that this culture actually discourages kids from have self-confidence. Look at the way that parents cocoon their kids-they don't go outside, they are limited to particular people, they have their life scripts written out by the time they are three. And too many parents seem to read too many magazine articles on producing the perfect child-something that doesn't exist. To that end we see kids that are overscheduled, who are brandname whores and who are so enslaved by society and MTV's impression of successful youth that few can come up to the mark. Our culture doesn't appear to value much beyond athleticism and wealth and the ostentatious use of both. Until we stop rewarding the likes of T Owens and Britney Spears and Paris Hilton with godlike status, perfectly normal kids are going to go through life believing themselves failures. And that self-image has everything to do with confidence. We need to value our kids for what they are, not what we want them to be.
Repugnant? That seems a bit strong. The faith of which I write is faith in one's own abilities, which is a fairly common turn of phrase.

Use 'self-confidence' if that works better for you, but I prefer terms that don't include 'self.' Call it a quirk.
"Repugnant? That seems a bit strong."

Quite the contrary...it couldn't be strong enough.

"Use 'self-confidence' if that works better for you"

I shall.
I give them a challenging but open-ended semester-long assignment, broken down into specific, thought-out (and tested over time) steps designed to keep them from failing. I give them the support and specific help they need to do the thing--like, "how" to do it, rather than "what" to do. Form over content.

And then I give them lots of praise when they keep surprising themselves by meeting expectations, I point out how good their work is, I explain what the purpose of the assignment is and my methodology, I require them to present their work to the class, I put them in the positions of being "experts" on something.

It's really fun and amazing to do, when you have the resources (i.e., time) to give them the support to do it right.
That kind of 'faith' isn't just an academic skill - it applies in other areas of life (pastry-making, for some reason, seems to require it). Explicitly engaging students in conversations about process, and encouraging them to continue those coversations outside the classroom, can help, but it might be one of those areas where teachers can only do so much.
B-PhD and White Bear both speak to creating a learning environment out of which "faith" in oneself (self-confidence; pluck; etc.) can arise.

I teach a lot of writing, which seems to be the DD-like geometric millstone to a lot of students. "I can't write." "Five pages is impossible." Whine, whine, whine.

But the whine is a symptom of a larger pool of failed experiences. How do you teach faith in oneself? Set up a new pool of experiences that countermand the prior.

Pedagogically this means reducing the impact of grades on the faithless students. Through non-graded "exercises" or, for me, drafts, I allow space for encouragement and accomplishment. Add these up over time, and the student will begin anew.

That and time. Exposure to a faithful instructor, praise and attention: works for my five year old and most undergrads.
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