Obviously, our goal in teaching is to help students move from ignorance to acquiring the knowledge, skills, and abilities that will help them make a positive impact on the world and bring them personal success.  When a learner doesn’t move rapidly from a state of ignorance to a state of knowing, they may feel shame.  This is a common experience for the student who is called upon to answer a question, cannot respond correctly, and then receives a non-supportive response from the teacher.   One might think that then the student would be motivated to study harder so that they can avoid feeling shame.   Unfortunately, shame is a poor motivator.  Engaging with material that the student has not yet learned can bring forth feelings of inadequacy and trigger avoidance.  It’s amazing how attractive mundane tasks like organizing papers or even doing laundry become when avoiding the discomfort of facing our ignorance.  Imagine how much more students would learn if we helped them embrace curiosity about what they don’t know rather than shame about their lack of knowledge.

Here are a few suggestions to help:

Create a culture of curiosity:  Ask students WHAT their questions are.  Instead of saying, “Are there any questions?”, which is not particularly inviting and can be interpreted to mean that only those who didn’t understand may have questions, say, “What are your questions?”  This communicates the expectation that everyone will have questions.  Make sure to allow time for questions in your teaching too.  Wait with a neutral expression as long as it takes for the questions to start coming.  Thank students for sharing their questions. 

Acknowledge the imperfection of the teaching:  No lecture, reading assignment, or other learning activity will perfectly instill knowledge into the learner.  So, at the end of any such activity, ask all learners to identify the “fuzziest point,” or that which is not clear to them. (“Muddiest point” is also used.)  This acknowledges that there is always room for growth, both in the teaching and in the learning.  Addressing these fuzzy points gives you an opportunity to fill in learning gaps to the benefit of the learner and improve your future teaching.

Leverage peer-to-peer interactions:  Students are more open with peers about what they don’t yet know than they are with teachers.   Think-pair-share is a simple way to do this.  When posing a complex or challenging question, ask students to think for a minute or so individually and then to turn to a peer to discuss their ideas and their questions.  After a few minutes for the pair to work, ask them to share their thoughts with you.

Scaffold:  When teaching new or more advanced material, remind learners of the relevant material they already know and that forms the foundation for the topic at hand.  Stay with them “on the scaffold” by asking them, “What do we need to know to answer this question?”

What we do as educators to encourage learners to feel curious rather than shame when they encounter the edges of their knowledge, skills, and abilities will help them become strong lifelong learners.

More Resources

Teaching Tips Roundup

Pearls of Wisdom: Teach Less but Better

Mentoring for Grief & Growth at the End of a Dissertation

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