Ready to innovate, an enthusiastic teacher was met with silence and confusion by his students. Here’s how sociologist Dietmar Wetzel responded.
It was such a great idea: replace your bog-standard essay with a complex, multi-dimensional case study that will give students plenty of ways to relate to course materials, pose their own questions and design a way forward. Dietmar Wetzel, a professor of Sociology and Head of Pedagogy at Medical School Hamburg, went into his first new course session determined to innovate. He had worked it all out in his head and presented an outline of his idea to students.
The silence was deafening, until one student was heard asking: “Can’t we just write an essay?”
Wetzel decided that surrender was not an option. How would he win his students over though?
“The first thing I realised was that just because I’m excited everybody else may not automatically be excited too,” Wetzel recalls. Under certain circumstances, excitement transmits easily, but the conditions have to be right. Questions around assessment in particular will get people stressed, and a set of complex new expectations has never been the easy route to happiness. “I had to take this resistance and confusion seriously. These were my students, and I wanted to care.”
“So there’s two things I did, which eventually did the trick,” he says, and one might add that there’s also one possible option he chose to ignore; let’s get to that in a minute.
“I made it clear to my students that this was an experiment, and a learning opportunity for myself as well. I decided to put my cards on the table and be visible as a person.”
But, again, in the context of assessment, could this not have backfired? In my experience, the last thing students want is uncertainty; what they’re after first and foremost is reassurance. “True, but there is more than one way to deliver that. When I said it was an experiment I didn’t mean that I had made it up on the spot. I had given the idea of a case study a lot of thought, and this is what I then presented to the students, in an open conversation. We took the time to explore how case studies can work, and I showed them a couple of examples I had seen elsewhere. And in the following meeting, we talked through some of the ideas that one or two students already had. I confirmed – enthusiastically and with a sense of relief – that this was indeed what I was hoping for, and off we all went.”
Assessment turned into a co-creation exercise. What Wetzel avoided in response to his students’ initial resistance was coming up with increasingly detailed rules and abstract, standardised guidelines. As Richard Sennett has shown in his wonderful book on craftsmanship, this is a bottomless pit, and more hindrance than help. It reminds me of the old joke of the tourist who goes to Oberammergau to ask a woodworker to carve a little statue of the crucified Jesus for him. The tourist insists on more and more “suffering” to be visible on Christ’s face, and gives more and more instructions on where to add additional furrows. The result, in the words of the artist, is that “Goddammit, he’s smirking!”
Lesson learned: engage with resistance and give the students the benefit of the doubt, but respond in ways that don’t undermine your initial idea. Be an example, not a rubric. Students will appreciate a challenge, if they feel they’re not alone.