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Break the Cycle of Classroom Hand-Holding. Teach Independence.

For a great many students, the promise of independence is dangled before their noses for years before they enter higher education. They are told that college-level learning requires one to be a self-starter, that professors will not “hold your hand” or “chase you down” for assignments. The truth, of course, is somewhat murkier than this.

Often, the “independence” we emphasize in college is really just more hand-holding. From lecturing students to modeling obedience as a skill, in a great many ways, we—as college instructors—unknowingly encourage passivity in our own classrooms. Here are four ways to break the cycle of passive learning and teach our students true independence.

  1. Set Firm Deadlines…or Don’t

Many instructors feel that the simplest way to activate student independence is to make clear and immovable demands. When it comes to assigning work, they argue that their classroom mimics “the real world,” in which employees are given a task and face consequences for not completing it on time. The resulting atmosphere takes on a “sink-or-swim” quality; students must learn to be accountable and self-motivated if they wish to succeed.

Needless to say, there’s much value to be found in this conventional approach; however, there’s also an argument to be made for the opposite. Yes, in the real world, a failure to meet deadlines can lead to dire consequences; however, in many fields, workers are given leeway to prioritize responsibilities and set their own deadlines. If a worker’s bandwidth is simply too stretched (or their resources and time too limited), many companies will allow workers to assess the situation and call attention to it before calamity ensues. So why not – within reason – offer a similar path to students in the class?

Many classes, particularly those that are writing-based, have come to emphasize “authentic” writing as a building block in the creative process. Firm deadlines and the constraints of a 15-week semester act as unavoidable impediments to the construction of original, authentic work. In many disciplines, the constraint of assigning numerous projects, essays, and quizzes within one narrow time period might produce less than ideal results.

For these reasons, I’ve found that soft deadlines work best in teaching independence. Completion-by-a-certain-date procedures, I’d argue, don’t stress independence at all—but rather obedience. Rather than setting up a punitive system that rewards compliance, why not teach independence and adult time management by mimicking the freedom of authors and researchers?  Give students a due date—followed by a weeklong grace period— and allow each individual author an opportunity to balance the demands of their semester. If used correctly, a flexible schedule encourages students to work at their own pace, prioritize their workload, be creative or revise their work as needed, and ultimately share in the responsibility of being accountable for their own work.

  1. Stop Lecturing!

While instructors do expect a certain level of accountability from their students, many still encourage passivity through classroom lecturing. You know what I mean: those professors who stand at the front of the room and drone on until the class is gradually imbued with knowledge.

Although there is nothing wrong (per se) with pounding the podium, it creates a dynamic that privileges active instructors—as opposed to active students. All of the learning and discussion is filtered through the professor. To inspire true independence—asking students to take ownership of their work and progress toward their own mastery of the subject—divide the class into groups and direct their learning with pointed questions. Leave the answering up to them. Let things be silent and awkward (if needed) until the learner produces explanations and answers. Then, at the end of the session, require each group to present their findings.

This student-centered approach creates a true atmosphere of collaboration, yes, but also eliminates the possibility of “zoning out” or “getting bored” during the professor’s lecture. The onus finally placed upon them, students are forced to advance their own understanding: independently and without “hand-holding.”

  1. Hold Them Accountable!

Often, when higher-ed types discuss student accountability, they are thinking of students as emergent employees, evaluating their timeliness and proficiency. These qualities are, of course, important for any student; however, judging success solely on these terms is hardly useful when it comes to modeling independence. Those students who submit to the demands of an instructor and meet his or her (let’s face it) arbitrary expectations are accountable, sure, but to whom?

Instead, instructors should be striving to teach self-motivation and push students to be accountable, first and foremost, to themselves. Rather than rewarding the person who meets our demands, why not find a way to nurture risk-takers, innovators, and mess-makers? One way to accomplish this is through graded reflection. As a follow-up to every high-stakes submission or project, require a short (250-500-word) piece of process writing. Ask students to discuss the aesthetic choices they made in constructing their work:

Why did you choose to construct the piece/project in this way?

What effect(s) do you hope your choices will have on the reader/audience?

Are there any areas of the piece/project that you feel could do with improvement?

Which areas of the piece do you feel are the most successful?

Even in trickier disciplines, like math or accounting, this process can be utilized. Ask students to defend their concrete answers by explaining their process. Push them to detail the rationale behind their conclusions or claims; hopefully, this will make them more aware of their own thought processes. Requiring students to defend the choices they’ve made in their work ultimately treats them as independent thinkers, writers, and/or researchers—agents and engineers of their own success, rather than obedient cogs.

  1. Encourage Students to Self-Advocate

Unless students sign a waiver, FERPA law prohibits college instructors from speaking with parents regarding their child’s performance in class. Even if waivers are signed, however, many instructors will still refuse to communicate with anyone other than the student. This extra step goes a long way toward teaching real independence. In recent years, I’ve noticed a hike in parent e-mails, reaching out to explain everything from student absences to learning disabilities—and, in all cases, I respectfully refuse to communicate.

My reason for doing so should be obvious. Students cannot achieve full independence if they’re reliant upon a parent to be their advocate. Interacting with their instructors gives students an opportunity to collaborate with and work for an entire spectrum of personality types. Learning the expectations of each and how best to engage with them models the day-to-day interactions that students will encounter in the workplace. When parents step in to facilitate or mediate, they rob their child of necessary person-to-person practice.

For this reason, it may be fruitful to include a discussion of FERPA protocol and a disclaimer in your syllabus:

Even if you have waived your right to privacy, I will not speak to a parent about anything having to do with your work, attendance, or performance in this classroom. Academic excellence is built upon a foundation of teacher-student trust and open dialogue. You should feel empowered to speak to me about anything you wish, whether advocating for your own success or sharing difficulties you may be experiencing, in or out of class. When third parties intervene—even if they are paying for your tuition—it undercuts the validity and power of our working relationship.

Becoming an independent learner and thinker is an important aspect of college. While it might not appear as a measurable learning objective, it should be considered a key aspect of nearly every class. Instructors can help move students to self-reliance by eliminating some of the hand-holding policies available in our classroom.

About the Author

Professor Ray Dademo is an adjunct professor of English at Rutgers University, Montclair State University, and Middlesex County College. He holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University and a BA in English from Fordham University. His pedagogy involves the use of cinematic literacy as an entry point for composition studies. He has recently co-authored an article for the CEA Critic, titled "Narrating the Moviegoing Experience: Reframing Film for First-Year Composition.

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