Defensive Teaching – Does the Protection Outweigh the Risk?
by Heather Sue McDonald
Many instructors approach classroom policies with the intention of being flexible, while others are strict adherents to their specified course policy. There is no correct way to approach policy in the classroom and it is unrealistic to suggest that schools should implement a uniform structure. There are, however, certain student behaviors indicating that students are impacted negatively by their experiences with the given policy on syllabi. It is important to consider how these experiences with strict course policies might be harmful for students given the historical context of their (not our) lives. To do so, we must consider how these students’ lives are different from the lives of the previous generation of students.
A good majority of college students were not yet teenagers at the onset of the smart phone era.
The democratization and increasingly widespread use of technology is a major influence in modern students’ lives. Many incoming freshman (high school c/o 2018) were born in the year 2000. For perspective, the original iPhone was released in 2007 (Apple Inc., 2007). A good majority of college students were not yet teenagers at the onset of the smart phone era. Our students are accustomed to having instant information access at all times – they have not known another way of life.
Technology alone, however, cannot entirely explain students’ challenges with persevering in the face of a difficult or obscure task and continuing to frame the problem as technology-specific effectively faults students themselves when they are not entirely to blame. The historical-political context of the United States in the early 2000-10’s compounds the issue. The No Child Left Behind Act (2002) led to states implementing standards-based education reform. Modern students received highly standardized primary and secondary education compared to students in the past, and they were held to higher standards of accountability. Our students grew up in a system that penalized them when unable to read according to a standard level/method, but also one that provided few tools outside of basic memorization for learning the acceptable level/method.
Our students have grown up in a world that taught them that questions have one answer, that anything outside of the “correct” answer is simply wrong. They have not been given room to fail and the message they have repeatedly received is that perfection is the only route to success. They take instructions and rules as literal and objective, and these interpretations pose unfamiliar challenges to instructors.
When students deviate from classroom policies or fail to follow instructions on an assignment, it is easy to assume that they simply neglected to read the syllabus or instructions carefully. This assumption misses that often students arereading, and carefully so. Students that read and still fail to follow instructions or remember classroom policies might be taking a loose suggestion or guideline as necessary or misinterpreting what they read. Students may also feel confused and unsure whether and how to ask for clarification.
Our students have grown up in a world that taught them that questions have one answer, that anything outside of the “correct” answer is simply wrong.
Many instructors argue that this is part of the learning experience, but the potential for such “learning experiences” to distract from course learning objectives must also be considered. It is important for instructors to account for how students might interpret and react to a policy prior to putting it in the syllabus and when deciding how to explain the policy to students. We should ultimately question the utility of a policy versus potential for invoking anxiety or confusion amongst students. Many policies are set with prior negative classroom experiences in mind. For example, many instructors include strict page minimums for written assignments and many, when asked, will report that this arose from experience(s) with underdeveloped student papers. In my experience, students adhere more to these page minimums than their arguments and will even go to great lengths to reformat their papers to meet the requirement rather than revising their arguments. Instructors should consider the total benefits of defensive policies tailored to one student or group of students and whether the benefits are related to learning outcomes or personal preference.