Sunday, April 1, 2012

Letting Them Suffer

A student of mine was way behind on his research paper project. The problem? He couldn’t come up with a subject.

I usually give my students a choice of what they want to write about, within some pretty narrow parameters. This lessens the chance of plagiarism, and lessens anxiety for a lot of students who prefer a little direction. For the big research paper, though, I want them to write about something they really want to dig into. I tell them, “You’re going to be living with this topic for a while, so make it something you love.”

Some immediately know what they want to do. I’ve had students research a brother’s disease (because she wasn’t satisfied that her doctor was knowledgeable enough) or the benefits of quitting smoking (because he wanted to quit and felt this would help). Most find something pretty quickly.

When students do struggle to come up with a subject, I sit down with them and ask, “Tell me about what you do when you’re not in school. Tell me about your family. When you surf the internet, what do you look for?” Sometimes we go to a news page and I have them pick out the three most interesting headlines. We almost always have a Eureka moment.

No so with this student. I asked my usual questions, I pestered him about his hobbies, I did everything I could think of without actually assigning him a topic. I was nervous, because he was one of those students who I knew could get discouraged enough to drop the class.

I watched him suffer through an entire class period trying to come up with something and obviously having many false starts, while his peers were well into drafting. I was sorely tempted just to assign him a topic, but I resisted. Instead, I had a heart-to-heart with him about how I knew he could do it, and what a waste of time and money it would be to drop out at this point. I went home, unsure if I had done the right thing, and pretty certain I wouldn’t be seeing him again. I lost sleep that night, wondering if I should have caved in and given him a subject.

Needless to say, I was surprised when he burst through the door early the next week, paper in hand, waving it in my face. “I got it!” he said. “I finally got it!”

When I read the draft, I was impressed. This student was not a great writer, and was usually lucky to pull a low C on his papers. But this one was different, because he cared about the subject and he’d suffered for it. Even better than that, he was proud of his paper, and it showed in his work.

Boy, was I glad I kept my mouth shut and let him figure it out on his own. It's hard not to want to fix things, or make it easier, but I would have deprived him of that sense of accomplishment, that learning experience, and very possibly, that A paper.

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