Putting students in the driver's seat

News in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Linguistics at Luther College

Not long ago my 16-year-old son obtained his driver's license, and my 14-year-old daughter is now eligible for a learner's permit in Iowa. Having children of driving age is a watershed moment in parenthood that makes you keenly aware of losing control over your children. Just days ago they were passengers in my vehicle, carried from one place to another according to their parents' schedules. Now they are in the driver's seat, making choices about when to leave for school, which route to take, and how loud to play their music. Naturally, I want my kids to be independent, confident drivers, but turning loose teenagers to make good driving choices by themselves is frightening. Likewise, one of my highest aspirations for students is to become more self-directed learners, yet I'm reluctant to give them more control of coursework. The potential for mediocre learning in a semester already packed full of content, assignments and tests, seems too great a risk.

In the past several years I've experimented with having students formulate and pursue personal learning goals in advanced Spanish courses. The idea is to move them toward greater awareness of and confidence in their language learning by putting them in charge of the whole learning process: 1) setting appropriate goals, 2) locating resources and engaging productive methods of practice, and 3) demonstrating progress with compelling evidence. At step one, the most important guidance I provide is to help them shape goals that are personally meaningful, specific and in which they can demonstrate progress in one semester. Establishing good goals is surprisingly difficult and tends to work best for students who are older, who have thought about how they intend to use Spanish personally and professionally, and who possess some awareness of their own weaknesses in language learning.

The second step is to identify effective strategies for pursuing personal goals. Students write specific statements about the kinds of work they will do and resources they will use to practice skills or acquire new understanding. Strategies and work methods sometimes change as students evaluate their progress during the term, but this is a hallmark of self-directed learning: the ability to recognize when a strategy is not working and change it appropriately. As with the other stages of personal goals, students need training in how to choose good strategies and how to adjust those strategies when progress is stagnant.

Reflection essays are the final and most important stage for making personal a meaningful exercise. Most upper-division students recognize where they struggle in learning Spanish and are able to articulate appropriate goals; however, the results of the first reflection essay usually reveal a gap in understanding the difference between performing work toward a goal and demonstration of progress. Sometimes students underestimate the time required to do independent work toward goals, while others fail to locate appropriate resources. Most often, though, students confuse the act of doing work toward personal goals with evidence of progress, and this is another hallmark of self-directed learning: the ability to demonstrate learning with compelling evidence. "In the past three weeks I had five Skype conversations with my Ecuadorian host brother" or "I feel like I've grown in my ability to communicate with native Spanish speakers" are not sufficient evidence of progress. The reflection essay must connect concrete examples of practice work to changed abilities or understanding.

When evaluating the first reflection essay early in the term, the most common feedback I write is to include less summary of practice activities and more explicit evidence from practice that demonstrates growth or learning. Through my feedback on the first reflection essay, students get a clearer sense of what constitutes a real demonstration of learning, which sometimes leads them to re-formulate goals or to make better choices about resources and strategies. In their second essays I almost always find more concrete evidence of progress toward personal goals, which tells me they are understanding better the relationship among goals, practice, and learning.

After several years of asking students in upper-level courses to pursue personal goals, I've concluded that the assignment's success depends upon my following a few guidelines. First, I cannot assume that students know how to define and pursue a self-determined goal. I need to provide models of reasonable goals as well as suggest productive strategies. Second, I need to allow students to modify their goals and work methods over time, either when strategies fail to produce results or when results come easily and call for a new objective. Third, students must be held accountable to high standards on the reflection essays. They require clear feedback to help them carefully distinguish between demonstration of practice and demonstration of progress. Finally, personal goals must be a significant part of the coursework and of their course grade. Typically I allocate 15-20 percent of the course grade to personal goals, which helps communicate the value of self-directed learning and the necessary investment of time and effort.

Despite my anxiety about my teenage kids driving on their own, there comes a point when I must hand over the keys and trust that previous training will guide them. If they are to become assertive, independent drivers in the next 10 years, they need time in the driver's seat now. By the same token, I can't simply grit my teeth and wish them good luck on the road. They need me to continually provide good feedback and help them make decisions about driving in bad weather or in unfamiliar places. As college instructors look to develop more self-directed students, we should assume the risks of giving them control, of putting them in the driver's seat so to speak. And so long as we cultivate an environment for productive independent learning, the risks are worth taking, because greater awareness of and confidence in their learning are some of the most valuable tools students can acquire to meet new challenges.


David Thompson

David Thompson is a professor of Spanish and teaches courses at in Spanish language and Hispanic cultures. He feels that one of the best parts of his job is leading J-term study abroad courses to Spain and Latin America, where students immerse themselves in the local culture and build their language proficiency. Early in his career he published research on contemporary Spanish poetry by women writers, but more recently his scholarship focuses on metacognition in foreign language courses -- how students become aware of and monitor their own learning.

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  • February 8 2017 at 2:13 pm
    Brooke Joyce

    Thanks for your thoughtful essay, David! I wholeheartedly agree that self-directed learning and assessment is a worthy goal, and I'm glad you remind us that we, as instructors or mentors, need to provide guidance. Many students these days (I sound like my retired professor-father here) come from educational backgrounds in which they were never handed the proverbial "keys," or even shown the garage that the car is in.