Initial Publication Date: January 16, 2007

Todd Zakrajsek

Faculty Center for Innovative Teaching, Central Michigan University

Todd Zakrajsek

What are the key issues related to the role of the affective domain in teaching geoscience that you would like to engage at the workshop?

How to overcome perceptions that science is difficult ways to REALLY engage students in the learning process and methods to determine what today's students find motivating.

What expertise or experience (in study of the affective domain or teaching of geoscience) will you bring to the workshop? How would you like to contribute to the workshop?

I am a faculty developer who works with faculty from across campus. I have presented as an invited speaker on the topic of Motivation and Emotion in Learning from a psychological background. I am very willing to contribute what I know about general motivation and emotion in terms of learning in exchange for learning more about how that might apply specificially to the area of science.

Essay: Reducing Fear and Increasing Commitment in an Introductory Course

Two of the most persistent issues I have faced in over 20 years of teaching is overcoming inherent fear for the course material and having students accept the course components (exams, papers, reports, etc.).

Fear is a debilitating factor and is amazingly effective in shutting down essentially all learning. As much as I tried to reassure individuals that the course would not be as difficult as they expected, I could not move several of the students in any given class to a zone of comfort. I noted on the first day of class students were flipping though the text becoming paralyzed by complex issues and procedures in "Chapter 17." I know the first thing I used to do when I purchased a textbook was to look through the text to see what I would be learning. If later chapters "looked" really hard I expected the course to be very difficult. This is fine for some students, but others are simply paralyzed by the fear they will not be able to grasp those very difficult aspects of the material.

I then tried something that seemed counterintuitive. A few years ago I started something I continue to this very day. On the first day of class I ask everyone to turn to a specific page toward the end of the text and give them a passage to read that is very difficult. I then ask for a volunteer to explain the material. Faced with blank stares, which is what I want, I give a big sigh of relief and tell them it is good to know they are in the right class. If they could already do the stuff at the end of the book, I would have nothing to "teach" them. I then ask them to turn to page one of the text, which has some very basic explanatory text. I give the class a few minutes to read a designated passage on that page and ask if anyone can explain in their own words what that means. I get many hands in the air and the mood of the class changes immediately. I conclude by pointing out that we will work toward and understanding of difficult concepts, as that is what education is all about.

On that first day of class I also have students develop the syllabus for the course. I tell them only two conditions must be satisfied. Whatever is developed must be fair to the group as a whole and that the end result must allow me to give them a legitimate grade for the course. I have done this for several years and it always works well. The students select number of exams, type of exams, papers, homework, attendance, and all other aspects of the course, including dates for each of the components. If anyone suggests 90% of the grade be attendance, I simply invoke rule #2 and indicate that such an arrangement certainly wouldn't allow me to assign a course grade on what they have learned.

Both of these "activities" are designed to address the fear students feel in a course they fear. I want students to be concerned about the material and the course, but not to be paralyzed by it. One result of these activities, and a few others in the course, is that student success rate is very high and I tend to get students who have not been successful in the past in my sections and they tend to do quite well. I have also shared my course materials with my colleagues, who have indicated they were surprised by the extent of material we cover in the course and the speed at which we successfully cover some of the more difficult concepts.