Class Notes

A Question of Worth

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Helping students see beyond the classroom

By Paula Marantz Cohen


 

My colleague, Robert Watts, came into my office the other day, excited by a new approach he had taken in his class. He had begun the term by asking students in his freshman English course to write a short paper about four things they valued. By asking them to list these things, he was trying to counter predictable questions about ambition and goals. The point was for students to feel their value as individuals apart from the subject matter of the course and from their education in general. Robert had read that some version of this approach had been effective in motivating female students in math and science, where they often felt less adept than their male peers. But he could see how it would work well in the humanities, where students without experience in speaking or writing might feel out of their depth.

He immediately discerned a difference after he assigned the exercise. Students were more attentive and asked more questions. They were less concerned about looking stupid.

The change makes sense if you think about it. Freshmen college students are 17 or 18 years old and don’t have much experience in a competitive academic setting. Because they feel vulnerable, they are likely to generalize about their self-worth based on their performance in the classroom. But if they feel they have value as individuals what they don’t know is less daunting, making them more open to learning.

 

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.

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