Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      April 1999 Volume XXII Number 1

Starting Where the Students Are
by Judi Hetrick

Randy Isaacson loves mottoes. The assistant professor of education at Indiana University South Bend shares inspirational sayings with students as one of many ways of motivating them to study better so they can learn to teach better. In student workbooks he designs you can find the words of Thomas Edison: If there is a way to do it better. . . Find It!

Randy Isaacson, assistant professor of education at Indiana University South Bend believes that students will learn if they are motivated. --credit

Of course the complex work of teaching can't be distilled into a motto. But motivation theory is, after all, one of Isaacson's research specialties. Sharing mottoes is part of his strategy of starting where students are, rather than assuming they are where the professor would like them to be. "I think a lot of professors think, 'Oh! They'll all be intrinsically motivated, and they'll just be curious about Shakespeare or calculus.' No. That's not the way it is," answers psychologist Isaacson. "Maybe a thirty-year-old graduate student is. But a twenty-year-old undergraduate [says]: 'What do I have to do to get an A in this class? Is that going to be on the test? Is this going to be graded?' "

Conscious of their perspective, Isaacson builds his classroom practice around student choice. They can throw out a certain number of test scores and grades. But the class is structured, Isaacson tells his students, so "it's in your best interest to try to do your best most if not all the time," especially on tests.

That doesn't mean Isaacson advocates cramming for exams. Rather, he has a saying that expresses one of his central beliefs: Evaluation drives learning. In his P250 Educational Psychology classes, that belief comes to life in a finely crafted series of quizzes and tests. He has techniques to make students raise their level of learning. Each test, Isaacson explains, has three levels of questions. Level ones are like free throws: They ask for memorized information and are only worth one point each. Level two questions are more like jump shots: Students think on their feet to apply information and score two points. But to succeed at level three, students must move behind the arc to synthesize information--perhaps to place several terms into a conceptual hierarchy- and try for three. "When I added this level," Isaacson reports, "the students were furious! 'Why are you doing this? It makes it so much harder!' I explained to them: 'You need to learn high-level thinking skills, and this is the way to do it.' "

But how can he get those students who asked "Is this going to be graded?" to go for three--and make it? One answer could be, in the words of Gen. George Patton, Accept the challenges, so that you may feel the exhilaration of victory. To help students face the challenges, Isaacson has recruited an army of successful P250 graduates who volunteer as peer mentors for optional study groups. These are no hang-out-and-chat sessions. They are 75-minute jam-packed discussion classes, complete with quizzes, exercises, and journaling assignments--and the expectation of 100 percent class participation. The peer mentors, who take time away from their own studies and lives to do this, assure you that Isaacson is doing them a favor. They consider the job fun despite--or because of--its challenges. "In the end," said one mentor, "I'm not sure if the students learn more or if we do."

The peer mentors already exhibit the characteristics of excellent teachers, as Isaacson describes them: "I think good teachers at kindergarten, at high school, at college have this very caring attitude toward the students. And the students know very clearly that this guy, this gal, wants me to learn but is going to expect a lot out of me."

Isaacson's interest in the field of motivation theory grew out of his own academic history as an unmotivated student. After barely pulling more than a 2.0 GPA in high school and entering Hanover College on probation, Isaacson realized he'd have to raise his academic sights and improve his performance so he wouldn't be drafted into service in Vietnam. After he entered graduate school at Michigan State (again on probation), his expectations started to rise. He learned how to study, do research, and--as part of a large cohort of teaching assistants who practiced what he now calls peer mentoring--to teach. The challenges of teaching provided the motivation for his own learning, which he now sees as a continuous, lifelong, self-critical process.

Students need a vehicle to help them move from memorizing terms to understanding relationships. This concept map is one of a series of exercises, which Isaacson has termed "Ed Sykes," that are used in peer-led study groups to encourage students to see the big picture and compare and contrast concepts the instructor has identified as critical. --credit

Isaacson uses reflection, evaluation, and assessment to improve his classes through what he calls "tinkering." But it's fairly scientific tinkering. Recently, for example, he divided his P250 students into separate cohorts, giving some groups more challenging journal assignments and lessons on study skills. Other students receive such help only on request. All fill out questionnaires and provide information on their learning. He uses the resulting data, similar to data he gathers every semester, to improve his course design and to explore questions in his research, such as what types of students are motivated by different techniques. He has made his grant-supported research public through invited addresses, workshops, paper presentations, and discussions with other professors in a range of disciplines. He also is leading an IUSB Division of Education effort to incorporate scholarship of teaching into the tenure and promotion process.

Isaacson can trace his approach in part to his MSU mentor, Lee Shulman. "He always was challenging us to think about the teaching-learning process and asking all kinds of questions." Shulman is now posing those same challenges to the entire American educational community as president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (where IU President Emeritus Thomas Ehrlich also serves as a senior scholar).

Isaacson always asks his students what works and what doesn't. And he is quick to note that along with his mentors, "I think I've learned more from the other end of the continuum: the kids. I never just blow things off when something happens. I'm always thinking, 'Why did that happen?' " And he's always asking his students what works and what doesn't.

Isaacson has a second job that came about because something wasn't working. But, as Albert Einstein said, In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity. When Isaacson overheard a student who was preparing to teach in public schools questioning his credibility because he had never taught students younger than college age, Isaacson ended up across the street from IUSB at John Adams High School, volunteering to coach the cross country team. He's been head coach there since 1984.

Isaacson notes that mottoes are particularly effective with the young athletes. Every year, his senior runners get to pick a saying for the team's T-shirts. Isaacson turns that perk into an exercise in reflection and assessment. He has the team seniors think about the athletes who were seniors during their freshmen year. "These were the leaders in your life," he reminds them. "What did they do to have an impact on you?" Then they imagine the current freshmen as seniors--talking about them! "What would they say? What would you want them to say?" Then the seniors pick their T-shirt motto. "This is what you want them to remember," Isaacson tells the runners. This year's slogan: Our greatest victory will be doing what you think we can't achieve.

"It's probably cheesy," Isaacson says, "but I find that the kids remember that stuff. It's the bumper sticker of your life." Cheesy or not, it gives the students one more tool to motivate them to succeed. As Isaacson says: You get what you expect out of people.

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