Conceptual Ideas Held By Students About Learning

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By Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law

Last week, I had my students in Legal Research and Writing II complete a survey to help me figure out whether they had “healthy” concepts about learning. Studies show that students who are intrinsically motivated to learn show more positive conceptual learning traits and tend to be more successful in school.  Students who are extrinsically motivated to learn show more negative conceptual learning traits and tend to be less successful in school.  Examples of positive conceptual learning traits are having inherent curiosity, desiring to master the material, feeling capable of doing well, and willing to ask questions if unsure.  Examples of negative conceptual learning traits are wanting to score high on tests to be ranked above their peers, believing test-taking abilities are something with which one is born, believing they are not capable of success, and unwillingness to ask for clarification if he or she does not understand something.

Wanting to see where my students were on this scale, I gave them 7 questions to answer for which they could chose 5 if they strongly agreed, 3 if they agreed, and 1 if they strongly disagreed.  They could also chose 4 or 2 if they were in between.

1.    I want high scores on assessments so I know I mastered the material.
2.    I want high scores on assessments so I am ranked above my peers.
3.    I believe capability to achieve a high score on assessments is largely something a person is born with.
4.    I believe capability to achieve a high score on assessments is something that can be learned.
5.    When I do not understand something academically, I generally will ask for clarification from the instructor or other sources.
6.    When I do not understand something academically, I generally will not ask for clarification from the instructor or other sources.
7.    I believe I am capable of achieving high scores on assessments in law school.

The data showed me that my class, as a whole, has very positive conceptual learning traits, which is likely why they have been so easy to teach.  I was surprised that most of the students (90%) answered a 4 or 5 to question #4, meaning they believe test taking can be learned.  Obviously, as you might expect 90% of the class put a 1 or 2 for question #3, which says that scoring high on an assessment is something a person is born with.  100% of my students put a 3, 4, or 5 on question number 5 saying they would generally ask for help if needed.  Most students (80%) answered a 4 or 5 to both questions #1 and #2, meaning they had two goals to scoring high on assessments.

So what does this all mean?  Getting to a student’s or a group of students’ motivations in school is difficult.  This data has helped me shape my teaching.  I know they want to master the material so I point out everything I am doing to help them master the material. I also give them suggestions on how they can help themselves master the material.  Lastly, knowing they are willing to ask questions encourages me to give them plenty of time to ask questions in class.  Knowing I have a classroom full of students with largely positive conceptual learning traits has allowed me to push them harder as well.

 

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