Telling students what to do, but not how to do it

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I’ve been spending a lot of time this summer speaking with undergrad students doing summer research projects. I’ve asked lots of questions about their research experiences, but have been sneaking in questions about their lab courses. Their ideas and opinions have been fascinating. In particular, a student recently made a very clear description of what they want – both in their research and in their lab courses.

Tell me what to do, but let me figure out how to do it.

They made this comment first in relation to their research experience when I asked about independence and autonomy in their project. They agreed that it was beneficial for their research mentor to decide what they should be working on, since they, as early undergraduate students, did not have the breadth of knowledge to make decisions about what should be studied. They really appreciated that their mentors left them to their own devices to figure out how to get it done, though. Of course, this involves lots of feedback and support from their mentors, but they still have the autonomy to make their own decisions, see how/whether it works, and then iterate or ask for advice.

Then, in describing some of their favourite (and least favourite) lab courses, the same philosophy emerged. Tell them what they’re supposed to investigate, but let them investigate it!

I think this rings true with the way I’ve been designing lab activities, but I just thought they put it so eloquently, that I would share it.

They then started telling me that they wished labs taught them about critical thinking, scientific reasoning skills, etc. and this was all just music to my ears 🙂