When is the Struggle TOO Real?

One of the advantages of having a partner who happens to be a math professor is that we can talk academic shop. A few weeks ago, over a serious dishwasher unloading, we started talking about a recurring theme manifesting itself in our college’s faculty Facebook group: toughening up college students. From debates about trigger warnings to conversations about cultivating students’ grit and comfort with failure, our colleagues are consistently inconsistent about how we should help college students succeed in academia and life. I’ll lump myself and my partner into this group, too. As a faculty we want to be sensitive to student needs and life experiences, but we also don’t want them to fall apart if they get a bad grade on an exam. We want them to make a real attempt at solving a difficult problem or tackling a challenging project on their own before asking for help, but we also recognize that many students have serious outside stressors (economic, familial, emotional, etc.) that might prevent them from giving their all to their studies.

For years librarians have been chanting that “failure is good” because it is a signal of attempted innovation, creative practice, and learning (particularly when applied to information literacy instruction). We want our students to learn from their mistakes, which means they have to make them first. Math education is no different. There’s a small but mighty push for experiential and problem-based learning within the discipline that wants students to learn from their mistakes. As my partner and I discussed this we couldn’t help but wonder:

At what point is the struggle too much?

Earlier in the day he’d met with a student who claimed she was working on one homework problem for 4 hours. Earlier that semester I’d met with a student who spent an entire weekend looking for research in the wrong places with the wrong search terms. I’m all for giving it the old college try, but in both cases, this just plain excessive struggle for little reward. As a librarian who has been doing this job for a while, I have a good sense of when I’ve tapped my intellectual well. I know when to ask for help. My partner does, too. Most academics know when to take a step back, take another approach, or ask a colleague for suggestions. But this is a learned skill. We like to think of it as tacit knowledge–students have to experience failure to know when they are failing the right way as opposed to just struggling unnecessarily–but is it really? Does the experience alone help them gain this knowledge? Or can the struggle just be too real for some students, leading them to eventually equate math or research with pointless stress?

I think the key in the library classroom is not to focus on failure but to focus on process: Model, practice, repeat–over and over again. It’s a challenge when so much of students’ grades depend on a final product (an exam, a paper, a presentation, etc.) and often requires a shift in emphasis from the professor. By modeling a process–a step I think we (and I know I) often overlook in our attempts to make our classrooms spaces for active learning–we give students a sense of what struggle can look like. Granted, there’s no one standard process for research, and we don’t want to imply that there is one, but making our thinking and doing visible to our students can go a long way towards demystifying research. We get stuck, we back-track, we try again, we struggle, but we are never alone when we do so. It’s something I try to stress to all my students in hopes that they too feel like they never have to struggle alone.

4 thoughts on “When is the Struggle TOO Real?”

  1. This. 100% this. I often wonder where this mentality comes from: is it library anxiety, fear of asking “a stupid question”, or a hangover from elementary and secondary education “eyes on your own paper” idea that “not doing your own work” is a form of cheating? And how does this model and mentality actually help students? I’ve never had a job where I was penalized for asking for help, feedback, or bouncing an idea off someone.

    I had a class this week that by certain standards was a total fail. Keyword brainstorming was rushed, we ran out of time to even search in a database. That’s because after doing an individual knowledge inventory on their topics I made them talk in small groups. And the groups were asked not only to give feedback about the topic but advise about resources, search strategies, etc. and it was amazing how into they were and how much they got out of it. And none of these (first year) students had ever asked their peers for feedback or help on a project before.

    So I’d been feeling pretty bummed that that class was so bad, but I feel better now – because if the skill those students took away was open up their process to others and reap the benefits of their different points of view hopefully the other mechanical “library stuff” will fall into place when it needs to.

  2. Ronnie !
    So – the Biblical Foundations course I provided information literacy and research support for had students reading, researching, and writing in pairs for the entire semester. And they wrote every week (2-3 page papers). Each week was based on different text, a different question they developed, and the use of basic reference tools in religious studies. Over the semester they wrote 13-14 papers, had no other assessment, and pairs presented every Friday.

    They wrote reflective essays at the end. I have copies of several years’ worth. They are AMAZING. The learned slowly, had weeks with setback, figured out when the problem was the question they asked, and when it was their choice of tools, or when it was their conflicting schedules. Was it failure? Sort of. But their ability to see how they learned and write about it was amazing. And it reduced anxiety by being a model of practice.

    I have been wanting to write something about those classes for a few years. The essays are inspiring to me.

  3. They key to that class you taught with Katharina was the total focus on process. I remember thinking it was SO AMAZING at the time. It was all about the reflection–what questions did they ask and what did they learn? I really think you should write something about this process model. I’d read it!

  4. Thanks, Amanda! I too have had the experience in class where students seem surprised–or even reluctant–to talk to one another. I find in particularly shocking in classes where there are students working on very similar research ideas. In our work we regularly bounce ideas off one another. It’s not only OK, it’s expected! I think you can count this class in the WIN category. Learning to talk to one another, offer helpful feedback and ask for help are all important skills to learn.

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