One thing I do in my classes on a regular basis is administer short “learning assessments”, which sometimes focus on content, along the lines of a “one-minute essay”, and at other times on process.

I routinely get fascinating data from this question from Stephen Brookfield’s “Critical Incident Questionnaire” (pdf):

“At what moment in class this week did you feel most distanced from what was happening?”

Students admit to all kinds of things in answering this question, from not having gotten enough to sleep to not having done the reading or being distracted by their phones. One intent of a question like this is to encourage students to reflect on how they learn and to make adjustments that would, for example, lead to feeling less distanced in class.

This past week in reading over some of my assessments something clicked that I had been puzzled by before, which is the way in which students will often write that they felt most distanced when we talked about something that they found to be alien or uncomfortable or that they don’t like talking about.

Previously, for some reason, maybe in response to how students articulate their answers to this question, or maybe from being unable to get out of my own frames of reference, I thought that students who wrote about feeling distanced by discomfiting or unfamiliar material were just being incurious or were unsure about the question.

As I thought about one of the assessments I got back this week, I realized that most of the students who gave that kind of answer were likely addressing the question directly and understood it quite well.

From my perspective, one of the points of getting an education, of going to college, is to encounter the unfamiliar and to be made uncomfortable by what I don’t know or understand or have not yet experienced. This would (and did) make me feel less distanced as a student.

Of course, and I have known this for awhile, many of the students I have in my classes don’t look at their educations that way. If one wants an education to be credentialed or to affirm ideas and choices already made or already learned, then it makes sense, now at least, that unfamiliar or uncanny material would lead one to feel distanced by what was happening in the classroom.

Here’s thing I am left with: this looks like it should be an opportunity, not a barrier to learning. It seems unlikely that students who express feelings of being distanced in this way aren’t also learning at the same time (and, in fact, that could be part of why they feel distanced; if they were simply resistant, then whatever was bothering them about class would be just as likely to be deflected or written off as nonsense as to be getting under their skin).

However, I’m not sure how to turn this kind of data to my advantage. I should, maybe, start keeping track of what students say makes them feel distanced and see if I can notice any clusters around certain topics or activities. Or maybe I am seeing how some students natively process new or unfamiliar material or ways of learning, and I should re-interpret some of these answers as positive indications of what’s happening in class and not as problems to be solved.

In any case, it’s gratifying when these exercises seem to produce actual insight or meaningful results (as opposed to, say, our institutional evaluations. Ha! I kid because I care).