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Mysterious Learners: What's Going On with Them?

Posted By Michael Milone, Ph.D. | May 03, 2017
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A colleague and I have been looking at progress and outcome measures for a number of students using different interventions. We are doing this the old-fashioned way, not through data analytics (all the rage these days), but by reviewing every single detail we can find. These data are being plotted visually to see if some patterns emerge that might allow us to draw some general conclusions.

After much plotting and discussion, we came to a remarkably insightful conclusion that I would like to share with you. (Slight drumroll, please.) We had no idea what was going on.

Some of the students were engaging in what appeared to be random behavior. They would get easy things wrong, hard things right, and mix in a lot of skipped activities. Others would do well for a period of time and then seem to shut down. A third group did just the opposite, wandering aimlessly through relatively simple activities and then suddenly finding their inner genius.

For a variety of reasons, we have not been able to interview these students. We hope to put a system in place by which early-on we can identify these students and their learning experiences, and talk to them directly or through an intermediary. It would be fascinating to hear what they are thinking.

iStock-512892492-blogMysterious Learners

This is not a trivial exercise. The number of students who fall into the category of “mysterious learners” on either a regular or periodic basis is instructionally meaningful. In discussing this with teachers, and based on our own experiences as educators, it also is very frustrating.

These students typically have no diagnosed or suspected learning issues. They just don’t seem to respond successfully to instructional practices that are effective with other students with similar characteristics.

Although we have not yet been able to interview any of the students in our current analysis, I have been able to reconstruct some conversations I’ve had with students throughout the years. I even managed to track down one of them from more than 20 years ago. She was, at the time, doing OK (not great) in high school but completely bombed the SAT. I was recruited to tutor her, which I was happy to do, since I was a friend of the family. She was polite, only slightly engaged, and barely motivated. I gave her a little assignment and said we would review it in the next session.

We reviewed her work by having her explain her responses without knowing if they were correct or incorrect. Something fascinating happened. For her correct responses, she explained quickly and clearly why they were right. For the incorrect responses, she began questioning her own thinking processes and usually changed her answer to the correct option.

During the next few sessions, we did the same thing, and in the space of a few weeks, the number of initially correct responses increased dramatically. She also became better at explaining her incorrect responses and recognizing her misunderstanding or lack of information.

This occurred during the spring of her junior year in high school, and her grades overall for that semester were a little higher than the previous few semesters. During her senior year, her grades were better than ever, she did much better on the SAT, and she was accepted at her first choice college. She has enjoyed a very successful career since graduating from college in four years.

Nonjudgmental Environment

When I recently spoke with her about this transformation, she was at first self-effacing. She didn't even remember it as a major turnaround. As we spoke, she suggested her “before” was a reflection of a lack of confidence and an unwillingness to commit to serious thinking. It seems she was simply not that interested in working hard at thinking during school and when doing her homework, and she wasn’t really given an opportunity to review and analyze her work. She expressed a very strong feeling that having an opportunity to review her work in a nonjudgmental situation made her feel more confident about her ability and more willing to self-evaluate. This very quickly migrated to thinking more analytically and getting it right the first time.

I would love to take credit for suggesting this strategy to her, but I didn’t. She discovered it herself. It was almost as if she came to the growth mindset about herself long before it was cool. Although she is only a sample of one, I wonder if some other mysterious learners might do better if they had more opportunities for self-reflection and analysis in a nonjudgmental situation. I realize teachers and students have many competing pressures to which they must respond, and that time is a very limited resource in school. It might be nice, however, if teachers and students found just a little time to try the strategy that worked so well for the young lady I described.

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