I just took a short summer break from teaching one of my favorite classes, a mix of ethics and business law.  Next week I’m back at it again.  Sometimes stepping away like that gives you a little time to reflect on how it’s all going.  I’ve taught this class about 5 times now, so my notes and rhythm are fairly established, it’s like riding a bike. Accordingly, my thoughts have turned to the outcomes.   Students are asked in this class to write some opinionated research papers.   As I’ve taught this, I have noticed that few are really willing to take the risk to express a full-blown personal opinion.   They will parrot the opinions of scholars in the field, of judges and courts, but rarely will they disagree with what appears to be conventional wisdom.    They are not risk takers.

I came across this article from Dr.  E. Shelley Reid at George Mason University:  Teaching Risk Taking in the College Classroom  http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/teaching-risk-taking-in-the-college-classroom/

Dr. Reid talks about engaging students to take risks in the classroom.  I want to try some of these techniques.  Check it out and see what will work for your classroom environment.   The general idea is this:  Students learn better when actively taking risks with the ideas and concepts they are learning.   As instructors, we need to ask for academic risk-taking behavior – things like asking questions, dwelling in uncertainty, and advancing untried hypotheses.

For my students, methods like inching out on a limb are the best way to do this.  This method involves starting with a commonly held belief and slowly asking questions probing the details of that belief.  I use this often with ethical scenarios where the students all immediately line up on one side of an issue, declaring it all good, or all bad.  I will begin to ask questions that just slightly change the facts of the case.  I continue doing that until I reach a tipping point where some students suddenly switch their opinions.   Then we discuss as a class why the change of opinion.  We look for ideas and principles that caused the shift.

Dr. Reid in the above article makes some great suggestions.  Sometimes the risk tolerance of a group of students in low, so we have to create things like soft openings, peer to peer exploration of issues,  low thresholds for performance evaluation.   I’m thinking about how to incorporate these into my own classes.

So this month, here’s my experimental low threshold.  Most of my students are very grade focused.  This really limits their ability to take risks.  I’m thinking of adding extra credit points on a few essays for “opinionatedness” .  Nothing taken away, only added points.  Maybe this will stimulate the thinking and analysis I’m seeking from this class.   I’ll let you know how that works out.

If you have some additional ideas to create a “risk-taking” atmosphere in your classroom, please let me know.  I’d like to get other’s thoughts and ideas.  In conjunction with this, I will be blogging occasionally on how these additional ideas I’ve mentioned have worked for my classes.