When Teachers Change Their Minds

Credit: iStock.com/themacx
Credit: iStock.com/themacx
While combing through the materials sent in response to our call for content on extra credit, I noticed a surprising number of contributions begin by acknowledging a change of mind regarding extra credit. But the direction of that change isn’t what I want to explore here. Rather, it’s the legitimacy, indeed value, of changing our minds—and if not actually changing them, at least being open to the possibility of moving from one position to another.

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While combing through the materials sent in response to our call for content on extra credit, I noticed a surprising number of contributions begin by acknowledging a change of mind regarding extra credit. But the direction of that change isn’t what I want to explore here. Rather, it’s the legitimacy, indeed value, of changing our minds—and if not actually changing them, at least being open to the possibility of moving from one position to another.

For Those Who Teach from Maryellen Weimer

Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of changing positions. We are regularly reminded of what they believed, spoke in favor of, and voted for 20 or 30 years ago, and if they have now changed their views, no explanation of why or how dislodges the fact that they once thought otherwise. Fortunately, it’s not like that for teachers. We can change our minds about instructional policies and practices and not have that shift in position held up for public scrutiny.

Sometimes, though, a change of mind engenders self-incrimination. One person wrote, “I used to be dead-set against offering extra credit, and for the life of me, I’m not even sure why.” Well, maybe the belief was never examined. Lots of faculty feel strongly about extra credit, and early in our careers, we’re strongly influenced by those colleagues around us. Maybe students have changed, or our understandings of teaching and learning aren’t what they used to be. In other words, there may be a whole set of reasons that justify a change of mind.

Even so, for academics there’s a latent trepidation about changing positions that grows out of the long tradition of upholding standards. We don’t want to compromise when it comes to what students should know and be able to do after completing a course or a curriculum program. But there’s lots of fuzziness as to which instructional actions uphold those standards. Moreover, strict adherence to standards can nourish a misguided commitment to doing things the way they’ve always been done. A suspicion lingers that any change in position lowers standards and erodes intellectual rigor. Some policies and practices have those results, but changing your mind doesn’t automatically compromise standards. Indeed, it’s possible for changes to raise them.

Changing your mind can be confronted tentatively. In teaching, it’s possible to try out potential changes. Some years ago I started having misgivings about attendance policies—thinking students ought to be in class because they understood that what happened there helped them learn rather than to fulfill a requirement. So, I taught my three courses with no attendance policy, and the number of students who missed class didn’t change all that much. The test changed my mind: I abandoned attendance policies.

That worked well until I started teaching a developmental writing course and some first-year seminars. Lots of students skipped both those courses, and they were all beginning students—so I started worrying that my courses were contributing to the belief that students could skip college classes without consequences. I retreated, changed my mind again. Some courses merit attendance policies; others do not. I now believe that the role of attendance policies should be explored in every course, not just mine.

I’m not even opposed to what may appear to others as willy-nilly mind changing, waffling between one position and another. Does a belief in the value of extra credit, open-book quizzes, participation grades, incentives for end-of-course rating completion, or other policies and practices mean that those practices are always appropriate—for courses at every level, students of every kind, and content of any sort? Or can we take positions that are firmly felt but tentatively held with change always an option?

“I’ve changed my mind” does not automatically mean, “I got it wrong the first time, but now I’ve seen the light and am doing it right.” Rather, the move to a new position should be taken as a sign of evolving understanding, personal growth, and responsiveness to the continuity of change. So, the next time you change your mind, be encouraged to make the announcement with confidence.


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