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Big Projects: No Wonder Students Get Frustrated!

Voice of ExperienceYou've experienced this in the classroom many times: Students begin projects with a bang, only to fizzle out. Brenda Dyck reflects on the role emotions play in student -- and adult -- learning projects. Included: Strategies for supporting students through the emotional ups and downs that threaten to short-circuit the learning process.

I just spent the weekend reacquainting myself with what it's like to be a learner. I spent three days fighting an array of conflicting emotions -- from anticipation, to confusion and desperation -- as I immersed myself in writing a graduate-level research paper. As I struggled through the work, I began to wonder if I was tackling a goal that was way over my head. I am, I reminded myself, a 50-year-old grandmother! Do grandmas really go to graduate school? At one point, I was ready to admit defeat. I was all set to e-mail my professor my withdrawal from the course.


One of the things that kept me going this weekend was an article I recently read by Dr. Carol Kuhlthau. The title of the article -- "The Uncertainty Principle" -- caught my eye because if anyone was feeling uncertain about learning, I was!

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While Kuhlthau's article was written from the perspective of an information researcher, applications and insights abound for any student wading through the maze of a multi-step project. Frustration, doubt, and confusion are very predictable parts of the information-search process. Many students begin projects with great anticipation, but then get so lost in the research process that they finally give up. I could certainly relate.

Kuhlthau wrote about the zone of intervention, that moment when teachers can intervene to help students get "unstuck" from the factors that are encumbering their learning progress. She identified five zones of teacher intervention and described for each zone specific teacher-mediation roles as organizer, locator, identifier, advisor, and counselor.


Kuhlthau's "Uncertainty Principle" made so much sense to me! Like most teachers, I've wondered why some students begin assignments with enough excitement to carry them through, while the enthusiasm of other students quickly dwindles into disinterest. Without realizing it, I have walked many distraught or confused students through the zone of intervention.

It happened just last week in math class.

As part of our unit on problem-solving strategies, each student was assigned one strategy to present to his or her peers. After several days of preparation, we all gathered to watch the five-minute presentations. It didn't take long for me to realize that several of my students were not prepared and were in fact stuck in the confusion and doubt stage highlighted in Carol Kuhlthau's article. One student had clearly moved past doubt to despondency, actually deciding that taking a zero on the assignment was preferable to presenting in front of his peers. Realizing that stage fright had a lot to do with his decision, I hustled him off to the zone of intervention, where we talked about ways to make the assignment work for him. In the end, we agreed that he would share his strategy at a lunchtime presentation in front of two friends and me.


Today, I watched with satisfaction as that young boy completed his presentation before a pared down audience of three. His relief and sense of accomplishment were obvious. Having just spent the weekend stuck in my own zone of confusion, I knew his ability to remobilize his learning was no small thing. I couldn't help but reflect on the parallels between his wanting to give up and me spending a good part of my weekend threatening to do the same thing.

It must be a learning thing.

The good news is that neither of us quit.



Feelings, Thoughts Actions and the Uncertainty Principle
Learn how to recognize and capitalize on the zone of intervention. This resource provides many links to Carol Collier Kuhlthau's work.

Feelings Count: Emotions and Learning (Session Five)
This online video from the Annenburg Foundation introduces strategies to use when teachers find themselves in the zone of intervention with a student.

The Role of Emotions in Differentiated Instruction
Claudia Shelton describes the strong connection that exists between emotions and successful learning.

Brenda Dyck teaches at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching sixth grade math, Brenda works with her staff in the area of technology integration. Her "HotLinks" column is a regular feature in the National Middle School Association's publication, Middle Ground. Brenda is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.

Article by Brenda Dyck
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