The Scholastic Rat is Always Right

I came across this quotation attributed to BF Skinner recently- he of the operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, press-a-lever-and-get-a-treat school of Behaviourism.

The Rat is Always RightAlways Right

It immediately struck a chord/rang a bell/sounded a buzzer/flashed a light with me, and not just because of the Scholastic Rat’s well-known appreciation of her rodenty friends. What this quotation means is that when you’re trying to encourage a particular desired behaviour but the rat doesn’t do what you expect him to do, it’s not that the rat is wrong- he is simply interpreting the signals you’re giving and responding to the situation as makes sense to him. An unexpected or undesired response isn’t the rat’s fault; it’s that this is what your training has, unintentionally or accidentally, set him up to do. Don’t blame the rat; in his own way, the rat is right.

It applies to non-murine students too, though. I’m sure there are a hundred and one irritating, frustrating, unwanted learning behaviours which students engage in, which we or our academic colleagues may moan about. But if we’re fair, and we think about it, we may realise that it’s what we’ve implicitly trained them to do. In trying to shape their behaviour towards one goal, we’ve actually steered it towards another. I wrote a while ago about the hidden curriculum; well, there are parts of that curriculum that are hidden even from us, but which we still teach by accident, and which have unintended and unwanted outcomes.

A lot of these unwanted attitudes and behaviours are to do with abstract values such as originality, independence or academic integrity, which we’ve tried to frame in less alienating, concrete and quantifiable terms to make them clear. The result is surface, extrinsically motivated behaviours which we may deplore, but which we’ve somehow encouraged and which are a perfectly reasonable reaction to the messages we’re giving out. Here are some of the most common ones I encounter:

‘How much of this text do I need to change to make it “my own words”?’

What we’re aiming to do is to encourage students to show evidence of their understanding through explaining to us what the texts they are reading mean to them. Paraphrase involves a lot of higher order thinking and a high degree of fluency. However, through tools such as Turnitin, which matches text and spits out percentages of similarity, we’ve unwittingly encouraged students to view paraphrase as a matter of mechanically changing each word in the original until a magical percentage is reached and they’ve made ‘the red go away’. This actually does satisfy the tool- but it doesn’t satisfy the deeper learning outcome. We might get irritated with this question, but students are responding in a perfectly rational way to the tools we’re using to shape their behaviour.

‘What do I need to include to get a first?’

We have in our minds a preconception of the kind of answer we’re looking for. We know, and they know that we know. We certainly know when an answer falls short. Two percent short. One percent short. I see a lot of students who are bumping up against that seeming glass ceiling of the 2:1 / 1st class barrier. Just two extra percentage points, one little mark… what was it, what, that they could or should have included that would have tipped it over into that coveted first? Can’t be much, in itself it’s only a couple of percentage points… so what was it, that little thing that would have made the difference?! And if you look at the way we traditionally articulate our assessment, it’s a reasonable question, from their point of view. Are we assessing them on what they’ve learned, or their ability to mindread what we’re looking for?! Why can’t we just be straight with them? There are of course reasons why assessment isn’t that straightforward, but I have to admit, the way we express it must seem frustratingly tantalising!

I’m, like, 17 words over the 10% extra wordcount – I’ve been up cutting out words half the night. I’m really sorry. Does it matter?

What we wanted to do was to encourage students to explore an intellectual problem of a certain dimension and depth with an appropriate degree of focus and relevance. This being hard to articulate, we’ve gone for the most concrete, quantifiable way to frame this. Gone over the wordcount? Bzzzt! Penalty*. But the number of words was never really the issue- yet that’s what we’ve shaped student’s behaviour to focus on.  (*Skinner didn’t actually advocate positive punishment)

All of these instances are occasions where students are focussed on superficial, instrumental elements of learning or assessment, to the detriment of the deep learning we want to elicit. But all of them are a response, a reasonable response, to the signals we’ve been giving out. They’re examples of behaviour-shaping gone wrong. And that’s on us – as individual teachers, as institutions, and as a sector. The student is always right – not because they are a customer, but because they are a learner, responding as best they can to our teaching in the broader context of higher education in the C21st.

The rat is always right*.

*In the context of training. This doesn’t mean yoggies on demand or that it’s fine to chew the skirtingboard, ok?

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