Advanced search

Advice for Teaching this Female Student?

(29 Posts)
IrisReticulata Wed 26-Feb-14 21:54:18

Hi all. Namechanging regular. PM me if you want to know who I am and can't tell from the giveaway writing style - only NC for the remote possibility my students can find me (so if I don't know you from Adam, er, I won't reply to the PM. But I'm sure someone else will verify I'm genuine).

I have a student in my undergraduate class who is both bright, and seems quite defeated/worried by the course. This student is excellent at spotting the drawbacks in academic theories. She's not just shooting them down - she sees exactly where the weak point is. This is good, but she clearly feels uncomfortable and would be happier if she could agree with every theory. She will struggle to get marks, despite this skill, because once she's seen the weak point in a theory, she finds it hard to see how she should involve it in her argument.

Problem is, her boyfriend - who is also bright - is in the same class. My impression is that he sees himself as a more able student than her, and clearly she sees him that way. I am not convinced this is so - it might be (Does it matter? I'd like to know what you think.). Clearly, she is bouncing her opinions off him a lot, and he often tells her she needs to play the game even if she sees the weaknesses in the theory. He's not wrong, but I don't want to stifle her very perceptive understanding of the downsides of theory.

These are adults, and they are as professional as the other members of the class, and it would be wrong to try to stop them engaging with each other's points.

My sense is that many women are uncomfortable speaking up if they see an 'error' in something they're taught. She is struggling to do it. How do I help her to see this is a great skill, while also showing her it doesn't mean she should just write off the theory completely? And how do I explain to her she does need to consider theories ('play the game'), but that the fact her boyfriend says this doesn't mean he's brighter than her?

I would guess lots of women have been in this situation at school/university so I am not just asking teachers (though I know lots of regulars are teachers).


TheDoctrineOfSnatch Wed 26-Feb-14 22:13:48

Can you find a theory which is helpful, but flawed somewhere? So she can see it's of some use even if imperfect.

I suspect we come from different disciplines grin but newton's theories are "incorrect" in light of quantum mechanics, but you use Newtonian methods to calculate most things at scale and only switch for the very small.

Any use as an analogy?

TheDoctrineOfSnatch Wed 26-Feb-14 22:15:07

And if you had breakout groups ever, I'd be tempted to put them in different ones.

IrisReticulata Wed 26-Feb-14 22:17:47

Thanks so much for replying!

All of the theories we teach are flawed somewhere. That's why I am so impressed by her - the idea is that a whole lesson (two hours) would go from applying the theory, to teasing out the faults slowly. She can get to the faults in the first five minutes, and she's spot on. But you can see she hates it and feels she's got it wrong. I have said to her that this is a good skill, but it's clear she simply doesn't believe it, so she disengages.

I have put them in different groups, but probably need to push that harder, thank you.

IrisReticulata Wed 26-Feb-14 22:18:20

* I mean, I have put them in different groups on occasion. In the future I think I will do that more.

TheDoctrineOfSnatch Wed 26-Feb-14 23:15:21

Hmm. Are there books about the philosophy of theory you can recommend to her?

Don't know (and am not asking) what a levels she did but sounds like the transition from school certainty to university uncertainty is difficult and a book might "validate" the difference in some way?

almondcake Wed 26-Feb-14 23:50:59

Could you talk to her about how one of the benefits of seeing the flaws in a theory is that it allows people to develop better theories? Could she then be using the time applying the theory to not just point out why it doesn't work but to discuss how the theory could be modified or combined with other theories to overcome its limitations?

legoplayingmumsunite Wed 26-Feb-14 23:54:04

Could you reverse the way you teach the lesson? Start with identifying the flaws then go into the reasons why even though the theory is flawed it can be useful in certain situations and what are those situations.

DoctrineofSnatch's example is probably the best one in science, there's also light being a wave vs a particle.

Agree about splitting them up. Is it worthwhile splitting by gender or would that make you itch? Or you could deliberately have a group with more women than men (isn't 70:30% the crucial percentage for stereoptype threat) and vice versa to see if you get different outcomes from their discussions (without pointint it out to the groups obviously). And you'd put this woman in the predominantly female group obviously.

legoplayingmumsunite Wed 26-Feb-14 23:54:25


IrisReticulata Thu 27-Feb-14 00:26:06

doctrine - thanks, yes, I will try that. I will also try using Newton as an analogy so with luck, she will see how that might make sense.

almond - well, this is what I am trying to say, but will try to say it as you expressed it.

lego - thanks, yes, will try. I have had her in a predominantly female group before, though. The class is predominantly female, too.

The thing I am really worrying about - and the reason I put this in feminism - is whether there is something I am missing that is down to gendered conditioning. Even if I separate them into gendered groups, she is still not reaching her potential in a way I can't help feeling has to do with gender. But I can't put my finger on it. confused

Sorry to sound negative, I do really appreciate all suggestions so far. I just need to work out exactly what to do.

almondcake Thu 27-Feb-14 00:34:19

Iris, sorry if I am just repeating your point.

I seem to remember Germaine Greer talking about female students being more cautious, less confident about taking the risk of voicing an original or dissenting opinion, so they don't always show the extent of their ability.

IrisReticulata Thu 27-Feb-14 00:38:14

No, you are not! This is hugely helpful.

I may be putting it wrongly in response - I'm just so aware of what I want her to understand, and the fact that I am somehow not saying it so that she can.

I think it must be what Greer describes. It is so difficult, because she has broken through one barrier - in that she is expressing a dissenting opinion - but it is painful to see because she obviously hates having done so.

almondcake Thu 27-Feb-14 00:52:24

Is there a way you can raise her confidenceby referring to something outside the course? Saying you are impressed by her perspective and it reminds her of x female postgrad, she should attend y departmental talk by visiting speaker or has she considered doing z dissertation? I was a voice of dissent. I used to time dissenting temarks in 10 min intervals to avoid making too many. The lecturer got me over this by suggesting dissenting dissertation topics.

almondcake Thu 27-Feb-14 00:54:48

Sorry, reminds you, not reminds her.

KissesBreakingWave Thu 27-Feb-14 01:00:27

Not sure this is entirely gendered: I had similar problems as an undergraduate and I'm quite hilariously male. Whether the approach that worked with me - pointing out exactly what the flaw was and flinging extra essay work at me with specific instructions to Get Over Myself, progress to be assessed from said essays, I don't know.

There is also - and this is not personal experience, just something I've heard from university lecturer acquaintances who teach foreign students a lot - some cultural bias in some cultures, particularly chinese which said acquaintances have a lot of contact with, against theorising against Capital-A Authority. Whether your student's difficulties stem from that source or not, it might be worth asking along the professional grapevine what the appropriate measures are for helping overcome the habit?

IrisReticulata Thu 27-Feb-14 01:08:18

almond - great thought, thanks! I shall try that. I just have such a strong sense she is very good, and she is not applying it because she is so clear her boyfriend's way of doing things is the only right way.

kisses - oh, sure. These are not problems exclusive to women, but my hunch is that feminists could help me work out how best to teach her. I have come across the issues you mention with students brought up in a culture where it's considered rude to question authority, but that's not the case here. She is UK born and bred, as are most of them (very narrow subject, unfortunately).

Disturbingly, the professional grapevine either sees my difficulty or - and I am angry about this - people have implied that she might be relying on her boyfriend and not actually as bright as she seems. This is nonsense, as I know from teaching her. But it is also a reason I want to push for her.

Grennie Thu 27-Feb-14 02:57:21

I would ask to speak to her after class alone. And then I would tell her how impressed you are at how smart she is and explain why you think that. Don't say she seems under confident, just say you wanted to let her know what an impressive student she is.

It sounds like she needs a boost to her confidence and if her boyfriend wrongly thinks he is smarter, he may be subtly undermining her.

UptoapointLordCopper Thu 27-Feb-14 11:50:49

No better advice than all the other posts, but what I would give to have a student who can spot faults in theories in the first 5 minutes! envy envy

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

DoctorTwo Thu 27-Feb-14 14:22:43

I think I'd be inclined to go with Grennie's suggestion and talk to her on her own and big her up. Don't mention that you're worried about her self confidence, just accentuate the positives, of which there seem to be many.

ArtetasSwollenAnkle Thu 27-Feb-14 14:36:34

There was an economics student recently who critiqued a very influential paper on austerity by two Harvard professors. Well, I say critiqued - he ripped it to bits based on erroneous data. Details here;

This in turn seems to have turned up more flaws in the original paper;

So theories are just that - theories. If you are discussing science rather than religion, then theories and hypotheses are really only saying, 'can anyone disprove this?', not 'this is how it is, for ever and ever, amen.'

The problem with these examples (if you see a problem at all) is that they were put forward by men. Maybe that supports your original concern - I dunno.

Could you not present some examples to the class, thus including Mr Smartarse as well? He, and others, may benefit from it too. And if she so perceptive, it may encourage her.

ArtetasSwollenAnkle Thu 27-Feb-14 14:41:29

Oh, and Buffy - you ruined my theory that the OP was you, unless you are replying to yourself grin . Which just goes to show how 'theories' can be so much bollox...

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

UptoapointLordCopper Thu 27-Feb-14 14:54:47

The OP is not me. I envy OP her/his (OP could be a man? shock grin) student.

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, watch threads, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now »

Already registered? Log in with: