The Fine Line between “Spoon Feeding” and Compassion

by Ruth Benander, PhD and Ruth Kletzander, PhD

We often hear complaints from colleagues that students want to be “spoon fed;” clearly, we reason, if students would only carefully read the assignment, they would know what to do without our having to spoon feed them! However, what may be clear as day to us may be clear as mud to our students. To understand this, we may need a little refresher regarding compassion. One way to refresh our compassion is to become a student again. This cold-water bath of experiencing what it’s like to learn something new can be quite powerful. When we professors, accustomed to the power and expertise of our position, re-experience the student condition of powerlessness and novice incompetence and ignorance, it forces us to a fresh perspective on the student experience. This experiment can help us think more creatively about how we can support our students’ learning. What professors might consider “spoon feeding,” students may actually perceive as helping them achieve what we’ve asked of them.

We do not suggest, Gentle Reader, that you go out and enroll in one of your colleague’s classes. We are suggesting that you spend some time outside the box of your expertise. What about signing up for that juggling class offered by the Communiversity? By spending just three hours learning to juggle, you will experience a crash course in how novices feel when presented with an apparently impossible task that the instructor insists is easy. “Just watch me do it….” he says, effortlessly sending three balls into the air while you mutter under your breath to yourself, “Yeah, right,” and your juggling balls fly away in three directions across the room, pointedly not in the air, but inextricably earthbound. This is an important wake-up call: Your students are trying to metaphorically juggle your discipline, your syllabus, and your expectations. It is oddly refreshing to revisit learning from the learner’s point of view.

We can learn a lot about the art of giving and receiving feedback by going back to being a student. Students are bombarded with negative feedback—from comments written on their papers and mistakes indicated on their corrected tests; but what do they actually learn from this feedback that we so painstakingly provide? As experts, we know what to do with negative feedback: learn from it for the next time the task is required. For our less-experienced (and often more-vulnerable) students, unless they are asked to revise based on our feedback, that paper or test will most likely get lost in a binder or tossed in a recycling bin. Research regarding written feedback indicates that most students, if not asked to revise, will read only the grade at the top of the page. Our colleagues in German and Chemistry report that students begin to do better on exams when their professors incorporate revising these quizzes into their classes.

Compassion is the link that connects our creating graspable assignments, our responding to students’ questions in respectful, patient ways, and our providing written feedback that is encouraging and usable. Educators who write about compassion, such as Palmer in The Courage to Teach and O’Reilly in Radical Presence, have tapped into teaching’s soft skills—which are equally as important as the soft skills so highly appreciated in the business world. Again, we do not suggest that you add to your academic reading by pouring over literature that addresses compassion in the classroom; we simply suggest that you try something new and experience how compassion (or the lack of it) influences your own learning.

Until recently, the importance of soft skills in all human interactions was overlooked. In nursing, for example, something as seemingly obvious as learning how to comfort a patient was not previously a part of the curriculum; we know, now, that comfort improves both the patient’s emotional and physical condition. That is not to say that professors need to comfort their students the way nurses comfort their patients; but by keeping compassion in mind, we may be able to find ways of creatively handling “negative” situations such as missed deadlines, failed tests, or weak essays and transforming them into effective learning experiences for the student.

So you want to learn more about teaching? You could visit the vast research literature on “experiential learning” which focuses on making meaning through reflection on experience. Or you could skip all that reading and head out and learn something new—but at the same time, you will also have to think about your learning. What worked? What encouraged you? What did the teacher do that helped you learn or prevented you from learning? The primary question to ask yourself will be: How can I incorporate what I’ve just experienced into my own teaching practice? We believe that if you throw yourself into the role of learner, you will come out of that classroom better prepared to face the challenges of teaching with compassion.

Ruth Benander, PhD
University of Cincinnati
Raymond Walters College
Ruth Kletzander, PhD
Sprachen und Dolmetscher Institut