SIP 2.12 Teaching Students to Embrace Uncertainty

Thirsty for Strong Instructional Practice?Cartoon image of a person sitting on top of a question mark, thinking

Students today too often are taught isolated, static “facts” that belie the complexity, interconnectedness, and rapidly changing nature of knowledge in the “real world”. If we are to successfully prepare our students for life after academia, where answers are seldom clear-cut or permanent, we much teach them to grapple with uncertainty. Whether exploring black holes or Shakespearean sonnets, students should be comfortable with ambiguity, recognize the limits of knowledge, and appreciate that questions often deserve as much attention as answers. Sociologists Matthias Gross and Linsey McGoey argue that the time has come to “view ignorance as ‘regular’ rather than deviant”, and that our students will be more curious, and more intelligently so, if in addition to facts, they were equipped with theories of ignorance, as well as, theories of knowledge.

Take a SIP of this: Teaching Students to Embrace Uncertainty

If students can be made to feel comfortable with uncertainty, if they’re learning in an environment where ambiguity is welcome, and they are encouraged to question facts, then they are more apt to be curious and innovative in their thinking. However, approaching knowledge this way is difficult for students and professors. Indeed, studies show that the typical response to uncertainty is a desire to find a resolution, and heightened emotions, often negative ones, that can serve as a pitfall in efforts to learn. Jaime Holmes author of the new book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, writes “our minds crave closure, but when we latch onto it prematurely we miss beautiful and important moments along the way”, including the opportunity to explore new ideas or consider novel interpretations. And professors have additional challenges in presenting facts as fluid. Appearing less-than-certain about one’s field of expertise can feel risky and uncomfortable. But professors who hope to inspire curiosity in their students, and to encourage tolerance for ambiguity, can take steps to introduce uncertainty into the classroom. Holmes offers several recommendations.

  1. Address the emotional impact of uncertainty. Because confusion provokes discomfort, it should be explicitly discussed in class to help students handle the inevitable discomfort. “Students have to grow comfortable not just with the idea that failure is a part of innovation, but with the idea that confusion is, too”, Holmes writes. Professors can help students cope with these feelings by acknowledging their emotional response and encouraging them to view ambiguity as a learning opportunity.
  2. Assign projects that provoke uncertainty. One way to help students grow more comfortable with confusion is to assign projects that are likely to stymie them. Holmes identifies three techniques for doing so: 1) inviting students to find mistakes; 2) asking them to present arguments for viewpoints counter their own; and, 3) providing assignments that students will fail. “The best assignments should make students make mistakes, be confused and feel uncertain”. Scoring and grading can be adjusted to award risk taking and the identification of uncertainties, and remaining questions rather than “the right” answer.
  3. Adopt a non-authoritarian teaching style. Professors with a sense of curiosity and an appreciation for the process of learning rather than just knowing, are more apt to engage students in learning. When professors present themselves as experts imparting wisdom, students mistakenly get the idea that all questions are answered, and the debates are settled. Rather professors can teach about the process of learning in their field of expertise, the important questions, and the accepted methods for answering those questions.
  4. Emphasize the current topics of debate in a field. To give students a clearer sense of the ephemeral and contingent nature of facts, discuss the ongoing debates among academics and others on some “settled” subjects. Sharing what researchers, historians and theorists are arguing about now makes clear that questioning and challenging facts are what drive discovery.
  5. Invite guest speakers to share the problems and uncertainties they’re exploring. In his class on ignorance, Columbia professor Stuart Firestein welcomes scientists across a spectrum of fields to talk about the unknowns they’re investigating. Chemists, statisticians, zoologists and others share with students the ambiguities that excite them, opening students’ minds to the vast unknowns waiting to be examined.
  6. Show how the process of discovery is often messy and non-linear. Rather than present breakthroughs as the logical result of a long trek toward understanding, professors can share with students how discoveries are often made: through trial and error, missteps, dumb luck and chance.
  7. This approach to teaching and learning can be put into practice through project-based and problem-based pedagogies, both of which readily facilitate the principles of Universal Design for Learning

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of Teaching Students to Embracing Uncertainty

This approach to teaching and learning can be put into practice through project-based and problem-based pedagogies, both which readily facilitates the principles of Universal Design for Learning


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