Learning curve: It's not only OK, it's great to say 'I think'

October 25, 2002

Tutors must inculcate in students a confidence that lets them express their views, writes Chris Hopkins

First-year English students often ask this apparently stylistic question: "Is it OKif I say 'I think' in my essay?" I usually say something such as: "Yes - if every sentence doesn't begin that way and it is something that you can claim is a personal view rather than just a way of expressing guesswork."

The question is a classic one. It suggests anxiety about what is expected and typifies how difficult it is for students to express first reactions, assumptions, views, preferences, beliefs, even relevant personal experience. But these are things that make an academic subject your own rather than something to be learnt to pass a course.

It is perfectly rational for students to want to know what kind of response tutors expect to seminar or essay questions. Most students will worry about whether they should give a personal, emotional or technical response, a summary of a text or lecture, or a combination of these. The right answers will probably combine a range of possibilities, and a personal view of a question does not have to lack technical or historical knowledge nor ignore the ideas presented in lectures or in a text. A really satisfactory answer to the question "Is it OK to say 'I think'?" requires an explanation of the practice and theory of modern literary criticism: what is it we are doing, why and how?

But to make use of that explanation, a student would need to have the level of confidence that their tutors have acquired in subject knowledge, evidence and argument. They would need to know how they could join a conversation when uncertain of the topic, the context, the company and even whose party it is. Maybe it is a matter of gradually gaining experience of how the discipline is conducted.

But I fear that students in general feel increasingly less able to say or write "I think". It is not that they are not thinking, but that a personal claim to a view is too nerve-racking, the weight of the knowledge and authority of others too alarming, the fear of looking a fool too embarrassing. And, anyway, a student might think, the tutor will give the right answer to her or his question if not interrupted by distractingly less-right student answers. This makes it difficult for students to acquire the confidence and active approach to the making, discussing and evaluating of different meanings that is central to English studies and to many other disciplines based on interpretation. Passive learning, invoked by anxiety about the adequacy of one's own views, can undermine the kind of personally engaged, informed, flexible, responsive learning that higher education exists to teach.

We need to develop an ethos that allows students to say and write "I think". There is a lot tutors can do to develop this confidence. We must convey a sense that we, the tutors, are not the possessors of a static body of knowledge that we can pass on, but participants in a many-sided conversation between existing and new understandings. Students must be able to feel they have enough knowledge, confidence and understanding to contribute their perceptions, each potentially distinctive.

In our third-year module on 20th-century fiction, my colleagues and I have developed ways of teaching and learning that try to open everything to dispute. We give a series of accounts of the novel in the past 100 years, but we tell students that these are our versions. They, too, have the evidence to construct the story in the ways that they think best explain the experiments/continuities/conservatisms/revolutions/ evolutions/whatevers of the modern novel. Some of this evidence is in "authorities", such as secondary sources, although we try to undermine their authoritativeness by pointing out that these, too, are points of view. Other kinds of evidence come from students themselves and their experience of reading these texts. Is Women in Love modernist in the same way as Mrs Dalloway ? That depends how you read it or how you reconstruct your reading experience.

If we can let our students see that there is no right answer and that they have the means to make their meanings as English students, just as we have the means to make meanings as English tutors, there is hope that the process will mean something and will allow thinking outside of what "I think" to be OK.

Chris Hopkins is principal lecturer and teaching fellow in English studies at Sheffield Hallam University.

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