Sabbatical Diary: Frustration and Learning

FrustratedWe’ve all had those days. Nothing goes right. A project we’re working on takes far longer than we thought it would — in large part because nothing’s going right. The code we thought would work doesn’t. We thought we knew how to proceed with the project, but we don’t. We feel like we’re in over our heads, and we’re ready to pull our hair out.

It’s enormously frustrating. Yet, two experiences this year with course assignments suggest (at least to me) that frustration isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The first assignment involved hand-coding the beginnings (just a few basic pages) of a web site using HTML and CSS. I pretty quickly found out that I didn’t have quite as good a grasp of HTML and CSS as I thought I did. I spent a lot of time looking things up, trying to figure out how to get the site to do what I wanted it to do.

The second assignment involved setting up a site that was to be part of a group project. Looking at what the site would ideally make available if the team were really going to build it to completion, the determination was that Drupal was the best platform to use for building. As an end-user, I’m quite familiar with WordPress (which I think we might have mentioned here a few times). I quickly discovered that Drupal is kind of like WordPress, and totally not like WordPress, and there’s definitely a learning curve. Figuring out how to do some relatively simple things with Drupal (at least, I thought they were simple) took quite a while. Part of the challenge was figuring out the right sorts of questions to ask so I could search help forums fruitfully.

In both cases, though, I was able to figure things out. And while the frustration wasn’t pleasant, I honestly think I learned far more about the tools I was working with than I would have had things gone as I originally expected, or had someone “rescued” me or walked me step-by-step through what I needed to do.

What I wonder is this: though I certainly wouldn’t advocate trying to frustrate our students, how might we help them work through their frustration in completing an assignment in a way that helps them learn some valuable skills and feel a sense of accomplishment in having learned them? Please share any ideas in the comments.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by centermez]

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