In my experience the “epiphanies of learning” or the moments of spontaneous intellectual clarity, so valued by those of us committed to teaching and learning, are far more abundant and well articulated in the classrooms. While educational and cognitive psychologists are quick to define “insight,” little empirical research is available to assess its occurrence in the classroom setting. More often than not the methodology employed to document change in student understanding and insight involves an approach that privileges the teacher’s perceptions over the learner’s. Ironically, very little emphasis has been placed on the voices of learners as important and necessary assessment tools.
My project investigated the “epiphanies” or insights in the learning process utilizing the student’s perspective as manifested in her/his writing. The specific questions I sought to explore were the following: When and how does a moment of clarity occur for the student and what is the vocabulary used by the student to describe the specific insight? What are the qualities embodied in insight? Does the specific complexion of the course shape the moment of insight and if so how (i.e. what part, if any, is played by theory-practice or service learning, interdisciplinarity, a feminist perspective, and a collaborative pedagogy?)
While all of the students’ self-reported descriptions of insight fell into one of the above categories, the complexion and depth of the descriptions differed considerably and appeared to fall along a continuum. In an effort to capture these differences for each category I assigned three dimensions for each category:
Dimension 1 – The insight experience is reported as sudden with no reference to past events or future applicability; the insight is context specific. Evidence provided is descriptive but not interpretative.
Dimension 2 – The insight experience draws upon a past event (s) that serves to illuminate the present understanding. Evidence provided is descriptive, explanatory, and interpretative.
Dimension 3 – The insight experience draws upon both past and present events that facilitate personal connection to and future applicability of the subject matter. Evidence provided is descriptive, explanatory, interpretative, empathic, and evidences some self-knowledge.
There appeared to be no ownership of their own process of understanding nor sense of their personal voice, authority, or agency. In spite of the fact that classes utilized a collaborative, student centered pedagogy, many students continued to operate out of an “insight-as-received” mode. Interestingly, when students did attempt to claim responsibility for their insight they often labeled it as either “confusion” or “frustration.” Similarly, students would often discount their insights with such phases as “I am probably nuts in saying this” or admit embarrassment that the insight was not recognized earlier (i.e. “Why did it take so long to make me realize the meaning.”). These findings should serve as potent reminders to us as teachers that the majority of our students have been well-socialized in institutions that not only support this mode of received knowledge but continue to encourage it in their curricular and pedagogical design. Our students have learned to trust external voices and distrust and even deny their intuitive understandings. Therefore, a “deconstruction” of these structures and modes of learning might be one of our first tasks in developing voice and personal authority in our students.
As is noted above, the complexion and depth of the descriptions in each category differed considerably and seemed to reflect three dimensions of insight, each appearing qualitatively different from the other. Although I have conceptualized these differences as dimensions, they might possibly be thought of as stages. Certainly this conceptual framework is based on students’ written articulation of their insight and might not adequately capture the depth and breadth of their actual insight should they be given the opportunity to verbally describe their experiences. Clearly follow-up interviews might add a deeper understanding of stages of insight development. However, these findings suggest that insight is not static but rather a process and that there are qualities to and degrees of insight and understanding. These results also indicate that like deep understanding, this dimension of insight might entail a more sophisticated analysis, one that requires a longer process but one toward which we as teachers might hope to move our students.
While one of the questions I sought to answer involved whether or not the specific complexion of the course shaped the moment of insight, I found no clear connection between one particular method (i.e. service learning, interdisciplinarity, a feminist/collaborative pedagogy, etc). Each of these methods was mentioned on a regular basis and, therefore, implied importance to the student: yet, no one single method seemed particularly more contributory to the insight in comparison to the others.
I was impressed with the greater depth and richness of the journal entries as they elucidated the development of insight. The incidence of reported insights was greater in the Violence Studies Seminar where journals were used in spite of the fact that there were fewer students in this seminar in comparison to the Women’s Studies class. The journals involved daily writing and reflection and as all writing teachers know, thinking and writing are intimately connected and significantly facilitate each other’s development. If we as teachers are to empower our students and dissuade them from a sole reliance on external ways of knowing, it seems axiomatic that consistent writing is a pedagogical mandate.
Students’ perspectives of their own insight and understanding appear very close to many of those teachers who are evaluating them as well as teaching for these qualities. The good news is that we as teachers and learners may, after all, be on the same page! Understanding usually comes from reflection and that reflection begins in doubt, hesitancy, or surprise. The students in this study described insight in ways that indicated a sudden experience of enlightenment. The vocabulary used by these students did capture in various ways notions of doubt, hesitancy, and surprise. However, for some students, it seemed clear that insight is a process that both fuels and is fueled by reflection and as such represents both the beginning and culmination to deep understanding.