Teaching, Ambiguity, and Not Obsessing about APA Format

I have an affinity for ambiguity in teaching. I know this drives some students crazy, especially those who are used to undergraduate work where many assignments involve executing a clear set of tasks rather than venturing into the unknown. When I assign something that requires a good amount of individual ingenuity I usually get e-mails worrying about APA formatting, or about whether the specifics of the assignment are being met. My reply is likely not very comforting: What do you think?

Of course all of my assignments have a clear goal (and point) that is well explained. I use ambiguity to stimulate critical thought from the student, i.e. leadership. Leaders are able to use ambiguity to their advantage, and I teach in a program aimed at creating leaders. Further, ambiguity is a function of most real life work environments. Most of the jobs our graduates seek require independent thought and an ability to operate without a safety net. I aim to mimic that reality.

The difference is I do offer a safety net. Students need room to take risks, fail, succeed, and ultimately learn. It reminds me of teaching my grandparents about their new computer way back in the day. They were so afraid of hitting the wrong button and somehow destroying the machine. I would tell them no, worst case scenario you delete something by accident and we move one…you won’t break the whole thing by hitting the wrong button. Students, you won’t fail if you screw up APA format. I want you to learn about economy of force. Don’t spend all your time on secondary objectives. I want you to gain experience in creating your own solution to a problem. Start with the goal of the assignment and work from there!

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