APR Update: Are Our Students Adequately Wicked-Prepared?

Deborah Gentry, Ed.D., CFLE, NCFR, Academic Program Liaison
/ CFLE Network, Spring 2020

See all articles from this issue

Several authors of teaching–learning books have devised intriguing, attention-getting titles for their books. For example, José Antonio Bowen titled his 2012 book Teaching Naked. His subtitle helped tame the overall title down considerably: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning. Nonetheless, when I recently learned the author of Teaching Naked was going to speak at a local campus symposium, I was motivated to attend his keynote talk. It is another book with a fascinating title, however, that I use as the basis for this column: Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World by Paul Hanstedt.

Recently, I read a newspaper article, “Adulting Is Hard” by Hannah Fry (2020; https://lat.ms/2wviUJp) that focused on the increasing popularity of varying types of educational “adulting” programs for today’s college students and postgrads. These include courses and workshops (both face-to-face and online), as well as websites and blogs. Fry suggests that such new offerings are cropping up in part because many high schools have abandoned life skills courses and in part to counteract the effects of hovering parents who have excused their teenage and young adult children from household chores or have emphasized academic achievement to the exclusion of assorted everyday, applied endeavors such as managing money and time, making meals, and home maintenance. Self-aware college students are apparently recognizing their lack of preparedness for personal self-sufficiency and are willingly seeking out lessons in “adulting.”

It wasn’t long after reading Fry’s article that I came across Hanstedt’s book, with its thesis that many of today’s college students are ill-prepared for the wickedly complex problems they will be expected to address as specialists in the workplace. Naturally, I am disconcerted by the notion that considerable numbers of college students and new professionals are not ready to manage either their personal or their professional lives. Yet, at the same time, I am heartened by my belief that we family science and family life teachers/instructors can contribute much toward resolving these conditions. The content and skills we expose students to and have them grapple with can be critical to their success in both personal and professional areas. I am hoping readers note my speculative use of the word can. In my view, as we design and deliver our courses and devise ways to assess student learning, there is room for improvement.

Hanstedt’s declaration about the need to create wicked students—who become wicked graduates and new professionals—was influenced by the late Edmond Ko, a scholar-educator in the field of general education. Ko often professed that “if they [students and graduates of our academic programs] are going to face wicked problems, we need to give them wicked competencies” (as quoted in Hanstedt, p. 3). Wicked problems entail situations in which the issues involved and the means available to solve them are complex, fluid, and ever changing. Hanstedt hopes his readers want what he wants—that is, when students leave college, they will enter the world of work not as robots participating mindlessly in activities they’ve been assigned, but as thinking, authoritative, and deliberative beings who add something constructive to society. Although he recognizes the following equation, from page 6 of his book, may be perceived as simplistic, Hanstedt suggests that these factors are key to bringing this goal to fruition:



Some possible synonyms for authority, as it is used in this equation, could be empowerment, confidence, and self-efficacy.

The ways that postsecondary academic programs, including family science programs, can further this goal are multifaceted, as discussed by Kuh in his 2008 book High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Among these methods are the following:

  • First-year seminars and experiences
  • Common intellectual experiences
  • Learning communities
  • Writing-intensive courses
  • Collaborative assignments and projects
  • Undergraduate research
  • Diversity and global learnings
  • Service- and community-based learning
  • Capstone courses and projects
  • Internships

In the past, as a family science faculty member, I contributed to university-wide programs that exemplified the first four bulleted items and to departmental programs that worked toward achieving the remaining items. I suspect the majority of you reading this column have done or currently do so too. When I review syllabi and other materials shared by each of the 120-plus NCFR CFLE APR-approved programs, I see evidence of nearly all these approaches and strategies.

Although I certainly commend these efforts, let me return to my previous statement: There is room for improvement. On numerous occasions, I observe course goals, objectives, and student learning outcomes; learning activities and assignments; and means of assessment that are of low-level rigor and challenge. I agree with Hanstedt that

it’s better to ask more of students than less, to push them further than they’ve ever gone rather than ask them to retread safe ground. After all, the end goal here is to develop students who can encounter unscripted or wicked problems, situations that almost by definition they don’t see coming. Turning the page on the syllabus, then, and seeing a problem that at first seems overwhelming and even a little bit frightening is perhaps not such a bad training for life after graduation. (p. 9)

Although most chapters of Creating Wicked Students cover familiar territory with regard to basic principles and best practices of formulating course goals, objectives, and student learning outcomes; structuring courses; developing assignments and learning activities; implementing day-to-day teaching methods; and assessing what students have learned and can newly do, it is the many examples and illustrations that are said to promote “authority” and demonstrate “wickedness” that are a source of possible inspiration. Disappointingly, none of the examples specifically feature a family science teaching–learning context, but they nonetheless motivated me to think of family science applications. Rather than share applications for each FLE Content Area as I did for my last column (which became quite lengthy), I put forward one application for Content Area 8: Family Law and Public Policy.

Let’s say an upper-level undergraduate or graduate-level family law and public policy course features the following as one of its course goals:

To promote students’ abilities to facilitate opportunities for family and community members, professionals, and policymakers to discuss family issues and propose possible remedies.

Next, let’s say this course also features the following as one of its student learning outcomes:

By the close of this semester course, small groups of students will plan, implement, and assess a campus-wide deliberative forum/family impact seminar on the topic of Substance Abuse and the Opioid Crisis in Families and Individuals (the theme of this issue of CFLE Network).

To accomplish both this goal and the outcome, students would benefit greatly from reading, discussing, and evaluating deliberative forum materials on this topic that have been developed by National Issues Forums (NIF). Related to the topic of opioid crisis specifically, see “What Should We Do About the Opioid Epidemic?” (https://bit.ly/2UfFBdL).

On the topic of the deliberative forum approach in general, see “Deliberation” (https://www.nifi.org/en/deliberation). Equally useful would be materials developed for and used during a Family Impact Seminar (FIS) on this topic. For example, see those used in Massachusetts, at the March 2016 seminar, “Chemical Reactions: Marijuana, Opioids, and Our Families” (https://bit.ly/2Uf8pmp).

On the general topic of developing and carrying out an FIS at the state level, see “Family Impact Seminars Implementation Manual” (https://bit.ly/2UhzlC0).

Finally, to assess and evaluate students’ learning from and performance during their complex deliberative forum or FIS assignment, an instructor could use the evaluation tools that are especially developed by NIF and FIS. Students could be asked to reflect on results of these forum/seminar participant evaluations; their own contributions to the endeavor; and contributions each of their fellow group members made to the entire undertaking. In Chapter 7 of Creating Wicked Students, Hanstedt shares examples of rubrics that include authority as one of several criteria. These could be adapted and used in a variety of contexts.

As always, if this column has resonated with you, I would enjoy hearing about your reactions and further applications of the ideas presented here. I invite you to share your insights and experiences with any “adulting” offerings taking place on your campus. And, if you have ideas about how to create “wicked” students, please tell me and others about them on the CFLE and/or Advancing Family Science Section discussion boards. Of course, you can always write me directly at [email protected].