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Embracing Uncertainty

There is much talk these days about the lack of clarity regarding our shared future. It doesn’t seem that we are living in a time for which the future is easy to predict. The ending states of various ethnic and nation-state conflicts around the world are largely unknown. Armed military operations lead to concerns about widening global conflicts. The global economy seems to be continuously disrupted by new technologies. The short and medium-term prospects regarding climate change are the source of scientific debate. The pandemic seems to be over; then, it’s not over. We’re all reminded of the need to prepare for the next pandemic, time and severity unknown.

As a university, we are consistently alerted to how this environment affects the thoughts and behaviors of our graduate and undergraduate students. In that regard, one common trait observed in some students is a seeking of explicit structure in their courses. They seek to know the rules for each feature of the class, so that they can optimize their behavior to achieve whatever are their individual goals. Most often, the goal is to maximize the grade they are given in the course. These behaviors are attempts for a very explicit reduction in uncertainty to guide behavior.

In contrast, when instructors attempt to design learning environments that resemble the lack of structure in daily life decisions, students often become uncomfortable. These courses present problems to be solved (e.g., an unanswered question, a concern raised in a community), where a textbook doesn’t exist, where the existing research findings may be inadequate, or where no specific literature exists. Such “experience-based learning” is designed to give students more capacity with “self-learning,” a skill we believe is important part of their formation. But they entail designed uncertainties.

In one sense, learning itself is a confronting of uncertainty. The student brings to the topic some prior knowledge. Sometimes, these are deeply held beliefs about certain content. Sometimes these are impressions about a new concept/technique/tool being presented in the class. The student can be confronted with a perspective that conflicts with this prior knowledge. What is true? Are the different perspectives compatible? Why is the new knowledge more valuable, in the belief of the instructor? Should the student drop their prior deeply-held beliefs? The integrative task of the learner confronts uncertainty at every turn. This uncertainty prompts discomfort as an inherent part of learning.

Fear of failure seems another unhealthy reaction to uncertainty. Thus, perfectly successful students at one level of education (e.g., high school) may face more complicated conceptual frameworks at another level. Their prior experiences of certain success are challenged. Uncertainty abounds. For those students who have never experienced failure, the situation can be deeply threatening.

As students advance in their studies, they confront alternative theories within a field. Proponents of one framework or another are generally strong in their arguments. They seek to convince the whole field of the superior value of their viewpoint. They treasure acolytes from new students in the field. Uncertainty abounds in the students’ initial exposure to alternative perspectives.

With an eye to intellectual growth, the desired reaction of facing uncertainty should be curiosity. What unknowns produce the lack of clarity of the right answer? How could one disprove or refute one perspective over another? If a new perspective challenges a strong belief for the student, how can the student scrutinize their old beliefs effectively? How does the student become open to alternative perspectives?

The undesirable reaction to uncertainty is indecision, a closing down of curiosity, or an inability to choose the next action. Such a reaction is often related to diminished ability to learn about a different way of looking at an issue. This can affect how students consumer information in course readings and lectures. It can also affect how students engage in classrooms, self-censoring their behavior in class discussions. Fear of peer negative reactions can be the stimulus for this self-censorship.

All of these concerns – fear of failure, crippling inability to choose the next action, concern about being canceled from later interpersonal interaction, self-censorship in an environment filled with diversity – may be more important now, with the deeply polarized world that robs young persons of role models of confronting alternative ways of thinking and synthesis of opposing viewpoints.

The university’s job is to construct environments where uncertainty can be confronted, with a full plunge by all students into dialogue and exchange of ideas. Over and over again, the leaders of the next generation will need the skills that they build in such environment.

4 thoughts on “Embracing Uncertainty

  1. Dear Provost Groves, As a Hoya alumnus and faculty member in higher education (physical chemistry), I couldn’t agree more to the need for unscripted learning where students take center stage. That’s why we created the UMass iCons Program (, which features 20 credits of student-driven learning in teams on real-world problems, bringing STEM and Business students together. After 14 years and 10 cohorts graduated, I’m as convinced as ever. I spoke about iCons at Georgetown in Sept 2013; many faculty were impressed but also unsure whether such an program could take root on the Hilltop (fear of failure?). Sounds like you would support such an initiative. Let’s give this another try. After all, it’s the pathway to “cura personalis” — teaching the whole student.

  2. Great post, agreed. And in such educational attempts a more rigid static pre written syllabus can be an impediment to adapting to uncertainty that pops up during the class since adapting to that uncertainty might require the class to adapt.
    PD Roepe

  3. You mentioned students who are unaccustomed to failure and their discomfort or inability to deal with uncertainty. I would suggest that to the extent that’s true, they have already failed. They just don’t know it. Life is nothing, if not uncertain. That understanding should be their bedrock. We have failed a generation.

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