Identifying and Responding to Pinch Points

A pinch point is a persistent source of struggle or confusion for your students. Every course has pinch points.

Did You Know?
Students may enter college in an “absolute knowing” phase where they rely on experts, such as the teacher, for knowledge they view as certain or absolute. It can take quite a lot of support, time, feedback, and practice to transition to an “independent knowing” stage where they view their peers and themselves as sources of knowledge (Baxter Magolda, 1992). Thus, some pinch points are developmental in nature.

What are my pinch points?

To identify pinch points, ask yourself these questions:

  • Where do my students always have questions?
  • Where do they always get things wrong on tests or assignments?
  • Where do they always ask for explanations in a different way than you provide?

After identifying a pinch point, brainstorm “one more thing” that you can do to help students through this pinch point (Tobin & Behling, 2018).
Below you’ll find specific examples of how the questions above generated reflections on pinch points that led to “one more thing” solutions.

Where do my students always have questions?
For their first writing assignment in a Junior Year Writing seminar, students always have a number of questions: How long should it be, what are you looking for, how it will be graded …. While the professor has always answered these questions thoroughly in class, he still gets follow up questions over email or requests to review drafts ahead of time. While he has always attributed these questions to the fact that it’s the first writing assignment of the course, he has begun to wonder if he can do just “one more thing” to help lessen student anxiety and confusion.

One more thing:  
Talking with a trusted colleague in his department, the professor realized that he has been providing expectations in different places and in fragments—over email, in class, or on Moodle. He also hasn’t clearly communicated the purpose of the assignment. He decides to create one comprehensive document for assignment #1 following the Transparency in Teaching and Learning (TILT) format (see Module 3 on Assessment& Feedback to learn more about TILT). 

Where do they always get things wrong on tests or assignments?
In an Engineering Statics course, students constantly skip over the critical stage of drawing a free body diagram when solving a problem. The professor, who has students working in groups in Zoom breakout rooms, finds that when students are stuck, she often just has to ask them to draw the free body diagram, and they can figure out the solution.

One more thing:  
Talking with a colleague in the Center for Teaching and Learning, the professor decides that she will split up group work into 2 stages: a free body diagram stage and then a problem-solving stage. After the free body diagram, students will compare their diagrams with that of another group or she will choose one to discuss as a class.  Additionally, she decides that if a group of students wants to ask her a question, they will post a picture of their free body diagram in a collaborative online document which she then comments on and other students can see.

Where do they always ask for explanations in a different way than you provide?
In a psychology course, helping students understand the difference between a positive punishment (that decreases or maintains behavior by adding something undesirable) and negative reinforcement (that increases or maintains a behavior by taking something undesirable away) always requires multiple explanations, sometimes over many days.

One more thing: 
Writing in their teaching reflection journal, the professor decides that they will ask students to develop their own examples of positive punishment and negative reinforcement that they have seen in animal or childcare settings. They will let students know that some of the student examples to be included on the next assessment. After they come up with their examples in groups, the professor will randomly choose examples to present to the class. Class members will identify the type of reinforcement or punishment using an online student response system, and they will discuss the correct answers as a class. If examples are incorrect, the class will collaboratively rewrite them.

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (1992). Students’ Epistemologies and Academic Experiences: Implications for Pedagogy. The Review of Higher Education, 15(3), 265–287.

Tobin, T. J., & Behling, K. T. (2018). Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. West Virginia University Press.