Helping Students Learn

We talk a good deal about how we can better help students learn material or learn how to think or learn whatever it is we think is important (if you’re curious, you can see what I really try to teach here).  We spend our time going to conferences to learn about how students learn or we read articles that give us new teaching techniques (or how to apply techniques we already know in new ways) or we read books about how to better structure our classes.  You get the point.

Now, I’m not disparaging those approaches.  I do spend my time doing those things, and I write about teaching here, often mentioning ideas I’ve gleaned from those resources, so I’m clearly invested in them as ways to improve our teaching.  However, there might be another area that we often overlook when we’re trying to become better teachers.

This past week, over at the Lingua Franca blog (it’s a blog largely about language, but, as you’ll see, if you’re not familiar with it, not solely about language; their thoughts about language are worth your time, as well, by the way) at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Anne Curzan shared some quite helpful information.  She and her graduate student asked her undergraduate students to help put together two lists, one gives ten things students can do to promote good learning, the other ten things instructors can do.  The two lists are quite interesting.

First, the student list shows students who want to take responsibility for their learning; they want the opportunity to be involved in creating that learning.  It emphasizes coming to class prepared, participating, asking questions, interacting with others (not just the professor), and getting help when they need it.  For all of the talk about student entitlement, for most students, I’ve found these ideas to be true.  Students might not always know how to do these things, and they might not have the opportunity in a 100-person lecture class where they’re talked at for an hour, but I mostly find them willing to try to act according to this list, when given the chance.

Next, the professor list focuses almost exclusively on classroom environment and relationships with students; teaching techniques don’t get much of a mention (though they’re implied in numbers 8 and 9, which talk about discussion, implying that students would like to have them).  Instead, they talk about respect and getting to know students and showing that we’re human, too.  They want us to treat them like human beings and see us as the same.  As with the student list, I’ve found these ideas to be true, as well.  As I’ve spent more time in teaching and become less concerned with trying to impress students with my knowledge and more interested in hearing what they have to say, my classes tend to be much better.  Students are more engaged, which makes our class time more enjoyable for all of us.

I’m going to continue trying to find ways to improve my classes through reading articles and hearing what other professors have done, and I’ll revamp syllabi and assignments and daily activities, all in an effort to improve my classes.  More than anything, though, I’m going to try to interact with my students, to learn more about them, to get to know them as people who want to learn.  I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say.



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