Join Karl Kapp for an in-depth discussion in this video Understanding your students, part of Core Strategies for Teaching in Higher Ed.
- Do you remember the first time you walked into a college classroom? Do you remember your nervousness, the uncertainty of whether or not you could actually do college level work? Chances are it's been a long time since you've thought about your first few days as a college student. But that's exactly what I want you to do as you think about how you can best understand your students. For most college professors, there are three barriers that stand in the way of understanding your students. The first is that you are an exception.
As a college professor, you probably excelled at college level work. You were able to write papers, pass exams, study effectively and be an excellent student, otherwise, you'd never have made it to the level of college professor. Not every student will grow up to be a college professor. And not every student is able to think, organize study materials and learn like you. Keep in mind that you are teaching a broad range of students with varying levels of understanding and capabilities.
It would be great if all students were superstars, but they aren't. And one job of a professor is to maintain academic integrity while understanding the capabilities and shortcomings of varying students. Begin with the concept that all students want to learn and our job is to help them gain both the study skills and the content knowledge they need to be successful. Work hard to understand different levels of capabilities of students and appreciate that what works for some students may differ from the methods that worked for you.
A second challenge professors have in understanding their students is the cultural reference gap between when you were in college and the current generation of college students. For some professors, the gap is not very large. But there's always a gap. This means that popular cultural references, technology and even common cultural experiences are different. This means that some experiences you mention and expect everyone to know might not be as common as you think.
For example, you may reference a Walkman when your students have never heard of such a device. Or you may talk about the experience of flying but some students may never have flown. You need to consider the life experiences of your students. You don't have to become a student of pop culture to better relate to your students, but you do need a certain level of awareness to relate to the students on their level. Consider asking students at the beginning of the semester what events or experiences bring them together as a group in their year.
And then you can use some of those references to help better relate what you are teaching to their common experiences. The third challenge in understanding your students is to realize that they often have educational needs beyond learning the content you are teaching. For example, I sometimes have to present a lesson on study skills to help my students perform better in class. Or you might be a math professor, but you find your students are not able to clearly explain or express themselves either in writing or speaking.
When a student is struggling, it may not be because of intelligence, it may be because of these other shortcomings. Fortunately, many colleges and universities have special centers set up to help students with their writing and speaking skills. One good strategy is to assign your students to visit the writing center and compel them to use these services. It might be a good idea to even create a handout to provide a list of those services to your students. In summary, understanding your students means taking the time to view your class and the college experience through their eyes.
- Respecting your students
- Conveying your passion for teaching
- Maintaining academic rigor
- Engaging students in and out of class
- Making learning active
- Staying current
- Continually improving your teaching
- Publishing your work
- Being flexible
- Connecting to the outside world
- Collaborating with peers