March 11, 2010

Do Faculty Give up on Students?

By: in Teaching and Learning

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Most faculty (especially those reading a publication like this) do care about students. We wouldn’t be doing all that we do if we didn’t. However, some semesters are long, some students are difficult, we get behind, we have too much on our plates, and we get stressed and tired. When that’s how we’re feeling we don’t always show that concern in tangible ways.

The article referenced below provides a wealth of reminders and good advice. The authors surveyed students asking them four simple questions:

  1. Have you ever had the feeling that a faculty member or instructor had “given up” on you and your learning in a course?
  2. What did the faculty member or instructor do or not do to give you that feeling?
  3. What did you do as a result of that feeling, perception?
  4. What are ways that a faculty member or instructor can communicate to you that he or she has not given up on his or her commitment to you and your learning in a course? (p. 318)

Forty-four percent of the students in this sample reported that they did have the feeling that an instructor had given up on them and their learning in the course. They reported a variety of ways professors communicated this message from mildly severe things like making no effort to find out why a student is missing class to strongly severe actions like bluntly telling a student that passing a class was impossible no matter what action the student took. There was also a range of answers in the middle like giving short, curt answers that made students feel as though the inquiries held up the learning of others to just plain not communicating with a student.

It’s hard to imagine instructors doing some of the things students listed as evidence of no concern. Perhaps overly sensitive students are in some cases misinterpreting the messages. Not knowing the whole story should stop us from drawing definitive conclusions. However, the lists offer a good way to reality check.

The positive and helpful part of this study are the many concrete things instructors can do and say that these students said did convey concern and a belief in a student’s ability to succeed. Students noted the value of establishing an encouraging environment and said that instructors do so by giving personal words of encouragement as well as encouraging the class as a whole. They reported that instructors who recognize student learning differences convey caring and instructors can do that by listening actively and attentively to students, by recognizing that each student is unique, and by taking time to learn new ways to help students learn.

Instructors also communicate their commitment to students when they regularly check for comprehension, whether that’s asking students individually or monitoring the progress of the class as a whole. Caring instructors guide students to solutions, rather than just giving them the answers.

Most of the suggestions made by these students and by the authors are not new. On a good day, most faculty could generate lists like those contained in the article. But not every day is a good day, and on those other kinds of days it pays to be reminded that despite all we have to do, some things matter more than others when our goal is helping students learn.

Reference: Hawk, T. F., and Lyons, P. R. (2008). Please don’t give up on me: When faculty fail to care. Journal of Management Education, 32, 316-338.

Excerpted from Caring About Students, The Teaching Professor, December 2008.

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