December 18, 2009

Why It Can Be Hard to Get to Know Your Students

By: in Teaching and Learning

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Getting to know your students is important, but as Dean A. McManus (referenced below) points out, it’s not always easy and may, in fact, be one of the few things that get worse with experience. Here’s why:

At the beginning of a teaching career, students approximate the age of younger siblings. They are somewhat like us. But as the years pass, that changes. Pretty soon students look and act pretty much like our own children. Very shortly after that they are the age of our grandchildren. The age of the students we teach may stay the same, but as we mature the realities of the world of the 18-year-old college student (assuming your students are in that age cohort) become ever more distant and ever more difficult to decipher and understand.

For those of us who have been teaching for a number of years, something else about students attending our colleges and universities has changed. They now come from much more culturally and ethnically diverse backgrounds. Back when we attended college, most of our colleagues looked like us. A certain kind of student attended college in those days. But that time has passed. Now students come to college from all walks of life. They come with different goals and they come with life experiences totally unknown to many faculty members. Getting to know students today requires learning about people and lives unlike our own.

And finally, students don’t learn as we do (or as we think we do or did). “Research on learning suggests that students do not just accumulate knowledge but construct [it] by restructuring their existing knowledge to incorporate the new information…” (p. 147) It requires effort to understand how students learn—we are quick to conclude that their methods are not as effective as ours. Sometimes we’re right, but sometimes we just want students who think like we do…they are so much easier to teach.

Getting to know students (individually and collectively) takes time and effort. Understanding them begins with recognizing those areas where the differences exist.

Reference: McManus, D. A. Leaving the Lectern. Bolton, Mass.: Anker, 2005.

Getting to Know Your Students: Three Challenges, The Teaching Professor, June-July, 2006.

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