Let’s face it, most faculty were good students and always did well in school. For students, having a professor who is adept at learning can be inspiring. But what if academic work comes so naturally to faculty that they have trouble relating to the average student?
I’ve worked with several faculty members who fall into this category. “Rose,” a business professor, stands out in my memory. When I suggested that she break her online course into modules to make the weekly tasks more manageable for students, she was baffled. “Everything is in the syllabus!” she responded. She then explained that when she was in college, she began each course by carefully reading the syllabus and organizing the assignments into a schedule that she diligently followed throughout the semester.
It didn’t make sense to Rose to repeat that information again in modules. When I suggested that school must have come easily to her, she agreed. However, our university serves many students who don’t have much experience with academic learning strategies that may come naturally to faculty.
Of course, we can and should teach our students these strategies, but gaining new perspectives could help us to see everything in a course, from the syllabus organization to the assignment timeline, through the eyes of our students. If we really want to understand what our students need in the context of daily learning, there are three people to ask: yourself as a novice learner, your students, your school’s instructional design staff.
Yourself as a novice
To remember what it’s like to be a student, try learning a new skill, hobby, or sport. This only works if it’s a skill that’s completely unfamiliar to you. Something physical or dexterous is ideal because your muscles have to learn to move in a new way.
When I first learned how to knit, I expected my instructor to give me clear instructions and demonstrations exactly when and how I needed them. If the instruction didn’t match my learning needs, it made me feel less confident and impatient. I certainly don’t want my own students to feel this way in my classroom. I want to teach them what they need at the right time and in the way that they need it.
Unless you’re clairvoyant, the only way to honestly know what your students need is to have open communication with them. There are several ways to invite an open dialogue with your students about their learning:
- Formative Assessment – A quick, anonymous survey at the beginning or end of the class can tell you what students want to learn or gauge their progress at the end of a lesson.
- Journaling – Paper-bound or online journaling establishes a private line of communication between you and your students. Speaking from my own teaching experience, my students have opened up to me more through journals than any other medium.
- Mid-semester evaluations – The middle of the semester is a great time to check in with your students to see how the class is going for them. Hey, it’s better to find out now than in the end-of-semester evaluation! There are different formats for mid-semester surveys, so experiment to see which works best for you. Here are a couple of popular options:
- KQS survey – Ask students what they’d like you to keep doing, quit doing, and start doing.
- SGID – In Small-Group Instructional Diagnosis, you bring in an external moderator, and students talk about the course in small groups.
Instructional support staff
Teaching can feel lonely at times. Yes, we’re surrounded by students, but designing and teaching the class rests on our shoulders alone. We also may not want to burden our colleagues who are busy with courses of their own.
These days most universities and colleges have instructional designers or faculty development professionals who are trained to think about learning from the perspective of a variety of learners. Not only could talking to someone about your class help you see it through your students’ eyes, but it might also be therapeutic. A lot of what I did as an instructional designer was simply listen as faculty talked through their course layout or assignment details. These instructors often ended our conversations with, “Thank you so much for listening! It was so helpful to talk that through.”
Through our course materials, projects, and lectures we are forever asking students to adopt new perspectives. It couldn’t hurt to take our own advice.
Aubree Evans is the Coordinator of Teaching, Learning, and Academic Excellence in the Center for Faculty Excellence at Texas Woman’s University. Her background is in instructional design and writing instruction.