August 19th, 2008

A Teaching Low Point


“I’d like to share a really low-point in my teaching.” Wow! Most faculty don’t admit teaching errors in public venues, but this faculty member was participating in a lunchtime discussion with about 12 of her colleagues. She’s a biologist and the course was microbiology for nurses. The low point involved a comment made by a student with whom she had developed a relationship. Clearly a student wouldn’t make an admission like this if she (it was a she in this case) wasn’t comfortable with the faculty member. It was the end of the course and the student was doing well, and she pretty much had her A nailed down. Despite that, she said to her teacher, “I really don’t understand why they make us take a stupid microbiology course.”

A nurse not recognizing the relevance of a course in microbiology? Here’s what the faculty member said: “I was crushed, absolutely crushed, but you know what I learned from that experience? You can’t just cover the content and assume students see the relevance. I spent all my time focusing on the content. I never said anything about its importance. That one comment really changed my approach in the course. There’s still all kinds of content to cover, but now starting on the first day, I talk about why students need to know this material.”

I so admire this faculty member’s willingness to share. We always tell students how much there is to be learned from mistakes, but rarely do faculty share what they’ve learned from mistakes, especially those made in the classroom. Even worse, some faculty don’t learn from mistakes. I know too many faculty who would hear a comment like this and conclude the student was stupid—end of case. The faculty member also noted that if the student was doing poorly in the class, it would have been easier to let the comment go, but this student was doing well. “That’s what really got my attention and made me start thinking about what I was doing wrong.”

—Maryellen Weimer