January 22nd, 2009

Individual Experiences for Students


“What we do in the same class can be soon forgotten by one student, yet have a profound impact on another.” (p.2) Joel Foisy, a math professor, says this might well be his “biggest” teaching lesson. He has another insight along the same lines: “Any given class is really many different classes—one for each student involved.” (p. 8)

We tend to think about students as a homogenous group. We tend to think of one day in class in a singular sense—we presented this material, had students engage in this activity, reviewed this assignment, and passed back a quiz from last week. But every student there experienced that same day in different ways and all those ways were different from what we experienced.

If you think about this too much, it can drive you crazy. So much of it is so out of our control. Teachers can control how well they prepare and that does help to ensure that things go well in class for more as opposed to fewer students. But teachers can’t control what students bring with them to any day in class—what’s happening in their personal lives, how well prepared they might be, what background experiences influence their reaction to this material, how ready they are to learn, whether they come to class with a headache or have an exam next period … .

There’s not much point worrying about what’s beyond our ability to control. Rather, the issue is how often we generalize about students and their experiences in a course. Most of us have lots of students, and it helps to put them in groups (usually we sort by their abilities and performance in class). But every group is composed of individuals and every individual experiences what happens in class in their own way and on their own terms.

We might want to start saying, “Class went well for me today” and stop saying, “The students really learned a lot from that activity.”

Reference: Foisy, J. There is no such thing as a dumb student. In R. L. Badger, ed., Ideas That Work in College Teaching. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008.

—Maryellen Weimer