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

  • Sue Grapevine, Instr

    First, let me thank you for providing this blog. I have found many ideas about students and teaching that I can integrate into my own pedagogy from both the Teaching Professor blog and the Teaching Professor publication.I agree that there are many aspects of the classroom and of students teachers cannot control, but don't you think it is a little dangerous to just start thinking about classes in terms of how well it went for the teacher? Doesn't that start to move the focus away from the real reason for teaching, that is, student learning? I know there are times when I try an activity in a class and I think the activity goes well but I don't really know how much the students learned from the activity. Maybe the activity is fun and students like it, but maybe they really don't learn much about the course content from it. Or maybe the activity is a good one, but most of the class was having an off day and the learning was just not there that day.When I teach, I know I will not reach every student during every class meeting. But I always want to provide activities that will help as many students learn as possible. I think I still need to ask, “What did my students learn from that class meeting”?

  • Dr. Metzker

    While I believe that it is true that you can't control what students bring to class, as a teacher you certainly have an influence. The expectations we establish in our classrooms will directly affect the success of the teaching/learning experience for faculty and students alike. If I expect students come to class (on-time) and be on point when they are in class, then most of them will meet those expectations. There are many ways to communicate my expectations (syllabus, grading, etc) but I think the most effective is by "practicing what you preach". If the student knows you will be in class prepared and ready to aid them as they learn, I have found most will want to reciprocate by being prepared and ready to learn.I enjoy reading your thoughts on teaching.-Julia