Lessons Learned from My Students

My students have taught me some invaluable lessons during my first two years as a college professor. I’d like to share three of the most important ones here. They aren’t new lessons and I didn’t use any unique methods to learn them. I collected data midsemester from students, I talked with them, and I looked closely at what was happening in my classroom. The lessons were there for me to learn, and taken together they have helped me think more clearly about what I want my students to know and do, and who I want them to become. They are lessons that have made me a better teacher.

Assumptions about students can be dangerous
I have learned from students that new learning can be overwhelming. Many students have great difficulty when challenged by rigorous coursework. This is especially true when the course includes activities and assignments that require students to demonstrate their knowledge. For most of their school years, success in and out of the classroom has been relatively easy for many students. When challenged by rigorous coursework, they experience fears that can be paralyzing. For some students these become insurmountable obstacles.

I complicated the problem with my assumptions about their skills, knowledge, and dispositions. There was a gap between students’ actual knowledge, skills, and attitudes and what I expected of and from them. That ended up frustrating everyone. I learned I couldn’t make assumptions about their knowledge, skills, and dispositions, and instead had to investigate what they knew and were able to do. Not doing so compromises the learning process, but with support most of my students find a measure of sustainable success.

Deepen the learning to maximize the learning
It has always been my goal to impart as much knowledge as possible to prepare students for careers in their respective disciplines. That desire to impart knowledge pushed me to rush through content, leaving students with a lot of superficial knowledge and little in-depth understanding. From my students I have learned three things about deep learning. One, I needed to focus on fewer topics, but with greater depth. This allowed for more integration of topics and content. Two, I needed to design more opportunities to engage students in their own learning processes. When I did this we had richer class discussions. My students engaged in more inquiry and research, and their confidence that they could critically reflect on their work increased. Finally, I learned how essential it is that I consistently make modifications to sharpen the content, activities, and strategies used for each new group of learners. This lesson reminded me to regularly assess students to determine the best methods and strategies to deliver instruction suited to their diverse learning needs and strengths.

Champion the content
Students are exceedingly concerned with their final grades and miss the value of learning the content. This is the most frustrating lesson I have learned. Students of this generation are often pressured to achieve. Failure is not an option. Many of my students became upset at the idea of earning a B. For them B’s are tantamount to failure. This relentless pursuit of A’s leads too many students to academic misconduct, dishonesty, and plagiarism.

To combat this challenge, it was important for me to find a way to champion what is truly valuable and important. I deliver this message relentlessly: “I am far more interested in you learning the content than I am interested in your final grade!” It has become a strategy to move students’ thinking from focusing on their final grades to embracing the importance of learning the content, skills, and dispositions they will need to become proficient and productive professionals.

Final thoughts
These lessons learned from my students challenge me to acknowledge the diversity in learning styles, knowledge, skills, and dispositions; consistently evaluate my teaching to meet the needs of each new group of learners; teach fewer topics in greater depth; and continually articulate with fervor the value of learning content over getting grades. Although I’m sure there are many more lessons to learn, these lessons continue to transform my thinking about students and the methods I use to teach effectively and to help them learn deeply.

Dr. Candice Dowd Barnes is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood and Special Education at the University of Central Arkansas.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 26.5 (2012): 6.