Universities are strange places. People pay thousands of dollars a year to be taught by supersmart people. These supersmart people are required to do research, write grants, and bring in money and resources to their university. Teaching is only a minor—almost insignificant—part of the job. While this often goes without saying at big R1 universities, it is surprising that this is all too often also true at smaller “teaching” colleges. At my home university, Adelphi, teaching is emphasized, but this is often the exception and not the rule.
Faculty members are generally happy to select out a few elite students who they are confident can make it all the way to the top. For these few bright and gifted students, the college experience becomes almost otherworldly. They do research projects with their professors, network with superstars in their field, travel to exotic locations, and give papers at major conferences. Their professors become role models and mentors who help them transition to greatness.
But remember, most of the professors are elite folks themselves. You have to be to make it through the maze that a typical professor endures to get to the coveted tenure-track positions. So, essentially, you end up with the top five percent of educated elites teaching to the top five percent of elite students.
That’s messed up.
Here is how I have learned to teach to all students, not just the elite few:
- Ditch the stuffy, always-right professor and instead be the unsure, adventurer-ready-to-explore-new-topics one. I give open-ended questions on topics I don’t even quite understand myself. Students will often ask for all the answers, but I reply, “I don’t know, let’s figure it out together.” I believe that if students see their professor as a superstar genius, they can mistakenly think the barrier for their own success is too high.
- Share your own examples of struggling. Most faculty are ashamed of the time they flunked an exam. I proudly tell my students about bad scores. I share with them the time I got a D on my Physics II exam in college. (Of course, I also tell the students that was the last D I got as an undergrad. But the point is made.)
- Treat students like adults, not children. I respect them even when they do things that, to me, do not add up. I empathize with them, talk to them, and try to understand what they are thinking about. And that’s every student—not just the top five percent, but every student at every desk.
- Use high-impact learning techniques. Research proves it helps all students, from the top percentile to the struggling ones, particularly in the sciences. Last semester, I took my class out on the lawn and asked them to work out the math for the number of blades of grass on the quad. I also brought students to the dance studio to demonstrate rotational torque. Aerial moves are best left to the Lindy Hoppers, but everyone in my class came away with a better understanding of a difficult concept.
- Create an active learning environment in the classroom. This is the key to having a successful environment for all students, particularly those with learning differences. (Do you have students with autism spectrum disorder or students who require accommodations in your classroom? Increasingly, I do.) In the classroom, I reward the courage to put out ideas, even if they are incorrect. “Get those ideas out there!” is my constant plea. “Courage first!” Then I calmly state, “Together, let’s see if this makes sense.”
- Discuss a point from multiple directions to promote learning—in some cases, this opens a door for many nontraditional students to walk through.
- Give individual students an opportunity to slow classes down and work at their own pace—without simultaneously lowering standards for everyone else.
- Push hard to provide opportunities—scholarships, research assistantships, and employment—for those students who are working hard but do not have the highest grade point average. Access to these opportunities is life changing for any student; perhaps even more so for those who are not your top students.Give them access. Access gives them a future.
- Finally have fun with your students. No student, at any level, can learn in a boring environment.
There are some amazingly simple things we can do to make the switch, change our philosophy, and teach to every student. No matter what university or college you work at, or how important or successful your research is, the most important thing we do is teach.
Matthew J. Wright is an assistant professor of physics at Adelphi University. He was named the university’s 2015 professor of the year and earned its 2016 outstanding teaching award for junior faculty.