August 23rd, 2017

A Memo to My Students as the New Semester Begins

By:

Students in college classroom

To: My Students
From: Your Teacher
Re: A Better Learning Experience

This is just a brief note to let you know how committed I am to making this a good course. But I can’t do my best teaching without your help. So, I thought I’d share a list of things you can do that will make this a better experience for all of us.

Teaching Professor Blog Be there. When you’re in class or online doing course-related work, I need you to be there completely. Yes, this means being physically present, but I’m hoping for more than just your body in class. I teach better when you are mentally present—listening, taking notes, mulling things over in your head, asking questions, occasionally nodding (when you understand), and sometimes looking surprised, confused, or amused (as the situation warrants). And yes, you may even look bored, if that’s how you’re feeling. I need that feedback, too. What I don’t need—and find very discouraging—is having you in class but not really there. Don’t kid yourself: I know when students are doing things with their devices or finishing homework for another class, looking up every now and then and pretending to listen. Trust me, feigning attention doesn’t look anything like attentive listening. You’ll make the course easier for me to teach and you to learn if you are present and engaged in what’s happening in class.

Participate! Yes, I do give points for participation, even though I know that encourages some students to contribute solely to earn them. There’s no need to speak every day. Less is sometimes more. Speak when you’ve got something to say! Ask a thoughtful question, share a relevant experience, respond to another student’s comment, or voice a different perspective—contributions like these make the class interesting for me and everyone else. And thanks in advance to those of you who voluntarily participate.

I know many students find it difficult to contribute in class. I try to make it easier by broadly defining participation. If you’ve got a question about the reading, something I said in class, or an observation that a classmate offered, and you couldn’t quite find the courage to raise your hand, send your question or contribution to me electronically. You also can participate by posting on the course website. Maybe it will be a list of the three most important things you learned in class on a given day, a short paragraph that summarizes the discussion that ended class, or a set of study questions for an upcoming exam.
And everyone can participate in this course by listening and paying attention—especially when another student is speaking. Good listeners respond nonverbally with eye contact and facial expressions. They don’t look close to comatose.

A class that’s participating energizes my teaching. Your comments, questions, and responses feed me. Without your participation, I feel like I’m at a dinner table where all I do is serve the food and never get to eat it. I’d like to be sharing the meal with you instead.

Help me get to know you. Let’s start with names. I am committed to learning yours and do hope you’ll learn mine. Almost everybody struggles with names, including me. If I speak to you without using your name, call me on it. If I’ve forgotten, give me something that will help me remember. Let’s greet each other by name when we run into each other on campus. Stop by my office. I keep a basket of granola bars for hungry students. I know they’re not as good as candy, but they’re healthier. See, we’ve found some common ground already.

I’d like to get to know you beyond just your name. What’s your major? Why did you decide on it? What courses are you taking? Tell me something you just learned in one of your other classes. Why are you in this course? I know; it’s required. I think it’s required for a compelling set of reasons, but I’m probably not all that objective. What would like to learn in this course? What are you finding easy and difficult about this content?

I teach better when I know the students I see in class or chat with online as real people—students with names, faces, and interesting lives. I do my best teaching when I have students who care about learning (and grades); who have dreams, goals, and ambitions; and who want to get out there and fix what’s broken. I do my best teaching when I have students who are serious about getting ready for life—or getting ready to make a better life. I want you to experience my best teaching, and I hope you’ll help me make that happen this semester.

Note to readers: Be welcome to make this note your own. Use it as a template. Delete or revise what doesn’t fit, add more sections or examples, and change the voice so that it sounds like you and aligns with the things you like to see from your students.

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  • Lynn Stallworth

    What a great post! Thanks. I sent a version of it to my students. I have much larger classes this semester (40ish rather than 20ish students) so feel like I need to work harder to connect.

  • Laura Shulman

    I can see including a letter like this in the course syllabus.Thanks for sharing.

  • Cornell Moniz Debbie

    What a great post. I implement most of this and some different perspectives on how to deliver to my class is always helpful

  • Chris Brodie

    Mary Ellen, I want to thank you for the 3 years of advice and guidance you’ve offered me, both online through these Faculty Focus memos and at the Teaching Professors Conference that I attended in 2016. After 3.5 years of teaching organizational behavior as an adjunct professor, I’m moving on in 2 weeks to full-time internal consultant’s work at a local university. I am confident that what I learned from you about teaching undergraduates will also be helpful in the training and “guided learning” work that I’ll be doing with staff and faculty of all ages, since it’s already been helpful to me as an external consultant/trainer/coach to various organizations. I’m staying on the distribution list for your memos as long as you’ll let me: there’s more to learn and you surely will offer some of what I need!

  • Amanda Smith

    Thanks for this! I teach online and love the opportunity to customize it to my students and their demographics. Sometimes with the online platform and the structure included by the institution it’s hard to build a strong sense of community. I believe that this will help dramatically!

  • JC Caine

    The only thing I disagree with is, “Good listeners respond nonverbally with eye contact and facial expressions.” Sometimes this is true, but culturally, it may not be. I have many students who are of different races and cultures for whom direct eye contact is not usual or appropriate. I also have some on the autism spectrum who pay attention, but don’t make eye contact, and still others who are just too shy. We should remember that lack of a smile or eye contact does not equate with hostility or lack of participation.

  • Gilbert Arap Bor

    This is great. I’d like to borrow this and post a similar message to my students. I’ve just started the new academic year with two groups of students whom I teach the same course of Marketing Management- one an evening class, the other, a weekend class.