February 22nd, 2017

When the Teacher Becomes the Student

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adult students in classroom

As a follow-up to last week’s post, here’s a final bit from my rummaging around old favorites in my personal library of teaching and learning resources.

Teaching Professor Blog The insights come from Roy Starling’s great piece in which he recounts his experiences of being released from his teaching responsibilities to take a full load of courses with a small group of undergraduates. It radically changed his teaching, as it did Marshall Gregory’s when he enrolled in an undergraduate acting class, and as it did mine when I took a non-major’s chemistry course with 20 first-semester students. Most faculty do not have time to take courses or they’re at institutions without programs that support these experiences. However, even short visits to a colleague’s class and experiencing it as a student (not a peer reviewer) yields insights about teaching and motivates change.

Most teachers start courses pretty much the same way—introduce the content, go over the course requirements, talk about grades, and spell out various policies. Starling was surprised by how confusing, indeed disorienting, he found this. Every course had its own set of details and requirements that students are supposed to immediately understand and follow. He and his fellow classmates (they all took the same four courses) quickly moved from learning to survival mode.

Based on that experience, here are four things Starling resolved to change once he returned to teaching.

  • Use group work on the first day and use it as a way to get students introduced to the content and each other. If teachers want participation in their courses, students must be encouraged to do so starting on the first day. The introduction of course content is important because then students “are more likely to leave this first class pondering ideas than dreading assignments.” (Starling, p. 4)
  • Spend more time talking about the rationale behind assignments. Too often the emphasis is on clarifying what students are supposed to do, rather than why they are being asked to do it. Starling notes that without understanding the rationale behind assignments, his classmates ended up considering most of their assignments pointless busy work. If that’s how students orient toward assignments, it certainly dampens their motivation to devote the time and energy needed to do good work.
  • “I will assign no superfluous material.” (Starling, p. 4) As a nurse educator said to me recently, “I’ve come to accept that there is content my students need to know and content that is nice to know. They’ll get to the nice-to-know stuff when it becomes a need to know, given what they end up doing.” Gregory (2005) makes the point this way, “Teachers who love specific kinds of content often misrepresent the kind of usefulness that content will have for most of their students. Mostly, students do not get educated because they study our beloved content. They get educated because they learn how to study our beloved content, and they carry the how of that learning with them in the world as cognitive and intellectual skills that stick long after the content is forgotten.” (p. 97) There are external expectations about what needs to be covered in a course and those cannot be ignored, but what made chemistry difficult for me was not the content per se, but how much of it there was and how fast it came.
  • “Knowing now that student gripes are often legitimate, I will complain less about complaining students. … I will now be more sympathetic, more flexible, preferring to be taken in by several students than to push one over the edge.” (Starling, p. 4)

One of the best parts of the Starling article is a collection of excerpts written before, during, and after the first exam. “The pre-exam tension headache and nervous stomach of yesteryear showed up like unexpected in-laws. I try to ease out of my role and make the exam not matter. . . . Doesn’t help, the exam still matters. I study too late then dream that exam day is here and I haven’t studied at all.” (p. 5) I remember confidently telling my chemistry classmates that we were so well prepared for the first quiz, a lot of us were going to ace it. That’s what I believed, but my 6/10 score was the average.

Two take-aways: I would almost guarantee that if you struggle to learn something in a course other than your own, it will change how you teach; and 20 years at the front of the room (maybe less) erases virtually all memories of what it’s like to be seated in a small, uncomfortable desk somewhere in the middle of the room.

References: Starling, R., (1987). Professor as student: The view from the other side. College Teaching, 35 (1), 3-7.

Gregory, M., (2005). Turning water into wine: Giving remote texts full flavor for the audience of Friends. College Teaching, 53 (3), 95-98.

Gregory, M., (2006). From Shakespeare on the page to Shakespeare on the stage: What I learned about teaching in acting class. Pedagogy, 6 (2),309-325.

© Magna Publications. All rights reserved.


  • goodsensecynic

    Yes, I do … vividly, even though my undergraduate days are exactly 50 years behind me. I also recall journeying through three graduate schools in the successful completion of three post-graduate degrees.

    It would be accurate (but also misleading) to say that students are different today. With notable exceptions “universal access” has undermined the academic atmosphere that was more common in the era of “mass education” (something of a democratic triumph) and also in the time of strictly “elite education,” which was dying in the 1950s and which I never experienced personally.

    My complaints today, however, are not aimed at the students – as ill-informed, underprepared, incurious, un- (if not anti-) intellectual, technologically besotted, narrowly vocational, narcissistic and arrogant (out of a false sense of entitlement) and, perhaps paradoxically, insecure and almost clinically anxious as they may appear to be.

    These unfortunate qualities do apply to too many students, but it’s not their fault. They are the (largely willing) victims of a neoliberal approach to higher education which commodifies curriuculm, commerciaizes research, relies on the allegedly free market to determine what shall be taught, to whom and why, reduces faculty collegiality to the labor process of the discount department store by turning Associate Professors into the academic equivalent of Walmart Associates.

    What’s worse, too many younger faculty members have been brought up in the current corporate culture, know no better and are intimidated into silence when they seek collegial alternatives – understanding that they can be terminated without cause for questioning the authorities … and that there’s a “reserve army” of underemployed newly minted PhDs standing in line and waiting for the next adjunct vacancy and faint hope of one day winning a tenure track position.

    O tempore! O mores!

  • In addition to struggling to understand course requirements and other pressures of scholastic pursuit, students in a country like mine (India) face several other pressures. English is not the mother tongue of a vast majority of the people. Yet the choice of medium for instruction is English for all who can afford it as studying in an English medium school is believed to be the first step towards social and economic progress. (For many from remote tribal areas, even the mainstream vernacular or dominant language of a region or state can be unfamiliar, at least in the initial years of schooling.)

    Further, many students hail from households that are economically disadvantaged. They may often have to attend classes after less than a full meal at home. Add to this the fact that in a country that is largely rural, and with many demands on its resources, road connectivity and transportation facilities are still a work-in-progress. Which means students often have to leave very early as either their educational institution is far off, the commutation facilities are poor or because they have to walk long distances.

    The student I am talking about here, therefore, could end up attending a class in which she not only listens to a teacher speaking in an unfamiliar language, but she has to try and make sense of what is being taught while on an empty stomach, and having walked several miles.

    In order to cultivate empathy to address such communities of students, I think the pedagogical training should include an experience similar to what Prof. Starling undertook. The experience being mooted here would expose teachers to situations comparable to what students in their classes may be facing. In my country, it might be a good idea to ask teachers to attend a lecture/ talk on an unfamiliar subject in a language other than the ones they are habituated to, getting up early in the morning to do so, and walking a mile or so to get to the venue (not necessarily an educational institution), and then produce a meaningful essay on the subject of the talk. Even a single such experience could impact the teacher in a way that makes her more conscious of the students’ needs. Because pedagogy is not only about how to teach but also about whom you are teaching.

  • Gonzalo Munevar

    Excellent article!

  • Jason

    I’m fortunate to teach at an institution that does allow faculty to take classes, albeit auditing as a student, not as a scheduled professional development strategy with given time. That said, I’m also currently taking a MEd course, so the student perspective is quite real for me again!
    I think this is a terrific exercise, but I would wonder if it is a totally fair representative experience? After all, most of us are in our teaching roles now because we were good students, or at least good at being students.
    That aside, this definitely aligns with some readings I’ve been doing in my course work lately, namely an article about care-theory, which suggests the best way to begin to understand a group is to immerse yourself within it. Similarly, going back to Thoreau philosophy, living something is the best to way learn it. So in those respects, and as Starling described, this is an invaluable learning experience and shift in perspective. It may certainly help us change the focus and culture from asking what have I taught, to what have they learned, and is something my colleagues are now interested in implementing.

  • riley456345

    Wow nice article in here and i think most of the people are like this education. A teacher can change the thinking of us and we can also inspired from her and it should be increased our knowledge of power about this.