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When the Teacher Becomes the Student

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.

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.

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.

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