October 30th, 2013

You Got Students Talking about Their Experiences, Now What?


“Get students talking about their experiences!” I heard this recommendation in a couple of sessions at the recent Teaching Professor Technology Conference, and the admonition does rest on sound premises. Students learn new material by connecting it to what they already know. If a teacher gets a sense of that knowledge base (which often grows out of and rests on experience) it’s a lot easier to make good connections between what students know and what they need to learn.

But I have to admit that whenever I asked students to talk about their experiences, I was almost always sorry. And I still have that feeling sometimes in faculty workshops.

For starters, there are students (and some teachers, for that matter) who don’t want to share their experiences in the classroom or online. They’re uncomfortable doing so. And then there are students who are quite convinced they have no knowledge or experiences relevant to the content. So, asking students to talk about their experiences doesn’t mean that everyone wants to or will do so effectively.

“Here’s What Happened to Me. . .”
At this point I need to admit (a bit shamefacedly) that I never thought much about the students who didn’t share. They said nothing so I didn’t have worry about how to respond to them.

It was the students who shared their experiences that caused me consternation. Most of them tended not to be very insightful about what had happened to them, what they learned as a consequence of it, or how the event might be connected to what we were discussing. In addition, the relevance and usefulness of some of those experiences wasn’t always obvious to me when the students shared them in class. Beyond these troubles, there was often the additional question of how the experience of one student might be made relevant to the rest of the class. Was there something for them to learn in what had been shared? Most of the time, on the spot, there in front of the class, I couldn’t figure out what to do with what the student had shared. “Very interesting,” I’d hear myself saying as I moved on to someone or something else.

Even more challenging to me were those experiences from which students believed they had learned something, but what they had concluded was questionable if not just plain wrong. I hear this sometimes in faculty workshops. “I don’t use group work.” “Why not?” “I tried it once and it didn’t work.” “What happened?” “The smart kids told the ones who weren’t the answers.” I don’t doubt that’s what happened, but it’s a problem with how the group work was designed, not an inherent feature of student collaboration.

The challenge for teachers is getting those wrong conclusions and misconceptions at least confronted, if not corrected. How do you do that in a classroom? Dealing with errors is somewhat easier when the mistakes are factual, but not when it moves into the realm of beliefs. A blow to the foundation that disrupts what is known can cause every belief in the structure to tremble. Frightened learners resist—they object or resolutely return to what they know is right.

So what I have in this post so far is a description of the problem, not a set of good answers. Sometimes the place to begin is by clarifying our thinking—my thinking about what’s involved when students share experiences that teachers must try to connect with content in ways that promote their learning and that of others. I understand now why I so often responded so ineffectively. There’s a lot more involved than I thought.

Perhaps you have learned more from your experiences dealing with student experiences. You could help make this post of greater use by sharing how you solicit student experiences, how you respond to them, and how you relate them to course content. Even if you don’t share, perhaps the post will motivate your reflection. As teachers we need to be able to do this well because knowledge is intimately linked to what we’ve experienced, and students do have experiences and prior knowledge which course content can correct, enlarge, deepen, and make useful.

  • perryshaw

    Thanks for your observations Maryellen. Personally I am reticent to begin with students' experiences, but rather prefer to bring them into dialogue after there is some good material already in place. For example when I teach a course on Teaching or Social Psychology or Ethics, I regularly stop and ask questions such as the following:
    •Have you seen … at work in your life / community etc? How did it work? Explain.
    •How would you put … into practice in your own context?
    I have also found very interesting discussions emerge when I ask questions like the following:
    •Imagine how you/your family/your community would be different if … had not happened.
    •Imagine how you/your family/your community would be different if all of us in this class/in your community put into practice what we have been suggesting.
    I recognize that this is not quite the same as what you describe in the blog, but I have found these approaches helpful in bringing experiences in dialogue with class material.

  • Claire

    I've been out of the (undergraduate) classroom for a few years, doing faculty development, but here's something I've tried with some success in a teaching methods course: I have students begin by creating "maps" of their own literacy development (focusing on writing because I teach writing methods courses). Then the work in small groups to share some of the experiences identified on their maps. Then they come up with lists of assumptions they have about the teaching of writing, based on their own experiences. (My Q to them: What do your experiences as developing writers lead you to believe about what makes a good writing teacher?) Yes, Maryellen, sometimes the conclusions they've reached based on their own assumptions are just dead wrong! But that's okay, because we can use their assumptions as starting places for our study of what research and theory tell us about effective writing instruction,. For example, if a student is convinced that the best writing teacher s/he ever had was the one who made liberal use of the red pen, marking every grammatical/mechanical problem on every paper (not unusual, btw), we have an assumption/hypothesis that we can interrogate, investigate, and discuss. I also ask them to watch for evidence of success or failure of this strategy during their clinical observations and/or student teaching (which happens in the next semester.) But of course, I also have to cut myself some slack, realizing that I'm not going to be able to totally dispel deeply held assumptions in a single semester. But at least I'm "planting seeds." Giving them something to think about as they develop as teachers and gain new experiences. Anyway, it's one strategy.

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  • kellyboucher

    I teach an "Introduction to Adult Learners" course at a local college (part of Teacher/Trainer of Adults certificate), and getting students to identify their assumptions about teaching and learning is an important aspect of the course. This process of identifying assumptions can be challenging for students (for anyone for that matter) and I have found that journaling or blogging as a learning tool/aid for this purpose can be very helpful. The class I teach is a traditional f2f class, supplemented with a LMS. Each student has a personal blog in the LMS which they post to on a weekly basis. Students are asked to reflect on their response to each week's lesson content. I have a had plenty of success with the blogging/journaling process and students report on the final course evaluation, how it assisted in identifying challenging assumptions/beliefs that they held that were impeding their growth and development as teachers and trainers.

    • Taka Takahashi

      I am fairly new to the field of teaching methods/educational psychology, so it would be great if you could enlighten me with what LMS means. (I found out what f2f or F2F meant just a couple of semesters ago!) My best guess is "Learning Media Services." It must be something related to online processes. Thanks very much.

      • kellyboucher

        Hi Taka,

        My apologies for using acronyms. LMS = learning management system. A LMS is used to provide the framework for courses delivered online. For example Moodle, D2L or Blackboard.

  • Valerie Mosser

    I have an observation about group work and how to avoid the syndrome of one person taking control and simply giving the answers to the group. I use a very specific teaching style and I encourage my students to use it in group work. I refer to it as "Teach! Don't tell!" I rarely give my students direct answers to questions, rather I prompt them with questions that will help guide them toward solutions. This works well in Chemistry classes. This method is especially effective when encouraged in group work because every student becomes a teacher. The less confident students become more self directed because they are actually solving problems rather than just being given the answers.

    • Taka Takahashi

      Thanks for your enlightening practice. It should solve the problem that I have always struggled with when dealing in group work situations. I will start using it for my groups right away!

  • Nancy Augustine

    Asking students about their experiences is a great way to bring real-life examples into the discussion. Examples allow us to consider whether the framework or set of claims or principles that we have been examining play out the way we think they do. I taught a short survey course in public sector management, this semester, and I regularly asked students to talk about their own experiences. One good follow-up was to ask the student (or others in the class) if the example supports the ideas that we have been talking about or not. Is real-life messier in important ways? Why is it so hard to follow principles of good practice? In light of our discussion, do you have a better insight into where things starting going wrong? What did you learn from your experience, for good or for bad?

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