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.