As an online instructor with many students, it is challenging to remember details about every learner who has passed through my virtual classroom. But there
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When students are talking with each other about content, most of us worry, at least a little bit. We’ve all heard less-than-impressive exchanges. For example, four students are in a group discussing three open-ended questions about two challenging readings. It’s less than five minutes since they started, but they’re already on question three. Or, they’re working with clickers, supposedly exchanging ideas about a problem, but the group has already decided on one member’s solution. She just happens to be a student who regularly answers in class and is almost always right.
Today’s college instructors are expected not only to be engaging in their classes, but to engage students outside the classroom. Whether it’s supervising service-learning, taking students to professional conferences, leading study sessions in coffee houses, or inviting students into our homes, faculty are now expected to be with students in ways that change the kinds of relationships teachers and students have in the classroom. Teachers now interact with their students in a variety of contexts, many of them informal and some of them purely social. These new roles blur the line between being friendly toward students and being a friend of students. This matters whether you’ve been teaching for a while and no longer look like a student or whether your academic career is just starting. All faculty need to know how to build supportive and positive, but businesslike, relationships with students.
I have long pondered a phrase I learned from a mentor: “Witness the struggle.” Frances, my mentor, used the phrase when she talked about working with students in emotional pain. She was referring to those students who sometimes lash out in frustration over missed assignments, family dynamics, or other stressful life issues. As a career educator, I have a deep desire to help students and a strong tendency to offer solutions and suggestions. I want to fix their problems and tell them what to do. The wise words of this phrase offer a more powerful and profound answer to the part of me that thinks I need to rescue students. Its simple urging suggests that I be fully engaged and present, that I use silence to clear a space, and that I guard against telling students what to do. More often than not, students simply need to know that their voices count, that they have been heard, and that who they are matters.
The final portfolio of student work (be it writings, drawings, or a collection of different kinds of work) presents the instructor with a conundrum. As the culmination of student work, it needs to be submitted at the end of the course, but feedback opportunities then are severely limited. Those of us who use portfolio assignments do provide feedback at multiple points throughout the semester, but when the portfolio is completed, the course has ended and this final version cannot be discussed with students. Worse than that, for years, I cringed as I saw the graded portfolios accumulate outside my office. Some were never picked up.
Out-of-class communication makes student-teacher relationships more personal and contributes to student learning. It is also the wellspring for continued academic exchange and mentoring. Unfortunately, electronic consultations via email have diminished the use of in-person office hours. Although students and faculty favor email contact because it’s so efficient, interpersonal exchanges still play an important role in the learning process—much research verifies this. As teachers we have a responsibility to encourage, indeed entice, our students to meet with us face-to-face.
Most faculty schedule at least three office hours per week—that’s 2,700 minutes a semester. If you have 135 students, that’s 20 minutes for each student. Even if you have 270, that’s still 10 minutes per student.
Recently I’ve been working to make the most of these 2,700 minutes of office hours. They offer prime time for one-to-one mentoring. In the process, my thinking about office hours has shifted a bit, and I’m using my office hours in more ways. Consequently I have had a greater number of students taking advantage of this learning opportunity.
Frustrated with the traditional lecture format in an upper-level chemistry class that enrolled more than 100 students, and envious of my teaching assistants who spent time in small recitations working on problem solving with my students, I designed an approach I call the “The Front Row.” It brings a small group feel into a large classroom.
At one point, a General Chemistry course at Penn State Berks had a success rate of about 50 percent, giving the multi-section course the dubious distinction of having one of the lowest GPAs on campus. After a thorough redesign, the course now consistently achieves a success rate of well over 70 percent, while the student ratings of the course and the instructors have never been higher. The key element in this chemistry course’s redesign? Clickers.
As an undergrad, I put myself through school waiting tables – a truly humbling experience that made me a better instructor. With a mission of 100% customer satisfaction and my livelihood on the line, the patron’s experience became my highest priority.
Taking that mindset into the classroom, I strove for 100% student satisfaction – within the confines of academic integrity, of course – and achieved great results. It turns out, oddly enough, that students love being important, valued, respected, and honored. And through the resulting faculty-student connection, students willingly transform into vessels of learning.