Knowing your students can help you be a more effective teacher

by Julie Dodd

nyt_cover_wAn important part of developing an effective undergraduate course is knowing your students.

Why are students taking your course?
Is this a required course? Is the course a prerequisite for another course students want or need to take?

What academic background are students bringing into your course?
What courses have they had at the college level before taking your course? What courses did they have in high school? And we, as college teachers, need to be aware that every student — even if they have the same course on their high school or community college transcript — has not had the same learning experience.

What are students’ aspirations?
Often by knowing what students are hoping to do professionally, we can help them connect what they’re doing in the course to their long-term goals. That’s a great way to get students more engaged in the course.

What academic confidence level and support network do the students have?
That’s an even more important question than 10 years ago because more students arrive at college as first generation college students. And more students who graduate from under-performing high schools are at college and may feel like they are less prepared than their classmates from higher-performing high schools.

Paul Tough’s New York Times Magazine cover story “Who Gets to Graduate?” does an excellent job of discussing why many promising and academically capable in-coming freshmen never make it to graduation.

The article both provides research insights into why these students don’t succeed and discusses the program that the University of Texas/Austin uses to identify such students and to help them be successful.

UT’s program to help students be successful is guided by Prof. David Laude, who had taught the introductory Chemistry course at UT and developed his own approach to help students who were struggling with the course.

  • No remedial classes, as that very designation makes students feel like they aren’t prepared.
  • Smaller classes. Instead of being in a chemistry lecture of 300, the students were in classes of 50. (But that’s still a pretty big class.)
  • Being assigned to advisers who helped monitor the students’ progress.
  • Having upper division students as peer tutors.
  • Having the same expectations, lectures, assignments and tests as the larger section of the course.

And it works. Those set-up-for-potential-failure students complete Chemistry 301 with the same grades as the other better-prepared students. And those students who before were dropping out of college go on to graduate

I encourage you to read the story.

Paul Tough does an excellent job of explaining a complicated story about why college students don’t succeed and how the way teaching is designed can make a difference.

David Laude is an inspiring example for those of us who teach. We can analyze why some of our students aren’t successful in course classes and then be pro-active in how we design our course to help them.

As Tough points out: “Though Laude is a chemist by training, he spends much of his time thinking like a psychologist, pondering what kind of messages or environmental cues might affect the decisions that the students in his programs make.”

That’s back to working to know your students and then using that knowledge to help you be a more effective teacher.

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