A good friend of mine, Steve Markoff, has written an excellent essay on learning to teach by being a student. It is well worth reading at https://blogs.montclair.edu/academy/2011/04/11/being-a-student/.
Over the years, I have taken classes in everything from Russian culture and ballroom dancing to jewelry making and photography just to remind myself of what it is like to be the person in class who feels lost and confused. Many universities allow faculty members to take classes for free or at reduced prices. Put aside your fears and go sign up for a class where you are not the expert.
When it comes to college students, the old saying “you don’t know what you don’t know” is all too often true. For the most part, they are young people who have only seen a very narrow slice of life and, like the blind men and the elephant, they believe that the slice of life they have experienced represents the reality of life. Thus, at times, they need guidance even though they may not ask for it.
I will give my third test of the semester next Monday. I am often frustrated that grades don’t change much between the first test and the second. The students who make As and Bs continue to work well and make more As and Bs. The students who make Cs and Ds continue to flounder and make more Cs and Ds. By the time we get to the third test, I really want to see those Cs and Ds turn into As and Bs
I will often call in the students who do poorly on a test and they will eagerly confess that they are doing in my class exactly what they have always done in all of their classes. Apparently, they believe this is the one set way to prepare for a class. They then seem stunned when I respond “well, your strategy is not working very well. You need to make significant changes. Einstein said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
There is obviously some difference between students based on their knack for the subject matter. Some students simply see the underlying logic more easily than do other students. However, in my opinion, the biggest variables tend to be hours spent in study and the efficiency with which they use those hours. Students will resist this idea like the plague but I will ask them “if you spend three hours studying poorly and your neighbor spends 10 hours studying well, you know who is going to make the higher grade. So, don’t even try to tell me that more time studying and better spent time is not going to help you to do better.” (Students are like everyone else – what they really want is a magic bullet that will help them to do better without requiring any more work.)
Many students who struggle have two basic problems: they don’t spend enough time studying (either before class or after class) and, even if they want to study more, they are not sure how to fill up their time. I’m convinced that most classes in school (from kindergarten until they walk into my class in college) don’t teach students how to study.
So, as we approach our third test (where I’m really looking for some of those Cs and Ds to step up and turn their engine around), I do two things.
First, I suggest a very specific number of hours for them to study and urge them to keep a calendar so they know that they have studied enough. I suggest 10-12 hours for my introductory class and 12-18 hours for my upper-level class. You may expect more or less from your students but you might as well tell them what you expect. Basically, I want them to block off the week-end and immerse themselves in getting a full grasp of the material because it is rather complex.
Second, I give them specific assignments that I think will help them come to understand the material (or push them to come to me to seek help). I give them the test I gave last fall on this material along with the answers. I warn them that I am going to give them a different test but this will provide them some idea of what I expect and how I test this material. That alone should keep them busy for two hours on Saturday morning. Also, as we cover material, I will frequently send them problems by email and say “if you understood what I wanted from class today, here’s an exercise that I would expect you to be able to work.” I do provide an answer but no work. I want them to figure out where that answer came from. I am trying to give them productive ways to fill up those needed hours of study.
Having an A student make an A is wonderful but I imagine they would have done well without my help. Having a C or a D student make a C or D is frustrating but it is just one of the sad parts of this occupation. It is sad because I wasn’t able to make a difference.
However, having students start out with low grades but then having them figure out how to change the way they prepare so that they grow into an A student is my very favorite part of being a teacher. It is with those students that I feel I make a genuine difference. Learning is not magic. More time better spent can make a huge difference. Sometimes students need that guidance.