Saturday, January 21, 2012

Note to a Former Student

One of my former students recently earned her Ph. D. and is starting her career as a college professor. My favorite students have always been those who have become teachers.

She taught her first classes this past Thursday. What an exciting time – walking into class for the first time as a member of the university’s faculty. She dropped me a note and mentioned that she wanted her students to talk more than they did in the first class. Most of us seek more interactive education. Students, though, often prefer to sit, listen, take notes, and memorize. That is a less demanding approach to learning. Plus, it is a system that our students have probably experienced often during their years in school. Below is my response to this new faculty member.

Here’s one piece of fatherly advice that I would offer, especially if you want to get your students talking more. You may actually remember this strategy from when you were in my class as an undergraduate.

Always use a seating chart and then move everyone around in class every 2-4 weeks. When I started doing this about 10-12 years ago, I was amazed by how much the energy level would improve every time I moved people around in the classroom.

My excuse to the students is that I want them to get to know everyone else in class. And, that is very true (I am going to deliver the sermon at a wedding in April for a couple of former students who met when I changed the seating chart around one day and placed them side by side). I always tell my students that one of their primary goals in college should be to learn as many people as they possibly can and I’m trying to help the cause.

However, there is more to using a seating chart than just that. Students like getting comfortable and, when they get comfortable, they are much more willing to do sloppy work. Some students prefer to sit on the back row where they are protected from you by the distance. Others prefer to cluster into groups of their friends. Put three people from the same sorority or fraternity together and all three will do poorer work.

One of your responsibilities as a teacher is to protect your young students from falling into bad habits.

So, every couple of weeks, I break out a new seating chart and rearrange the entire class. Psychologically, it is helpful to let students know that you have that ability; it reminds them that you are in charge.

If certain students need more attention, you can slide them to the front. If two students spend too much time talking to each other, you can break them up. If all the members of a certain club sit together, you can disperse them throughout the room.

Most of all, it just helps the class avoid falling into a rut. Over the course of the semester, it is easy to have a “same old same old” feeling in a class. Okay, it might not work for you but certainly does for me.

Break a leg (as they say in the theatre).

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