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The wonders of the traditional college classroom (essay)

My Yellowing Notes, My Class and Me

February 28, 2014

Why do they come? Thirty-seven smiling young faces in a classroom look up at me, oozing confidence that I will teach them successfully and help them pass the course. I confide in them: the course should really have 24 students for an optimum presentation. Nobody moves. And the smiles stay fixed.

I tell them that everything I teach is available online, and the jokes there are probably funnier than the ones I use. They sit still. As they do in the classes of almost two million other faculty members.

They will continue to come, the 14 or 15 million students who can’t or won’t learn by themselves. Yes, there are two million or so students who can master difficult material on their own, and there are mature individuals whose life circumstances makes it necessary to learn essentials, to pass a course, and to move on.

But for the vast majority of America’s young people, the classroom and the faculty member -- yellowing notes and all -- seem to work best.

And so they come….

Now picture a full colored photo on glossy paper of college students, gathered happily at graduation. Idyllic, but misleading. Look closely, very closely at the picture and find that the picture isn’t a picture at all, but an assemblage of thousands of individual dots. Separate, and often strikingly different from each other. Now take away the color and a further grim graininess appears.

That’s the real-world picture a faculty member sees in the classes s/he teaches. A group of individuals, each with different life experience, family circumstance, personal growth pattern, goals, and course selections.

Pretty pictures are for people who look at higher education from the far periphery; it is they who dare make general statements, universal predictions and global pronouncements about what will take place in college. I know better. I know that every one of the 2200 or so minutes I will be with this particular group of individuals will present its own challenges, its own opportunities for teaching and learning, and its own possibilities for failure.

I am alert to the pressures and influences that divert so many young people, and am no longer surprised at the number of hours many of them spend online. Nor do I express disappointment at the number of students who expect to be taught, who expect to know – but who will not do the work involved in learning. They are, after all, the children who learned the alphabet painlessly on Sesame Street, and grew up one click away from the world’s store of knowledge.

For the vast majority of America’s young people, the classroom and the faculty member -- yellowing notes and all -- seem to work best.

My students need hand-holding, human-hand-holding, to become engaged, and focus on the depth of material rather than on obtaining a quick, superficial answer. They live in a digital world, but remain analog beings and must learn to acquire and assimilate great bodies of knowledge, comprehensive, continuous, and coherent.

Fortunately, they don’t face this task alone. Together with their 30-odd peers, they begin to form a class. Even though this class will not reach the level of a community of scholars, the collective plays its role. Students begin to share notes, discuss homework, assist each other in understanding difficult material, and interact during class. There is argument, shared humor and collective disappointment; a sudden scurry when an exam is announced, a flurry of conversation just before the exam takes place, and consultation right after it ends. Every one of these interactions enhances student engagement.

There is something about the structure of the classroom that contributes to the learning process, perhaps akin to a group of musicians whose joint effort is so much more effective than it would be were they to play their instrument at a separate location with an expert mixing the sounds. People do interact and college students better than most.

Fortunately, too, there is the faculty member who knows that teaching is more than presenting information and that learning is a very complex process, difficult and unusual for most people. A whole range of strategies is needed to keep students striving and stretching for a whole period, let alone a whole term. Students must be induced, sometimes with humor, to concentrate. There must be challenge, repetition, surprise and praise.  

A successful teacher can offer spontaneity, immediacy, and instant, interactive feedback. He/she knows that a question is not just a request for information. A question can signal to the teacher that something is wrong with the presentation. Often, it can enable a teacher to involve all the others in the class, becoming part of a different, sometimes unanticipated learning experience.

Teachers learn to walk the aisles, to watch faces, to orchestrate discussion and stimulate questions. Eye contact and a smile – or lack of it – can guide the next part of the discussion, and one student’s difficulties can be used to address those who can’t even formulate their lack of understanding.

Some teachers know how to seize on a recent event and weave it into the discussion, or look at a student’s notebook to determine whether the student was following properly or not.

Depending on the course and the class, a faculty member will help students overcome anxiety, shyness and diffidence. College teachers will use connection and analogies to get a point across. And alert students will follow as a scholar approaches a new problem or situation to understand how an expert thinks.

Listening, correcting, suggesting, modeling, prodding, affirming, critiquing, reflecting, admitting, weighing, arguing, and guiding are but some of the other strategies faculty will use to move students along on a trajectory of learning.  

For many there is nothing as effective as face-to-face teaching, and the five-minute explanation at the chalkboard after class has rescued many a student.

There is so much more. Experienced instructors know how to address the blank stare, and are able to evoke expression from students who seat themselves at the back of the room. Reinforcement, encouragement, constructive argumentation all help develop patterns of thinking and behavior which will long outlast the specific topic being taught.

A traditional college education usually comprises 40 or so separate courses offered by as many different faculty members, each of whom will bring to bear those qualities and strategies appropriate to the subject, reflecting his/her character and talents. Students will be brought into discussions where they will venture opinions – and defend them without anger. Most will learn to evaluate disagreeable perspectives and remain friends with both proponents and opponents.

They will learn how to change their minds, to deal with mistakes, and to respect the rights of others.

Faculty members know how to jostle students into active learning. As often as not they are enthusiastic advocates as well as practitioners of the subject at hand, and students will experience the passion as well as the process of a presentation.

Learning from a scholar enables a student to acquire knowledge in an organized framework from someone who has assimilated so much, and knows how to provide a roadmap that is uniquely effective for each particular group.

A scholar knows how to form connections with other courses and plant ideas and insights that will bear fruit in a subsequent course, or later in life. Students must be taught how to approach the unknown, the impossible, the unanticipated and the future. It is the competent, confident scholar/faculty member who will see the need for this kind of learning and have the ability to present it.

Only after the usual 1,800 hours (over 100,000 minutes in the classroom) and the hoped-for 3,600 hours of after class assignments have been completed is it possible to compose the glossy, colored picture. Only then do the thousands of interactions, lessons, topics, and learnings combine to make the graduate and the graduating class.

Bio

Bernard Fryshman is a professor of physics and a former accreditor.

 

 

 

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