An unprecedented amount of attention is being given to student success, to benchmarks and milestones (such as completing remedial courses), to transfer rates, to degree completion. Both state and federal governments as well as philanthropies are supporting structural changes in course sequences, requirements, and pathways toward degrees and offering financial incentives for new methods of measuring success.
How interesting it is though that, except for a flurry of activity around computerized assessment and instruction and distance learning, we hear almost nothing at the policy level about the classroom itself, about teaching. And the classroom is exactly where our attention should be.
With few exceptions, most graduate programs do not put much effort into helping people learn how to teach. Students master the central texts or exemplary studies of philosophy, political science, or physics, the discipline’s methods of inquiry, the history of the discipline’s development, but not how to teach it. Graduate students might assist in courses and learn that way, and they might pay special attention to how their professors teach, but none of this is systematic or a focus of study or mentoring. And there is no place in their curriculum where they consider the difficulties young people might have as they learn how to think like a political scientist or physicist or the reading and writing difficulties that can emerge when encountering a discipline for the first time. The same is true in acquiring a trade. Again, with few exceptions, people are trained to be electricians or cosmetologists or nurses, but not to teach their occupation.
So it should come as no surprise that even the most committed of new college instructors can be thrown by the variety of needs and limitations some of their students present. As one well-regarded biology teacher told me, when he would find out that a student was having a lot of trouble with the reading, what else could he do but advise that student to drop the class?
Some students arrive at college with pretty limited skills, reading at an elementary school level, unable to do more than basic arithmetic, writing undeveloped and error-ridden prose. But students with better literacy and mathematical skills can still have problems with literacy-related academic routines. These can include strategies for reading a textbook, how to use its apparatus (index, glossary), its layout and format, and its illustrations and changes in font to help the reader determine what’s more or less important. How to annotate the book and take notes from it also presents challenges for many students. When I was working in tutoring centers, I’d see some students’ textbooks that didn’t have a mark on the pages, and other students who highlighted three-quarters of nearly every page.
Note-taking raises similar concerns. Does the student have an effective method: Is the notebook page spare, maybe peppered with disconnected bits of information, or is the page an overwhelming blast of script as the student tries feverishly to write down everything the instructor says? Laptops and tablet computers provide some technical enhancements for note-takers, but students still have to determine what matters, what’s subordinate, what topics go together.
There is also the issue of class requirements and norms, everything from plagiarism and absence and late policy to assignment due dates and understanding instructions. This all seems pretty straightforward, but it often isn’t: Legitimate confusion exists about what constitutes plagiarism, especially for international students or for students with minimal experience writing papers that draw on multiple sources. Students can seriously misjudge the amount of time a new kind of assignment will take. (I see this frequently in occupational classes. A day before an assignment is due in a fashion class, even the most adept of students are crazed with half-finished garments.)
Something more fundamental and heartbreaking to witness is the frequent mismatch between intellectual strategies students (including quite successful students) mastered in high school, and the requirements of a seemingly similar – if more advanced – course in college. I used to run a tutorial center at UCLA, and we would regularly encounter students from courses like general chemistry who would labor night after night, highlighter in hand, memorizing facts and formulas – and would then fail a test. The test required students to think through a problem and apply what they had learned to solve it. Demonstrating what they had memorized was suddenly not working.
Some students can be reluctant to ask questions, fearful of calling attention to themselves and appearing stupid. These worries can be more acute for those who already feel out of place. We teachers are fond of saying things like “there is no such thing as a stupid question.” But let’s face it: there are ways to phrase a question that sound smart and mask how little one knows. This is a powerful defensive skill that calls for rhetorical savvy and a sense of academic assurance, the kinds of things that come with a strong education.
A related issue is a reluctance to seek help. This reluctance can be rooted in pride and notions of self-reliance. It can stem from shyness or embarrassment. But something else can be at play: an unfamiliarity or lack of comfort with help-seeking behavior within institutions. Many students with privileged educational backgrounds are socialized from day one to seek out resources and engage members of institutions to help them attain their goals. This seems so much like second nature to most academics that we forget that it is a culturally influenced, learned behavior.
And finally, there is the complex web of issues involving students’ emotional history with school. Is it a history of success and achievement – school is a place where one found safety and affirmation – or is school a place where, more often than not, one felt awkward, unsure, not all that bright? Insecurity and anxiety can sit behind a whole host of counterproductive behaviors, from not turning in assignments to giving off big-time attitude. And in more than a few cases, the fear and hurt can be crippling.
Some of the above requires intervention beyond what the individual instructor can provide, especially given teaching loads that can rise to four to five courses per term. Then there is the fact that the majority of instructors are part-timers, piecing together a living by teaching at two or more institutions. Still there are things instructors can do to respond to student need. The suggestions that follow are drawn from the work of people currently in the classroom. They signal a recognition that teaching is more than transmitting a body of knowledge and set of skills, but also involves providing entry to the knowledge and skills and tricks of the trade necessary for fuller participation in learning.
Most instructors spend time at the beginning of their classes orienting students to the textbook and other instructional materials or computer-based augmentations, like class websites and e-portfolios. And given the continual digital divide, careful guidance with online aids is crucial, as is directing students to resources on campus where computers are available.
Some faculty go further and provide instruction on note-taking and on reading the textbook. When I was teaching introductory humanities classes in preparatory programs, I would distribute samples of good notes and not-so-good notes for a particular lesson to make concrete my discussion of note-taking. Learning and tutoring centers on many campuses offer workshops on study skills, note-taking, and the like, and at some schools, the centers are set up such that the staff can put on a workshop on textbook reading and note-taking for particular classes.
It is routine for instructors to go over the syllabus, class requirements, due dates, grading criteria, and so on. Students typically ask a lot of questions, so you’ve got your audience, providing you with the occasion to dig a little deeper. Explain plagiarism and provide a few examples. Talk about the time it typically takes to complete an assignment. (I saw a fashion instructor take out her daily planner and show her students the way she counts backward from an assignment due date to determine when she needs to begin a project.) And if the expectations for this class, based on your experience, are going to clash with the typical expectations your students bring with them from high school, start addressing the issue now. A speech teacher I met tells her class on the first day that, although they may have been allowed in high school to give a speech by reading it, that won’t work now. This is a pretty clear point.
But the example I gave earlier about students memorizing chemistry facts and formulas versus solving problems with them will require more careful and illustrated discussion. Let me underscore the illustrated part; examples here are key. I’ve seen math and science instructors demonstrate the difference between memorizing material and using that material in the service of understanding a problem and trying to solve it. It is also necessary to revisit all this – requirements, expectations – once the class is in full swing. The introductory remarks are crucial as orientation, but it all makes much more sense once students have the actual experience of course work.
Instructors routinely list and invite students to come to office hours (which can be harder to pull off if you’re teaching at three campuses), but some go a few steps further. They explain what office hours are, how they function, and why they’re useful. (One instructor explained that some of her students thought you needed to go for the full hour, and if you step back from the term “office hours” for a moment … well, that’s a reasonable interpretation if you’re unfamiliar with college life.) And some instructors schedule students into appointments, even if it’s just a 10- or 15-minute consultation – enough to open the pathway. Related to this office hours business, it’s not uncommon to establish a formal connection with a writing or tutoring center whereby instructors require students to get tutoring as part of their course work.
Seeking help and asking questions is such dicey territory. Students can be reluctant to speak up or ask for assistance for a wide range of reasons: shyness, fear of revealing ignorance, distaste for claiming the spotlight, cultural norms, codes of masculinity, and more. Students often rely on peers and form their own networks of assistance. That’s terrific, and students come to know a lot, everything from how to solve a particular problem to which instructors to avoid. But misinformation can circulate through such networks. And not to enlist faculty help, and especially not to become adept at doing it, is to wall oneself off from valuable intellectual resources – and social resources, as well, for it is often faculty who write letters of recommendation, know about scholarships, internships, and jobs, and can provide introduction to other faculty or student services staff.
Faculty can be hugely instrumental in encouraging and fostering help-seeking behavior. For starters they can discuss this issue directly, providing anecdotes from their own and their past students’ experience. If it fits their curriculum, they can even include a reading or writing assignment that addresses the issue. Instructors can ask students to see them and make the appointment on the spot. They can strike up informal conversations before and after class, in the hallway, bumping into a student on campus. A few minutes of conversation where a student feels recognized and acknowledged can have a big effect on someone who has felt like an academic non-person. “I was so surprised that she knew my name,” one student said of his history instructor, "and asked me how the class was going."
Central to these issues is the kind of atmosphere faculty create in their classrooms. This is not simply a question of personal style, persona, or the way one organizes a room – though they all can be factors. I’m talking about the sense students pick up from the way a teacher addresses them, responds to questions, deals with requests. The bottom line for students remains: Is this a safe place and do I feel respected? If so, students will be more willing to answer or ask a question, participate, take a chance. And in turn, students pick up on the way a teacher responds to them and tend to replicate it in their interactions with others. I witnessed a striking negative example of this pattern years ago when – to prepare to teach a creative writing class – I sat in on a workshop taught by a well-known local poet. We weren’t halfway through the first class, and he had diminished three participants into silence with haughty and snide comments about their work. By the next class, some had dropped, but the telling and disturbing thing is that by the third class those who remained interacted with each other in similarly nasty and unhelpful fashion. The best way to foster civil, thoughtful, intellectually rich discussion is to model it.
There’s genuine disagreement among teachers about my next point, but – again if the atmosphere is right – I’m a big believer in calling on students, particularly those who rarely talk. The idea here is not to put people on the hot seat or indulge in pedagogical gotcha, but to create a communal conversation and to assist reluctant participants to join in, to speak up. Group work can be useful here, for it provides a smaller, safer space to talk. Of course, there will be initial discomfort, but I’ve never seen it fail in many years of teaching that the reluctant student eventually begins to volunteer. The classroom is a miniature, temporary society, and I think it is part of our job to help students get comfortable thinking and speaking together in a public space.
To conduct good classroom discussion – especially discussion that includes everyone – the teacher has to listen closely, listen not only to what’s said but also to what might be intended but not fully articulated. Then the teacher can assist performance: “Say more, I think I see where you’re going.” “Don’t shut yourself off, you’ve got a good idea there.” “Ah, O.K., so let me say it back to you to see if I got it.” “I get it, but try this word, does this word help?” Listening closely also enables the teacher to make connections, bringing two students’ contributions together, sometimes statements made much earlier or on another day. And students – as would any of us – are impressed and feel validated that a teacher remembered what they said and deemed it worthy enough to put back into play.
All the above seems like a lot, but much of it can be accomplished with some adjustments to that first week or two of class, with a little more focus on getting students to office hours or tutorial centers, and with a greater emphasis on certain kinds of instructional interaction in class. More students coming to office hours will take up more time, but it will pay off in the quality of students’ work, which will make the instructor’s job more effective and efficient – and more enjoyable. By seeing the role of teacher as an initiator not only to subject matter but to college life, by making the hidden visible, by being systematic in getting students to office hours and tutoring centers, by striking up a casual conversation, by just talking straight about the tricks of the trade, teachers can end up making a big difference in someone’s life. Students spend more of their college time with faculty than with any other group on campus. And as my friend Deborah Harrington – who has spent her entire professional life in community colleges – is fond of saying, students succeed one class at a time. Four teachers made my own journey out of high school and through college possible. I truly could not have done it without them.
Coming in Part 2: Advice for colleges on how to train faculty to better teach nontraditional students.