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Elementary Lessons for College Teaching

College teaching tips from the K-12 classroom.

November 21, 2019
 
 

Jordan McNeill is a doctoral student in special education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow her on Twitter at @jordanmcneill89.

What makes a great teacher? Is it their passion for the subject? An engaging teaching style? A personal connection? For many of us, conjuring an image of a favorite teacher from the past takes us back to our early days in elementary school. We remember a teacher who made a difference in our lives and whose impact has lasted. But why shouldn’t college professors be just as memorable and meaningful? Having taught both elementary schoolers and college students, I’ve decided that there’s a lot that we as higher education instructors can learn from our elementary counterparts.

Get to Know Your Students

The best elementary educators are experts on their students. They get to know their families, they spend their evenings at students’ soccer games and they find ways to relate their content back to their students’ interests. Having older students shouldn’t make college instructors any less inclined to know them as people. Make a point of learning all of your students’ names as quickly as possible. Use a “getting to know you” survey to have students share their interests, their experiences and their goals for the class. Allow them to share the things that are important to them with you and their peers. In a smaller seminar course, spend time on individual introductions and continue to build community through collaborative activities. Even in an asynchronous online class, you can have students introduce themselves using a narrated PowerPoint or video. In larger classes, vary your activities to allow students to work in pairs or groups that change often and incorporate a brief icebreaker activity. No one likes to feel like a nameless face in the crowd, so spend the time building connections and you’ll likely see a change in students’ motivation, effort and engagement.

Build Background Knowledge

Let’s think back to kindergarten. You start a whole new school, with new people, from all different backgrounds. Sounds a lot like the first year of college, right? Kindergarten teachers have the challenge of meeting a huge range of needs depending on students’ experiences at home, in the community and with (or without) preschool. (Kindergarten teachers are real superheroes, if you weren’t aware.) But the college students who enter your classes also come from a range of backgrounds. Some may know the ins and outs of navigating the institution of higher education, but first-generation college students may not have such an advantage. Some may enter your chemistry lab after having had access to multiple Advanced Placement science classes in high school, but others may have only had the basics. Some may have written higher-level critical papers in other classes, but others may never have moved beyond more simplistic summaries. All of this is not to say it’s your job to build the entire foundation. However, the best instructors are mindful of their students’ starting points and offer resources as appropriate. You may suggest institutional supports, like a writing center, tutoring or departmental workshops, or provide optional readings or activities that can build content knowledge. Establishing a baseline of background knowledge and skills for all of your students will improve their learning and support success.

Set Clear Expectations

You’d be hard-pressed to find an elementary classroom without some form of posted rules and expectations on the wall. Kids need to know what’s expected and what the boundaries are. Again, college students really aren’t so different. Developing reasonable and enforceable norms at the beginning of a semester can save you headaches later on. The nature of these norms will vary by situation, but you may want to consider your communication policy (How can students schedule a meeting with you? How quickly will you respond to emails?), class participation (Is it graded? If so, how? Can students use laptops, phones or other technology?), and assignments (What is the late policy? How are points determined?). For grading in particular, developing clear rubrics that define expectations for written products or other types of projects is invaluable for avoiding misunderstandings and challenges to grades. Your syllabus is a road map to your class, so make it clear and complete and take the time to review it (or assign a syllabus scavenger hunt!) early on.

Keep It Active!

Some of the most impactful learning experiences I remember from elementary school include a fourth-grade wax museum when we all dressed up as figures from history, the chicks we hatched and observed in first grade, and a fifth-grade math problem-solving tournament. News flash: we don’t turn 18 and suddenly start learning best from a droning professor in a suit reading paragraphs of text off a PowerPoint. We need to see things, hear things and do things. We need to work individually and in groups. We need to explain, question, illustrate, synthesize and sometimes even perform. Although the myth of learning styles persists, none of us learns in only one way, so create a universally designed classroom everyone can access. Engage your students in active learning that goes beyond listening to a lecture and taking a test and instead challenges them to experience and apply the content. There are plenty of strategies to choose from -- I refuse to believe any content or any class size must be fully dependent on instructor lectures.

Be Reflective and Responsive

As an elementary school teacher, I often felt that I was learning more than my students. Every day, I learned from what went well and what fell apart. It should be no different as college instructors. Keep your plan for a semester flexible and make adjustments if something isn’t working. Maybe you need to spend more time on the basics than you had imagined, or maybe your students have a particular interest that you can integrate. Gathering informal feedback from students through periodic check-ins and continually reflecting upon your practice will make you a better, more responsive, teacher.

Have you had an exceptional college instructor? Shout them out in the comments!

[Image courtesy of Element 5 Digital on Unsplash]

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