Learning From Students

Why it’s important to listen to students.

April 13, 2021

We need to do a better job of listening to our students’ voices.

We certainly do when administrators’ jobs are on the line: whenever students stage a protest, occupy a campus building or circulate a petition.

Otherwise, not so much.

Most colleges and universities do attempt to gauge student opinion, whether through course evaluations, focus groups, exit surveys or NSSE, the National Survey of Student Engagement.

But I’ve never seen an institution act on this information in a serious, sustained or systematic way.

And yet the information can be remarkably revealing. But only if you act on the findings.

For example, if you want to improve your teaching, you ought to listen to your students. Don’t wait until the end-of-semester student teaching evaluation. Monitor their opinions now.

I count myself among the faculty members who regularly survey their students. Certainly, such surveys reveal the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in action: any attempt to measure a phenomenon inevitably distorts that phenomenon.

Still, more information is better than none.

The most valuable insights grow out of questions about teaching and learning. Here are three questions I’ve asked, which I then follow with discussion.

1. I learn best …
a. when a professor lectures.
b. when I study by myself.
c. when I work on a project with classmates.
d. when I work on a research project by myself.

2. A high-quality educational experience consists of …
a. a polished, knowledgeable, well-organized presentation by an instructor.
b. a lecture accompanied by demonstrations and student questions.
c. class discussion or lab work.
d. inquiry, problem solving and other activities in class.

3. Which of the following statements about teaching strikes you as most accurate?
a. Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theater.
b. Telling isn’t teaching; learning requires students to do something.
c. The best education is not given to students; it is drawn out of them. It’s more about posing questions than giving answers. It is the art of assisting discovery.
d. The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.

The discussion sparked by these questions helps students understand that teaching is a construct that can take radically different forms -- and that lecturing is only one of many ways to learn. But the discussion is also valuable for me: about how students want to be treated with respect, their needs and arguments listened and responded to actively, and perspectives valued and taken seriously.

For faculty interested in educational innovation, polling can be eye-opening, but also sobering.

You are likely to discover that many students have no idea what good teaching looks like. You might also learn, to your dismay, that a significant subset of students prefers lectures, loathes team-based learning or regards class attendance as a waste of time.

At the same time, you will likely find that many want courses that address topics that they find relevant and that address real-world problems and assignments that offer flexibility in format.

Despite a careerist orientation, many crave courses that ponder serious intellectual and moral questions and that discuss theory -- which is not something they experienced in high school.

If the surveys are truly anonymous, you might be taken aback by how few students complete the class reading and how many collaborate with classmates on outside-of-class assignments.

You might also learn that many, perhaps most, feel that professors’ standards of evaluation are unclear and that they very rarely receive feedback that they find constructive.

On the other hand, you might not be surprised to learn that many rely on study strategies known to be ineffective, like highlighting text, reading and rereading a text or notes, or studying a single subject or topic for a prolonged period of time, and how few use evidence-based study techniques, like self-quizzing, spaced practice, interleaving, paraphrasing and retrieval practice, or how a small a number understand the impact of mind-set on learning.

However much we might improve teaching and learning by listening to students, it is equally important to understand their experience of college as a whole.

Student surveys and focus groups can help a campus gauge the level of student satisfaction and their sense of belonging and connection. Surveys also offer opportunities to compare your students’ attitudes with those at peer institutions. You can identify problematic areas, such as students’ sense of belonging or the frequency of interaction with faculty, or access to experiential learning opportunities.

Here’s some things that I’ve learned. Many students feel that:

1. College involves jumping through a series of hoops.
2. College isn’t really about learning. It’s about meeting requirements and passing tests.
3. The relationship between professors and students is, in general, remote.

Some findings were pretty predictable. Many students want:

  • a voice
  • more flexibility
  • more hands-on learning opportunities
  • fewer requirements
  • classes that are not narrowly focused

Many hunger for an academic experience that differs dramatically from high school (and by that, they don’t mean large lectures!). STEM students want to be in the lab from day one. Engineering students want to make things.

At residential campuses, they’re told by administrators -- with a wink and a nod -- that their real learning will take place outside the classroom. This conveys a very unfortunate message: don’t be surprised if most of your classes will be boring and useless; if you want to undergo meaningful experiences, you’ll find those in extracurriculars, sports, internships and incubators and maker spaces -- not in the classroom.

In fact, our campuses abound with data about student attitudes. Regrettably, there’s no sense of what to do with it.

We often take it for granted that we know what students want. Pre-pandemic, ed-tech entrepreneurs repeatedly claimed that our students, as digital natives, wanted to learn online.

What we have since discovered is that most undergraduates have little desire to learn online all the time. Instead, they want recorded lectures for reference or greater flexibility when they must miss class. Many want to be able to take less essential classes, including gen ed courses, online.

If we’ve learned anything from the shift to remote learning, it is that a quality undergraduate education is, first and foremost, a human-to-human experience. Even when it is digital, its essence lies in human interaction: what William Deresiewicz calls “brain sex.”

Technology can enhance or detract from that interchange. At its best, it can make the learning experience more immersive, collaborative, active and personalized.

Even if we could upload information directly into students’ brains, that would not really be education, which requires skills to be practiced and information to be processed, explicated, analyzed and interpreted.

Ask your students what they want, and what I think you’ll hear, once you get passed the clichés about credentials, marketable skills, training, career preparation, is a genuine education: the ability to see, listen, read, think and understand in fresh ways; fluency with realms of culture, history, society and science that they’ve never encountered; and acquisition of a worldliness, sophistication and urbanity that they had previously lacked.

It’s past time to give them what they want.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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