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Even though my focus is on writing, one of my valued sources of thought-provoking insights about teaching is a math professor, Robert Talbert, who works at Grand Valley State University and writes and speaks often about his work in experimenting with his pedagogy. Last week on Twitter he said something straightforward and simple that hit me as undeniably true. He was previewing a talk he was going to deliver and shared his main lesson:

“To have any success as an instructor you must actually talk with your students. There’s no shortcut for this.”

He followed up with a second tweet.

“You can [do] all the ‘right’ things that the research, workshops, etc. tell you to do, but if you don’t engage in actual two-way communication with students, and listen to what they say, it’s probably going to end up just as noise.”

Amen. End of blog post.

Not really end of blog post, because since reading Talbert’s tweets, I’ve been thinking about how many times I’ve experienced this truth over the years.

One of the more frustrating parts of the public discourse in the aftermath of the New York Times story on the organic chemistry course gone awry that everyone but your uncle weighed in on, including yours truly (twice!), is all the assumptions about what underpinned student behavior.

I’ve been guilty of making assumptions about students lots of times in my career, including an incident that happened 15 years ago, that I wrote about six years ago, and which still occasionally haunts me because my failure of empathy compounded a student’s grief.

Many of the things I’ve learned from talking to students have seemed small in the moment but turned out to have profound effects long term.

In 2004, I asked a student at Virginia Tech about her source of profound test anxiety, and she told me about the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) program, which the student had to retake twice in order to pass and graduate, despite the fact that she was salutatorian of her high school class. It was my first insight into the way standardized tests could interfere with students’ attitudes toward school.

In another incident, in the “soft-opening” period[1] before a first-year writing at College of Charleston, I asked students to “tell me something you don’t understand about college,” and one student said, “OAKS,” the local name of our learning management system. This was at least a month into the fall semester, and that student said that they were failing their biology quizzes because they couldn’t figure out how to access them in the system and had received a string of zeroes.

I asked the student why they hadn’t asked for help. They shrugged and said, “I figured it was something I was supposed to know already.”

On the one hand, I was a little taken aback that a student would be so passive in the face of this kind of problem, but I’ve stopped being surprised at the myriad of ways that college can be opaque to students.

At least half the class had similar, though not quite as consequential, issues with the interface. I started including a tutorial on how to use the learning management system in the very first class period.

My experiments in ungrading ended up being significantly guided by student input to the point where we were having deep discussions on the philosophical underpinnings of various grading schemes as an entire class.

A pair of questions that I’ve been asking for a long time to every class I teach is 1. Why are you in college? And 2. Why are you in this class?

I promise you knowing the answers to these questions is quite useful in understand what motivates (or demotivates students). Knowing that 99 percent of your students say the only reason they’re taking your class is because it’s required may shape your pedagogical approach. It has shaped mine, anyway.

Talbert’s part about actually listening to students is the key. If we assume that students are the people most invested in their own learning—and why should we believe otherwise?—why wouldn’t we treat them as authorities on their own lives and experiences? What better data could we hope for about the impact of our courses, our curricula, our colleges?

There is a weird dance that seems to happen, and was well in evidence during the NYU organic chem kerfuffle, where we claim to desire that students practice agency over their own lives and educations, but when things like student protest (see: Yale, Halloween) or the student petition at NYU happen, there is a significant number of folks both inside and outside the academy who want students to just shut up.

Student silence and compliance are often more comfortable and comforting for those who are invested in and benefit from the status quo, but it is truly anti-learning, which is supposed to be what all this stuff is about.

Listening to students does not mean “giving in to students” or treating students as customers.

It’s a step toward fostering engagement and engendering responsibility. If we say we are listening, students are more likely to speak.

We just have to be ready to absorb some things we might not want to hear.

[1] This is the period a few minutes before and a few minutes into the start of class, where I will play music and engage students in idle chitchat so that when we get down to more structured business, the transition is a natural segue where we’re all already engaged with each other. Pretty sure I got this from James Lang’s Small Teaching.