College students face daunting challenges. Keeping up with coursework, dealing with financial concerns and balancing school and work all weigh heavily on today’s students. And as students navigate all aspects of higher education, they don’t need answers from us. They need guidance.
For years, people have suggested that a faculty member should no longer be a “sage on the stage,” simply lecturing students, but rather a “guide on the side,” engaging them more in their educational process. But, today, the idea of being a guide to students has become far more important than it’s ever been in the past.
Why? Because the amount of information and content available to learners is extraordinary and only continues to grow. Although some quality-control checks by faculty members are necessary, students can on their own easily find information shared by experts in videos, books, webpages and numerous other forms. Endless content resources are available for learning new things, including whole courses from reputable and accredited institutions via the internet. Add to the mix generative artificial intelligence like ChatGPT, and other advances in technology, and our students no longer come to college to get access to information they couldn’t obtain before. All that calls for a shift in the ways we think about the learning experiences faculty provide and how best to support students’ success.
As a faculty member at the Duke University School of Medicine, I worked closely with students to help them obtain their goals—such as performing well on all of their course deliverables and high-stakes certification exams, which are usually a requirement in the health professions. Providing learning consultations to students was one of my faculty roles, and since the start of the pandemic, I’ve spent more than 300 hours working one-on-one with students.
Those hours of listening and asking questions allowed me to learn more about how we can support students more effectively and help them become better at directing their own learning along the way. And I’ve found that thinking about the faculty role through the lens of an expert guide can be a helpful analogy.
An expert guide goes beyond creating the itinerary (course schedule) and determining tickets and reservations (syllabus things: textbooks, articles, objectives, standards). When many people take trips, they ask expert guides to tailor an itinerary to meet their wants and needs. Those experts point out things the travelers may never have noticed in places they didn’t realize existed, delivering experiences at optimal times and sometimes saving them time and money.
Similarly, our students are looking to us to expertly guide them through the enormous amount of content they’re bombarded with today. In most cases, they don’t have the time to explore it all on their own and achieve the learning outcomes they need over both the short and long haul.
The Higher Education Journey
When students begin their journey in higher education, some already know where they want to be at the end, while others are uncertain about where they want to go. Similarly, if we think about different pieces of higher education as maps, each degree program has a map outlining degree requirements, and each course has a syllabus that maps out the objectives, schedules and other relevant curriculum and evaluation information for students.
Faculty members already help students navigate those maps, and in the past, many of our students were experiencing favorable weather conditions on their journey—such as family support, financial stability, safe housing and food security, to name a few. Students were also more often considered in good health both mentally and physically. Today, however, many more of them are facing harsh conditions on their journeys in terms of both the number and severity of those conditions.
As a result, more students are looking to faculty members for more guidance. Faculty members can provide such guidance while still allowing learners to experience challenges, a balanced approach that can lead to better long-term student retention. The expert tour guide doesn’t want their travelers to miss out on getting the best experiences. So just as they might advise a tourist to visit one specific attraction over another because the latter isn’t nearly as interesting as its advertisements suggest, we don’t want our students to miss the things we really want them to know because they spent too much time studying things that aren’t as important. Differentiating between what’s important or unimportant and relevant or irrelevant is difficult when everything is new.
To be clear, we do want students to explore and experience more than the minimum. This isn’t eliminating exploration and academic struggles—it’s helping students thrive in an information-overload environment.
“Will this be on the test?” How many times have you heard that question? When students ask this question, it can be easy to think they are trying to get out of doing work. But what students are actually asking for is guidance on which things are the most important. Sure, we want students to learn more than just the things that will be on the test, but they need guidance on what they really need to know and to what extent. Saying they need to know it all is not only unhelpful but also unrealistic.
With the information overload all around us, identifying the essential things has become more difficult for our students; they aren’t able to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory. This is where students can use some direction. Faculty can help students focus on the most relevant material as well as the extent to which they need to be able to apply that information.
So the next time a student asks, “Will this be on the test?” use the opportunity to be the insightful guide they need. Don’t just give students a map and a schedule. Bring them to places that they may never get to with just a map. Help them recognize when something seems out of the ordinary, because, remember, they are still learning what ordinary is.
The Biggest Takeaways and Why
What are some specific ways you can help guide students in your classes? Focusing on the key ideas and highlights from a class session, for example, helps students reflect and synthesize what they were just exposed to during the lesson, lecture or activity. You can add this into your teaching routine by asking students what their main takeaways are at the end of each lesson. After giving them some time to reflect and think about what you just taught, have students share some of their takeaways. Then share what you consider the main takeaways.
You should also ask students why they think certain content is most important. Helping students identify the why helps reorganize the information into a cognitive structure. Similarly, when you share your reasoning behind how you determined what things are the most important, it will help students to start making those determinations themselves. This scaffolding process provides support for making connections between the content and meaningfulness of the information. As students start developing ways to identify what’s important, or where to go to learn to learn what’s important, it increases the likelihood that they’ll be able to do that when confronting challenges in the future in an unstructured environment—aka the real world—as self-directed learners.
To further help you apply the concept of a guide to your teaching, I’ve developed the following chart.
|Expert Travel Guide||Expert Faculty Guide|
|Creates an itinerary to meet your needs and wants.||Brings a level of specificity to the course topics, objectives and outcomes.|
|Points out things you may never have noticed on your own.||Points out the most important things students need to know.|
|Takes you places you would never know about.||Recommends the best resources that students may not have found on their own.|
|Knows the best hours to visit attractions, when prices are best, which places you can skip and which things you don’t want to miss.||Shares and uses the best strategies —mental models, special techniques and mnemonics, among others—to help students remember and use the content.|
|Offers a depth of experience and knowledge that no guidebook or audio guide can come close to providing, in places that are exceptionally rich in historical or cultural significance.||Provides perspective and insight that students can’t go read on Reddit, hear on YouTube or find other places.|
In general, remember that just as a tour guide is your personal connection in a foreign country, you as a faculty member are a contact for students in a new territory—and, in fact, for some students, their first connection to this new world. First-time college students, first-generation students and many others often feel that being in a classroom is like being in a foreign country.
Students are long on information and short on time. They chose your institution and program because they knew they would get an expert like you for their instructor. Sharing your expertise, experience and wisdom in addition to the standard curricular and instructional requirements will give students more support for learning.
That does not mean you must be available to them all the time for all their educational needs. Rather, it means helping them find the best routes and overcome challenges along the way so they can make it to their destination in better shape. Reframing the way that we teach our students can make their journey less treacherous and, ultimately, promote their success in both college and life.