March 27, 2017

What Teachers Can Learn from Students

Category: Educational Practice
two pairs of shoes, one larger and one smaller

I remember being a college student. The problem with being a professor who remembers being a college student, is that we’re probably misremembering, or our experience is different from those of our current students.

Last week, I got to experience being in students’ shoes a little more than usual, and I found the experience particularly enlightening. I felt that being in closer or more intense contact with students for a couple of days and experiencing their lives helped me empathize with them more. This is very different from teaching them, because when I teach them, I see them as students, with clearly delineated roles; in these two cases below, I felt the lines were more blurred as I learned from and with them, respectively.

Students in a Workshop

I was giving a workshop on social media in the classroom, and a colleague, Kim Fox, sent three of her students to film the workshop and live-tweet it for an assignment. This has happened before, but for some odd reason, as I was giving the workshop, I realized I was giving an example of a class activity these students had experienced (in Kim’s class); it’s possible I made eye contact with one of the students and she nodded or spoke up or something. So, I asked one of them to elaborate. She did, and the workshop was immediately enriched, I felt. As the workshop progressed, I found it helpful to ask the students to share their views on social media use in their classes and they responded enthusiastically. We actually finished the workshop slightly earlier than planned, and we used that time to talk more in-depth with students about tools they use and how they would feel about teachers using the same tools or asking them to use other tools.

At the end of the workshop, I thanked them because I felt the workshop was so much better with their spontaneous selves there. This is different from bringing students to co-present with us, prepared to say something specific (often nervously). It was also great that there were three of them, not a single token student. I hope faculty present enjoyed it and found the student input beneficial also. Even though my colleague and I, who designed and facilitated the workshop, have experience using social media in our classes, nothing beats hearing the student perspective on it. So, I plan to, in future, actively seek opportunities like this one, to have students contribute to workshops in low stakes ways. We have done it occasionally, but it now feels like it’s almost necessary. I’m also thinking again of involving undergraduate students more at our teaching-related conferences, not in tokenizing ways, but in ways that benefit them and us and respect their agency.

Classroom Observations

I work mainly as a faculty developer, so I occasionally get requests to observe classes and I usually enjoy them. For the most part, I feel like a peer observing a peer. Last week, however, I had to do three such observations in a row, with only a short break in between, and I felt very much like I was a student again. I started wondering how students could possibly concentrate three classes in a row. This got me thinking, more than ever, how to make sure my class could engage students even when they’re tired. Granted, they are much younger than me, so their energy levels are different, as well as many other things. I enjoyed learning new things, and restrained myself from raising my hand to ask questions (this always happens to me when observing classes). But, I also thought of the parallel between conferences and classes, and how I also struggle to concentrate at conferences. I would not be the first person to suggest that we employ better ways to engage participants at conferences as well as students in our classes.

I remember a student once telling me she wanted to try an exercise where a faculty member would shadow a student or switch places with them for a day. I now think this could be both a good exercise for educators, and possibly a research exercise as well.

What Next?

In both cases, I was reminded of the simple pleasure of being around undergraduate students and I look forward to starting my teaching for the semester.

I am still reflecting on how best to transfer what I just learned to my practice as teacher and as faculty developer. I definitely feel like I should be doing more of both, and more teachers also should.

Banner image: “Little shoes” flickr photo by JanneHeinonen, shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license