While research faculty may be able to operate independently of students as creators of new knowledge, for the vast majority of us in higher education, our purpose is to play a part in developing the next generation of biologists, anthropologists, mathematicians, exercise physiologists, etc. The development of our students is absolutely central to our mission as academics. Why then don't they figure more deliberately in the planning process?
I believe that we should consider our students from multiple angles in our planning process. In this post, I offer ideas on how we might consider where students are in their programs, the common misconceptions and challenges they typically encounter in our courses/disciplines, and the defining characteristics they bring to the classroom.
Who are you and why are you here?
I vividly remember my experience as an undergraduate student at the University of Notre Dame in a class called Basics of Film. As a history major, I was interested in the course primarily as an elective that sounded interesting to me. It was my first time taking a course as an elective that was a program requirement for another major. It was a rude awakening. While interesting to me, in identifying thematic and technical elements of silent films from the 20's, I quickly realized I was out of my depth. I was much more familiar with Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese than I was Akira Kurosawa or Federico Fellini.
If you teach 100 or 200 level courses, you're likely to encounter students like me in your courses. We may be interested, but we won't likely bring the same level of commitment to the course than a major in your program. That's not to say that these students can't contribute in powerful ways to the classroom community. When we recognize this continuum of commitment, though, we can ensure that elements of the course will appeal to the range of students in our courses. We can differentiate the content in a variety of ways to ensure that the majors are properly challenged without overwhelming the "dabblers" or "searchers" that often comprise a significant proportion of our classes.
Based on my experience...
Once you've taught a particular class a few times, it can be fairly easy to identify the course topics, concepts or skills that most students tend to struggle with. We can also begin to predict the common misconceptions that students bring with them to class. While all students are different, it's been my experience that the general "pain points" in a class are pretty predictable from one group of students to the next.
So, knowing this, what do you do about it? If you can identify at least some of these issues in advance, you have the opportunity to confront them proactively and with gusto. For example, if you know that students have difficulty grasping a particular concept as presented in the course textbook, it can be helpful to have ready a brief video clip, animation or simulation to illustrate the point in a different way. Similarly, if you know that a particular skill you plan to teach requires considerable repetition on the part of the students, you can build this practice into the syllabus. While you probably can't anticipate all the areas where your students will struggle, for each one that you can prepare in advance for, the better off you and your students will be.
Students here are typically...
I've been teaching at the College of William & Mary for the last ten years. It didn't take me that long to begin to understand a general profile of the students here. While all the students are clearly individuals, with their own unique experiences, traditions, and challenges, I have certainly come to understand a bit about our undergraduate population. From my perspective at least, William & Mary students are high achievers, both in the classroom and through a number of intensive extra-curricular activities. They care. A lot. The Tribe produces an inordinate number of students who pursue opportunities in the Peace Corps, Teach for America, service trips over Spring break, etc. They are engaged globally with more than half the students studying abroad at least once. They seek out opportunities for both faculty- and self-directed research opportunities. Based on the knowledge of my students, I draw on these characteristics to engage them in the learning. I try to bring in social justice and ethical dimensions of the concepts we explore. I also attempt to bring in more global research into courses and examples from teachers in other countries.
At different institutions, this profile may look different. When you get to know your students and understand their passions, responsibilities, and challenges, the more you can leverage the positive elements and mitigate some of the challenges in their learning.
How do you leverage your knowledge of your students in planning a course?
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