We want students that are better prepared, more motivated, have better character, and outstanding work ethic. However, in conversations with faculty members, we often report that students don’t seem as prepared as they used to be. We can’t go back and change what they experienced in high school or change their level of ability or aptitude. Although we could lament their lack of character and work ethic, this won’t help us be effective teachers in the classroom. The students in our classrooms have wonderful characteristics we just need to know how to work with their talents and strengths. They are curious and technology savvy. They value friendships and connections with the people around them. We need to work with them now and help them build on their strengths to become the best they can be for a productive future. Let’s use the classroom to help them build the skills and character traits that they may have yet to develop by building on what they already possess.
I found the article Teaching Strategies that Help Students Learn written by Sara Coffman in the August-September issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter very useful in providing some pointers to that effect. Here are some of my favorites on her list.
Coffman recommends to pay special attention to the syllabus, especially the tone of it. The tone of your syllabus can either motivate or de-motivate students. I experienced with this in my own classroom and some of my research has examined this issue. The tone you use on the first day of class and your syllabus influences students’ perceptions of the positivity of the learning climate and the extent they will be motivated from day one.
If students don’t master an assignment the first time, give them constructive feedback and then give them a chance to re-do the assignment. I really like this advice, which I frequently use myself, because for one thing it shows students that you value the mastery of the material. You don’t have to use this strategy for every assignment, but giving this option to students at least some of the time, allows them the opportunity to build on their successes, improve their performance, and reach higher standards in the end.
The First Week
If you have a small class, Coffman says, set up interviews with students so you get to know them and they begin to build a relationship with you. I have heard Dr. Jim Moyer, Provost Fellow, talk about using this technique with his students. If your class is large, use email to establish a connection with students. Working on the connection with students early on in the semester will pay great dividends when the demands of the course increase toward mid-semester. If you’ve build a connection with students, they will be more likely to come see you and ask for help and feedback when they encounter difficulties later in the semester.
Talk to students about your expectations and give them tips on how to study for your course. Talk about the importance of studying and reviewing the material on a regular basis, not only a couple of days before the test. Providing study tips to students and taking class time to discuss possible exam questions and strategies to help them study successfully, is not about spoon feeding the material to them, but it’s about modeling good study habits.
Techniques for Teaching
Coffman suggests you start class with something that will grab the students’ attention. I frequently use this one myself. I capitalize on students’ curiosity and attempt to draw on it as much as I can to get the students involved with the course material. I’m always on the lookout for pieces of information that would interest students and that I can connect to course material.
Allow students to see how you solve a problem when you get stuck. Take risks in class by asking questions you don’t have the answers to and let the students see how you go about trying to find a solution. Even better, do it with them! This allows the students to see that you also encounter challenges and when faced with those difficulties, you don’t quit, you work through the problem.
Coffman recommends you help the students form into study groups prior to the first exam. I would actually recommend doing it before every exam. If you provide a study guide to them, allow them to turn in the completed study guide for extra credit points.
This is also one I use in my own classes. As Coffman suggests, I go over the first exam in details in class. I spend time talking about the questions most often missed and I encourage the students to explain why they picked a certain answers. I also provide my perspective and the discussion is always very productive. In some instances, I end up accepting an alternative option. I also allow students to justify why the picked a certain answer. Even if the answer is wrong, but the students provide a good rationale for their answers, I assign half a point in these instances.
Coffman also recommends asking students to write a self-assessment of their perceptions of the exam and their performance. When I ask the students to do this, I ask them to write about whether the exam was as they expected, whether they did better or worse than expected, what they are going to do differently before the next exam, and what preparation strategy helped them the most for this exam.
There are other simple strategies discussed in the article. Pick your favorite and try it in your class this semester!