Teachers learn from students at ISCLTweet
With 13 student volunteers leading the way, the largest group of registrants ever for an Institute for Student-Centered Learning (ISCL) workshop met on Jan. 22. More than 70 faculty registered for the half-day session, which was conceptualized, coordinated and facilitated by the students.
Participants were divided into three groups, spending about 30 minutes discussing each of three topics: professor approachability, different types of courses (lecture, online, discussion) and evaluations.
After some welcomes and introductions, the students kicked things off with a video of Binghamton University students completing the statement: “I want a professor who is…”
“…inspired, unique, enthusiastic, realistic, knowledgeable, fair and understanding, connects with students, friendly and approachable, challenges me, thinks outside of the box, open to student input, fun and jumps up and down, teaches us and talks to us, calm and easy going, follows the golden rule, who teaches me about the subject but also about how it matters in life…”
Students and faculty touched on a number of topics in the evaluation sessions, some concerning students evaluating teaching and some about preparing students for exams that evaluate their learning. Many comments simply focused on keeping students engaged in class to improve learning outcomes.
Using BlackBoard to survey students on teaching effectiveness works well, said Dora Polachek of romance languages. “It’s anonymous, so all you know is who has responded, but not the individual responses because it’s aggregated so it’s anonymous.”
Posting PowerPoints and notes on BlackBoard to help students works for some disciplines, but not for others. “I find that the only thing somebody is going to feed back to me on an exam is what is on BlackBoard, whether or not it was covered in class,” said Peter Knuepfer, of geological sciences and environmental studies. “People aren’t necessarily taking notes, and from my point of view that’s a frustration. It does provide an opportunity to review, but I have that opposite feeling as well.”
“There has to be a happy medium,” said Arie Rennert, a biochemistry major.
Thomas Kelly, professor of management, may have found it. “I put my PowerPoints on BlackBoard before the semester starts,” said Kelly, “but I don’t make them chock full of facts and figures. I use key words and concepts and often the questions we engage with in class. Often, part of the answer is shaped by class discussion. And students say they like that. I know this process can’t be replicated in all courses, but it can be in some.”
Jacqueline Berks, an accounting major, commented on one teacher who used BlackBoard, but other tools as well. “I have one teacher who didn’t have great attendance, so he used videos and some things that students couldn’t see on BlackBoard to improve attendance.”
With Don Blake, interim director of the Center for Learning and Teaching, noting that large lectures can be the most challenging for the students least able to cope, “what are some techniques an instructor can use for that new student?” The discussion quickly morphed into one about maintaining a good classroom environment and how laptops and cell phones change that environment.
“One lecture hall class I took, students had to sit closer to the professor in a certain section if they had a laptop,” said Seth Awotwi, an English major.
“I’ve had teachers who would threaten that GAs would walk in and see what we have on our laptop,” said Rennert. “It’s a distraction to students if others are using laptops.”
“So why don’t students police this?” asked Dickinson Faculty Master Jeff Barker, of geological sciences and environmental studies. “It’s got to be peer pressure.”
Whether it’s a laptop or a cell phone, it was agreed that it boils down to setting rules and using common sense. “Students respect you [the faculty] more if you do something about it,” said Berks. “You gain their respect.”
Approachability is a huge factor in how successful a teacher can be, students told participants in another session. Several students related “bad teaching stories,” before pointing out examples of what they consider exceptional teaching.
“In a large class, one professor offered extra discussion hours when there was a test,” said politics, philosophy and law major Bryan Delacruz. “And what goes along on most occasions when a professor is great, so is the TA, and that relationship is very important because they are an extension of the professor. When there was complex material, the professor would allow interjections and comments and find a way to catch up later and never compromised the materials.”
In a small class with a new instructor, Delacruz found that “many times the professor could see when students were not engaged so he understood and found a way to be enthusiastic even when students weren’t. Plus, he met with students before and after every assessment.”
All students appreciate knowing faculty expectations, said Leanne DeLosh, a senior psychology major interested in student affairs administration. “Everyone is in their own world so I always appreciate it that faculty say, ‘I am your professor for this, but I also do this and this. It not only adds a personal touch, but it can trigger an interest of mine to talk about.
“Likewise,” she said, “not assuming that students are skipping class and going out partying, but are also involved in other things, organizations, etc. That recognition both ways can go a long way.”
Communication with students when a “life happens situation” occurs is important to students as well. “I was extremely sick last semester, in the hospital on bed rest for a week,” said DeLosh. “Some professors e-mailed me back and said ‘this is how we will approach this,’ while others said, ‘Oh, we’ll figure it out, and at end of semester I was almost stuck because I didn’t know how I would make up the work I had missed.”
The solution? “You can say, ‘come see me when you’re better,’” said Nadia Rubaii, of public administration.
Vincent Dao, an accounting and finance major, spoke of a great professor who “invited us to one-on-one meetings during office hours and it was about us, to get to know us, our likes, dislikes, what we wanted out of class, what about after graduation. It set the tone for class.”
“What about those one-on-one meetings as a forced thing so they can see coming to office hours can be positive and not scary?” asked Rubaii.
“It’s good if you’re open and flexible, and don’t do it often,” said Dao. “Maybe once in the beginning and once at the end of the semester.” 1
“Once you do it, it’s not so scary,” said Rubaii.
Other comments from students:
• Have a good attitude.
• Sarcasm doesn’t count. Hide the emotion and really process it before you direct attitude to students.
• Funny is good. Use your sense of humor.
• Find a way to explain difficult concepts from a different/student perspective.
• Go over difficult content if students are struggling in class.
• Ask for feedback. Good professors do, bad ones don’t.
• Be available for office hours/appointments.
• Lay out your expectations on the first day of class, not just in your syllabus.
• If you post to BlackBoard, make sure it sends an e-mail as well and tell students you will post/e-mail ahead of time so they’re looking for it.
After wrapping up the sessions, students facilitated a question-and-answer period with participants. “I definitely think that as much as the professors are hearing from students, the students are learning as well,” said DeLosh, who coordinated the student effort for the workshop. “Specific things that we don’t think of—we forget they play multiple roles and they’re not just professors, faculty masters, committee members. They’re involved with other organizations on campus and they have their own lives. Also that to be approachable, we could find commonalities because people tend to reach out to people they have things in common with.”