Yesterday I got an email from a faculty member who had just received her spring semester student ratings (yes, in August, but that’s a topic for another post). She’d gotten one of those blistering student comments. “This teacher should not be paid. We had to teach ourselves in this course.” I remember another faculty member telling me about similar feedback, which was followed later with a comment about how the course “really made me think.”
So, the criticism is one of those backhanded compliments. The teacher is making students figure out things for themselves. They are doing the hard, messy work of learning. This is a style of teaching that promotes learning, but that’s not how students see it. Based on experiences in lots of other classrooms, they have come to believe that “good” teachers tell students what they need to know. If a teacher makes the students come up with examples when she has a perfectly good list she could be giving them, that teacher is not doing her job. My friend and colleague Larry Spence wrote about this same issue in April, 2004 issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter. “They expect a steady progression along a learning curve, which coincides with the amount of time they spend in classes. … Everything else — their personal struggles to master knowledge and skills in sports, software, games, or music they take to be ‘teaching yourself’ and an inferior way of learning.”
In addition to violating expectations, students respond negatively to this style of teaching because most of them want learning to be easy. When they have to come up with examples, answers, or solutions, that’s more work than being told by the teacher, and there’s the added stress of not knowing whether the examples are good, the answers are right, or the solutions correct. When learning isn’t easy, a lot of students question their intellectual wherewithal, but that’s not a problem they have to face if the fault lies with the teacher.
Getting students to understand what we are doing and why starts by recognizing that what’s obvious to us isn’t obvious to them. When I took an introductory chemistry course with a group of beginning students, the instructor used an approach in the lab that drove us nuts. He refused to answer questions. If you asked him a question, he responded by asking you a question. The students (and me, for a while) thought he was being obstinate, or trying something he thought was clever. Then one day when the solution in our beaker changed color and started boiling like mad even though the Bunsen burner was set as low as it would go, he cruised over, sniffed our solution and asked us a question. Thinking the liquid might be about to explode, we shut down the Bunsen burner and started talking about what we thought was happening. After some discussion, we figured out what was going on with our experiment. It was then that somebody pointed out that we had just answered the question the instructor asked us 15 minutes ago.
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How will this be learn?
This is an excellent question. You actually can learn better ways of learning -- click on some of the related questions for more information, too!
Ways to improve your learning skills:
- Pay attention! The more observant you are about the world around you, the more you will notice and learn.
- Ask questions! People who are curious and ask a lot of questions learn more than people who are afraid to ask anything. Ask all sorts of questions, too -- how does it work, what does it do, where did it come from, what is it's name -- any question will help you learn more information.
- Practice! Learn …