Put yourself in their shoes

Earlier this semester I was in a webinar about a project I was already pretty familiar with. I had participated in a similar program a few years ago and had done some reading in advance. I was excited to learn more about the program and sat down with the best of intentions.

Ten minutes in, I was completely lost. There were acronyms, complex questions, nuances, and personal histories I was completely unfamiliar with. I was so lost, I got bored. I made sure my webcam was not on and pointed my browser to espn.com to familiarize myself with the 49ers 49ers depth chart. 35 minutes later the webinar had ended and I had gained almost nothing. I started to do some catch-up reading to see if I could be less lost the next time there was a webinar, and then something occurred to me, I was a novice learner again.

This is the experience many students have in our classes. They are well intentioned, ambitious, interested in the subject matter, and overwhelmed by what we are talking about. The content seems obvious to us, key concepts jump off the page and are elaborated with ease for us, but not for them.

This process does not have to remain a mystery. There are several things you can do in and out of class to transition your class from novice learner status.

  1. Provide them with a preview of one or two main concepts from a class period, then reference them, then repeat them at the end. The goal is not memorization, it is providing them with a framework for understanding.
  2. Check in with them during class. Break up an activity or a lecture to re-center a conversation on a framework you find useful.
  3. Engage in perspective taking. Imagine (with help from them) encountering the material for the first time, what would you think?

A little outside reading never hurt. Check out “The Journey to High Level Performance: Using Knowledge on the Novice-Expert Trajectory to Enhance Higher Education Teaching” by Moore, O’Neil, & Barrett from The Changing Roles and Identities of Teachers and Learners in Higher Education as a good topic primer.

Just remember, every change comes with a cost. With increased attention on the course material, how will your students keep up on the 49ers?


Get your students engaged

This tip is brought to you from our partners in the Office of Civic Engagement.
If you are interested in learning more, check out the discussion led by Ellie Ertle at the CELT Conference at 2pm on Friday the 9th. While you are thinking about, be sure to register for the conference!

“In the end, higher education should be devoted not just to the spread of knowledge but to the pursuit of virtuous action. It should have an impact on how students make the important choices that shape their lives.” – Thomas Ehrlich, Civic and Moral Learning

What did you see on your way to work this morning? Perhaps on your drive you struggled with traffic as high school students crossed a busy intersection, chico bridge crossed the bridge on campus and saw the dry creek bed or saw someone sleeping in Children’s Park. As faculty, we are fortunate to live and work in a beautiful place that, like communities everywhere, has wonderful assets along with real problems to address. Fortunately, Chico State brings a bounty of intellectual resources and people-power that can be channeled to positively impact our community while expanding student learning.

Simply put, civic engagement is about connecting students with real problems and opportunities in the community and world in which they live. Chico State faculty have a rich history of helping students be solutionaries – whether it is working with community leaders to address local issues, teaching lessons in schools, or engaging students in service learning projects. In doing so, we create space for students to learn more about themselves as well as about how they can use their unique talents to impact the world for the better.

Chico State values civic engagement and education for the public good. It may seem intimidating, but there are resources on campus to facilitate these opportunities for your courses. The Office of Civic Engagement (OCE) can help you incorporate civic engagement into your curriculum in a way that works for you, your class and your students. Visit OCE’s website for more information or email us at oce@csuchico.edu.


Front-load Engagement

One of the great things about the structure of university life is that we get this opportunity for a do-over every semester. So we can let go of last semester’s slag—the student presentations that disappointed us, the papers so full of words and so void of meaning, the brilliant class discussions that never quite got off the ground—and focus instead on the fresh faces before us. To reduce the likelihood of May regret, consider front-loading the semester with some tools that are shown to improve student success.

Front-load engagement.  Invite students to think about the big picture of your course by asking a big question to get conversation started.  James Lang’s wonderful On Course (Harvard University Press, 2008, 33) offers three examples:

  1. In Art History: Describe for me one work of visual art that has really impressed or interested you; what made it stand out for you?
  2. In Philosophy 101: What makes a person ethical?
  3. In Human Biology: What fields or careers do you think depend heavily on an understanding of human biology?

Your own responses to these kinds of questions offer a chance for students to see your passion for the field, which has been known to be contagious.

Frontload high expectations. Setting the bar high is critical for real student learning. This is done not only by making clear statements about rigorous course requirements and classroom accountability, but also by making it clear that we believe students can learn, meeting them where they are now, and giving them the tools to keep climbing.  (This is an insight at the heart of current conversations around “mindset” and “grit” in education.)

Frontload support. You know that you are there in office hours to help with any course-related issue, and that you are not a scary person. Students may not know this, especially if they are new to college. I’ve heard great ideas about how instructors promote office hour visits—requiring a mandatory shared cup of tea; offering a suggested script for what they might want to ask; assigning them to come in pairs to diffuse the anxiety; creating a simple course task that must be done in person—pick your ploy.  Just by getting the student into your office, you have established a connection on which he or she is more likely to draw when the going gets tough.

And it’s not all on you.  Our university has a great range of support services that we could surely do more to promote. Post on your Blackboard site and remind students frequently about all the resources relevant to your course, starting with the free tutoring that is available in the Student Learning Center.

*Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.