Monday, April 6, 2009

Faculty Ignite Learning

A faculty member's responsibility: Ignite student learning

I've been teaching Mass Communication classes for more than a decade; the last three years full time. Faculty colleagues often talk about how hard it is to ignite a love or desire of learning in students. Journal articles and speakers describe similarities and differences in the classroom between Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, Millenials, etc.

I'm not sure generalizations can be applied to college students by age or generation. In my experience, it comes down to: a level of maturity (not necessarily age in years), the drive to succeed, self-confidence, and positive encouragement from a faculty member.

In nearly every class I have taught, a small percentage of students lead the class in quality of work, attention to detail, meeting deadlines, etc. These students speak up in class frequently, visit with me after class and show me their work in progress seeking input and constructive criticism. These students also help others in class if they are asked, providing peer evaluation with honesty and tact.

There's also nearly always a small percentage of students in each class that just go through the motions, filling a transcript requirement. These students skip class frequently, perform poorly on projects and exams, and do just enough to earn a passing grade. They almost never speak up in class, rarely participate in peer evaluation, and are likely to be either dozing during a lecture or laughing at their laptop computer screens (reading email or facebook).

In the middle are the students who don't have a lot of confidence, but who want to succeed and maybe are too shy or insecure to ask for help. They turn assignments in on time, but often don't apply text and lecture concepts in projects. This group has some absenteeism, but usually for understandable reasons: family emergencies, illness, car problems, etc.

To be fair, all students probably have the same kinds of difficulties. They get sick, have family crises or automobile break-downs. I just don't hear about them.

The top students don't make excuses. When difficulties arise in their lives, they find ways to deal with them and still excel in class. The bottom students miss class and deadlines and don't bother to explain themselves.

The professor's temptation is to spend more time and attention on students who excel, give limited attention to those in the middle and avoid or neglect those that lag behind. With a little rearranging of my effort, I find I can improve classroom performance overall. After the second or third week of a semester, I have a pretty good idea of where my students fit in my arbitrary three categories.

It may be unfair to label students and categorize them. Sometimes students surprise me and move from category to category. Nonetheless, it helps me to try to identify the students who need and deserve more of my time and attention.

I spend a little more time with bottom-dwellers, to see if I can find a way to ignite their desire to succeed. Once in awhile I make a connection and help a student move to a more active, productive role. More often than not, though, it is only the student who can realize their situation and make a decision to be more serious about their education.

The top students will usually forge ahead with or without extra attention from the professor. A few moments before or after class is enough to keep them moving.

It took awhile to realize this: spend more time with the students in the middle and help them realize their potential and move them to truly want to do good work. Sometimes I arrange an office meeting, and just listen to what they are thinking. I may ask about their career plans, and devise a plan to help move them toward their goals. Once they know someone cares about the quality of their work, they try harder. A well-timed kind word of encouragement can make a lot of difference to most students. It seems an oversimplification, but I cannot overestimate the power of sentences like, "I believe in you," or "I have high expectations for you," or "I know you will go far."

Maybe this idea has been studied and written about in education-pedagogy-curriculum journals. As a relatively new member of the faculty, I came from professional practice. I hold a doctorate degree but have never taken a course in classroom management or student motivation. I received help from my colleagues on text choices, syllabi, testing procedures, and the like, but had to find my own way developing my approach to building supportive, productive relationships with students.

A good portion of a faculty member's job is delivering class content and ensuring students receive that information. Perhaps as important is the faculty member's responsibility to manage the classroom environment, and help students to achieve at the highest level they can, or care to.

Many colleges and universities have a flame or light as part of their logo. This element refers to the perpetual flame of enlightenment or knowledge. Appropriately, the responsibility to ignite this flame and to keep it burning is a shared responsibility between the student and the faculty member. Both should take it seriously.

No comments:

Post a Comment