Teaching Tip: End of Semester Stories

Students can be so annoying at this time of the semester.  They wait too long to come in for help or they avoid us and hope that somehow we will fail to notice their failing grades, their absences from class, their disengagement.  Then they come in to see you, desperately hoping for a miracle.  They are, in the words of one of my students “feeling uneasy” when alarm bells should have been sounding for weeks.

I’ve spent the last day at an advising conference, which has prompted me to concentrate on the advisory role we play with students.  Whether or not they are your official advisees, giving feedback, support, suggestions and difficult doses of reality is an inescapable part of the faculty role.  How do we respond to these students appropriately, especially when we’re annoyed by their behavior?

Peter Hagen from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey  provided one perspective on this issue during his presentation on the role of narrative, metaphor and hermaneutics in advising.  While the following thoughts were inspired by his presentation, they are undoubtedly filtered through my own interpretations and certainly capture only a portion of his argument.

Narrative – every student has a story.  (So does everybody else, for that matter – we are a story-telling species.)  Sometimes we think we’ve heard them all, fiction and non-fiction alike. But how do we interpret this story?  How does the student see the arc of their life and experiences?  Is theirs a success story?  Or is it a story of redemption, overcoming odds to succeed at last?  Or a story of contamination where a good story inevitably goes bad?  Understanding how the student sees him or herself can help us understand what they expect, and how they may interpret and structure situations so that what they expect comes true.  If the student’s story shows them as members of a group to whom loyalty is more important than individual success, how will that affect their performance in your class?  Do they see themselves as agents or as buffeted helplessly by external forces?  Instead of brushing off those crazy stories, what if we tried to dig deeper and find the conflicts between their personal narratives and the norms and expectations of higher education?  What implicit assumptions do student stories contain and how can we go about making them explicit and confronting them?  This is not to excuse students from meeting the requirements of our programs, but to help them understand how their stories both help and hinder them in achieving their goals.

Metaphor – what is your metaphor for teaching?  What is your students’ metaphor for learning?  Do they expect learning to be hydraulic — you pour knowledge into their brains and they leak it out all over their final exam? (And then it’s gone!)  Do they think of courses as boxes that are unconnected to each other or to real life?  How can we shift metaphors that limit student and faculty understanding of learning, teaching and education into others that offer new meaning?  What if thought of teaching as more akin to coaching? What if student’s metaphors shifted too?  Could that affect their understanding of their responsibility for learning?  How would it change our understanding of good teaching?

Hermaneutics – how can we learn to “read” students – what is the real meaning behind their actions?  Instead of throwing up our hands at the lame excuses, can we look beneath the surface to see what is really going on?  I think this is related to both the stories they tell themselves (and us) and the metaphors that shape their thinking.  Think of the student who turns in work late, or not at all.  What is their action saying?  Is it “I know I can’t live up to expectations so I’m not going to risk failure.”  Or “I have never had to be responsible for myself before and I don’t know how to do it.”  Perhaps “My other responsibilities (or desires) are more important than my commitment to myself and my learning.”  Or even “I don’t think rules really apply to me, because they haven’t in the past.”  We can apply the same sanction to each of those students.  But will we have asked those students to really question their beliefs and assumptions, evaluated their choices and learned from them?

For some people, I am sure that this emphasis on looking beneath the surface of student behaviors sounds dangerously like counseling.  Perhaps I’m showing my own disciplinary bias here, but I believe that if we really want to educate the whole person, we need to see the whole person.

So, just what you want to hear at the end of the semester.  It’s much easier to just give an extension (or not), assign a grade and move on.  Digging deeper takes more time and effort. But pick one or two students, maybe the ones that really bug you.  See if you can see them from a different perspective.  At the very least, you may be less annoyed with them.  At best, you will make a difference in their lives.  Isn’t that why we are here?



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