Teaching Tip: The past is always with us.

This week’s principle from the Lifelong learning at Work and at Home website focuses on prior knowledge:

New information learned depends heavily upon prior knowledge and experience.

This principle stresses the importance of getting to know our students so we can help them learn more effectively.  From infancy onward, learning is based on building new mental connections that physically change brain structure.  Our brains are not built to remember unconnected facts; if material doesn’t relate to something else that is important to us, we forget.  Not only do we need prior experiences as an anchor, but the quality of our prior assumptions, conceptual knowledge and biases can all influence what we learn, for better or worse. Despite these well known findings, most of us do little to discover what our students already know (or think they know) about our disciplines. And yet, that prior knowledge may make or break their chances for success in our classes.

Why is prior knowledge so important?  Studies comparing novices and experts in a variety of fields suggest that prior knowledge is vital to the ability to access and use what we know. For example, chess experts are able to remember meaningful patterns of chess pieces much better than novices.  However, when asked to remember the positions of randomly placed pieces, experts performed no better than novices.  When the information was meaningful, the chess experts were able to “chunk” information (i.e. organize and classify it) much more efficiently than novices and then remember those larger chunks.  Instead of seeing a certain number of pieces on the board in certain places, experts see a classic opening move and relate that information to their extensive prior experience with opening moves.

How can we help students develop more effective knowledge structures within our disciplines?  Our strategies depend on the students’ current developmental level, both generally and in the context of specific disciplines.  In introductory courses, students generally have very limited ways of understanding and organizing knowledge.  But they do have life experiences, and these are important in making those first connections.  That’s why many skilled lower level instructors spend a lot of time helping students relate what they are learning to the world around them and their existing interests.  A student may not know much about biology, but she knows that everyone wants her to use hand sanitizer all winter.  From this simple observation, a series of questions naturally presents itself that can be used to build understanding.

In introductory courses we typically don’t find (or expect) students to show a sophisticated grasp of disciplinary concepts.  Unfortunately, we often find something more difficult to change: a mental framework that’s a bit dented or missing critical pieces. Misconceptions and incorrect information can distort and limit student learning, especially at the introductory level.  Unfortunately, since this incorrect information is also anchored in prior knowledge, it can be resistant to change.  Discovering common student misconceptions and designing experiences that challenge them is a critical part of building new levels of expertise.  Experiments, demonstrations, videos and other active methods that directly challenge student misconceptions are often the most powerful since they use multiple channels and can have more emotional impact than lecture or readings.  It takes a powerful stimulus to dislodge embedded rust.  However, experience is best when it is paired with explanations and principles to help students organize their new experiences effectively.  Or, as another of the core learning principles put it: Experience alone is a poor teaching. 

As students advance in the discipline, they begin to develop their own knowledge structures. In these upper level classes it’s important to find out what students already know so that you don’t try to build on knowledge that isn’t there.  Having a good understanding of prior knowledge can also help you advise students – someone with gaps that are just too large may need to take a pre-requisite course, while others may need to be referred for tutoring in specific areas.  Other students may be able to skip some topics, or take a more in-depth approach.  There are many ways to assess prior learning.  Some faculty members assess prior knowledge using pre-tests or writing assignments that identify strengths and weaknesses. A drawback of testing or writing assignments of course is the time it takes to read and analyze them, even though they are typically ungraded.  Asking students to draw a concept map of important content is a quick way to show you what students think is important and also gives you a picture of how they organize that information.  Another approach is the Knowledge survey.  This type of survey is often quite lengthy, but students are not actually asked to answer the questions as they would be on an exam.  Instead, they rate their level of knowledge of each concept or process on a three point scale from absolute certainty to complete ignorance.  These surveys can be scored electronically and they provide a quick snapshot of the class that can guide you to focus your time in class more productively.  Administering the same survey at the end of the course provides a check up on how effectively you were able to reach your goals; ideally you will see upward movement for the class as a whole and for individual students as well.

The importance of prior knowledge is also evident when we discuss transfer of learning. Many students can repeat information or use it in similar situations but, unlike experts, they may not recognize appropriate but unfamiliar applications of a concept or procedure.  The ability to recognize when and how prior information can be used in new settings is the key behind transfer of learning and also depends on how knowledge is structured in the brain. Direct instruction in relating features of the new environment or situation to the prior one can build a path to transfer, along with a lot of guided practice. Thus, presenting students with varying situations you may have to first cue the students to apply what they know, and then help them learn to recognize cues for themselves.

Above all, it’s important to realize that students’ prior knowledge and their methods for organizing it are very dissimilar from your own.  Not only did they grow up in a different world (just check the Beloit College Mindset if you doubt that) but they have not had the wealth of training and experience in your discipline that you do.  Many of us struggle with getting our minds back to that beginner stage so that we can think like students and anticipate where they need help.  If you’d like to develop that very important sense of empathy, take a challenging class in something completely new to you.  You’ll be amazed to discover how much you attempt to use your prior knowledge to anchor new material and how many misconceptions you may have!  Plus, you will experience both the frustration and the exhilaration of making progress.

Next up:  we will finish this series with the final principles of active learning, less is more and choosing what to forget.


Teaching Tip: Fire Management

I’ve been trying to put together a teaching tip for the past two weeks, but every time I think I might have time to do it, I get interrupted.  Students who need help, faculty who have a great idea to share, friends and family with important news.  How am I supposed to focus with all these interruptions?  And “just say no” is not an option – these are all GOOD interruptions; I want to be involved with all these things and people.  While searching through my emails for inspiration, I came across this Tom Robbins quote in an article by productivity guru David Allen:   “True stability results when presumed order and presumed disorder are balanced. A truly stable system expects the unexpected, is prepared to be disrupted, waits to be transformed.”  Wow, doesn’t that sound like an awesome state of being?  Allen offers up the fire department as an example of an organization that by its very nature has to achieve this kind of stability, since it must maintain order and organization but be able to drop everything immediately to perform its most important duty.   I think faculty are more like park rangers dealing with forest fires – a controlled burn is healthy for the ecosystem while both raging forest fires and complete fire suppression turn out to be unhealthy.

So, I’ve been trying to think about how we can maintain that true stability Robbins describes, or at least get closer to it.  In my personal quest, I’ve experimented with just about every type of productivity enhancing gimmick and gizmo out there.  Some work for me, some others may work for you.  If you want some specific ideas, I’m happy to share them.  But mostly what I come back to is an attitude adjustment – this IS our work.  Our job is to help students grow and develop as learners and as people.  We are the park rangers; balance is what we do.

So what are some ways that we can balance more effectively? In the classroom I find that pre-planning course activities very thoroughly and having backups for the times when the technology fails or an activity bombs gives me the confidence to try something new that might not work.  I know if the fire gets out of control, I have resources to bring it back under control.   But if I get too attached to my plan or my syllabus, then I don’t take advantage of those learning opportunities that arise unexpectedly, no spark gets lit, and my class becomes rigid, dull and overgrown with weeds.  Stopping, asking questions, listening closely to students and reading their nonverbal behaviors can tell you if they are lighting up or not.

Outside of class, maintaining a good balance between order and disorder for me means trying to find technology that makes my life easier, like using Gmail labels and stars, saving files in Dropbox so I can access them from anywhere, and using an online to do list (I use Toodledo, despite the stupid name).  It’s doing a regular “mind dump” of every single thing I am supposed to be working on and then identifying what actions need to be taken when.  It’s building in Friday afternoon reflection time to tie up the loose ends, update the list for next week, and then allowing myself some down time.  We all have different ways of maintaining balance. Some people only check their email at certain times each day.  Others prepare a week’s worth of food on the weekend and live on the leftovers.  None of these strategies always works but at least we’re acknowledging the issue and trying to figure it out.  The important part again, is not getting so rigidly organized that your life goes up in flames when a student or a colleague or a family member suddenly needs more time than you expected.  If you have systems in place, you can quickly figure out what’s most important and bookmark the rest so you can get back to it when the crisis is over.   And you can share your strategies with your students too, as you help them figure out how to structure and prepare for your course.

Sometimes though, the fire just gets out of control.  Then we often ignore, rationalize and intellectualize the situation to avoid that anxious feeling of being overwhelmed.  When students do this, we shake our heads in disbelief.  How could they not have anticipated this problem?  Didn’t they see the smoke? Then we go and do the same.   But most of them have a lot less life experience than most of us do, so why do we expect that they will know what to do?  What helps you when you’re in an overload situation?  Could that same strategy help your students?

So how is this post a “teaching tip”?  Good question.  As I write I think the message I’m getting from that big teaching tip generator in the sky is that we should have more compassion for ourselves AND our students as we juggle the demands of 21st century living.  Faculty and students alike try, succeed for awhile, get behind and then have to recover.  We hope it’s an upward spiral but it’s certainly a lifelong learning process. Could it be that one of the most important things we need to help our students learn is how to balance order and disorder in their lives? Especially for freshmen, helping students develop better life management skills is critical if they are to succeed in their classes, at the University and for life.  Some people will undoubtedly think that this should not be our problem.  Students should have learned this already, they shouldn’t need us to “hold their hands” or teach them things we learned on their own.  All I can say is – our students are where they are.  If this is what will help them learn more effectively, that’s what they need.  We have to deal with the fire in front of us, not the well-tended garden we think we ought to have.

According to Allen, “your ability to deal with surprise, elegantly and proactively, is your personal and organizational competitive edge. You just need to ensure that your systems can keep things under control from any angle, with appropriate distinctions between what’s movable and what’s not. Then turning on a dime is an effortless spin instead of a clumsy crash and burn.”

How did you develop life management skills yourself?  How can we help students develop theirs?

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?


Teaching Tip: Just Ask

What’s one of the best, quickest things you can do to improve your teaching?  Get formative feedback from your students BEFORE the semester is over.  I know that you already will be encouraging students to complete end-of-semester ratings forms, but those forms frequently don’t tell you what you want to know for several reasons.  Students may not complete them thoughtfully (or at all), they may interpret the items differently and the items themselves may be unclear.   If students don’t feel that your feedback helps them learn, what are they looking for that they aren’t getting?  The best way to find out is to ask your students for feedback now, while there’s still time to change things.

There are lots of ways to do this, from simple to complex.  The easiest way is to ask simple, open-ended questions.  But do NOT ask students what they liked and did not like about the course so far.  That’s an invitation for comments on everything from your clothing to the heat in the classroom.  Ask them what helped them learn the most and the least.  One approach I like is to ask students three questions:  1) what aspects of the course would you keep exactly as it is; 2) what would you keep but improve;  3) what would you toss?

A mid-semester evaluation doesn’t have to be that broad.  Perhaps you’d really like to know what students think of a particular assignment or reading or maybe you’ d like their feedback on a broad issue like class participation, group work  or the attendance policy.  Create a series of questions that will give you more in-depth understanding of just that aspect of your course.  You may also want to ask students to honestly (and anonymously) tell you how often they do the reading or how much time they spend out of class studying.  This information can help you better understand the rest of the feedback and it also may give you some insights into overall issues in the class.

In her book Inspired College Teaching, Maryellen Weimer points out that student end-of-course evaluations don’t really help students themselves – maybe future students will benefit, but not those filling out the forms right now. This fact, coupled with limited evidence that their evaluations actually result in change, makes students less motivated to complete evaluation forms.  But mid-semester assessment means that there’s still a chance for students to make a difference in ways that directly impact them.  If students are concerned about confidentiality, you can have the assessments administered by a student worker or colleague and collated by the office (the CTE can help with this if needed).  Or you can devise a survey that doesn’t require handwritten responses.

What do you do with the feedback once you get it?  Share it with students!  If they are dissatisfied with something that you cannot or will not change, you can at least explain why.  If you can make a change, students get to see that their opinions are valued, and the class develops a sense of collaboration.   According to Weimer, students also learn when you share and reflect on their feedback in class.  For example, if you get vague feedback (“that reading was bad”),   you can reflect out loud about how difficult it is to improve without more specific information – what made it bad?  Was it too long? Too difficult?  Students see the need to be more detailed and constructive.  Learning to give constructive criticism is like most other skills; it needs practice and feedback.  And if students know you are going to heed it, they will be more likely to deliver helpful responses.

Teaching Tip: Unprepared and at-risk

Today’s post is less of a “tip” and more of a look at one of the major issues we are all dealing with in our classrooms.  Unprepared and “at risk” students are on the rise across the country, in both graduate and undergraduate programs.  We might prefer to remember the students we used to have or imagine the students we think we should be getting, but the sooner we face reality, the sooner we can make a difference.

Kathleen Gabriel works with at-risk college students at the University of Arizona.  In her book Teaching Unprepared Students: Strategies for promoting success and retention in higher education, she identified five guiding principles for working with these at-risk students, but they can easily apply to all students.

  1. All students can become lifelong learners.  This is Gabriel’s fundamental principle, the basic belief that underlies all the others.  It sounds good, but what does this belief look like in practice?  It means focusing on effort, not ability and encouraging students to do the same.  It means challenging students’ beliefs that something is “too hard” and not letting them off the hook.  It means not looking the other way when students don’t complete assignments or complete them poorly.  It leads directly to Gabriel’s second principle….
  2. Significant change requires time and commitment from both students and professors.  We can’t continue to teach to the middle and expect less prepared students to get it on their own. And they can’t expect to be passively uninvolved.  If students are not willing to join us, that is their decision and their loss.  But if we decide not to join them, we don’t give them that chance. What does this mean in practice?  It means following up on absent students, holding frequent out of class meetings or chat sessions, assigning extra drafts of written work, giving more feedback and answering more questions.  It may mean requiring students to attend office hours!  This isn’t easy given the busy lives that we lead.  Which once again leads directly to Gabriel’s next principle…..
  3. Struggle is an important part of life; in fact, it’s required.  Once again, that struggle is both ours and our students.  Ours is to get to know students, to reach out to them, to look for new ways to intervene when the other ways don’t work.  Their struggle – to grasp the rope that is offered, to keep trying, to make change, not to avoid.  If students see us struggling to reach them, if they see that we think it’s worthwhile, just maybe they will begin to think it’s worthwhile too.  But it can’t be all on our side…..
  4. Students must take responsibility for their learning.  I don’t know a single faculty member who would disagree with this statement, but what does it mean and how do we get there?  Getting students to take responsibility for themselves and their learning is one of the major developmental tasks of college, and fewer freshmen seem ready to do so.  Sometimes just getting them to hand in work is a struggle.  Perhaps one place to start is to ask students to set goals for themselves, either for learning, class attendance and participation or even (ugh) grades.  Then check in with them to see if they are meeting their goals.  If they are struggling, you can help them plan new strategies.  This goal setting process is useful with students at all levels since the goals can be personalized.
  5. Don’t do for students what they can do for themselves.  There’s a concept in k-12 called “work inhibition”.  This term refers to students who are capable of doing work but are not doing it. I’m certain you’ve seen work inhibited students in your classes, I know I do.  One possible cause of work inhibition is adults (parents and/or teachers) who “help” students do tasks they can do themselves or otherwise get overly involved.    This sends the message that students are not capable or don’t need to do things for themselves.  When students come to us with this mindset, we need to understand that their ability to make independent choices and decision may be somewhat underdeveloped.  Practice making choices and setting up a work schedule will be needed before they can take charge of their own work.

So, it’s the end of the semester – is it too late to reach those at-risk students in your classes who are floundering?  For some, the boat may have sailed, and sunk.  But maybe you can help those students learn some important lessons from their failure.  For those students who still are trying — consider scheduling that extra office visit or taking time after class or via email to reach out even though a part of you may be thinking that this student really should have stepped up sooner.   They should have, it’s true.  They are learning and they make mistakes (sometimes quite colossal ones).  Maybe you will be the one who will make the difference, keep them going, give them the encouragement that they will remember next semester.   Not because you let them off the hook or watered things down or made it easy.  Because you showed them what they could do and what they needed to do and that you believed they could do it.

What’s your biggest frustration with at-risk students?  Are Gabriel’s principles helpful when thinking about at-risk students or are they just good ideas for working effectively with ALL students? Do we need to change how we teach or structure our curriculum or our programs to support the time and effort it takes to work with at-risk students?

The CTE has a copy of Gabriel’s book you are welcome to borrow.


Teaching Tip: Students who could be doing better

With about a month left before finals (!)  we all hope that  students are moving smoothly through our courses, mastering objectives, turning in excellent work and getting more and more engaged with our disciplines.  If all of your students are in this category, you are hereby requested to submit a blog post and let us know how you did it!  The rest of us, read on.

Take a look at your students.  Are some of them failing to master the course content even though they are trying?  What about students who are passively coming to class but not really doing anything else? Do some of them seem to be just going through the motions but putting in minimum effort?  Do yo have students who breeze through the course requirements with little difficulty, but also with little sense of engagement?  And, how many seem to be in the optimal learning zone – coming to class regularly, appearing to be engaged most of the time and turning in good quality work?

If many or most of your students are in the last category, that’s a good indicator that your approach is on target.  But, what about those students who aren’t “in the zone”?  Is there anything you can do, especially this late in the semester?

One way to look at all of these students is through the lens of motivation. Research suggests that humans are motivated by three factors:

  • Autonomy  — the urge to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery — the desire to get better and better at something that matters.
  • Purpose – the yearning to have our work mean something.

How do these factors play out in with students?

Trying but not succeeding: These students are motivated now, but their failure to achieve mastery has negative implications for their current success and even worse, their future motivation. If most of your students are in this category, you will want to look closely at your syllabus and class activities.   Are you expecting students to do something that they have never been taught to do?  Are you overestimating the skills that your students had when they entered the class?  Overestimation is particularly likely with regard to students’ reading and writing skills.  Many expert instructors also forget how much students don’t know about their discipline.  You don’t necessarily need to lower your expectations, but if the leap is too broad and there are no handholds, students will just fall into the pit.  So, if most of the class is struggling, providing more support during class and more structure outside of class can make it possible for students to rise to your expectations.  The feeling of mastery they earn will help them persevere in other challenging courses.  If you are at a loss for how to do this, please contact the CTE – we can help!

If there are just a few students in your class who are trying hard but struggling, you can meet their specific needs through strategies like referrals to the LRC, holding study groups during your office hours or other individual support.  You may notice patterns as you talk to your struggling students – maybe transfers are missing essential skills or there is some characteristic that successful students have that the struggling students need to acquire.  Finding these patterns can help you prevent the same problems from recurring.

Still in class but not producing: These “passively failing” students frustrate and confuse us. They come to class and may even participate but they don’t complete assignments. Sometimes they come in at the end of the semester begging for extra credit once they realize that they are in trouble.  Passively failing students all have their own reasons, but it can be helpful to think about the dimensions of motivation with them as well.  Often these students don’t understand the purpose of an assignment or a course (or a college education).  They may fear they cannot master the content (so why try?), or they may not feel any sense of control or participation in their learning.  They also may have personal or family issues that make them feel a lack of autonomy, mastery or purpose that then bleeds over into their academic life.

To reach passively failing students, you need to get their attention and then try to figure out what is going on with each of them.  A clear warning signal like a mid-term grade, a flag in Starfish or a note on a paper is a good place to start, followed by an individual meeting.  Once you have a better sense of what is going on, referrals to the Academic Success Center or the Counseling Center may be in order if there’s a serious problem that’s beyond your capability to address.  Sometimes however, these students respond to faculty interest and support.  For example,  first generation college students, who make up around 30% of our undergraduates,  may be struggling with purpose and mastery issues.  They have made the decision to attend college, but they have no role models for how to be a successful student or even a clear idea of why they are here.  They may be lacking essential social and academic skills that we take for granted in the college environment.  This is a time when some friendly, supportive conversation can help a student understand their purpose, believe that they can master your course and feel that they have some control over their academic careers and indeed, their lives.

Just good enough: Students (like faculty) are strategic.  We are all crunched for time and energy, and we all make decisions about how much effort to expend on a given project.  What do you spend most of your time on?  If you are like me, you finish the things you have to do (but don’t like) at a “good enough” level, to leave maximum time for the interesting stuff.  So, how can we get students to classify at least some of our class assignments as the “interesting stuff”?  Again, we come back to purpose, mastery and autonomy. Perhaps these students don’t understand the significance of your assignments and can’t relate them to any of their prior knowledge.  It’s not a waste of class time to discuss assignments thoroughly, especially those assignments whose point is not obvious to students.  Helping students understand how assignments help students achieve course objectives, develop as thinkers and problem solvers and prepare for more advanced work can heighten a sense of purpose and mastery. Or, perhaps students are not working harder because they don’t feel like they own their learning.   Giving students choices also helps them develop more of a sense of ownership and autonomy.

Breezing by: It’s tempting to ignore these students – they’re doing well and you have lots of other things to do. But these are solid students that we want to retain and if they are too bored and disengaged they are likely to go elsewhere.  And beyond that rather self-serving reason, I think we owe it to these students to support the development of their talents.  If you have quite a few “breezers”, it’s time to look at your expectations again, this time from the other end.  Maybe the entire class needs more challenge.  If you just have a few, you can use the ideas of mastery and autonomy to help challenge your top students.  Put several strong students together to work on a more challenging problem.  Consider allowing students to “test out” of a course segment, waiving lower level work that the student is clearly able to perform and substituting an independent project of their interest.

I know some instructors feel that motivating students is not their job, but I can’t agree.  If you can stimulate student curiosity and enthusiasm by enhancing their feelings of autonomy, mastery and purpose, you will be happier with your students’ accomplishments and they will be closer to being lifelong learners.   I guess the bottom line for me here is that really looking at your students’ performance, identifying patterns and digging a bit beyond the surface can help you target your energy where it will be most effective and has the potential to really change the trajectory of a significant number of students.

What are some of the other signs and patterns you look for in your classes?  What motivates your students?  What are you seeing that I’ve left out?


Teaching Tip #10: Classroom Conflict, Classroom Climate

You may have seen the YouTube video of the Milwaukee student who was forcibly removed from a classroom by campus security after a dispute with the professor about a test question that escalated into abusive language and refusal to leave the classroom when asked.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-KFA1U8iOw While it is unlikely that you will experience a situation as severe as this one, we all deal with disruptive classroom behaviors on a regular basis.  What do we know about minimizing these behaviors?

Recently, Weimer (2010) reported the results of a survey of college professors that examined both the types of disruptive behaviors they experienced in the classroom, and their own classroom behaviors (Myers, Bender, Hill & Thomas, 2006).   The survey results identified two types of disruptive behaviors:  inattentive (e.g. leaving early, arriving late, texting, talking in class) and hostile (e.g. challenging faculty decisions and authority, refusing to comply with faculty requests).   In contrast to earlier studies, the authors found no relationship between demographic variables such as faculty gender, experience, age or ethnicity with the type or incidence of disruptive behaviors.  What they did find were associations between teaching methods, classroom emotional climate and specific types of disruptive behavior.

Inattentive behavior was directly correlated with lecture methods, while active learning was inversely related to inattentiveness in this study.  This finding seems fairly obvious since students are less able to “hide” when they are required to participate actively in class.  Thus, if you are interested in reducing the amount of inattentive behavior in your classroom, consider using active learning techniques such as clickers, small group discussions, cooperative learning or case-based sessions regularly in your classes.  The study also suggested that asking students to help solve classroom behavior problems can be effective, but is not often used.   The CTE has a wide range of resources to help you develop and implement active learning techniques in your classes, and your disciplinary organizations and colleagues can provide a wealth of examples specific to your courses.

Hostile student behavior appeared to be related to the emotional climate of the classroom.  Faculty who expressed warm, caring and respectful attitudes toward students (or at least reported that they did) had the most success at minimizing and managing hostile incidents.  Faculty who did not use these methods reported higher levels of hostile conflict. Improving the emotional climate in your classroom is a very personal and individual matter since your comments and actions need to be grounded in your own personality and style in order to be authentic and believable.  If you do experience this type of conflict in your class more than occasionally, you may want to reflect on how you are coming across to students – do you seem disrespectful or brusque without meaning to?  Do students feel that you are “out to get them” even when you are not?  Or, do some students feel threatened or isolated in your classroom because they are different and don’t feel respected or included? Asking a trusted colleague to observe in your classroom might be helpful in identifying how students are misinterpreting your intent.  The CTE can arrange for classroom videotaping so you can see yourself in action and identify issues to work on, and can also conduct brief focus groups with students to get additional feedback.  Your colleagues also are a great source of suggestions for improving classroom climate. One thing you don’t need to do: changing grades or course requirements appeared to be counterproductive in this study, suggesting that you don’t need to be a “pushover” to manage hostile students successfully.

It’s important to point out that even the best instructors encounter students with serious issues who are going to be disruptive in class, regardless of the instructor’s positive actions and good intentions.  However, we can all be more aware of how the structure and tone of our classrooms influence student behavior.  Interestingly, Myers, Bender Hill & Thomas report that 61% of the faculty in the survey reported ignoring disruptive behaviors; this strategy resulted in poorer outcomes.  So, before you decide that nothing can be done about student behaviors, check in with your colleagues and try some new approaches.

What are you doing in your classes that you think contributes to positive student behaviors and prevents disruption?    What situations do you have the most difficulty managing?

Weimer’s summary:

Weimer, M.E.  (2010). Conditions associated with classroom conflict.  Faculty Focus, January 29.


Original study:

Meyers, S.A., Bender, J., Hill, E.K., and Thomas, S.Y. (2006). How do faculty experience and respond to classroom conflict? International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 18 (3), 180–187. http://www.isetl.org/ijtlhe/pdf/IJTLHE115.pdf