In higher education, we often think about how we can improve our teaching and learning. If you are like me, you wrestle with this question after a well-prepared lecture does not go as expected, or as you are trying to make sense of your student evaluations, or as a new semester is about to begin. Oftentimes, the answers are not easy or obvious. We may seek out colleagues or experts in our teaching centers, but rarely do these discussions of better teaching include students. Why is this? The people who could most assist us fill our classrooms, but we rarely ask for their thoughts and ideas. When we do, it is for a fleeting ten minutes at the end of a course when we ask them to complete the student evaluations. Even then, we do not hear what they have to say. Instead, sometime later, we try to decipher what they have written in the “suggestions for improvement” box. Then it’s easy to misinterpret their feedback and attribute any criticism as their need to vent their frustrations about the course.
Decades of research on learning styles have resulted in widespread familiarity with the concept. Ask most students what kind of learners they are and they will often answer with a learning style descriptor—visual, verbal, kinesthetic, auditory, converger. Many will tell you they know because they’ve taken a learning style inventory. However, some students think that their learning style preference is not just the best way they learn, it’s the only way they can learn. For instance, a student recently told a colleague of mine that he needed something other than the course texts because he was a visual learner and couldn’t learn by reading.
Online discussion has become another strategy faculty use to engage students with each other and with course content. This method offers a safer way for students to participate, as they are able to prepare responses ahead of time and deliver them in writing. But online discussion tends to lack spontaneity. The exchanges are linear and do not reflect the give and take of a face-to-face conversation. Some research evidence is emerging (referenced in the article highlighted here) that students aren’t all that enamored with online discussion. Only 7.9 percent agreed that “online discussion should be a part of college courses” (p. 85), and they reported that online discussions were not helping them learn.
“At a superficial level, everyone ‘knows’ what mentoring is. But closer examination indicates [such wide variation . . .] that the concept is devalued, because everyone is using it loosely, without precision, and it may become a short-term fad” (p. 3). That observation was made in 1981, and although it’s clear by now that mentoring is not a fad, loose thinking about what it is continues. In this well-referenced, well-organized, and thoughtful analysis of mentoring, Elizabeth McKinsey cites reviews of the literature on mentoring that offer as many as 50 different definitions. She opts for a simple description: “To mentor . . . is to provide wise advice and instruction” (p. 2).
My college recently acquired access to tens of thousands of new journals and books via the online databases. The idealists among us would expect droves of students to have raced from their Xboxes and their vehicles to begin sifting through the over a million new pages now awaiting their keyword searches. But alas, no great spike in database access manifested in the online traffic logs. It would seem that access to gigantic bodies of information does not generate much enthusiasm or curiosity in the hearts of students. The idealists among us blink in the harsh light of this realization and wonder: how can we can get students through the library portal and into the uncharted wilds of interesting new knowledge? One possible answer is for teachers to share with students what they love about libraries.
Most teachers don’t list grading as one of their favorite parts of teaching. If you’re conscientious about it, it’s a hard, time-consuming task. Dishearteningly, efforts to provide students with quality feedback aren’t always appreciated, or at least they don’t appear to be.
Procrastination is a widespread problem among students—and, in reality, a fairly widespread problem across North America. But with students, it’s a behavior that compromises learning in a number of different ways. Students end up not having enough time to deeply interact with the material, so they learn it less well. They end up submitting assignments that aren’t their best work, which encourages satisfaction with lower goals and less accomplishment. Students also become convinced that they don’t need to get started early because they do their best work under pressure, but that’s not true for most learners.