What College Students Need
An Occasional Column by Anthony D. Fredericks
What College Students Need
In numerous studies, several factors have been identified that have a significant and permanent impact on how well undergraduate students learn. This body of research has focused on identifying the expectations students bring to the college class and the ways in which professors can respond to those needs while teaching the necessary course content. I like to call these “The Big Four.” Let’s take a look at each one briefly:
- Comprehensible Presentations
As professors and practitioners, we are passionate about our subjects. We are steeped in the concepts, philosophies and terminology of our respective professions. But, students are not! Here are a few ideas to help students understand some of the complex concepts we need to present:
- Begin each class with one of the following: “What is one question you have about today’s reading assignment?” “What is one question you have not found the answer to?” “What is one question that excites you right now?”
- Always provide opportunities for students to share and discuss course concepts in small group sessions. Learning occurs best when students have opportunities to talk about the implications of course content as well as their understanding of those concepts. Focused in-class assignments and projects are critical to their understanding.
- Always link new material to previously learned material. New information should always be tied to prior material learned in the course; information learned in previous (prerequisite) courses; and, especially, the “real-life” experiences of students outside the course.
- Practice the following: “This seems to be a challenging or difficult piece of information. How can I help you understand it?” Don’t assume that students will tell you when they don’t understand something. One of the best motivational devices at your disposal is to anticipate their intellectual discomfort and to be pro-active in responding to it.
- A Supportive and Engaging Classroom Environment
One of the most valuable ways we can promote a supportive classroom environment is through the feedback we provide both in and out of class. Students want to see a direct connection between any effort or completed task (such as reading a textbook chapter or completing a midterm exam) and a response from you. Here are some suggestions:
- Make feedback immediate. (“I’m returning the test you took in the last class.”)
- Always frame your feedback in positive language. (“Wow, it looks like we’re really on a ‘roll’ today with quantum theory!”)
- Allow students to revise their incorrect responses. (“I’m not sure that’s a sufficient response. Is there another way we could explain this?”)
- Always make eye-to-eye contact in asking a question as well as when giving feedback. Let each student know that she or he has your complete and total attention. (“Sandy, I see that you’re a little unsure about some of the philosophical influences on the American system of education. What can I do to clarify?”)
- Allow students to control some feedback. (“How do you feel about your effort on the titration experiment?”)
- Always comment on students’ answers and always use part of a student’s answer in your response. (“Let me see if I can rephrase that. What you’re saying is that the League of Nations was doomed from the very beginning – right?”) [Note: This tip is so important that it should get five stars -«««««]
In any verbal engagement with students, don’t just accept a student’s response to a question. Rather, prompt their thinking through one or more of the following:
- Always provide a reaction to a student’s verbal contribution (“I like your interpretation of [the author’s] main thesis.”).
- Always relate a student’s comment back to the text (“Your summary of this article seems to concentrate on the author’s last two points.”).
- Always use a student’s words in framing a response (“You said that you thought that the author was ‘less than honest, less than candid’ in his summary. Please elaborate.”).
- Always turn a student’s response into one or more higher level questions (“Given your position on this issue, how could we use that information to interpret [another author’s] thesis?”)
- Approachability and Respect
Repeatedly, in study after study, college students report that the “availability,” “openness,” and “mutual respect” of the instructor was a critical factor in how well they learned a subject and how well they retained that information long after the course was over. Students’ self-esteem and learning potential are significantly diminished whenever they are treated like “second-class citizens” without a voice or an identity.
Here are some suggestions that will help you address this principle:
- Get to know each student by name. Conversations with students reveal that they feel more comfortable with and positive about a class when the professor takes time to learn (and use) students’ names.
- Demonstrate that you care about students’ enrollment, attendance, and participation in the class. This can be as simple as a friendly greeting to an entire class as you enter the classroom or asking to see random students after class to thank them for their contributions or progress on an assignment.
- Remove yourself from the “teacher role” every so often. Allow students to see you as something other than just a professor. I did this by sharing relevant anecdotes or stories about myself or my family periodically throughout the semester. I also share some of my foibles, mistakes, or learning challenges to let students know that I am certainly less than perfect.
- Always demonstrate respect for your students. Never put them down; never be disrespectful of their culture, religion, sexual orientation, beliefs or opinions; and never make a joke at their expense.
- Enthusiasm for Teaching; Enthusiasm for the Subject
A significant body of research has demonstrated that an instructor’s enthusiasm is a crucial factor in college students’ motivation and eventual success – irrespective of the discipline or difficulty of material. Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind:
- Don’t turn the semester into a non-stop series of lectures. For each class consider an assembly of teaching options such as small group discussions, case studies, demonstrations, technological presentations, guest speakers, debates, role playing, brainstorming and simulations.
- Frequently tell students about some of the exciting reading you’re doing, presentations you’ve seen, or influential articles/books. Occasionally inject some of your passion and enthusiasm into the course.
- Periodically share some of your teaching philosophy with students. Why did you become an adjunct professor? What have you learned as an instructor? What has been your most interesting teaching experience?
Here’s a three-pronged approach that gives you the opportunity to exercise your enthusiasm within a class and throughout a course.
- Enthusiasm for the text (“Now, here’s a really interesting statement for you!”).
- Enthusiasm for student responses (“Congratulations. You really ‘nailed it’ with that response!”).
- Enthusiasm for what you are saying (“I think this is one of the most exciting ideas we’ve studied so far! Let me tell you why.”).
Good courses (and the teachers who teach them) come from a recognition of, and a respect for, student wants. Being aware of the expectations of your students and integrating those expectations into the dynamics of a course can result in an educational experience that endures long after the semester is over.
Dr. Anthony D. Fredericks is Professor Emeritus of Education at York College of Pennsylvania (and a former adjunct professor). He is an award-winning author of 175+ books, including The Adjunct Professor’s Complete Guide to Teaching College.
To see more books by Dr. Anthony D. Fredericks or others published by Blue River Press, go to our Book Shop. If you have any questions, you can contact us here or call us at 317-352-8200.
Designing a College Course
An Occasional Column by Anthony D. Fredericks
Designing a College Course
As a new professor, you may want to include everything about your discipline in your course, but realize that you have a limited amount of time or limited resources to do so. Designing a college course also means designing specific (manageable) goals and outcomes that give you and your students both direction and accomplishment. The result can be a learning adventure full of great memories. Let’s take a look.
There are two critical questions that confront every college teacher – whether novice or experienced. Your response to these two queries will determine, in large measure, the success you enjoy as an adjunct professor and the academic success students will enjoy in your courses. They are crucial in the design of every effective course – from introductory freshmen courses to graduate seminars. They are:
|‘What will I teach?”||Goals||These are the ideas, principles, concepts, or questions that you want to include in a course or that you want to teach. They are the end products of a course.|
|“What will students learn?”||Outcomes||Outcomes are what students will learn as a result of their exposure to those course goals. They are the skills that students develop throughout a course.|
One of the classic errors many adjunct professors make is that they tend to concentrate on the first question almost to the exclusion of the second question. That is to say, they spend a lot of time planning what they will teach in their courses, but insufficient time on what they plan to have students learn in those courses. Many adjunct professors, particularly those fresh from graduate school, have all the latest theories, statistics, research, and content about a particular discipline. They often spend an inordinate amount of time trying to “fit” that content into the parameters of a fifteen-week semester. Little thought is given to the “learnings” they want students to have at the conclusion of that course.
Reframing the Questions
One of the ways to begin designing your courses is to reframe the questions above. Instead of asking yourself, “What will I teach?” consider these two modifications:
- What do students need to know?
- What will they be able to do with that knowledge?
This reframing of the initial questions provides you with two critical focal points. It helps you zero in on the necessary content in concert with the utility of the content in students’ lives. If your sole goal is to have students memorize the content (the traditional approach) then you are eliminating a critical component of the teaching/learning paradigm. That is, what do you want them to do with their newfound knowledge? In short, teaching is about changing – changing students’ minds, changing their perceptions and outlooks, and changing their interpretations of the world. Giving them knowledge is one thing; giving them opportunities to use that knowledge is the sine qua non of a good college course.
Before you write a course syllabus, give some thought to constructing a course introduction (frequently the initial paragraph in many course syllabi). By focusing on the goals and outcomes of a course in your course introduction you will be able to address the two critical elements of any subject – what will you teach, what will they learn? Everything else in the course can stem from the answers to these two initial queries.
Let’s say you’re designing a course entitled “Survey of the Music Industry.” Now, here’s a course chock full of information and details! Potential topics include: career planning, creative careers, producing/directing, performing, teaching, songwriting, music publishing, copyright registration, sources of royalty income, performance rights, music licensing, the role of unions, music associations, arts administration, talent agencies, and artistic management. That’s a lot of stuff for one course! How do you get it all in? My suggestion – don’t try to.
In trying to “fit” all that information into a single course you will have a tendency to ignore or eliminate student outcomes for the sake of (or at the expense of) all your planned goals. Here’s a sequence of activities that will help you respond to the two critical questions above (while also maintaining your sanity):
- Make a list of all the goals, concepts, or principles that are part of the course. These can be obtained from your own experiences, a planned course textbook, suggestions from colleagues, or research. You can begin drafting your list of goals by providing answers to some of the following self-directed queries:
- What is important for students to know?
- What topics interest me the most?
- What concepts should I emphasize?
- What is the main idea of this course?
2. Identify the three most critical goals. These should be more general than specific. For example, “The mental processes and structures that compose the human cognitive system” rather than “The retrieval of memory.”
3. Make a list of all the outcomes you want for your students. You can begin drafting your list of outcomes by providing answers to some of the following self-directed queries:
- What do I want students to be able to do by the end of the course?
- What new skills will students have after this course?
- How will students’ thinking be changed by this course?
- What student perceptions or misperceptions do I want to challenge?
4. Select the two most critical outcomes. Be sure these are framed in terms of what students will be able to do with the information you provide them. For example, “Students will be able to use standard methods of solving ordinary differential equations and apply them to physics.”
5. Design a one-paragraph introduction to the course which incorporates the three goals and two outcomes. You may wish to direct this introduction to students (“By the end of the course, you will be able to….”) or you may wish to keep it impersonal (“This course is an introduction to the principles of ….”). Make this introduction the opening paragraph of your course syllabus.
You may argue that three goals and two outcomes are insufficient for your subject or course. I realize that most courses involve an overwhelming plethora of principles, concepts, factual information, and issues. But, the key here, especially in initial course design, is simplicity. It’s also to provide you with a manageable plan, one that helps you keep your focus without losing your way. Inevitably, you will deal with many issues and concerns throughout the semester, but the 3-2-1 plan will provide you with a reliable compass as you begin to design that course.
Know, too, that as you progress through your teaching career you will refine, hone and sharpen your course design. Suggestions from colleagues, ideas from periodicals and journals, research, conference proceedings, and other information sources will all become part of your courses. For now, you just need a solid platform on which to stand. Don’t try to do everything the first time “out of the blocks.” Keep the plan manageable, simple and straight-forward. Remember that good courses and good instructors are always evolutionary. Start with a simple plan and then, as you add to your experience base, adjust and modify the course accordingly.
Dr. Anthony D. Fredericks is Professor Emeritus of Education at York College of Pennsylvania (and a former adjunct professor). He is an award-winning author of 175+ books, including The Adjunct Professor’s Complete Guide to Teaching College (“[The author] covers all the bases, from designing your course and syllabus to first day impressions to course evaluation.” * * * * *)
To see more books by Dr. Anthony D. Fredericks or others published by Blue River Press, go to our Book Shop. If you have any questions, you can contact us here or call us at 317-352-8200