Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below looks at some simple yet effective ways to improve
student engagement and learning. It is by Virginia S. Lee of Virginia
S. Lee & Associate, and is from POD-DEA Center Notes on Instruction
series. POD is the Professional and Organizational Development Network
[http://www.podnetwork.org/] and the iDEA Center is a nonprofit
organization whose mission is to serve colleges and universities
committed to improving learning, teaching, and leadership performance.
[http://www.theideacenter.org/] ©2004 The IDEA Center. Reprinted with
UP NEXT: TBD
Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
----------------------------------------------------1,016 words ----------------------------------------------------
Displaying a Personal Interest in Students and Their learning
Several strands of research demonstrate that displaying a personal
interest in students is not only effective as a way to encourage
participation and engagement, but necessary for real learning. For
example, research in neuroscience and the physiology of learning
demonstrates the strong link between emotion and cognition (1). In the
absence of the strong, positive emotions engendered by caring, deep
engagement, motivation, and interest, little real learning occurs.
Similarly negative emotions such as fear and shame, all too common in
the college classroom, retard learning, due to "choking," the shutting
down of higher-order thinking, and the activation of more primitive
areas of the brain associated with the fight-or-flight syndrome.
Classic research in communication studies also highlights the positive
benefits of supportive environments (that is, those characterized by
description, problem orientation, spontaneity, empathy, equality,
provisionalism) versus defensive environments (that is, those focused
on evaluation, control, strategy, neutrality, superiority, certainty)
(2). Further, classroom-based studies and extensive interviews with
students affirm the findings of the more theoretical studies cited
above. Research on large classes demonstrates the positive effects of
personalizing the large class with respect to enhancing student
attendance and motivation to learn (3, 4). As well, undergraduate
students repeatedly mention the importance of one-to-one interaction
with instructors in supervised projects and the closer interactions
with other students and instructors in small classes as important
factors in their learning (5).
These threads point to the importance of engagement and a sense of
community as critical to college success and the major reviews of
research (6) have found just this connection. Finally champions of a
restoration of caring, community, and heart in the college classroom
such as Parker Palmer (7) and Jane Tompkins (8) have met with
widespread sympathy in higher education circles...for a reason. It is
no wonder that one of the most widely used new instruments for
assessing the outcomes of college is the National Survey of Student
Engagement (NSSE). Displaying a personal interest in students is the
first step toward demonstrating that community exists within the
classroom and across the campus.
A variety of strategies, most quite easy to implement, even in large
classes, convey to students that instructors take a personal interest
in them and their learning: Learn students' names and use them when
addressing students. Easy to implement in small classes, in large
classes learning students' names poses a greater challenge. Assigned
seats and taking (digital) photos of students, labeling them, and then
rehearsing them at odd moments are strategies that have worked for
many instructors. Be available to students in ways that you judge are
not too invasive of your personal boundaries. If your class is too
large for individual conferences early on (or at some point) in the
semester, other, less intensive strategies will also work. Arrive
early to class and stay a little later and encourage students to seek
you out at these times. Maintain regular office hours and encourage
students to use them: some instructors require students to stop by
during office hours once during the first few weeks of classes;
particularly for reserved students, even the briefest visit breaks
down psychological barriers, opening up the possibility for greater
interaction during the rest of the semester. Encourage and respond to
email. Solicit and respond to student feedback. The simple, but
effective, one-minute paper (9) lets students know that you care about
their understanding and learning and establishes a vehicle for
communication between you and your students. Mid-semester evaluations
that you create and use to fine-tune instruction midstream also convey
to students that you care what they think and about their learning.
Create opportunities for students to engage actively in the classroom.
Pedagogically sound because intentional engagement leads to more
effective learning, creating opportunities for students to engage with
each other and you during class time also creates a more personal
classroom environment that helps everyone get to know one another
better. During discussions and other interactions with students,
really listen to them, striving to hear what students are really
saying; not what we want to hear and/or assume students are saying
Connect classroom material to students' experience. Ausubel, the noted
educational psychologist, said that the most crucial element in
learning was what students already know, that is, what was within
their experience. But making connections between academic material and
students' personal experience also conveys an interest in students and
Various assessment approaches may help determine the extent to which
you display a personal interest in students. Perhaps the first place
to start in assessing how effectively you display a personal interest
in students is by examining your own views about teaching. Various
typologies of teaching whether as in-class activities or out-of-class
assignments, reveal approaches to teaching that are more
content-oriented and those that are more student-oriented. Displaying
a personal interest in students may be more consistent with the latter
than the former. Asking a colleague to observe you in the classroom
may also be helpful. Like any enlightened peer review process, meet
with the colleague before the actual observation and discuss your
concerns and the strategies that you are trying to implement to
display a personal interest in students. After the observation, meet
with the colleague again, perhaps over coffee or some other relaxed
setting, and compare notes. Finally, solicit feedback directly from
students themselves. Targeting the extent to which you display a
personal interest in students and their learning in a mid-semester
evaluation is one possible approach. Another is using a technique
often referred to as Small Group Instructional Diagnosis (SGID) (11).
Performed by a third-party such as a trained staff person at a
teaching and learning center, the approach eliminates the disturbing
outliers (i.e., "You remind me of my mother, and I can't stand her")
that monopolize our attention, blinding us to more common reactions to
our teaching. Since the extent to which we display personal interest
in students is a very personal, and potentially, sensitive matter, an
approach that produces and communicates a more impersonal consensus
may be a better approach.
References and Resources
(1) Zull, J. E. (2002). The art of changing the brain. Enriching the
practice of teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Sterling,
VA: Stylus Publishing.
(2) Gibb, J. R. (1961). Defensive communication. Journal of
Communication, 11(3), 141-148.
(3) Lewis, K. G. (1994). Teaching large classes (How to do it well and
remain sane). In K.W. Pritchard & R. McLaren Sawyer (Eds.), Handbook
of College Teaching: Theory and Applications (pp. 319- 343). Westport,
CT: Greenwood Press.
(4) Silvia, E. M., & Hom, C. L. (1996). Personalized teaching in large
classes. Primus, 6(4), 325-336.
(5) Light, R. J. (2001). Making the most of college: Students speak
their minds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
(6) Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1991). How college affects
students. San Francisco: Jossey - Bass.
(7) Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner
landscape of a teacher's life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
(8) Tompkins, J. (1996). A life in school: What the teacher learned.
New York: Perseus Books.
(9) Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment
techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass. See pp. 148- 153.
(10) Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a way of
teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San
(11) Clark, D. J., & Bekey, J. (1979). Use of small groups in
instructional evaluation. Insight Into Teaching Excellence, 7(1), 2-5.
Arlington, TX: University of Texas at Arlington.
IDEA Paper No. 39: Establishing Rapport: Personal Interaction and
IDEA Paper No. 15: Improving Discussions, Cashin and McKnight
IDEA Paper No. 1: Motivating Students, Cashin
©2005 The IDEA Center This document may be reproduced for
educational/training activities. Reproduction for publication or sale
may be done only with prior written permission of The IDEA Center.