A student’s lecture to professors

Can students teach their lecturers a thing or two? Austin Fitzhenry thinks so

May 15, 2014

Source: Andy Bunday

I’m sorry to break it to you, but your students are not going to remember 90 per cent, possibly 99 per cent, of what you teach them unless it’s conceptual

The US government is paying me to go to college. That should be something to get excited about. But sometimes I find myself questioning whether college is worth it even if you are paid to be there.

The question “Why am I here?” often strikes in the 73rd minute of a droning lecture. Don’t misunderstand – I love lectures. But only if the person delivering it knows how to allow learning. And yes, I do mean “allow”, for academics don’t create learning – only the student can do that. Unfortunately, most if not all lecturers are crippled by misunderstandings about their students and ill-founded assumptions about education itself. If we can filter the mud from the Pierian Spring, then they will have far less frustration in their lives and students will stop wishing that they were somewhere else. So one afternoon, after a particularly frustrating day with my professors, I sat down and wrote my lecture to them. I pray that they are taking notes.

Don’t cater to students who suffer from “entitlement complex”

I am referring to those who enrol for the simple, misguided reason that it’s what you do at 18, and for the experience…whatever that is. These students are not particularly interested in your lecture. In fact, it probably never occurred to them that college is an opportunity to explore the world around them. Don’t waste your time trying to tease interest out of them: you’ll hold back the interested students. The best thing you can do for them, yourself and everyone else is to use 100 per cent of your knowledge and enthusiasm to teach your course as if every student were just as excited as you. By delivering your lecture with gusto, your interest will be infectious and some of the “entitlement students” will rise to the level at which you treat them.

Challenge the student

Have you ever wondered why your students aren’t more interested? The answer is likely to be that they are bored. What causes boredom? Slow or irrelevant lectures, those that don’t connect the dots, or that focus on details at the expense of context. Students are not being challenged. Their sense of exploration is cloistered. You may say that your students can barely keep up as it is. In most cases this is not true. Your students are capable of far more than you give them credit for. Yet most professors have a compulsion to teach at the lowest level among the students. During the introduction to one course, my lecturer explained the level of maths he would be teaching: the same maths that is routinely taught in middle school. I went to a senior academic in the department to ask if I could skip it. My request was refused.

“You have to understand: many of the students here can’t do basic arithmetic,” he said. “We have to adjust for that.”

My chin hit the floor. Is it not equally unfair to above-average students to teach below their level as it is to below-average students to teach above their level? We need to re-examine our priorities. Is university about making everybody feel good about themselves, or about delivering high-quality education?

The truth is that it is OK if a few under-prepared students get lost. I have been that student more than once. I have sat through lectures not having the slightest clue what was going on. Instead of dropping out or expecting the discussion to be lowered to my level, I worked a little harder and caught up. Don’t let lagging students pull the whole class under.

Move on – and don’t repeat. I repeat: don’t repeat

Andy Bunday illustration (15 May 2014)

Most lecturers are very conscientious about making sure that all students grasp a concept before moving on. This is great. But most ignore the inverse, and are happy to waste their time and the time of their class by labouring a concept that their students (or all those who were paying attention) understood a long time ago. I have sat for 20 minutes as a professor defined hypo- and hyper-osmotic. These are definitions that a 12-year-old could get to grips with in two minutes. Nothing destroys a student’s respect like insulting their intelligence.

There is, of course, a simple way to find out if your students understand: ask them. And once you move on, resist the temptation to backtrack and repeat material. A quick reminder about a concept taught the previous week is one thing. That’s called continuity. But far too often time is wasted repeating at length ground that has already been covered. That’s why students take notes – let us review them ourselves. Any of us who are still behind can ask for help after the lecture or talk with a fellow student. Repetition equals boredom.

Forget the textbook, and focus on concepts

Andy Bunday illustration (15 May 2014)

Exceptions exist, but textbook reading assignments are rarely helpful. Textbooks are designed to say everything about a subject with virtually no context. They go into minute detail. They are boring. If you tell your students to sit and read chapters, few will. I certainly won’t. Instead, ask us to research a particular subject in greater depth. You may say that students will not take the initiative to do the research. But inviting them to explore a topic in whatever way they like is much more tempting than a textbook.

The best approach from the student’s perspective is to focus on concepts. I’m sorry to break it to you, but your students are not going to remember 90 per cent – possibly 99 per cent – of what you teach them unless it’s conceptual. The Latin names, the special terminology, the equations, the dates – nearly everything specific will start to dissipate a month or two after our final exam. We have to move on to new material. A year later, the student will scarcely even remember that they once knew these things. However, when broad, over-arching connections are made, education occurs. Most details are only a necessary means to that end. Once the Lethean river has eroded the details, that bedrock of concepts remains.

Instead of teaching to the test, encourage creativity

Andy Bunday illustration (15 May 2014)

Some lecturers don’t bother to teach things that won’t be in the exam. They are letting their students down. The best professors range widely across their subject while also making clear what their students will be expected to know in the examination hall. This approach ensures that students are able to apply their learning in the real world, as well as stimulating curiosity and learning. Stay focused on relaying knowledge and understanding, and the test should take care of itself.

Last year I was talking with a fellow student about an unusually challenging assignment, and he joked: “Wait, I have to come up with something on my own? I actually have to think?” But it’s not a joke. Many students spend all day, every day, being spoon-fed. Those that get fed up drop out. Those that don’t usually become complacent. Intellectual flabbiness sets in. Ultimately whether or not they succumb is up to them, but their lecturers can help them fight the disease. Without exercise, the creativity muscle atrophies. Take every opportunity, large and small, to let students create something.

Give meaningful assignments – and don’t let students lecture

Andy Bunday illustration (15 May 2014)

I may seem to be breaking this rule in writing this piece, but I’m actually referring to an assignment I experienced in which students were asked to give a 10 minute presentation to the whole class. On one level this was fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed researching and giving my presentation. What wasn’t fantastic was listening to 400 minutes of presentations from other students who, for the most part, didn’t enjoy researching or presenting. Worse, losing 400 minutes of lecture time dealt a serious blow to the depth of the course. Keep student presentations to a minimum.

Students can also smell “busywork”. This includes any output required of them that does not serve to increase their mastery of a concept. Cute class activities are for nursery school, while mindless laborious tasks focusing on painstaking details kill our passion.

If students complain about an assignment, pay attention. It’s not all whining. That complaint could be a sign that you are destroying your students’ zeal for a subject and their respect for you.

Don’t require attention or attendance

Andy Bunday illustration (15 May 2014)

Allow your students to be adults by recognising that if someone doesn’t want to learn, they aren’t going to learn. Requiring attendance is absurd. Every student entered college of their own free will. Let us decide what we want to do with that choice. This goes for texting, eating, or anything else in class. As long as it doesn’t distract others, just chill. Taking responsibility for the responsibilities of others creates adults who have never had the chance to mature. At 18 we’ve just finished a couple of decades of being told what to do, and have finally gained independence. We will judge whether your material is too basic, if it’s just repeating old ground or if it’s little more than busywork, and decide for ourselves whether to attend. The test results at the end will speak for themselves, and if a student can master a subject without even attending class, they should be applauded, not punished.

As I explore my way through college, I’m reminded of a saying my dad was fond of: “Never let your schooling get in the way of your education.” Now I see now how easily this can happen. But if our lecturers and professors get it right, learning will occur for those students willing to put in what it takes to create education.

Remember that students are your employers

Andy Bunday illustration (15 May 2014)

One final thought. For the student, college represents an enormous chunk of our lives and a huge financial investment. We are entrusting you with our most valuable asset: our youth. We think that what you have to tell us is so important that, of all the things we could be doing, of all the places in the world we could be, we choose to sit here in front of you listening to your melodious voice, breathing the stale classroom air beneath the fluorescent lights. Not only that but we dole out our hard-earned cash by the bucketload for the privilege of doing so (I did this in my first year, before I got my scholarship). I promise you, your students discuss among themselves a thousand more frustrations than the ones I’ve offered. Ask them for their frank thoughts. You will gain from their perspective and they will love you for it. What I have really been working up to is this simple plea: don’t cheat me out of my education. I work hard for it, and some day I will need it.

All this comes with a disclaimer: I love my professors. They are all knowledgeable people who truly care about their students. But in the classroom, these same individuals too often struggle to convert that knowledge and care into a quality education. I hope that they will take my observations on board. Doing so will allow me and my fellow students to feel as excited as we should about getting paid to go to college.

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Reader's comments (1)

I can only celebrate the fact that any student thinks this way. I agree wholeheartedly but can only add that with current NSS drivers too few UK lecturers risk going this route. I full well remember why I chose my career. It was being inspired and asked to think by one lecturer in particular that transformed me and opened doors to a scientific research world which I have been privileged to be part of