A few years ago, educator Chris Emdin came to our community college campus to give an opening-of-school lecture to faculty. As the author and champion of what he calls “reality pedagogy,” Emdin delivered a passionate, energetic call to faculty to reimagine their teaching as an act of empowering each student in the room. I distinctly remember him pulling his cell phone out of his pocket, holding it above his head, and asking, “When our students have the sum total of human knowledge in their hands, what do they need us for?”
That rhetorical question sent me down an entirely new path in my teaching, one focused on what students need from me rather than what I want to give my students.
I thought back to the teachers who had made the biggest impact on my life, wondering what qualities made them such effective, inspirational figures in my intellectual and personal growth. I kept coming back to one truth: My greatest teachers were those who saw something in me that I hadn’t seen myself. And they told me.
Imagine you’re a first-generation college student. It’s your first day of classes, and you look at your schedule; on it, you see a feast of acronyms—things like CAT for location, MWF and TR for days, and something called a CRN. Would you know what these acronyms mean? A surprisingly large number of our students assume T indicates Tuesday classes and TR stands for Thursday classes. They don’t know what the building acronyms are; my students don’t know, for example, that CAT is the Center for Advanced Technology, a building where primarily social science classes are held.
But let’s say you find your class, and your professor hands you a syllabus (maybe) or pulls it up on a projector screen (if the tech is working). The professor tells you when their office hours are scheduled. Would you understand that “office hours” means the professor has set aside that time for you to come by and chat, ask questions, or seek help? Or might you assume that “office hours” are their workhours, specifically when they are not to be disturbed?
Here’s another wrinkle: as a new college student, you might not know that you have to buy your own books. After all, most public high schools provide those for you. The professor tells you that you should bring your textbook to the next class. Where do you go? Would you know there’s a place on campus that sells books, or would you instead assume that the library is the source for your readings?
There are many of these cultural norms on a college campus that are unfamiliar to our most vulnerable students. They don’t know that tutoring from the math lab is free; for many of our students, tutoring was something only the rich kids could afford. Our students may not realize that the “services” we offer include emergency aid, a food pantry, and mental health counseling. In short, first-generation college students come into a new world with an unfamiliar vocabulary, and they frequently and quickly find themselves overwhelmed.
As faculty, we have an important role to play in breaking down unnecessary barriers that might impede our students’ sense of belonging. In wrestling with the bigger question, “What do they need us for?,” I’ve come to believe that the faculty role breaks down into three spheres. We
Just as importantly, though, we are modeling for students the traits we want to see more of in the world. Higher education is a place where we cultivate knowledge, seek understanding, get excited about learning.
Chattanooga State Community College, where I teach, has partnered with UVA’s Motivate Lab over the past several years, implementing interventions to boost student success. As you might surmise, their focus is on student motivation, which they model with the mnemonic GPS.
Students often enter college with a fixed mindset, assuming that they are good at some subjects and bad at others and that’s just how they are built. Our systems of assessment and grading often reinforce this by providing students with a one-shot opportunity to demonstrate mastery. Carol Dweck’s (2007) seminal research into fostering a growth mindset can help our students overcome some of their anxieties around being smart enough or good enough to succeed in college.
Consider whether you can provide students opportunities to redo their work. I’ve created a form to request a redo that includes reflections on what they did on their first attempt, what they will do differently on a second (or third) attempt, and what success looks like for them on this assignment. When I first deployed this form, I anticipated I would get flooded with revised assignments; instead, I’m often begging students to try again.
Students rarely find the work we do in our classes to be relevant to their lives or aligned with their purposes for attending college. As instructors, we can foster more motivation among our students if we make our assignments more transparent. Each semester, I refine my assignment library to make the purpose and relevance of my assignments even clearer. I do a few other things, including blind assessment of written work, linking each assignment and activity to the institution’s learning outcomes, and soliciting frequent student feedback on what kinds of assignments they find most valuable. If you’d like to explore helpful resources on boosting the clarity of purpose and relevance of your own assignments, I recommend starting with the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) site for tips on how to do so.
Humans love to form groups. The second you put two or more people near one another, something largely invisible begins to happen. We don’t always have language to describe it, but we’ve all experienced the way that emotions, thoughts, and cultures are transmitted through the ether, even when nobody is speaking. (Cavanaugh  is an excellent entry point for this research as it applies to teaching.)
Unfortunately, many of our students arrive in our classrooms looking for evidence that they don’t fit in. They enter a learning space worried about at least some of the following:
When you look for evidence that you don’t fit in, you’ll almost always find it. We will help our students find greater successes if we can first let them know that they are accepted and valued members of our community.
Too often we talk about how much material we have to “cover” in our classes. My typical semester is 15 weeks long, and most textbooks in my discipline have roughly 15 chapters. The math is too facile, though. Every group of students is different, arriving with different curiosities and different strengths. I believe the very best classes are flashes in the pan; they seize the current moment in time and tap into what’s happening outside the classroom, in the students’ lives, and where the students’ (and faculty member’s) curiosities are leading.
If we can shift our mindset from covering a set of chapters to teaching the human beings currently in our classrooms, we will create a cascade of shifts:
Cavanaugh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Ballantine Books.
Wilson, E. (1976). The triple thinkers: Twelve essays on literary topics. Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux.
Liz Norell, PhD, teaches political science, podcasting, and college success at Chattanooga State Community College.
This article appears in The Best of the 2020 Teaching Professor Conference. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.