Are We Really Listening to Our Students

Inspired by the title of Lee Skallerup Bessette’s article last week, Listening and Hearing

I’m a faculty developer, so my role often entails conducting assessments of other people’s teaching. This comes sometimes in the form of entering a class and having a confidential discussion with students to get their feedback on a course, and reporting back to the teacher. This gives me a lot of insight into what students think and need. You’d be surprised how insightful some of their feedback can be, recognizing of course students can offer feedback that is silly or naive. But for the most part, students are quite constructive, especially when they hear the instructor truly plans to modify their teaching based on the feedback they get.

Students will offer constructive feedback, particularly if they know they’re being heard.

Two events happened the other day that made me start asking myself if we (as teachers and administrators) truly listen to our students. And what we lose by not listening carefully.

The first was a discussion with someone who wanted to teach something in a particular way. I told her that something similar had recently happened on our campus and that students were overwhelmingly confused by this approach. She kept insisting that she would like to try it. I kept telling her that I am not just telling her my personal opinion, that it had been tried before and that students were vehemently against it, that it confused them. We tried to unpack reasons why it was confusing for students (well, it was obvious to me) but she seemed insistent on trying her own approach because she believed strongly in it. I understand where she’s coming from. She believes (and might be right, who am I to judge?) that she knows what’s best for students, long term, better than they do. However, in the short-term, I believe we need to listen to our students because it does not matter how worthwhile our long-term goals for them are if we cannot engage them in the short-term first. If students are confused in the short-term and do not learn well, then whatever our long-term goals for them might be, they will be more difficult to achieve. [As a side note, if I had to listen as a faculty developer to this teacher, I guess my final advice would be to try it but assess the impact of the experience on students and ask them if they get confused or if it helps them learn – during and after the course].

The second was an incident in my own teaching. It was the last day of my class this semester, and we were tight on time. As the teacher, I needed each group of students to present a demo of their final project, and I needed to be able to judge how well they had done the work. (Students came in late as they’d been doing last minute work on their projects, so time was tighter than usual). For some projects, this took slightly less time to judge. But one group of students particularly felt their project did not receive enough attention time-wise. For my own goals as assessor of their learning, I was able to get the information I needed and judge pretty quickly (especially that I had seen drafts and discussed them with each group beforehand). However, from their perspective, they needed to feel that the hard work they had done was fully appreciated, not only be me, but by other students and guests, and in such a short time-frame, this was not possible. I thought about this all the way home, and decided after some thought to find opportunities for students to present their projects to others multiple times next semester, and see their hard work in action, see other people’s reactions to it. Based on a comment on my blog, I am thinking of ways of making class time more efficient and giving all students more time to present their projects to authentic audiences (not just their colleagues and a handful of guests as I normally do).

We cannot dismiss students’ concerns because we are confident we simply know better.

My point is this. Even if we as teachers and administrators believe strongly in our own goals for our classes and schools, and believe we know what students need, we should still listen to them with an open mind. One of the most transformative assignments I have ever given was to invite my students to “liquefy” the syllabus, inspired by Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s liquid syllabus blogpost. I asked students to present one of the modules in the course syllabus in a more interactive/engaging way, and to modify a few assignments to make them more engaging. The results were incredible. It was the best feedback I ever received, and students felt empowered to be put in the place of the teacher. Almost all of their suggestions were things my co-teachers and I were willing to incorporate into the syllabi of future semesters. They also reflected back to us how we were presenting the course to them, giving us a deeper perspective on their own perspective as students about what was important about the course and what learning they valued from it. Colleagues who heard about this assignment are now interested in trying it in other courses.

I know. Sometimes students give really harsh feedback because they don’t understand where you are coming from. They get angry at you giving them too much autonomy, without understanding that this is for their own good, to help them become independent learners in the future. Yes, sometimes they won’t learn this until they really go through it, and nothing you say will make them appreciate it until the course ends, or even later. But it still does not mean we can dismiss their concerns because we simply know better. We need to find ways of making them feel heard. And to act on that.

So… have you listened to your students today?

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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