Walking a Mile in Our Students’ Shoes

By Flower Darby

Flower Darby -acue.orgHow long has it been since you were a student? When, if ever, have you taken a rigorous, online, graduate-level course? How well do you remember what it’s like to juggle school and work, to balance family demands and downtime, to process new concepts and complete challenging assignments?

Being a ‘student’ again in ACUE’s course allowed me and my faculty peers to gain fresh new insights. We learned a great deal from the concepts and techniques presented in the content-rich modules. However, many of us were transformed by the opportunity to walk a mile in our students’ shoes. Here are a few lessons, lessons that will shape who we are as teachers, that we learned from this unwritten curriculum.

Promote agency—and success—through choice

It is well known that offering assignment choice can increase motivation and learning. When we give our students a degree of control over the work we ask them to do, they see more relevance and engage more fully in their learning. This sounds good, but sometimes it is challenging to give up control, to allow students to have agency in their work. Often, designing assessments in this way requires more creativity and effort, more flexibility on our part. It can seem hardly worth the trouble.

But we were reminded of the importance and value of having a range of options to select from in order to meet expectations. Reviewing a number of techniques, implementing the one that best fit our content and class activities that week, even modifying or adjusting the technique to fit most effectively with our teaching and learning goals—for many of us, this made it eminently more possible to complete each module in meaningful ways.

Can you imagine if you offered 8, 10, 12 different options for your students to demonstrate their achievement of class learning objectives? How motivated would your students be as a result of all that choice? How confident would they be? How much more successful?

Flexibility is key

One of the biggest lessons we learned is that life happens. Despite our best intentions, sometimes unexpected circumstances get in the way of forward progress. To what degree can we build flexibility into our course requirements in order to help our students learn and succeed?

Many of our faculty experienced unanticipated challenges during the course. Aging parents fell ill. Homes were damaged by severe weather. Committee work took an unexpected toll on available time. Babies were hospitalized for unusual illnesses.

When our faculty missed a submission deadline because of a greater or lesser crisis, it reminded all of us of the importance of a little wiggle room. Our students are increasingly burdened by family obligations and pressures. Student anxiety is a major concern on college campuses today. Missing a deadline, or not meeting assignment expectations on the first submission, does not have to mean all is lost. We can build in options to allow students to catch up or to resubmit work until they achieve success. The learning that results—that initial ‘failure’ can lead to improved performance in the long run—is important in all realms of life, not just in college.

Encourage students through timely and supportive communication

I was a participant in the ACUE course, but I was also the lead campus facilitator. Part of my role was to help other participants stay on track. We found that two approaches in particular had significant impact: I publicly praised and recognized faculty for exemplary contributions, and I reached out privately with offers of help and support.

Shouldn’t we do the same thing for our students? Offer public encouragement and recognition, while conveying empathy and support as needed on an individual basis? My faculty peers responded well to this dual approach; indeed, many told me that my public comments and my individual assistance were primary motivating factors in the course. If we, as learners, benefit from personal communication, how much more will our students?

Above all, empathy

Teaching excellence requires empathy. As students in the ACUE course, we were reminded anew of the competing demands we all face. Coursework was not the only thing on our plates—and neither is our classwork the only thing our students are dealing with. Keeping that firmly in view, reminding ourselves that our students are people with lives outside of our classroom, with joys and troubles and successes and pressures, will help us meet them where they are.

When we relate to our students as people, when we put ourselves in their shoes and think creatively about what they need to succeed, we are better teachers. Period.

Flower Darby is adjunct faculty member and a senior instructional designer at Northern Arizona University. She is the author, with James M. Lang, of Small Teaching Online, forthcoming from Jossey-Bass in 2019. She completed ACUE’s program in December 2017.

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