Students Aren’t Fish

Splash Frown Town Evasion

One theme that I keep finding myself returning to this semester is the need for a better understanding of how students make sense of their college experience. At ELI I had a chance to meet up a couple of times with Serena Epstein, a junior at Mary Washington, who has written a great essay providing a glimpse into her world:

As a student (perhaps a “damn idiot” one), it’s always a little surreal hearing professors debate over how best to reach students. The main question seemed to be “how can we use games to get students actively involved in their learning?” On one level, I’m genuinely impressed that these instructors are brave enough to approach this problem….

I think the most important—and often overlooked—question to be asking is not “How can I use this to hook students?” but “How can we do this together?” We’re not fish; we’re (mostly) discerning, intelligent individuals who can certainly tell when professors are introducing a classroom activity simply as an attempt to ensnare us.

Serena suggests that students respond best when faculty are as passionate about using the technologies as they expect their students to be. She sees learning as something contagious–spread from teacher to student by passion, inspiration, and engagement. Since she knows how busy faculty are, she provides a “handy numbered list”. (Hopefully reproducing her entire list still constitutes fair use…)

  1. Care! Care so much that every waking moment is spent obsessing over course content, student discussions, and all the possibilities for what’s next.
  2. Engage your students! Class discussions are the best way to reinforce and expand learning. Students should be interacting with one another in the classroom, not just you. Have students create content for each other.
  3. Give them more creative freedom. Consider assignments that allow students to exploit their own strengths. A piece of artwork or a video mash-up, for example, can demonstrate the same degree of learning as a traditional paper. (Often, these are even more effective.) Allow for flexibility in your assignments and encourage students to suggest their own ideas for how the content should be handled.
  4. Take your class outside the classroom, both physically and figuratively. Play with different learning spaces, like outdoor areas or different types of rooms. Also try different setups within the classroom. Never have discussions with the entire class facing the front of the room. And encourage students to apply learning from the class to other areas of their life or coursework. Have them blog, tweet, photograph, film, paint, type, innovate.
  5. As unbearably cliché as this sounds, don’t be afraid to try new things. Yes, sometimes it will fail miserably. Sometimes it will be a waste of time. But there’s also the chance that you and your students will discover something incredible. Don’t just try until you find one thing that works… keep trying.

Serena’s blog has earned a place on my RSS reader.

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