By Doug Ward

Education changes people.

Those of us who teach know that well. We see students transform during their degrees, and sometimes during a semester. Their skills improve. Their thinking deepens. Their confidence blossoms.

As it changes minds, though, education also changes the relationships students have with family and friends, adding stress to students’ lives from an unexpected source. Students generally learn to cope with those changes, but they often aren’t sure how to broach the subject with family and friends. They don’t want to anger others, or make them feel diminished. But they also don’t want to hold themselves back.

That personal aspect of learning is just one of many issues that students have brought up during focus groups I’ve led on learning, engagement, and student motivation over the past two years. I wrote recently about what students say helps them learn. Students openly admit that they struggle with many aspects of higher education, though. If we are willing to listen, they will tell us what they think we need to know.

What students want faculty to know

Some of students’ best experiences in college come from meaningful discussions with professors who have expertise in a particular field or who simply take time to learn who they are and help them find their way. Students rave about professors who “made me feel comfortable and made time for me.”

celka straughn, phil baringer and andrea greenhoot at the student learning symposium
Celka Straughn, director of academic programs at the Spencer Museum of Art, speaks with Phil Barringer, professor of physics, during a lunch session at the Student Learning Symposium. Andrea Greenhoot, director of CTE (background), led the session.

On the other hand, students say that professors who come across as unapproachable, condescending, and inflexible diminish the value of classes, majors, and degrees. Some of those professors simply won’t make time for students, though students recognize the challenge that large classes bring. Big lectures make students feel lost and anonymous, they say, and professors in those classes often have a hard time connecting to students.

Other obligations. Remember that students are taking more than your class. They also have obligations at work, family and organizations. Also remind students about office hours. Yes, they know about office hours, they say, but a reminder now and then helps.

Pointless classes. Far too many classes seem pointless, students say. They give a variety of reasons for that:

  • Some classes lack any relation to students’ goals or interests, and faculty members fail to explain the point of the class. All too often, the same professors who challenge colleagues to explain the “so what?” of research don’t ask the same question about the courses they teach. “I’m at point where I know what I want to do,” one student said. “I value the time and money I put into a class.”
  • Some courses within a major are too basic, students say. They want to be challenged, and some assignments seem like little more than busy work.
  • Some faculty members come across as pretentious and diminish the subject matter of their classes. They may think their class covers the most important topic in the world, students say, but simply saying that doesn’t make it so.

Professors also need to be clearer about the expectations of classes, students say. Some classes require more independent learning; others require students to follow specific guidelines. Students can work with either system, they say. They just need clear expectations.

What students want administrators to know

College costs too much. This is both a political and institutional issue, especially at a state university. Students understand the politics of state reductions in university financing and the corresponding rise in tuition. They also want a strong, vibrant university. Yet most have jobs to help pay college costs, they say, and some work 20 to 35 hours a week.

Advising is uneven. Most students rave about their advisors, especially the ones in their majors. They have harsh words for the general advising system, though. “For every good comment I’ve heard about general advisors, I’ve heard three bad ones,” one student said. Friends had been told to take classes they didn’t need, delaying graduation. One mentioned a friend who was told at freshman orientation that he had five minutes to figure out his first schedule. Most certainly, this isn’t a typical experience. Stories like these stand out in students’ minds, though, and cast a shadow on the advising system. Advisors and faculty members also need to keep an open mind, students say. Students change their minds about majors and classes as they learn more about themselves and their interests, and just learn more in general.

Smaller classes make a difference. I’ve heard this over and over from students, and pedagogical research backs it up. Those least equipped to handle large lecture classes are beginning students, yet those are the very students required to enroll in those classes. Many instructors have worked to overcome the weakness of large classes with in-class group work and two-stage exams, techniques that help shrink the class and improve student learning. Students at the most recent learning symposium spoke about the many benefits of that. Unfortunately, active learning in large classes is still rare.

Students generally rave about first-year seminars, saying that those types of courses help them make connections and help them acclimate to university learning. Some suggest a broader requirement for an orientation-type course that focuses on how to learn and how to structure your life in college.

Make classes more transparent. Students say they want to be able to make more informed decisions about the classes they take. Some want evaluations of courses and professors made public. They would take the evaluation system more seriously, they said, if they saw the results and knew their comments could help future students. They see the current system as opaque and don’t see that their evaluations matter much. That’s one reason they turn to sources like RateMyProfessor.com. They understand the downside of that sort of ratings system – that students who have had really good or really bad experiences are most likely to post – but they say the university has offered them no other options.

What students want families and friends to know

Students are often surprised by how education changes their relationships with friends and family members, they said. That’s especially true with first-generation college students, whose burgeoning independence, broadening views of the world, and distance from home make them wonder what to talk about with family and old friends. Those who had once anchored their lives seem to drift away as their lives change, they form new friendships, and they begin to understand better who they are.

As you can imagine, that unmooring generates stress. Students still care about family and friends back home, but they are torn between a new life and an old life. Family members and longtime friends, they say, sometimes don’t seem to value the changes the students are undergoing. Those changing relationships add to the stress students feel, and that stress can be enormous. A recent study of American freshmen found that a third felt overwhelmed by all the things they had to do in college.

None of this is particularly surprising, but it serves as a good reminder about the complexities of higher education. Students some to college to learn, and yet learning involves a tangle of interrelated components. Students at one focus group were especially vocal about something they wanted faculty members to keep in mind:

We are people, too.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Asked to describe the things that help them learn, students provide a remarkably consistent list:

  • Engagement
  • Interaction
  • Clarity
  • Openness
  • Accessibility
  • A sense of belonging

That’s hardly a complete list, but those ideas came up again and again during a focus group at KU’s recent Student Learning Symposium. Not surprisingly, those same components come up again and again in research on learning.

sara rosen, holly storkel and stuart day at the Student Learning Symposium
Holly Storkel accepted the university’s Degree-Level Assessment award on behalf of the Speech-Language Pathology program. She was joined at the Student Learning Symposium by Sara Rosen, acting provost, and Stuart Day, acting senior vice provost for academic affairs.

The focus group at the learning symposium consisted of three undergraduate and three graduate students who had agreed to share their experiences at a round-table discussion. They were open and candid in their assessment of their own learning and of the learning they see in classes they help with. These categories overlap, but they provide a good sense of what students say is important.

Engagement

One of the undergraduates, who also works as a TA for a biology class, described students’ mindset about their classes like this: “Is there a reason for being there?” That is, will attending class help them do better on quizzes, exams, papers, and other assignments? Or will the instructor just read from slides that are later posted online? When in-class work engages students and clearly makes a difference in their performance, “now there’s a reason to be there,” students said.

Openness

Many students are anxious and apprehensive at the beginning of a term, and a sullen or seemingly angry professor will push them away with just a look. Professors who do nothing except lecture can seem standoffish, students said, and students don’t know how those professors will react if students try to talk with them.

On the other hand, instructors who are approachable make a big difference in classes, students say. Even in big classes, some instructors walk around the room, talk with students and answer questions. It’s impossible to get to know students well in big classes, but setting a positive tone can make students feel that they belong and want to be involved in a class, students said.

Clarity

Too many instructors teach as if students are experts rather than beginners, students said. Instructors need to think more from students’ perspective and try to remember what it’s like to work with new material for the first time. Professors simply must get better at explaining, students said.

Relatedly, students say are willing to go along with experimentation in format, assignments, and other elements of a class. The key is communication. “As long as instructors explain, students will be up for that,” one undergraduate said.

Both undergraduate and graduate students said that disciplinary programs needed to do a better job of helping students see the bigger picture of a program or a degree. Students need to “understand that there’s a future to all this information,” one student said. Graduate students said departments also needed to do a better job of integrating coursework with research.

Sense of belonging

The first semester at a new university can be painful, and successfully negotiating the freshman jitters makes a huge difference in whether students will stay the year or eventually graduate. Universities have recognized that and use programs like First-Year Experience to reach out to freshmen and help them maneuver through the educational maze.

Graduate students said they experienced much the same pain, loneliness, and disorientation as undergraduates. Unfortunately, they said, the university doesn’t do much to help them get situated. They recommended orientation sessions for graduate students, a better means of acquiring coping and learning strategies from peers, and better communication from departments. Graduate school is “so much more rigorous and so much harder,” one student said, and the university needs to do a better job of helping students cope.

Interaction

Interaction among students, and between instructor and students makes class much more meaningful, students said, lamenting about classes where they are simply “talked at.” One undergraduate said, “Lecture makes me wonder why I am coming to class to have you read slides to me.”

A Ph.D. student in the sciences echoed that sentiment. Too many graduate courses in STEM fields involve little but lecture, he said. He came to graduate school expecting to delve into critical analysis of problems and pursuit of new ideas. Instead, he found a frustrating emphasis on delivery of information. Graduate students in STEM fields are discouraged from discussion, he said, even though “interaction makes or breaks a class.”

Training for TAs

Graduate students at the learning symposium said the university needed to do a better job of helping them learn to teach effectively, and to provide incentives for graduate assistants to teach well. Many teaching assistants, especially those in the sciences, are told to spend as little time as possible on teaching, students said. (We’ve heard the same lament from students at CTE events for years.)

Gradate programs should be designed so that doctoral students learn to be well-rounded faculty members, not just research machines, students said. They called for more teaching workshops and other training for TAs. “A lot of grad students are doing only research,” one student said. “Once they graduate, they will be thrown into teaching with no experience.” He added, “This narrow focus is hurting many grad students.”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.