Approaching results-oriented education in a standardized system: understanding what your students know

A dear friend of mine just began a university job teaching an introductory course in her field of expertise on deconstructing peace and conflict. She writes that the work is both strange and rewarding, and that she is learning to unravel the student psychology around formal education: “I get the sense that many of the students are confused and stumbling in a daze about their classes without much of the information taking root, and I cannot understand what is causing their disorientation.”

As a part of re-working her classroom strategies, which she does weekly now, she is conducting her own investigation of student wellbeing through daily check-ins at the start of each session, asking them

  1. how their week is going,
  2. what they have done that is class-related, and
  3. questions or struggles that they had.

She finds the answers to her questions revealing – they range from difficulty with the class work itself (an inability to relate to the readings or finding it unnecessary to complete their writing assignments), to external pressures (training for national competitions, or childhood surgeries gone awry when being under an anaesthetic too long compromised their ability to focus in the classroom). Other teachers in the department say that the students are simply lazy and don’t care– this, from a sociology department that teaches about social stratification and the prevailing perception by those who are privileged of low performers as unmotivated.

Recalling my own apathy for many of the required courses I’ve had to take over the course of my undergraduate career, where I was uncertain about how well suited I was to my field of study (it has to be science! perhaps a pre-med track? biology?) I can certainly relate to the student perspective my friend describes. I can’t help but think that if some of those introductory biology lab course instructors took the time to ask the same three questions my friend is asking her students, my love for the rigor of biology and scientific experimentation could have been sustained.

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