How Much Is Too Much?


In considering instruction, one of the things I’ve been thinking over is managing student engagement and achievement. In terms of balancing expectations with reality, what does being a good teacher look like/sound like?


Image via flickr

When it comes to reaching students who may not be responding to traditional lecture-style presentation, sometimes it’s tempting to go the “70 x 7” route: how far do I have to reach to say I did my part, attempted due diligence? I think it’s important to go beyond that question and instead ask, Who are my students? How do they learn? What do they need to succeed? How can I at least try to provide that?

The quiet student, the disengaged student, the struggling student. I’ve been all of these, so I can relate.

Now that I’m on the other side of the table, I think back on my experiences as a student and also my experiences teaching younger grades. While there’s a vast difference in terms of learning ability and emotional development between elementary students and college students, some of the pedagogical values and strategies remain the same. For example, the Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) is the difference between what a student can do alone versus with help. Through the scaffolding process, students receive the support and assistance they need to master a concept and move on to autonomy. It’s kind of related to the bottleneck concept, in which large numbers of students get stuck at certain areas. One could posture that with scaffolding, students would be able to grasp threshold concepts and move from the bottleneck into a position of achievement or mastery. Because students both learn differently and come from diverse academic and personal backgrounds, the ZPD will be different from person to person. But the threshold concepts are those areas of learning that will enable students to get past the “stuck” point. For students who are not information literate, a threshold concept that may lead to bottle-necking (is that a word?) could be using certain types of information technology. So the ZPD could be the difference between being able to browse the internet and maybe search Google alone, but then being unable to employ specific search strategies in a database without assistance. Through scaffolding, modeling, and reinforcement, students’ skills are strengthened and they become better equipped to locate scholarly articles for an academic paper (end goal).

Thinking of strategies…in the classroom, if you wait for volunteers, typically you’ll end up with the same students always doing all of the talking. Mixing it up by either calling on students randomly (if they’ve had time to prepare) or promoting buddy or group discussion before doing a share-out increases the likelihood of quieter students’ voices being heard. (Personally, I myself don’t like surprise calling, because if I haven’t had time to formulate my thoughts, I have nothing to say to you.) I tend to lean heavily on buddy and group work in my own instruction. Some of the strategies for younger students, such as manipulatives or use of personal white boards can be adapted for use with college students. There are technological tools that allow for a more active role. And then there’s always good ol’ fashioned pen and paper.

Additionally, to combat student disengagement, crafting lessons that incorporate active learning through problem solving and inquiry is invaluable. David Cutler mentions allowing for student choice decreases the likelihood of disengagement. I’m experimenting this semester with allowing students to choose their final project, with some perimeters. The research topic is entirely up to them, with the caveat that it has to be related to their major on at least an interdisciplinary level. They can opt to use a traditional research paper or a blog (featuring critical article reviews) as their deliverable.

Cutler also noted that it’s important for teachers to remember that struggling students can recover and still succeed, if they receive the support(s) they need. It’s also important to realize that student struggles can be overlooked by focusing on behavioral aspects as an indication of understanding. Just because they show up to class doesn’t mean they’re doing well.

As an instructor, the solution may not always be apparent, but remaining cognizant of students who seem to be struggling and being mindful of both their personal situations and learning styles goes a long way. Because students are also not likely to say, I’m struggling with this, being preemptive about asking students what supports they may need, should you notice a student struggling, inviting them to ask questions, as well as being approachable and available, goes a long way.  Also, crafting assignments in such a way that students have the flexibility and time they need to do their best.

I’m dissatisfied with the assessment model I used this semester, but didn’t have time to do something different. In the future, I would like to play around with different ways for students to demonstrate learning. I’m also interested in incorporating more of the Universal Design for Learning practices into my approach to teaching. Like many other pedagogical approaches, UDL came from K-12 education. Because K-12 is where it’s at. 🙂

Those are all the thoughts I have on student engagement and achievement right now, but I’m sure I’ll think of more in the future.

TL;DR – Know your students. Know yourself. Do the best you can. Never give up.





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