What teaching has taught me


Today I want to talk about the importance of being accessible to students. I teach engineering courses at a research university, humanities courses at a community college, and math at a middle school. I’m still relatively new to teaching (I am starting my third year this week), so I know there’s a lot left for me to learn, but in the short time I’ve been teaching, I think I’ve managed to pick up some good insights on the topic at hand. My class size, course delivery mode, and student body vary widely, so here’s some basic information for context:

My engineering course has 40 students per section, all of whom are STEM majors. About 3/4 of my students are required to take my class, and 1/4 take it as an elective. The class is historically known to be a “filter” course, to wit a course where a significant amount of students fail, and are unable to continue their course of study because it is a prerequisite for other courses in their major. My humanities courses have 25 students per section. Most of my students are pursuing 2-year degrees in trades, while a minority plan on transferring to a 4-year college for a Bachelor’s degree. My courses are electives and stand among a pool of other similar electives (Humanities, World Religions, Art Appreciation, Music Appreciation, of which I teach the first two). While some of my students take a specific course due to a genuine interest in the subject matter, usually about half who take it seek an “easy A”.

When I first started teaching at my current university, one of the first goals I had in mind was to become an accessible teacher. The way I tried to do this was to be able to relate to the students. I would try to get to the classroom 10 to 15 minutes early and stay afterwards for a few minutes as well to answer any questions the students may have had regarding the class. I would do my best to reply to their e-mails quickly. And one of the things that has helped me the most is that I would not cut any student off when he/she was talking to me, even if the student wasn’t really talking about course-related topics.

One of my students, for example, was an avid mechanic, and he would often talk about his day at work. The first time, it was to explain why he was late to class. But as the semester progressed, he would talk about his work day just to start a conversation or to blow some steam (considering he would go to the classroom straight after a full day at work). By the end of the semester, one of the things he commented to me was that most professors he’s encountered don’t really care to talk to the students if it is not course-related. And even though we are not paid to listen to the student’s problems outside of school, being accessible to just hear someone out can make a big difference in the student’s performance in the class. So, my first advice for becoming a more accessible teacher is to be a good listener.

My second advice is to try your best to know who the students are. I know this may be a hard task for those professors with 100+ students, but for those of us that have smaller classes, it shouldn’t be a problem (back when I was a T.A., I knew all 46 students by name). This may not seem very important to professors, but for students, being able to talk to them on a first name basis shows that you care about the students and that you are invested in their success in the course. Having this in mind has a positive impact on the students’ performance and outcome.

Those are my reflections for today. In a follow up post, I’ll talk about the importance of knowing your student’s educational background and how that can affect the way you teach the course material.

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