Getting to Know Your Students
Knowing your students and helping them succeed
Understanding students' biases, based on culture, gender, and societal differences
Dealing with science fear and math anxiety
Encouraging a positive attitude toward science
Each class brings a new group of students. Sometimes the course is new to the instructor as well. While teachers are responsible for course planning and scheduling of content, we should not forget the important effect our students' backgrounds have on learning (see discussions in Chapter 3). Getting to know students and getting to know about them are important prerequisites for effective teaching, especially since it is becoming increasingly likely that today's students will differ more in their demographics, preparations, attitudes, and interests than when we were undergraduates.
While students themselves are the most responsible for their own learning, good teachers should also accept responsibility for the learning of their students. Colleges and universities cannot focus solely on the delivery of content while assigning all responsibility for learning to the students. Teachers can do much to encourage and enhance learning both in classrooms and laboratories and outside of them. Teachers who continually try to understand their audiences and to address student interests, deficiencies, and misconceptions will be the most successful in helping students to meet their own responsibilities to learn.
Courses naturally differ in their intended audiences. Survey classes, for example, are intended to give a broad overview of a field, while other courses have a more narrow focus and are specifically designed for those who will take additional courses in a given discipline, whether or not they seek a career in that field. It is important for us to realize, however, that even in these specialized classes, many students will not complete the major. Moreover, every class is likely to have students who will themselves become teachers, and all science courses should be seen as an opportunity to influence the thinking and the scientific knowledge base of the citizenry.
Beliefs or preconceived notions about students influence how we teach. How we respond to our students, in turn, influences how they learn. What
students believe about science and scientists affects what they hear, what they believe, how they study, and what they learn. Good teaching requires that we bridge the chasms of perception, language, background, and assumption that may impede effective communication and thereby hinder student learning.
Knowledge about students will enable the teacher to refine lectures, class discussions, comments, illustrations, and activities so that they are more effective learning experiences. References to student interests, backgrounds, knowledge, and even anxieties can make the class seem more personal and the material more accessible.
Tips for Learning Students' Names
LEARNING YOUR STUDENTS' NAMES
Our special efforts to get to know students' names can enhance their self-esteem and promote class participation. Most of us are overwhelmed by a large number of new faces and new names. However, memory of names and faces often can be triggered by associating them with some activity or event, such as a discussion after class about an assignment or the outcome of an examination. One way to create such memory jogging events for names and faces is to ask students to write a half-page self-description or to introduce themselves to the class with a statement of their interests or goals. In return, we should offer our own statements of interests, reasons for teaching the course, and goals and expectations. If your class enrolls fewer than 40 students, call roll for several class meetings at the beginning of the term to help you learn names. During the term, call students by name when you return homework or quizzes, and use names frequently in class. Ask students who are not called upon by name to identify themselves.
Office hours or problem solving sessions offer opportunities to get to know your students. Clearly defined and observed office hours mean a great deal to some students. If you offer to communicate with students by e-mail or voice mail, it is a good idea to tell them when the mail is checked and how quickly they can expect a response.
HELPING YOUR STUDENTS SUCCEED
Teachers should state their expectations clearly. If a routine for success in the course is envisioned, share it with the students. Students who succeed are usually those who attend class regularly, ask questions, come to office hours and problem solving sessions, study outside class both alone and in study groups, seek to understand methods and overarching principles or concepts rather than specific answers, teach or tutor others, and discuss concepts informally with their fellow students.
In light of the varied backgrounds and expectations of students in most classrooms, it is essential that you know how to refer students to academic and other resources they are likely to need. Tutoring may be needed and expected
especially in introductory courses. It should be provided before difficulties become overwhelming. Accordingly, you can be most helpful by providing students with opportunities for obtaining feedback, comment, and evaluation (short papers, quizzes, lab reports, etc.) early in the term.
You also may have to help students revise their expectations of tutoring. Some students come to tutoring for clarification, some expect to be shown how to get the answers, while others come to be shown the answers. It is important to explain what tutoring and problem sessions can do; what topics, questions, and problems will be addressed; and what students should do before, during, and after such sessions. Scheduling tutoring sessions before or after assignments are due emphasizes the function of the sessions.
A stigma can be attached to seeking tutoring services because needs or other deficiencies in preparation are viewed as signs of innate inability. However, the students who do best are usually those who take advantage of every learning situation. Tutoring and problem solving sessions should be portrayed positively. These sessions are frequently the best opportunities for students to get to know the teachers and to see how they think. Methods and answers are important, but personal contact can be crucial to a student's success.
Students Are More Likely to Succeed If They:
Finally, some students demonstrate what Paulos (1988) describes as extreme intellectual lethargy. These students seem to be so lacking in mental discipline or motivation that nothing can get through to them. Faculty members have described this group as having an "I dare you" attitude, as being indifferent at best and hostile at worst. Sometimes this behavior masks fear or poor preparation. Sometimes it signals a short attention span. It also may indicate a more serious systemic problem such as attention deficit disorder. Faculty members may want to refer these students to college or community services designed to assist them. Catching and holding the interest of these students in class require patience, perseverance, and ingenuity:
Call on a specific student.
Ask the student for a counter example, doubt, or criticism of your presentation or argument.
Ask students to confer and to report on agreements and disagreements. Use this opportunity to call specifically on disaffected students.
Ask the student to participate in a laboratory or classroom demonstration.
To aid those with shorter attention spans, break class periods into segments with changes in presentation strategy, level of student activity, and switching of student roles among questioning, note taking, musing, discussing, challenging, and summarizing.
Invite the student to come in for a conference to discuss how the course and the student's attitude might be improved.
SCIENCE FEAR AND MATH ANXIETY
A common notion in our society is that the ability to understand mathematics and the sciences is inborn. This belief influences how many parents and K-12 teachers have reacted to these subjects, and their attitudes often
have conditioned the attitudes of students. It can be difficult to convince students who believe they have no aptitude for mathematics that they can understand even the simplest mathematical relationships. Their belief can serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy, resulting in mathematics avoidance. Tobias (1978) showed how mathematics avoidance in high school resulted in some young women's lack of preparation for college-level mathematics and science courses. Although men may have math anxiety, women are more likely to be affected (Sadker and Sadker, 1994).
To investigate students' attitudes toward science, some faculty give a brief questionnaire on the first day of class. Useful information for understanding students includes their perceptions of the process of science, of scientists themselves, and of the concepts and topics to be presented in the course. Students' perceptions can be surprising. The answers to questions such as those posed below can guide you throughout the entire semester.
What is science?
What is meant by scientific thinking?
How is science done by scientists?
How do scientists monitor the validity of their work?
How has scientific thought or a scientific discovery helped society?
How has scientific information had a negative effect on society?
How do scientists help society safeguard against abuses of science or technology?
Having students respond periodically throughout the term to these questions can lead to more effective teaching. While lecturing or leading discussions, the teacher can refer to responses and perceptions of individual students (without revealing their names). This gives students the sense that your lectures contain more dialogue than monologue and piques students' interest because their questions or opinions have become reference points in the presentations.
However, it is important that you refer to student responses carefully, even if the student's identity is not divulged. Making disparaging or condescending comments about a student's work can result in that student's developing negative attitudes about the course, the instructor, and the student's own abilities.
External pressures that students face vary from school to school, and it is important for you to understand any particular situations of students enrolled in your courses. For example, fewer than 50 percent of college students in the fall of 1991 were 21 years old or younger. The older they were, the more likely they were to attend college part time while working full time or to attend full time while working part time to finance their education. Students can arrive at class tired from a day at work or having to juggle their class schedules so they can work. Many have family responsibilities. Others have been out of the work force for some time, may be changing careers voluntarily, or may be changing careers as the result of layoffs. They may feel either ill at ease attending classes with students young enough to be their children or alienated by a college environment that has changed since their earlier student days (Shields, 1995). At the same time, older students are often more focused, with clearer goals and interests (Grosset, 1991). Their life experiences can enrich class or group discussions.
Nearly seven percent of first-year students in the fall of 1993 said that English was not their first language (Astin et al., 1993). That number is expected to increase. Students who can converse in English and read the language reasonably well can still have difficulty learning the specialized vocabularies of the sciences and understanding classroom presentations, particularly in large lectures.
Cultural influences can affect how students think about science: reasoning by analogy or by strict linear logic; memorizing specific correct responses or generalizing; problem solving by induction or by deduction; or needing to learn through hands-on apprenticeships to gain one aspect of a skill before moving on to the next step (Kolodny, 1991). Cultural prohibitions permeate some societies; for example, values that discourage assertiveness, outspokenness, and competitiveness in some cultures result in behavior that can be interpreted as being indifferent, having nothing to say, or being unable to act decisively (Hoy, 1993). We should not assume that outspokenness, assertiveness, or expressed career goals indicate mastery or interest in a subject, or vice versa. Studies on the reasons that students switch from a science major to the humanities or social sciences suggest that minority students are far more likely to be influenced by others (such as family members) to choose a science major than are Caucasian students (Seymour and Hewitt, 1994). In some cases, minority students' choice of major was based more on career goals than on intrinsic interest in the subject matter, due in part to the prestige of a certain career (e.g., medicine, engineering). Awareness of these factors can help faculty be more sensitive to the needs and motivations of all students in their classes. Efforts should be taken to encourage all students and to avoid rewarding or penalizing students for personal styles or cultural values that differ from those of the majority.
You should find out if your students are unfamiliar with specialized language. Many words that scientists view as common are completely unknown to students. Several times during a term, ask students to jot down every unfamiliar word used in class that day. The words that appear most often on student responses should be defined and explained at the beginning of the next class. By showing an effort to speak in terms that students can understand, as well as teaching the students this new language and its vocabulary, teachers can help students to view themselves as partners in the learning process. By making it a practice not only to define technical terms but to point out routinely how the different parts of the unfamiliar term contribute to its meaning, students will become familiar with prefixes, suffixes, and roots of technical terms, and they will be better able to discern the meanings of other words that contain these elements.
You can assist underprepared students, especially those at the introductory level, by being sensitive to their needs. Students often lack numerical perspective, have an exaggerated appreciation for meaningless coincidence, or have a credulous acceptance of pseudosciences (Paulos, 1988). By better understanding the nature and extent of some of these problems in a class, you can tailor discussions, readings, and problem sets to address these difficulties directly rather than ignoring, overlooking, or avoiding them.
ACCOMMODATING STUDENTS' DIFFERENCES
Students will differ in what they know, how they study, when they study, and how they learn. It is important that you not expect or look for particular student characteristics. Instead, all forms of excellence should be
encouraged and nurtured. It is of particular importance to recognize differences in how students learn (discussed in Chapter 3) and differences in how they participate in class activities (discussed in Chapter 2). Tobias (1990) reported that many bright nonscience majors are discouraged by the lack of a big-picture approach showing the relationships between different concepts. Fewer lecture-only presentations and more group activities can help students experience and understand the exchange of ideas that is essential to science.
Using Inclusive Language Patterns and Examples
Teachers can help create a positive learning environment for all students. Society encourages the beliefs that only few have scientific or mathematical minds and that women are less able than men to learn science or to enter scientific professions (Sonnert and Holton, 1996). Teachers must take care not to set in motion self-fulfilling prophecies based on unproved assumptions regarding students' ability to learn.
An emerging body of research indicates that male and female students exhibit different classroom behaviors and that they are treated differently in class by faculty members (Tannen, 1991; Sandler et al., 1996). Both women and men are prone to gender-biased teaching techniques involving interruptions of student responses, eye contact, modes of addressing students, and stereotypical examples or generalizations (Henes, 1994). Although most faculty members value class participation, male students are more likely to be vocal in class, and teacher behaviors often encourage this difference. Women appear more likely to discuss issues in small groups, especially single-gender groups, than in large classes. Teachers who work to become conscious of gender-related differences and to involve all students will be the most successful in encouraging the learning of both female and male students.
Regardless of a faculty member's background, the diversity of cultures in today's classrooms ensures that some students in each class will be from cultures that differ from the instructor's. Faculty members must not seek to clone themselves or to value unfairly their own traits that are mirrored in some students.
An important issue is whether special activities are needed to recruit and retain women and people of color in the sciences. According to Gibbons (1993), the most important factor in helping students of color to succeed in mathematics and science courses is the personal interest and backing of a faculty member. He suggests inviting students from underrepresented groups to join research labs; being sensitive to concerns of minority students; and being aware that they may need help in finding networks. Project Kaleidoscope's report to the National Science Foundation about what works in undergraduate science courses at liberal arts colleges indicates that cooperative activities, active learning, and connections with practicing researchers and research activities improve the learning environment for all students (Project Kaleidoscope, 1991)
Many students respond best to people with whom they can identify. For some, this means same-gender role models with similar cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Visitors to class and appropriate examples can help to diversify the role models presented in a class. However, white faculty members can serve as mentors to students from underrepresented groups, and male
faculty members can serve as mentors to women students. Faculty members of color cannot be expected to meet all of the usual faculty responsibilities and, in addition, serve on all institutional human relations committees and mentor all of the students of color. Women faculty members should not have to shoulder the entire burden of mentoring women. Personal style may often be more important than demographic characteristics for successfully matching mentors to students.
Science teachers can help create positive attitudes toward science and mathematics by encouraging students to work together on research projects. Departments can establish discipline-specific study rooms, where students can find and interact with others in their courses. These can also serve as a meeting place for small study groups, or as a place where teaching assistants conduct "office hours" to assist students.
Most students have heard and used such expressions as "nerd" or "science nerd," ridiculing good study habits and interest in or dedication to studying science. Among high school students, intelligence, intellectual curiosity, and excellence in mathematics and science can detract from popularity in some social circles.
A commonly held view is that understanding simple phenomena is possible for the average person but that understanding science is not. Some students are easily discouraged by their inability to grasp immediately the concepts presented in class. Teachers need to have the patience and the conviction to convince students that they can learn. How a teacher relates to students can either reinforce or provide counterexamples to stereotypical societal attitudes. For example, inappropriate stereotypes can be endorsed by faculty members by their choices of pronouns, their examples of scientists and nonscientists, how they select students to answer questions, what questions they ask of different students, and how they listen to or interrupt students who are asking or answering questions.
HELPING STUDENTS TO REALIZE THAT SCIENCE IS A HUMAN ENDEAVOR
Most students respond positively to activities such as visiting a professor's research lab, hearing about a professor's research, and viewing video clips of scientists explaining new discoveries. It can be very helpful to incorporate such activities into an introductory science class, despite the temptation to get on with the "real" science or the pressure to cover all of the content. One option is to begin each class with a brief discussion of an event in the day's newspaper or heard during a news broadcast that has a scientific component, so that students appreciate the connections between science and everyday experience. Many faculty members have found it fruitful to spend just a few minutes early in the semester sharing the results of their own work with the students in a way that explains the creation of ideas, development of proposals and receipt of funding, data collection and testing, paper writing and peer review, and presentation at meetings. Those teachers who serve on committees that advise government bodies or act in other public service roles can share stories of these efforts to show how science and society interact.