“Why I ask you to do what we do?” – Talking with Students About Teaching

Contributed by Scott Kraly, Charles A. Dana Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience

We are at the midterm of another pandemic-flavored semester.  Again remote and masked-up face-to-face instruction constrains communications with our students.  Many instructors will pause at midterm to learn students’ opinions on how they think things are going.  But how many of us remember to reveal to students why we ask them to do what we do in our courses?

When and if students read the course syllabus they mainly see course content and activities–details regarding what a student needs to do.  But the logic for why a student is being asked to do certain things often remains understated or unstated. Why an instructor is using specific instructional approaches is perhaps best explained in a conversation—a meta-conversation about course design that reveals to students what the instructor was thinking when they designed a course.  

Designing a course produces a calendar, assigned readings, activities, written and oral work, assessments, and selected instructional approaches.  These instructional approaches are thoughtfully chosen to capitalize on our distinctive capabilities as an instructor.  We select the pedagogical practices that in our own hands might maximize our students’ ability to learn.  Do my students know this?  Do they understand that the classroom dynamics I attempt to create, and the particular assigned reading, work, and assessments I have chosen are intended to facilitate both my effectiveness and their learning?  A conversation about the whys may facilitate a student’s performance in your course. That conversation can answer questions that a written syllabus may not, such as:

Why does the organization of the course not follow the sequence of chapters in the textbook being used for background reading?  

Why are chapters of the book being linked and read together with specific articles from professional journals?  

Why are some of the assigned readings enormously challenging—is this being done simply to frustrate or humiliate me? 

Why are we reading and discussing some of the more interesting topics near the end of the semester rather than the beginning?

Why are all of the quizzes and tests open-readings and open-notes? 

Why does active participation in class discussions count so heavily toward my grade in this course?  

Why does the professor call on me to speak if and only when my hand is raised?

Why won’t the professor let us substitute written commentary for oral participation in class?

Providing a student with perspective regarding the decisions made to design a specific course should help a student make decisions that maximize their use of assigned reading, discussions, and other activities and assignments.  And ……. students might even provide to you (in person, on Zoom, or on SETs) better-informed appreciation of your effectiveness as an instructor!