I was always one of those kids who got As in school.
Give me an assignment, I’ll do it. A test? I’ll take it. Lecture to me, and I’ll absorb every word.
Now that I’m back at school 11 years after getting my college degree, though, I suddenly find myself in a very different place. In addition to being a student seeking a PhD in sociology, I’m a teaching assistant with students of my own.
My view of education changed the first time I had to grade my students.
It was a difficult assignment, and I hadn’t prepared them adequately for it. I naively thought that because the material was easy for me, it would be easy for them, too. I assumed that because my students didn’t ask questions, they understood it.
That wasn’t the case.
Suddenly, I found myself handing out bad grades and thinking, “I earned this grade too. These are our grades, not just theirs.” I had failed to teach every bit as much — or more — as they had failed to learn.
And what good would the grades do? How does punishing students for not learning help them learn?
My teaching has evolved since that first mishap. My attitude as a student has changed too.
Becoming a teacher affected my studies like becoming a parent helps adults understand their own childhoods. I suddenly find myself holding my professors to a higher standard than before.
Why am I required to learn things I won’t ever use on the job? Why must I take closed-book tests when I’ll never need to do anything in my career without having books, colleagues, or the Internet as references?
Teaching requires focusing on how students really learn and providing them the opportunity to do so. That might mean not running the class in the way that’s most convenient for the teacher, like lecturing. It might also mean covering less material, but covering it well.
After all, how many marathon cram sessions did you have before tests? And how well did you remember any of that material afterward?
It’d be nice if students could retain endless amounts of information simply by attending lectures all semester. Actually, it’d be even better if we could just plug a little chip into them and upload the content directly into their brains. But neither is possible.
We’ll have to settle for reality and teach students in a way and at a pace that will help them to actually learn. We should also allow students to demonstrate their mastery of the material in a meaningful way that contributes to their learning and won’t result in cramming and forgetting everything later.
This approach, which can require more initial effort from a teacher but with the promise of better results for the students, has a name: student-centered learning.
It’s a shame that actually teaching your students is such a novel idea that it’s worthy of a special name. It should just be called “teaching.”