One of my biggest challenges when teaching first year is to help students think that their opinions and questions are worthwhile – that it doesn’t matter if there are 400 other students in the class, that they should still ask questions and talk to me when they want to. However, getting them to feel comfortable with this takes time.
I have been thinking about this a lot more recently, as I have noticed that since I have been on study leave, my research students appear to be a lot happier. it’s not as if I am really spending any more time with them on a weekly basis, but I guess there time is not necessarily as constrained as when I am busy with other teaching and admin tasks. Although we might still need only an hour to review their paper draft (for example), I guess I’m not checking the clock half way through to make sure that I don’t need to run off for another appointment.
One of the common comments that we receive from our first year students, particularly the shy ones: “i don’t want to bother you with questions, you all look so busy”. I’ve realised that with my increased workload over the past few years, that I really need to put more effort into not looking busy. It is fine to have an open door policy – to give five minutes to any student who knocks on my door, but if I am constantly shuffling papers on my desk, looking at my clock, or rushing out the door, they won’t really believe it. Of course, some times this can’t be helped, but I’m thinking that one of things that I need to get better at when I return to my normal job is to make sure I have that time to spend with students to make sure they feel important and worthwhile enough to engage at university.
One of the reasons that I think this is so important, and perhaps increasingly so, is that with increasing diversity in our student intake, we will have more and more students who are alone on campus. Lack of confidence and isolation have clearly been identified as key factors in student attrition, and so the recognition of each student as a human and not a number is not just a nicety but an essential factor in ensuring that they can proceed with their education.
When we restructured our first year courses, we integrated something which I had been trialling for years in my introductory programming class: explicit structures to create peer groups. We get them to work in pairs from their first lecture, we do pair- and group-based problem solving, and peer-assisted tutoring. I can’t even count the number of times that I have seen students in 3rd or 4th year who are still hanging out with that one person that I forced them to introduce themselves to in their first lecture. Much better in many ways to talking to a lecturer, but also complementary 🙂