The Professor Becomes the Student
Last fall, Carrie Anne Platt, an associate professor of communications, did something unusual. She shadowed three undergraduates around the campus of North Dakota State University, each for a day, to find out what it’s like to be a student.
Platt thought she had a pretty good idea of student life. After all, she’s on campus every day, and, as associate dean for undergraduate education, it’s her business to think holistically about the student experience.
But after three days of absorbing fast-paced lectures, running from class to class, and following students as they juggled work, extracurriculars, and academics, Platt felt humbled, impressed, and a bit stunned.
“I was overwhelmed, not just by the amount of things students are doing, but the amount of content they were subjected to in classes,” she says. “I was a college student, but I had lost touch with how much information you’re expected to process in a day.”
That experience, she says, prompted her to rethink her own teaching. Her key change: placing more emphasis on getting students focused at the beginning of each class. More on that below.
Platt reached out to me after I
readers whether they had ever taken an undergraduate course while teaching, and how that influenced their approach in the classroom. While hers was the most vivid experience, other faculty members have had similar epiphanies after returning to the classroom themselves.
“Every day was a struggle and I was always one of the worst in class,” writes Ryan Allen, an assistant professor at Chapman University, reflecting on the time he took undergraduate Mandarin courses while a doctoral fellow at Columbia University. “I was already successful outside of this class, so I had the confidence to carry on,” he wrote. “How many other students, though, would give up in similar contexts? Not with Chinese, but with math or English or a multitude of subjects?”
That experience gave him insights into how to make his own classroom more welcoming. “I think about how I can contextualize and adapt the material to cast a wider net,” he writes. “And I think about the struggling student in the back of the class and how I can provide them with some confidence.”
Susanna Semerdzhyan, an adjunct ESL instructor at Glendale Community College, audited an Italian class while teaching. “I now understand my students when they say, ‘I didn’t have time to do the homework because I was working,’” she writes. “I wasn't able to make it to my Italian class several times because I had to focus on work. In other words, my Italian class couldn't be my priority.” One adjustment she has made since is to cover a point over several classes, both to help students who missed class and to aid those struggling to grasp a concept. “As a student I saw how helpful it was to repeat even the things I knew very well.”
At North Dakota, Platt shadowed three students who volunteered for the experience: a Spanish and special education major, a criminal justice major, and a landscape architecture major. She experienced “intellectual whiplash,” she says, as she transitioned from, say, a course about educating diverse learners to one on Spanish. “To reorient your brain to do something completely different,” she notes, “that takes a lot of work.”
In another instance she found herself confused by a class activity, in which one student looked at a screen and told another how to draw what they saw. “Maybe that was a lesson in communication,” she guesses. “I couldn’t quite make a connection.”
In a finance class she struggled to keep up as the professor sped through PowerPoint slides while she took five pages of notes on a legal pad.
And she recalls being relieved when the criminal justice student’s night class was over so she could go home — as he headed out to meet up with friends. “I cannot recall being so tired at the end of the day,” she says.
So how did all of these experiences inform her teaching? For one, Platt says, she’s careful to explain each exercise, to make sure students understand why they’re being asked to do it. “I’m getting a lot more mileage if I talk about it out loud in class,” she says. “There seems to be a greater willingness to engage in the challenge of an assignment.”
She also makes sure she gives students enough time to process the information they’re learning, to avoid her experience of simultaneously trying to write down what the professor was saying while also absorbing the content.
Finally, Platt says, she is more deliberate about starting each class with a few moments of conversation and review, rather than jumping right into the content. It’s a practice she had known was useful, she says, but she hadn’t intentionally practiced every week.
“It wasn’t as if I felt I needed to assign less reading or less work,” she notes. “But how could I create a space at the beginning of my class to help reorient them and remind them of what they learned earlier? Because so much happens between class periods, and that’s when everything is going well. I was following three students who had their stuff together at a high level and still the amount of stuff that transpired was staggering”
Beth McMurtrie, Teaching Newsletter: The Chronicle of Higher Education.