This week The Novice Professor is covering advice for people who are preparing to teach for the first time. In a two-part post, the contributors of The Novice Professor will be giving our takes on five questions submitted by Rachel Williams, a first-year PhD student at The University of Texas at El Paso.
Read on for Part 1 where we discuss how we deal build rapport with our students but also strike the balance between empathy and standards.
How do you establish a rapport with students during the first few classes to allow them to feel more open to you and your lectures?
Brian: I do two things in order to foster a relationship with my class in general and with my individual students. Firstly, the very first thing I do in each of my classes is tell students all about myself – where I grew up, what I like to do in my free time, my favorite vacations, what my college experience was like, what my friends and I like to do, etc. We do not talk at all about the class until the end of our first class period together. The next thing I do, which I am researching the effectiveness of currently, is mandate that each student in every one of my classes schedule a meeting with me within the first two weeks of class. At this meeting students must complete a small half-sheet “getting to know you” questionnaire which asks about their major, year in school, goals in life and goals for this class, their hobbies, fun facts about them, etc. The meetings usually last around five to ten minutes and I allow students to ask any and all questions they have about me and about my class. I have found that students feel more comfortable coming up to talk with me after already having done it once, so I plan to continue doing mandated meetings at the beginning of the semester. I also benefit from teaching at a smaller school where my largest class is about 25 students so it is relatively easy to engage with each student on a personal level – this is something that I am quite thankful for.
Ciara: This is actually something I have struggled with. When I first started teaching, I was a very young, female, graduate student (and then first year faculty member) and I tried very hard to appear as the authority in the classroom. But those efforts backlashed and I came across as cold or uncaring. Now, I am much more open with students. In the first few weeks (and throughout the semester) I word my expectations and concerns about the class through caring terms. For instance, I have a talk with students about the pressure I know they are under as college students and let them know that I know that my class isn’t every student’s priority, and that sometimes it’s okay to skip a small assignment in favor of more sleep or another, bigger assignment, in another class. I also spend some time talking about why I teach the way I do in each class. This helps students be more open to my courses, especially in classes that I have “flipped” that are usually quite different than their other classes. By the end of the semester students appreciate my teaching style, but it helps to explain the reasons and answer questions early on so that there isn’t wide spread resistance early on.
Jen: One thing I do on the first day is communicate to the students that they can call me by my first name. Also, recently I started polling students on when I should hold my office hours. Obviously, I can’t accommodate everyone’s schedules, but it shows them I’m trying. And I usually make a sad joke about how much I’m on my email, so I can almost always be reached as long as it’s not in the middle of the night. I just try to demonstrate as much as possible that I’m approachable and available.
Karly: One thing I always do on the first day of class is 1) tell my students a little bit about myself and 2) let students know it is OK to call me by my first name. I also try to incorporate some small groups activities in the first two days of class. Group activities in the first couple weeks of class serve two purposes. First, it gives students a chance to meet their classmates. Second, it gives me a chance to roam the classroom and talk with students on a more individual level in their small groups.
When sitting down with struggling students to offer assistance, how do you find the balance between getting them to actually understand the material and spending too much time independently tutoring them?
Brian: Great question! This is something I find myself thinking about quite often after meeting with students who are struggling. I always try my best to respond with “first, tell me what you know about the topic / concept / question” and then we will go from there. In my independent tutoring sessions, I strive to put a lot of the heavy lifting on the shoulders of the student. From there I will refine or update the information they provide, but by asking students what they know about the topic they need help on allows for them to vocalize their thoughts and learning in that way. Another strategy I use is to set specific dates for struggling students. For example, if they are struggling with their writing assignment, we will come up with a new set of dates where I need them to send me various drafts by then. In this way, again, the majority of the work is being done by the students, and I can find specific areas to help them. Generally, it is quite easy to simply speak at the students and “tell them the answers” but making the student put in just that little bit of extra work allows me to balance tutoring them and actually getting them to learn the material.
Ciara: This is definitely a tricky situation. For me it definitely depends on the student’s particular situation. If it’s early in the semester, I tend to encourage students to request a tutor, however after mid-terms going through the process of applying for and confirming a tutor can take a couple of weeks, which just leads to more wasted time. In those cases, I tell students that they can come to my office hours as much as they want (since those are student dedicated hours) or make up to one weekly appointment with me. It’s also helpful to have specific online resources in your back pocket. For example, with statistics there are a plethora of videos on YouTube that will explain concepts and even work through problems. It might also be helpful to find out who in the class is interested in a study group and then facilitate their formation.
Jen: This sometimes can be a tough balance because we feel for our students. If a student schedules an individual appointment with me, I let them know I can only meet with them for so long. When they show up to my office, I keep an eye on the clock and wrap up the meeting at the end of my time limit. I do this to protect my time and also establish that I can’t be their private tutor. If a needier student comes to office hours, I work with them, of course, but if other students show up, I do my best to divide my time amongst all of the students. This can be something you communicate with them if they establish themselves as a “regular” at your office hours.
Karly: This can be difficult, particularly in classes that require a lot of background knowledge (like writing classes or statistics classes). In these situations, I always make students aware of tutoring services available on campus (such as the writing or math center. Another way I have come to combat this in my Statistical Methods class is by holding what I call “weekly review sessions” instead of office hours. During “review sessions” students are able to work on their homework individually or in small groups. Students who are struggling with the material benefit from this as 1) it gives them a chance to study in a structured setting and 2) they often turn to their peers for explanations before asking me a question. I have found this to be particularly useful for students who are new to university, as it helps them learn important study habits, and streamlines the help I give students.
How do you find a balance between empathizing with a student's outside-of-school problems, and those problems being a repetitive excuse for their performance (or rather, lack-thereof), and drawing a hard line to exercise an across-the-board fairness with the class?
Brian: Fortunately, I have not had to deal with an issue like this in my career thus far. If I did have a situation like this occur, where a student consistently makes excuses for their poor performance, I would likely let it slide the first time (or maybe two). But if the excuses and performance persist, I would not be as lenient thereafter. Instead, I would seek the student out to let them know my thoughts on the situation and to hear if there is any way that I can help the student in my class. I think I would resort to trying to understand their situation first and foremost. With that being said, I would also let them know that their behavior as it relates to our class would need to change in order to see an improvement in their grade.
Ciara: This is another area that has developed quite a bit over time. Originally I had a “no late work” policy except in extreme circumstances, mostly because I projected my own, privileged experience in college onto other students. As I gained experience, I quickly learned that the students I was working with have much more complicated lives than I did. I now have a policy that allows ALL students a 48hr late pass to apply to any assignment or quiz. The students just have to email me within 12 hours of the deadline and ask to use it. They do not have to explain their circumstances. This gives students grace who really need it due to outside experiences. When a situation arises where a student’s life begins to more severely impact the course, I tend to lean into empathy. But, as the question mentions, when it seems to become the go to excuse, I will have a frank discussion with the student and let them know that, in fairness to other students, I have given all the grace I can. Sometimes knowing when to draw that line is difficult and it can help to have a conversation with your departmental colleagues. Have they had similar issues with the student or does this truly seem to be a one-time thing? That perspective can tell you which way to go in a given case.
Jen: If you’re not careful, this can be a slippery slope. I’ve always been careful about exercising across-the-board fairness. In one class I taught, we had really strict guidelines about points being taken off for turning in work late. More recent courses I’ve taught didn’t allow for make-up quizzes because they could drop 3 of their lowest grades. All of guidelines were clearly laid out in the syllabus, and I had to enforce them despite the student’s not liking it. You can be more lenient, but I would make it a policy and put it in your syllabus. For instance, you could give everyone a free pass where they can turn in one assignment up to 2 days late. But they can only do this once, and they only get two extra days. Whatever you do, just make sure you are being fair. If you’re paranoid like me, just make it a policy in your syllabus.
Karly: Similar to what others have said, I try to be lenient, but also rely on my syllabus for protection. Faculty mentors have taught me to always rely on my syllabus for guiding my decisions. Whatever policy you have, whether it be a more lenient policy that allows for late work (like with Ciara’s late policy), or a stricter policy that does not allow make-up exams, make sure it is clearly defined in the syllabus. One policy that I have used (and found useful) is allowing students to drop a certain number of quizzes. In my statistical methods class, students take a total of 11 quizzes, but the three lowest grades get dropped. This means that they can either miss those quizzes, or just get poor grades on them. However, because of this drop policy, I do not allow for any make-up quizzes. It is up to the student to decide how to use their 3 dropped quizzes. In the future, I want to tweak this policy to make it a little more lenient for certain situations. But so far, it has been seen as fair by the majority of my students, and gives them all ample opportunity to succeed in the course.
Stay tuned! Tomorrow we will offer our takes on getting students engaged and dealing with disruptions in the classroom.