Last time I talked about teaching, I noted that there's a reason to talk to students, and that's to assess where the students are relative to where you think they are. This may not be that comfortable for some.
There's often a barrier that teachers put between themselves and students. There are several reasons for this. First, there's an age difference. A teacher can be 10, 20, or more years older than the students s/he teaches, and that's often enough to make it difficult to find common interests. The problem is worse the younger the student, since they really lack comparable social skills.
But even with college aged students who are starting to become intellectual equals, many teachers avoid getting too close. Some teachers aren't all that social. They're teachers in college mostly out of necessity. They really see themselves as researchers. These people may find it difficult to talk to people anyway. Some see teaching as a job. They come to class. They present a lecture. They go home. Their responsibility for students ceases once they walk out the door.
Some see a danger in getting to close to students. Sexual harassment. Perceptions of favoritism.
Now, to be fair, you don't have to be much closer to your students than, say, a coach is to his or her players. But you can't be so distant to have no idea where they're coming from.
Ultimately, you're trying to figure out what assumptions students are coming into class with and what background they're coming in with, and trying to see how to get them to where they need to be. If you're not teaching at a high-powered institute where students are expected to be brilliant, or at least, know how to work hard, you may want to spend time trying to get people simply to talk.
This means opening up the class for discussion. What do you think a computer scientist does? How do you think they get good at what they do? How do you think you can get better at what you do? If you go in with a healthy dose of realism, then you should be good. Realize that most likely, you can only change someone's behavior so much. If they can't set their own goals and meet them, then there's only so much you can do.
However, it may be worth realizing that you can get students to start to pay attention to these things. Initially, you may be the one setting goals. For example, you may want students to outline how much time they expect to spend on a project. Do they plan to work on it tonight? Or tomorrow? How long? Will they open a book and ten minutes later go, man, I can't read this. It's too boring.
What are their priorities in life? What do they want to do? How much time do they care about their career and what to put into it? By working collaboratively on various goals, you might be able to persuade the students to focus on what's important.
Realize that people can learn in different ways. Some like to read. Others have to do. Sometimes, others need to be handheld. They don't get very far unless their is a great deal of patience.
With people who lack good college study skills, one key job is to make people aware of the skills they need. Have students summarize what happened in today's lecture, and what they did since the last lecture. They may hate this, so there may be better ways to improve. Can the class use some sort of collaborative offline method, such as a Wiki? How easily frustrated do people get?
As you're thinking about this, ask yourself where you want the students to end up. What do you think they should already know? Do they already know it?
By forcing yourself to write a list of what you think students will learn from your class, then you can begin to be clear about what's important and not to your class.
This is a useful exercise because it makes you consciously competent. It makes you aware of what you think about your class. What are the key concepts? How can a student be sure they understand the concepts? By writing definitions? By solving problems? How do you justify why students need to learn certain things?
Now, let me get back to technology. How can you make technology useful? This is where you sit back and revisit how you present material to a class. Do you lecture, primarily? Do you have exercises for the students to do? Can students do something outside of class that's interesting? Do you want them to collaborate in some fashion?
As simple a thing as having students create their own webpage might be something that would be cool, but could be used for learning. Perhaps they can write a blog about their class experiences. The key is to find out what works and what doesn't work and how to get students to get closer to something the students find fun.
For example, maybe you want students to learn how to run a website that does something simple, and something each student can participate in. This is something they can show off to their family and friends. Can they do this without being too abusive? Can you produce an API for code that can be run on some server?
This can take a great deal of creativity on the design of a course and certainly appeals to teachers willing to learn new stuff.
How about writing a simple game? You provide part of the engine, they write smaller components. How might they debug the stuff they write? Maybe they work on the "model" while you do the view and controller. They can debug the model without the rest of the code.
Ultimately, though, by getting a better model in your head for what a student does, and being able to do some customization, you can present a better learning experience than just lecturing.
The more you learn about how people learn, the better off you are. Think about how people learn, and how you learn.
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