Women In Academia

How to Encourage Knowledge Building

Working with undergraduate students is one of my favorite parts of my job. I’ve written before about how exciting and formative one’s undergraduate experience can be, and I admit that I’m biased, but undergraduates are probably my favorite age-group of students to work with. However, they can be sort of tricky in the classroom. And that’s what I’ll be writing about today.

I’m just going to lay it out there. With undergraduate students, it can sometimes be tricky to navigate when they should take the forefront and build knowledge together, and when the professor or TA should step up. I mean, sometimes it is obvious. In lecture, it is time to lecture (though even there, there are chances for active learning). Students need to have the basic tools before they can start building anything. However, in labs or discussion sections or even small upper-level courses, basically, in classes where students are encouraged to engage with each other and with the instructor, drawing that line can be tricky.

Drawing that line becomes even trickier with more advanced undergraduate students. By the time these young adults enter their senior years, they often have a wide variety of exciting and unique experiences under their metaphorical belts. These students have spent their time becoming experts in subfields of their choosing. I’ve had courses with kids that know more way about bird behavior or sea urchins or biomedical engineering than I’ll ever know. Sure, when it comes to the material to be taught in class, the instructor is the expert. But when it comes to making connections between that material and other courses, or making connections between that material and the real world, the students have a lot to offer.

So trying to figure out when to step forward to synthesize ideas or straight-up teach some facts and theories, and when to step back and let the students develop knowledge on their own by interacting with each other and building onto their peers are saying, can be tough. I don’t know that I really have a good rule of thumb, and if you do, I’d love to hear it. What I try to do is to follow the momentum of the class. If a lot of kids are engaged and raising their hands and talking to one another, I’ll let the conversation continue until it sort of peters off on its own accord. If someone says something egregious, I’ll jump in to correct, but not before acknowledging that there are hands raised and they’ll speak next. I expect that my methods will continue to change as I continue to get experience with this kind of educational experience.

And that’s the thing, right? To some extent, you have to get into the classroom and try things out. I mean, there’s tons of educational research to draw from, tons of great workshops to help build those skills, and tons of great instructors to pass along advice. All of them make a huge, huge impact on how effective someone is as an instructor. But to some extent, you don’t know what works for you until you get out there and try.

3 replies on “How to Encourage Knowledge Building”

Um. Right. This is really entirely off-topic, but, since you’re an academic working with undergrads, I was hoping for some advice.

Namely, what to do about a professor who you don’t get along with, but his grade is crucial to your degree?

I’m pretty sure that my (undergrad) thesis professor doesn’t like me, on a personal level. No real examples, just a feeling. A lack of meeting my eyes in meetings, maybe. I get the impression he thinks I’m irresponsible because our first meeting involved the fact that I had misunderstood changing course requirements (or really, things that were talked about changing, but had never actually changed.)

Meanwhile, his course requirements are ridiculous, (assignments for a class which never meets at a commuter school must be handed in in hard copy?) he is never in his office during hours that he says he’ll be available for the (required!) meetings, and what rankles me most, he’s decided that we, the students, have to find another professor who is familiar with the topic that we’re working on and ask them to mentor us through our thesis. It’s like he’s refusing to teach the class, almost.

Sorry. I needed to get that off my chest.

Anyway, I don’t know what to do about it. I’m obviously not in any position where I can hold him accountable, for, say, not being in his office– but I’m pissed that when I make my three-hour roundtrip commute and he’s not there, it’s me that’s held accountable for not meeting with him. How can I get this relationship with my professor back on track?

One of the things I do notice is that classes tend to feed on their instructor’s energy. Sure, one group might not be as willing to step in and talk as another, and different methods would work better with different folks, but I feel like how much energy the instructor brings to the table really affects the tone of the class.

The vast majority of my favorite classes were with a professor who did two main things. First, they were deeply passionate about what they were teaching, and it showed. Secondly, they delighted in the students doing the subject, too.

I think, as far as the latter is concerned, one of the worst things a professor (or any teacher, really) is be down on their students. Some of the worst classes I ever had, either the professor asked for (but shot down) discussion, or they simply showed contempt for their class.

I can usually tell which professors are there because they like teaching (or, happily take on teaching as a proviso to their researching), and which professors see teaching as a burden that they just have to deal with.

I’m sort of babbling on, though, so I shall stop.

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