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.