Everyone has a different way of studying and learning new material. As an educator, I was often guilty of creating lessons plans that favour my preferred learning style. As Socrates said, “Knowing thyself is the height of wisdom,” but in today’s higher education system it is a wise educator who first learns about his or her students.
A few years ago I was asked to teach a basic business course to students in a fairly new program. I asked the program coordinator to describe the type of students who enrolled in his program, and what he needed the students to know by the end of the course to succeed in future courses.
He told me that they were very creative, but needed confidence. They had no business experience, were between 18 and 25 and needed to know how to create a business plan. Most of the students hadn’t yet chosen an area of specialization, and were still exploring their options.
With this sparse information, I created 13 weeks worth of lesson plans, assignments, and activities that I hoped would appeal to the students and teach them how to create a business plan a prepare for a career as a freelancer.
The course was a near disaster. Even if I had more information about the students, I still would not have succeeded. I made one critical mistake: I put myself in their shoes, and then created everything based on how I learn best.
I knew I had lost them early in the semester, and the course had quickly turned into painful experience for both my learners and myself. I had to do something … and quickly.
It was the forth week of class and my students sat slumped in their seats. They were disengaged and bored. They clearly weren’t learning and I wasn’t giving them the education they had paid for.
After the class’s student presentation, I offered some feedback, which was taken with a nod of the head and nothing more. The student returned to her seat and I stood in front of a class of 30 disengaged learners who looked like they wanted to be anywhere but in my class.
“This isn’t working for you, is it?” I asked. One or two heads lifted from the desktops where they had been dozing moments before. But no one answered.
“You’re not enjoying. You’re not learning anything.” I paused. “This sucks for both you and me, so let’s fix this.”
I began asking them questions about what they liked about the program, what they wanted to learn, what they were interested in. For the first time, they began to participate in a class discussion. But I knew that some of them were reserved and weren’t comfortable criticizing my course or me … so I did it for them.
I told them I didn’t like the presentations because they were too rigid in format, which was my fault. Then I challenged them to think about how to make the presentations more interesting while keeping the same grade value.
This was a new beginning for the course. They gave me ideas about what they were interested in, what they liked to do, and how they liked to present. I simply gave them boundaries (topic, presentation time, and grade value) and together we worked out the parameters of the presentation assignment, and following assignments.
I’d taken a leap of faith in a brainstorming session with my learners and gave them most of the responsibility for shaping the course delivery and content. The more we worked together, the more the classes became an interactive and fun in a positive learning atmosphere.
One the final day of class, each of the students had to present a business proposal that took in many of the elements we had discussed throughout the course. The proposals were outstanding because the lessons and assignments that lead up to the proposal had meaning to the students. This was their course, not mine.
My reward was having almost all the students thank me for a unique and fun learning experience.
From these students I learnt a very important lesson about teaching: Giving students the opportunity to provide input into a course structure creates enthusiasm for learning, builds student confidence, and it helped me open up to the possibilities student created curriculum.