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Highlights from “Teaching First-Year Students” Conversation – Communicating Expectations to Students

Posted by on Friday, April 23, 2010 in News.

On April 1, the CFT held a conversation on teaching titled “Teaching First-Year Students: Cognitive Challenges of the First Year.”   About twenty-five faculty, staff, and graduate students participated in the discussion.  Panelists at the session were Doug Christiansen (Dean of Admissions), Susan Kevra (French, American Studies), and Adam List (Chemistry).

One of the questions posed during the discussion was the following: What are some ways to better communicate our expectations for learning to our students? Below are answers suggested by workshop panelists and participants in response to this question, as summarized by CFT assistant director Derek Bruff.

  • More than one participant highlighted the need to address the issue of expectations head-on with students.  Be very clear what your expectations are for their learning, acknowledge that the students’ expectations might be different from your own, and describe the ways your expectations might differ from expectations for learning in other courses taken by the students.  This is an appropriate conversation for the first day of class, but it’s one that might need to be repeated throughout the semester.
  • During your class sessions, model for your students the kinds of thinking you expect them to demonstrate on exams and other assignments.  Make visible (or audible, at least) to the students your thought processes as you tackle problems of the kind they’ll see on their exams.  This can be challenging for experts in a discipline, since some problem-solving steps become intuitive as one’s expertise increases.  However, students need to “see” the kinds of thinking you expect of them if they are to know what your goals are for their learning.
  • From panelist Adam List: If your exams involve challenging multiple-choice questions, then ask students similar questions during class using a classroom response system (“clickers”).  Have the students respond to the clicker questions first on their own, then have them discuss the questions in pairs or small groups, then have them “vote” again.  Students will get a better idea of the kinds of exam questions you’ll be asking them, while also learning course material and providing you with feedback on their level of understanding.  They receive feedback on their own learning, too, and are in a better position to answer the question “How do I know what I don’t know?”
  • From panelist Adam List: Give students a quiz during the first week of classes titled “Things You Should Know from High School.” Students sometimes over-compartmentalize their learning, and this kind of quiz serves as a pointed reminder that they are expected to retain and use knowledge gained in past courses.  Also, students doing very poorly on this quiz are given an early warning that they will likely encounter further difficulties in the course without some kind of remediation.
  • From panelist Susan Kevra: Have students submit the notes they take during a class session once, perhaps soon after the first exam.  Evaluate the student notes and return them to the students in the next class session.  Have a conversation about good note-taking featuring an example or two of good note-taking.  This provides you an opportunity to make more explicit what kinds of things students should be taking away from your lectures, gives students models for note-taking processes that will help them, and provides you with some feedback on the clarity of your lectures.

For more on teaching first-year students, see the CFT’s teaching guide on first-years.

Image: “Megaphone head man” by Flickr user looking4poetry / Creative Commons licensed


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