Walking a Mile in Our Students’ Shoes

By Flower Darby

Flower Darby -acue.orgHow long has it been since you were a student? When, if ever, have you taken a rigorous, online, graduate-level course? How well do you remember what it’s like to juggle school and work, to balance family demands and downtime, to process new concepts and complete challenging assignments?

Being a ‘student’ again in ACUE’s course allowed me and my faculty peers to gain fresh new insights. We learned a great deal from the concepts and techniques presented in the content-rich modules. However, many of us were transformed by the opportunity to walk a mile in our students’ shoes. Here are a few lessons, lessons that will shape who we are as teachers, that we learned from this unwritten curriculum.

Promote agency—and success—through choice

It is well known that offering assignment choice can increase motivation and learning. When we give our students a degree of control over the work we ask them to do, they see more relevance and engage more fully in their learning. This sounds good, but sometimes it is challenging to give up control, to allow students to have agency in their work. Often, designing assessments in this way requires more creativity and effort, more flexibility on our part. It can seem hardly worth the trouble.

But we were reminded of the importance and value of having a range of options to select from in order to meet expectations. Reviewing a number of techniques, implementing the one that best fit our content and class activities that week, even modifying or adjusting the technique to fit most effectively with our teaching and learning goals—for many of us, this made it eminently more possible to complete each module in meaningful ways.

Can you imagine if you offered 8, 10, 12 different options for your students to demonstrate their achievement of class learning objectives? How motivated would your students be as a result of all that choice? How confident would they be? How much more successful?

Flexibility is key

One of the biggest lessons we learned is that life happens. Despite our best intentions, sometimes unexpected circumstances get in the way of forward progress. To what degree can we build flexibility into our course requirements in order to help our students learn and succeed?

Many of our faculty experienced unanticipated challenges during the course. Aging parents fell ill. Homes were damaged by severe weather. Committee work took an unexpected toll on available time. Babies were hospitalized for unusual illnesses.

When our faculty missed a submission deadline because of a greater or lesser crisis, it reminded all of us of the importance of a little wiggle room. Our students are increasingly burdened by family obligations and pressures. Student anxiety is a major concern on college campuses today. Missing a deadline, or not meeting assignment expectations on the first submission, does not have to mean all is lost. We can build in options to allow students to catch up or to resubmit work until they achieve success. The learning that results—that initial ‘failure’ can lead to improved performance in the long run—is important in all realms of life, not just in college.

Encourage students through timely and supportive communication

I was a participant in the ACUE course, but I was also the lead campus facilitator. Part of my role was to help other participants stay on track. We found that two approaches in particular had significant impact: I publicly praised and recognized faculty for exemplary contributions, and I reached out privately with offers of help and support.

Shouldn’t we do the same thing for our students? Offer public encouragement and recognition, while conveying empathy and support as needed on an individual basis? My faculty peers responded well to this dual approach; indeed, many told me that my public comments and my individual assistance were primary motivating factors in the course. If we, as learners, benefit from personal communication, how much more will our students?

Above all, empathy

Teaching excellence requires empathy. As students in the ACUE course, we were reminded anew of the competing demands we all face. Coursework was not the only thing on our plates—and neither is our classwork the only thing our students are dealing with. Keeping that firmly in view, reminding ourselves that our students are people with lives outside of our classroom, with joys and troubles and successes and pressures, will help us meet them where they are.

When we relate to our students as people, when we put ourselves in their shoes and think creatively about what they need to succeed, we are better teachers. Period.

Flower Darby is adjunct faculty member and a senior instructional designer at Northern Arizona University. She is the author, with James M. Lang, of Small Teaching Online, forthcoming from Jossey-Bass in 2019. She completed ACUE’s program in December 2017.

2 thoughts on “Walking a Mile in Our Students’ Shoes”

  1. I think this raises a very cogent point and one well worth considering. There are a few differences in the situations, though. I do not need to complete my ACUE modules on any specific time scale because the course is not semester-bound, whereas when I teach my courses, I have to submit grades for everyone by a certain date. Leaving multiple incomplete grades to be cleaned up in a following semester while also teaching whole new cohorts creates even more work for my highly limited time. Similarly, whomever is creating the ACUE modules is probably hired full time to do just that (and there are probably multiple people doing it; can someone from ACUE confirm?). Creating and grading multiple assessments for each of my several preps each semester is extraordinarily demanding, especially considering that teaching is only one part of my multi-faceted career. Does anyone have concrete suggestions about how to implement the described time-related and assignment-related flexibility and still remain sane?

    1. Hi Meg, In response to your question about ACUE, when we built our “Effective Teaching Practices” course, we had a small team working on the content development, alongside experts in pedagogy, teaching center directors, and our founding partners. We do have team members engaged in course updates and new content development, with our new modules in embedding career guidance into courses and the best practices for online instruction, but this is a portion of the work that these individuals do at ACUE.

      As I’m also an adjunct instructor, I can share that I do build flexibility into my course and still meet the semester deadlines. A few things I do: One, when I plan my course schedule for students, I build in some “buffers” so that if students need an extra day on an assignment, I can push back the deadline by one class period and still have time to grade. I also offer flexibility in certain assignments. One assignment is that students complete discussion questions based on the readings. If I have 12 discussion questions for the semester, I allow students to choose the 8 they want to respond to. For me, it makes grading their responses easier and means that, during any given class, the odds are good that at least a handful of students responded to that day’s discussion question and will be prepared to engage in the discussion having written about the reading. I also offer choice with one of students’ short paper topics (I include 2-3 prompts for students to choose between, which makes grading their papers less tedious) and allow students to choose their own research topics based on their areas of interest (I do approve the topics first). Students have indicated that these choices have been motivating, and they haven’t been a burden to me.

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