Posts tagged college,

Posted 3 years ago

Being a Student

by Steve Markoff

Assistant Professor,

Accounting, Law, and Taxation

Montclair State University

As a good friend of mine (and excellent teacher) Joe Hoyle of University of Richmond says, “If you are always the king, it is very difficult to understand what it is like to be a peasant.”  Sometimes it is oh so easy for us to forget what it’s like to be sitting in one of those chairs facing the front of the room, listening to someone spout knowledge about a topic that he or she has been an expert in for perhaps 30 years or more.  Being in charge is a very comfortable feeling.   Sometimes, the only way to understand what it’s like is to literally walk a mile in their moccasins.  So, that’s what I did, and I made some very interesting observations not just about my students, but about my own teaching that I feel are worth sharing.

I’ve always loved learning as much as teaching.  I rarely read a book or watch a TV show unless there is something I can learn.  So, one thing I did to segue into full-time university teaching, was to go back to school and take a college course or two.  Of course, I first chose something that I always loved and wanted to learn more about – astronomy.  I took this course for credit and for a grade, not auditing.  Of course, it did not take much in the way of teacher motivation to get me to tear into the textbook as I was super interested.  Yet I found it kind of odd to be sitting on the other side.  I would wonder “why did the professor say this or skip that?”  I felt some degree of anxiety about raising my hand to ask a question if I wanted to engage in some additional learning.  Oh, and let’s not forget the stress of studying for and taking the two midterms!   I was so nervous to walk up to the front of the lecture hall to get my Scantron card in front of all the students when the professor called my name.  And the heartbreak of getting a 98% and immediately turning to the question I got wrong to see if it was a mistake!  I was determined to get 100% on the next midterm and the final.  And while it was interesting to emotionally and physically get back into what the undergraduate students are facing, something was missing, and I knew what it was – I was taking a course in a subject that I really loved and had wanted to learn even more about for decades!  Preparing for lectures and reading every single word in the textbook, along with the optional software, was an absolute joy.  I figured that, in order to get a real picture of what a typical student goes through, I was going to do what they have to do -  take a course in a subject that I had no background in, had little working knowledge of and which I really didn’t find interesting in the least.  So I chose a physics course. Accounting and physics, what a combo!

The joy I had felt opening up my textbook to do the assigned readings suddenly became laborious work.  I kept asking myself “why was I even doing this?”.  Instead of being prepared ahead of time, I rushed at the last moment to do the assigned work for class.  In fact, I even showed up once without having done it.  I considered not going to class that day. 

I became easily confused as the textbook presented what seemed to be a never-ending group of formulas.  The lectures didn’t help either.  The professor proceeded to turn the lights down as we listened and watched the PowerPoint.  Oh my, staying awake was very hard.  If I had some popcorn, I would be all set!  When I raised my hand to ask a question, I felt almost silly.  Was I the only one with this question?  Why did others seem to understand this and not me?  The professor’s explanation rarely helped, but I didn’t want to hold up the class. I remember being so confused that I wouldn’t even ask a question.

When it came to the test, I wasn’t wondering if I got 100% either.  Finding time to study seemed difficult – everything else seemed more important.  It’s amazing how many other things there are to do when the alternative is studying for a class in a subject that isn’t interesting and that you don’t really want to learn.

If all this kind of sounds familiar, but from the other side of the podium, take heart.  From this exercise – by being a student – the one without the knowledge – I came away with some very important things that have improved my teaching:

  1.  Respecting my students for what they are, rather than being frustrated that they aren’t what I think they should be.  It’s very easy when I am the expert in the classroom.  Things that are obvious to me might be total mysteries to my students.  Sometimes, they might appear to be unable to make what seems to be the simplest connections.
  2.  The importance of creating a big enough “WHY”.  The big difference between the astronomy and the physics was my personal “WHY” – in the first case I understood at a very deep level why I wanted to learn the material in the course.  In the physics course, I wasn’t there to really learn it.  From this, I’ve discovered that, as the leader of the group, I have tremendous power over how my students perceive the material.  Getting them to become engaged and really WANT TO soak up the knowledge is my most important task from day one.
  3.  The importance of stepping stones and sequencing.  In the physics course, I noticed a definite pattern in the class.  When the pace moved too slow, more people seemed bored – even me!  Sometimes though, it seemed like things were moving too fast, and then it became frustrating.  Furthermore, I noticed quite a few times that I couldn’t follow something, only to find the missing link a little while later.  As an expert in my own area, it’s often difficult to know what the proper spacing of the key learning points is for the students, and what the proper sequence should be.

I now look at my students with much more awareness.  I learned a bit more patience if they don’t grasp the concepts immediately, and that I have to be flexible in this area.  I learned to respect them for what they ARE, and see them as they CAN BE.   And I’m a lot more careful about putting together the learning steps and trying to be aware about how far apart they are, and what order they are in.