Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Do you want to know what works in education...ask your students

Research studies, professional development, graduate programs, articles, and more all talk about what works in education. Much of this is written by researchers and others that haven't been in a classroom in years, if ever. I find that much of their advice is good, but I often wondered what the students thought.

I am also an EMS-Instructor and CPR instructor. Both systems require that an evaluation form be filled out at the end of the course so that it can be used to improve the programs. I do this with my students also. I give them the evaluations at midterm's and finals and use the results to modify or change my teaching. The evaluation forms ask about the manner of teaching, how effective lectures, homework, projects, and labs were, how did they like the textbook, and what did they like about the class and what did they not like or want to change. I then look at the results and modify my teaching and the learning experiences based on the feedback I receive from the students.

Another way to get feedback is by using student focus groups. In your class, and in your school, get a group of students together and ask them what works for them in the classroom. Ask them to make a list of what teachers should and shouldn't do, and their best classes and teachers, and why, and their worst classes and why. This feedback can be invaluable to us as educators.

This week, I was a guest lecturer at the Alternate Route to Certification (ARC) program for science teachers. Connecticut uses ARC as a way to get people into teaching as a second career. It runs one program throughout the year on weekends and another one full time during the summer. The program is very successful. I am a graduate of CT's ARC program myself.

The Methods Instructor had some of his former students who just graduated from high school come to the session and talk to the soon-to-be-teachers. The students were very open about how they felt about things in school and what works and doesn't work. Here's a little summary of what they said. Much of what they said are things that teaching programs and good teachers already do, but it was nice to hear if from them.

All the students agreed that they want to be treated with respect and as adults. They all felt bad when a teacher would talk down to them. Along with this, the students stated that the teachers they like the most, and learned the most from, were the ones who got to know the students personally. By knowing the students' interests, home life, and activities outside the classroom, the teachers were able to connect their class to the students' live. The student's all agreed that this makes learning subjects easier and more interesting. They also stated that teachers who make this connection with their students have less discipline issues in their class and the students feel comfortable coming to the teacher for help with school work or other problems.

A point that came up multiple times was that the teacher should know the subject matter and be enthusiastic about it. If the teacher is reading from slides or a textbook, the students feel that the teacher doesn't know the material that well and loses credibility with the students. They also said that when a teacher is enthusiastic and excited about a subject, the students get excited too.

An interesting comment made by one student, and agreed on by the rest of the students, was not to start the first day of class with a list of rules and work to do. The students know the rules, even if they don't always follow them, and giving them a big list of rules the first day overwhelms the students and they tend not to pay attention to them. Their suggestion was to go over the syllabus, a couple of major points on class policies or procedures, and then spend time getting to know the students. I think that this is a great idea and I am changing my first day plan to reflect this idea. I'm thinking of using some kind of ice-breaker with the students so we can get to know each other.

The students all agreed that lecturing for a full class period does not work for them. Break it up a little with other activities. When it comes to PowerPoint, they all agreed that it is a good tool, but needs to be used carefully. They love having pictures, figures, and videos in the presentation, but said that too much text is distracting. No matter what a teacher says, the students will try to copy every word off the presentation. They suggested having the slides available to the students and keeping text to a minimum as good things to do.

Homework was a big issue for them. They all agreed that homework is necessary, but that some teachers really don't think about the homework that they give. The students mentioned that if a teacher gives too much homework, the students won't do it or won't be able to do it because of time constraints. They suggested that homework be given that is meaningful and helps the students learn, but they should have more than one night to work on it. Most high school students have sports, clubs, part time jobs, and 5 or 6 other classes to deal with, so time is tight. They will do the homework if the amount is more reasonable. They also stated that the teacher should go over the material before assigning homework, and then go over some problems when the homework is due. Having students do problems on the board, or help other students with the work is also a positive thing.

Some other topics discussed as positive things: teachers need to be available for extra help before or after school; use games for review - it makes it much more fun; for projects one big a marking period is perfect and let them pick their own partners to make it easier to work on outside of school; use the Internet as a resource - they all agreed that every teacher should have a web site with resources, class handouts, and a schedule on it.

They also want teachers to remember what it's like to be in school and be flexible with students. Allow students enough time to do their work, remember that they have other things outside of class, and that they have other classes.

I found this time with these students to be a great experience. I immediately started to think about my teaching and how their advice can help me be a better teacher and provide my students with a better experience.

Thanks to the Summer 2009 ARC Class, Methods Instructor Glenn Couture, and special thanks for their time and insight, recent high school graduates: Mike Bloom, Courtney Ellis, Liz McLean, Devan Yoder, Michelle Scatamacchia, Despina Sidiropoulos, Eric Heberton, and Rafique Vahora.

Please share your thoughts and ideas too!


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