Teach Them What They Do Not Know

When I began to teach the United States survey course in Utah several years ago, I noticed that many of my students were not prepared to complete homework for my class and avoided participating during class.  Besides struggling with critical thinking and document analysis, which I expected, my students did not know how to conduct responsible research, when and how to include citations, how to take notes, to read a textbook or an assigned reading, or how to format papers and assignments, and most were unwilling to participate in class discussions.  What surprised me the most was that when in doubt, many students chose not to submit assignments rather than to seek help. As the semester wore on, I became frustrated and began to lament the broken public education system. I knew I was not alone as I listened to colleagues share similar frustrations as we chatted in the hall or when I read posts and tweets on social media. I will not pretend that I did not complain about the situation.  But I also realized that it was up to me to adjust my teaching style and assignments to remedy the situation. As their instructor, I needed to provide my students with the opportunity to practice the skills they needed to learn American history and to succeed as a college student.

Here’s the bottom line; I assumed that my students came to my class with the same skill-set I did when I began my undergraduate journey.  This was a mistake. I know I am not alone in using this line of thinking. As a first-generation college student from the second poorest county in Colorado I often found myself unsure of the language and expectations of academia. I too had encountered professors in my undergraduate and Ph.D. program who assumed that I had the same educational background as my peers.  How frustrating it was for me!  To make the situation worse, I did not have the vocabulary I needed to articulate to my professors why I struggled.  While this was—and is still—a disadvantage for me, I could choose to give my students the benefit of the doubt and design my course to help them avoid the pitfalls that caused me so much grief.

To do this, I had to understand why my students were struggling. Sure, I could have tailored a midterm or end-of-semester student evaluation, but my students needed help then!  Not after-the-fact.  So, I walked into class and asked them a series of questions, “Why are you all struggling so much? Why don’t you complete your homework?  Why won’t you answer questions or participate in class discussions?”

I want to pause for a second to admit that this line of questioning did place me in a vulnerable position.  I mean, they could have yelled, “It’s you!  You are a terrible instructor!” I was willing to face their criticism because I wanted them to enjoy American history.  I wanted them to be confident enough to discuss the past and to make mistakes and to learn how to correct misunderstandings.  In summation, their success was more important than my ego.

To my surprise, the majority were willing to share their struggles.  Several said they did not complete homework because they were used to extra credit assignments saving their grade at the end of the semester. Others said that their instructors usually told them what to write in their notes and what information would be on the exam.  Others said that they did not know how to answer my questions but that they enjoyed the information I presented.

Blah.  What a list of issues! I had to figure out what to do to meet as many of their needs as possible.

At first, I considered adding additional assignments but quickly abandoned this idea. I wanted to watch their progress in real time and give them the opportunity to ask questions. One way I did this was by creating the following activity. At the beginning of class, I write six topics on the board. Underneath each topic, I write “Who/What/Where/When/Why.”  I then break the class into six groups and I provide each one with a topic. Then they work together to fill in the categories for their topic.  This process takes roughly ten minutes during which time I walk around the room listening to their discussions and answering questions. During my “lecture” I weave the six topics into my discussion and each group has a chance to represent their findings. For example, I ask, “Who has the Stamp Act? What did you all discover about this event?” Students from that group then give me the information they recorded in their notes while I write on the board and fill in missing material or aspects they may have overlooked.  The other students in the class take notes as I write.

This activity has multiple benefits. Every student has the opportunity to participate in class discussions, they improve their note-taking skills, and they learn a more effective way to read and study. They also can understand change over time and space as we compare and contrast events written on the board. I have found that I rarely assign this activity after midterm. By this point, most students have the confidence to participate in class discussions without group work.

In conclusion, it is essential to avoid assuming our students have all the skills they need to succeed in our class. In short, we need to teach them what they do not know. This sounds obvious, but sometimes our students are not as prepared as we expect. Since I began adapting my delivery to fit the needs of each class, I have noticed that more students submit homework and attendance remains steady throughout the semester. More importantly, my students can think critically about United States history and apply the information they learn to present situations.


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