Instruction from the Student Point of View

Author: Cynthia Holcomb, Education Specialist: Elementary Science

In October of 2014 I read an article published online by the Washington Post. The title grabbed my attention: “Teacher spends two days as a student and is shocked at what she learns.”  The author, Valerie Strauss, reported how passive her role had been in the learning process and how lethargic she felt throughout the day. She concluded three key ideas to consider for effective instructional design. Upon reflection, I think there are some quick but powerful ways to make instruction more meaningful and engaging for students.

The Author’s Key Takeaway #1: Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

The author reported students literally sit down the entire school day, except for the brief walk to change classes. Teachers, though, are standing in front of the room, passing out materials, and collecting papers. It gives the illusion of an active classroom.

The author discovered it took a conscious effort not to fidget or daydream. She longed for activity, realizing it sacrifices teaching time to do so; but if students are lethargic and not absorbing most of the content anyway, lectures are probably not very effective.

What does that tell us as educators? Should there be a hands-on or movement-driven activity in each class? In the classroom, we can keep our student active by using the Think-Meet-Share-Create technique. In this activity, the teacher poses a question to the class. Each student thinks of his response to the question and jots down his answer. Next, students get up to meet with a partner. They take turns sharing their responses.  Before returning to their seats, partners create a new answer that is superior to their individual answers. Students get a chance to get up and move, they get a chance to talk, and content is still the primary focus.

The Author’s Key Takeaway #2: High school students sit passively during approximately 90 percent of their classes.

The author discovered that students rarely speak in class. The teacher lectures, or there is a test or an individual assignment, or one student is presenting information or called to the board to solve a problem. The typical student’s day is spent passively absorbing information.

Sitting in itself was tiring, but it’s compounded by trying to absorb information without discussing or interacting with it.  We can use the Rule of Ten and Two to take students out of the passive role. For every ten minutes of lecture or exposure to new content, students need at least two minutes to talk to each other about the information. It’s like a stick of gum. You have to chew it to get something out of it. Provide two-minute breaks for students to clarify, restate, or quiz each other over content. When students have a chance to process information in different ways, they are more apt to make connections.

The Author’s Key Takeaway #3: Students feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

Teachers know that they have a set amount of time to teach and need to use it wisely, and as an offshoot, students are told frequently be quiet and pay attention. In addition, every educator has experienced several students in a row asking the same question about as assignment. It is annoying to explain the same thing repeatedly, but students often ask questions as a way to seek reassurance.  When teachers reply with sarcasm, impatience, or annoyance it sabotages the learning and reinforces disappointment; that’s not a good feeling to have as a learner. Ask yourself these questions to evaluate the climate of your classroom:

  • Do I speak hastily, calmly, clearly? Do I nag?
  • Do I spend more time disciplining or encouraging my students?
  • Do I respect students even if I’m annoyed? Am I consistent in my responses?
  • How would my students describe me most of the time?

My Key Takeaway

It is a given that teachers work hard, but it’s often hard to be a student as well. A few changes in lesson design can improve the student experience so that that there are more engaged, alert, and balanced learners sitting (or standing) in our classes.

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