Trust your students and they will trust you

Adam Longcroft

Category: Anglia Learning & Teaching

5 September 2017

Teaching in Higher Education (HE) can be a hugely rewarding experience. However, most of us teaching in HE found our way into this role because we had previously built up a considerable body of discipline-specific expertise via our research.

As a landscape historian, when I first started teaching as a PhD student my first thought was to think about what I wanted to teach (content), rather than how I was going to teach it (pedagogy). I was familiar with my subject, but was less than confident in designing a pedagogical approach that would ensure that the students learnt what I wanted.

Looking back on those first experiences, I now realise that my approach was strongly tutor-centred, rather than student-centred – too much of me talking and students listening passively. Talking to postgraduates, who have been teaching over the past few years, has taught me that they share the same anxieties about pedagogy. Even experienced lecturers will privately admit to feelings of anxiety or even dread when faced with the challenge of teaching complex material to 200+ students in a lecture theatre. The more intimate ‘seminar’ class can also present challenges of a different kind, as can lab sessions, workshops and fieldwork.

As I continue to blog, I’ll be sharing my own very personal set of tips for success that draw on my experiences of teaching diverse students in diverse contexts over a 25-year period. It’s my hope that these will be useful for both experienced colleagues and those new to teaching in the sector, and that each will kick-start a dialogue with colleagues and a further sharing of excellent ideas and innovative practice. If there is a single theme that will characterise this series of blogs, it’s a concern to maximise the engagement and, most importantly of all, the learning of our students.

My first tip is a very simple one, but one that can often get overlooked in the module design process and the understandable emphasis on getting learning outcomes and assessment and content ‘right’. It is to trust your students. This might sound odd, yet all too often we choose to lecture at students and go into transmission mode rather than build active learning and experiential learning into our teaching. It’s easy, of course, to argue that with hundreds of students in front of you, lecturing makes pedagogical sense. This is simply not true. Research has shown that lectures are, in reality, a highly ineffective medium for building deep learning. Experience shows that there are actually many different ways in which we can engage large numbers of students in active and highly participative activities that build profound learning.

Trust is a key factor in the success learning equation. Without it, the temptation is to look upon students as passive recipients of wisdom - vessels to be filled with information – rather than active collaborators in a learning journey. Trusting in your students isn’t therefore merely a desirable thing to embody in your pedagogical approach, it is, in fact, the key to making the transition from a tutor-centred to a student-centred practitioner. You have to trust your students if you’re going to place the emphasis on them constructing their own learning through a series of in-class or out-of-class learning experiences. You have to trust them to engage with and support each other if you are going to build group-work and peer learning opportunities into your modules, and into the activities that happen in the spaces between taught sessions – i.e. in the world of VLE discussion threads and dialogues via varied forms of social media.

The concept of partnership with students is now well-established, along with concepts like students as producers. But these won’t get us very far unless we trust our students. And only when we demonstrate that trust are we likely to acquire their trust and their respect. We share common goals with our students. They want to do well, to get good marks, to develop their expertise and insights, and leave with a good quality degree. We want the same things.

Try to treat your students as collaborators in a unique, exciting, and challenging learning journey. Some students may find this unsettling, but persevere. Show that you have confidence in them, and get to know them as well as you possibly can. Give them opportunities to work with you – i.e. give them opportunities to co-develop learning resources, participate fully in the learning process, and in refining it for the future. Give them opportunities to learn independently and to learn from each other. Trust them to assist in enhancing the content and delivery of the module in future by inviting their feedback collectively and individually on a regular basis. In short, develop a working partnership with your students in which the balance of power is more equitable, and in which the relationship is more one of equals, in which each partner brings something unique and different to the learning journey.

This blog was original published on SEDA. Read the original.


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