Good teachers already know that we learn from our students every day. They teach us things about our world, technology, and sometimes even our own area of expertise, but perhaps the most important lessons our students can teach us are about ourselves. Teachers are humans and that means we come pre-installed with our own ideas and beliefs and every year we teach those ideas and beliefs become more ingrained. Sometimes that is a good thing – when it comes to rules of punctuation, grammar, and human kindness we don’t need to reinvent the wheel every year. However, we should regularly examine our practices, lessons, assignments, and general beliefs about teaching and our students, or we will become those very teachers we swore would be our guides for what-not-to-do. This need to examine our practice and learn from our students is one of the primary reasons why National Writing Project teachers are expected to conduct classroom research (see Defining Teacher Research and Teacher Research Crucial). Classroom research can also provide support for pedagogical and policy change beyond your classroom as sharing the findings can influence the teaching of others and perhaps even administration. There is also one simple reason to study your students – you might discover that you don’t know as much as you think you know.
As a Ph.D. student I began the practice of treating each semester’s students as a case study of sorts and would dutifully request IRB approval to collect data including pre-semester and post-semester surveys as well as selected student assignments (such as reflections and literacy narratives). Sometimes I conduct an intensive review of these materials (my dissertation and a few articles are one result) but usually my focus is one specific question at the moment. Recently as I began reviewing one set of data I discovered that some of what I thought I knew about my students is just wrong (or perhaps outdated might be the kinder way to describe it) and now I need to determine the implications for my teaching. Many teachers (or at least the ones in my circle of friends and mentors) read a lot of pedagogical theory and research. We can learn a lot from studies, such as the Stanford Study of Writing and Revisualizing Composition (recent studies that looked at the writing and writing lives of students), but ultimately those students are not our students. Every institution and every class has a unique student body and while I know my first-generation Appalachian students do have much in common with their counterparts they also have many differences and many unique characteristics simply because they live in Central Appalachia. And of course, there is the simple fact that humans are individual and unique in their own right.
My own classroom research focuses on two issues that are the core of my pedagogy: confidence and community. Here are a few things I learned about my students (during the Spring 2013 semester) that surprised me:
As the Stanford Study emphasized, my students come to college with a lot of writing experience. They wrote a lot in high school and most engaged in some form of personal writing within recent weeks. However, this experience is not always a good preparation for the kind of writing they will do in college. About 45% of my students had never written a long paper before taking my class – and I don’t consider my eight-page final paper a particularly “big” paper but now I understand why some students freaked out when they saw the initial requirement on the syllabus. In fact, only 30% of my students had written a paper of 10 or more pages and another 25% had written papers in the 6-9 page range. Most of those students had written these papers for an honors or advanced placement course which also speaks to the preparation of students not in these classes. How could they not find a long paper daunting if they had never written one before? Sadly my colleagues in college seem to be falling down in this area as well as only three of my students (15%) reported writing a long paper (10+ pages) and another three had written 6-9 page papers for other classes. Of course, the students surveyed were primarily in their first two years of college so they might encounter more substantial assignments before they are done.
I was pleasantly surprised that 85% of my students did come to me with high school experience writing research papers, but I also know after seeing the quality of the work they did for me that they still do not know how to work with sources (evaluating, selecting, citing and integrating into their own original work).
I was also surprised to learn how many of my students lack confidence and pride. I’ve always known that the majority of my students lack confidence and pride in their writing – after all, writing self-efficacy and writing apprehension is one of my primary research areas – but this lack of self-esteem rather caught me by surprise. Not only were my students not confident writers, but they did not have much confidence in themselves and their abilities in general. Their overall assessment of their writing abilities was 73.07% with only 4 out of the 20 expressing high levels of confidence. I found this daunting as my survey questions (based on the Writing Self-Efficacy Instrument developed by Shell, Murphy, and Bruning) focused on simple, basic writing tasks (write simple sentences, write a strong paragraph, etc.).
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises I found in my review of the initial background survey (my pre-test) was that my students entered the classroom expecting to find help and support from their classmates as a result of a sense of connection and community. This was a complete surprise to me as I know that students are often resistant/reluctant to peer revision and group work. I had always attributed that reluctance to a lack of classroom community spirit, but now I wonder. It certainly opens up some new ideas to explore when I plan my next class.
If I can learn this much from a simple pre-semester survey, what can you learn? What would you like to learn from and about your own students? And what can you do to improve your teaching as a result?