This summer I went back to school. Well, not literally to a university or college, but to the experience of taking classes and learning something new for a prolonged period of time (five intense weeks!). Perhaps because of my experience in education, I couldn’t help but looking at this learning experience from both sides:
- as a student interested in learning the topic and wanting to understand concepts and theories, and
- as a teacher interested in the pedagogy used in the course, how the whole learning experience was put together, and the content was delivered.
Overall, the experience was interesting, although in a different way from what I had expected. While I did learn about the new topic, becoming a student again helped me really empathize with students’ needs and feelings. This fresh perspective helped me reflect on my own teaching practice and identify aspects that I could improve to deliver a more compelling and engaging experience for my students. The following are my reflections summarized as 10 tips that could be handy to support (any) students’ learning journey:
- Start with the bigger picture. Provide a general overview of what the course will be covered. The lack of this bigger picture or road map can make students feel lost and anxious as they cannot find connections between new knowledge and what they have already learned in the past. Even if the topic you are teaching is complex, at the beginning of the course, spend some time describing a clear picture of what they will learn and how concepts connect.
- Define clear learning goals. When it is unclear in your mind what you want students to take out of a class, students can end up a little confused. Make sure each class has a clear aim: such as learn a method, learn a foundational theory, practice new concepts. And then design activities or discussion topics to achieve or go deeper into those goals.
- Keep students motivated. Adult and higher education experiences could have quite different initial motivator factors: most likely adults attend courses because they want to learn about something they are interested in, while higher education students sometimes take courses even if they aren’t interested in the topic but because they have to. This difference can have a huge impact in learners’ motivation. However, the way content is delivered can also have a very similar effect in learners. For example, lack of variety in class structure or absence of visuals can decrease students’ level of engagement and motivation (even if they love the topic!). It is extremely hard also to engage students if all you do in class is reading verbatim what you have in front of you. As much as possible, paraphrase content, provide examples and share stories to help increase students’ level of attention and comprehension. Cognitively, these activities make it easier for students to connect incoming content with stored knowledge.
- Give breaks. I know this may seem obvious, but it isn’t always the case! Breaks are important to keep students attentive and learning. Avoid delivering new content (in monologue format) for more than 40 min in a row. If you are teaching a hands-on class where students are engaged in different activities (discussion, creating, writing, moving around), you can get away with fewer breaks.
- Use visuals to anchor meaning. I mentioned this point earlier: Spoken words alone are hard to grasp and remember. Draw mind maps, write lists, create rough visuals, anything to help students remember what you are talking about, see connections, and reflect.
- Prioritize learning by doing. As a student, just listening and taking notes can be exhausting, and hard to assess whether you are understanding what you are listening correctly. Any type of exercise is better than no exercises. With creativity, all topics can be made interactive and taught with activities. Give students the space to discuss and apply what they learn.
- Provide concrete guidelines. Working with new concepts can be hard at the beginning. To smooth this process and give students confidence, frameworks and step-by-step guidance are king! With time, students will make these frameworks their own and change them based on their needs.
- Respond to students’ questions. If you encourage questions in class, take the time to answer them. I know that time flies and often there isn’t enough to cover all topics, but when a student asks a question that strictly speaking falls a bit outside the topic you are explaining, I would strongly suggest providing some sort of answer rather than saying: well, we aren’t covering this here, so I can’t answer. You don’t need to give a 30-min response but even a short answer will help. Students asking questions shows interest and engagement; promoting this habit is essential.
- Help students understand, not memorize. Those who know me, know how little memory I have for names and words. So, rather than “studying by memory”, I first understand the concepts and then explain them with my own words. I promote this same habit in my classes by explaining the why and the rationale behind key concepts and theories, for example, why X is better than Y or Z; why X is not worth doing, etc.
- Find appropriate method to assess. I’m not a huge fan of quizzes as a means to assess students’ learning experience, because many students study just for the test and then forget all about it. If the goal is to assess whether a student understood new concepts, asking students to apply those concepts is an excellent option. This can take many forms, for example creating something, writing a project proposal or critically analysing an existing piece. Granted these projects can take a long time to mark and grade, but to me they provide a much more accurate indicator of students’ learning experience.
While some of the above tips may seem obvious and some may be more easily applicable when teaching design-related courses, it was really interesting to witness how important they are in practice, and how much their absence can influence the learning experience. In the future, I will try to be much more aware of these specific points to make the learning experience more fruitful for my students.