In my work as an educational developer, I look to the research literature to provide empirically based strategies to handle the myriad complex issues that we can all face in our teaching. But I also tend to draw on my experiences as a student. How would I like a course where I have three major assessments due in the last two weeks of the term when I have work to do for four other courses? How would I handle reading highly theoretical research articles in second year? To me, there’s a certain amount of teaching intuition that needs to stem from what it’s like to be a student. Most of us are a few years (or more) removed from that situation. So how can we regain that student experience?
I’m not suggesting that we go undercover like the American anthropologist who re-joined the student ranks to study the “typical” university experience (see My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student, by Rebekah Nathan). I am, however, suggesting that you may want to take a course or two again, just to remind yourself of what it’s like. But don’t go back to your own field of study: step outside of your comfort zone. English majors can learn a lot in operations research or economics courses (just ask my Management Sciences professors!). There’s nothing quite like sitting on the other side of the desk, taking notes, doing assignments, and writing exams (not setting them, but actually taking them!). In pursuit of my doctorate, I have returned to school after a substantial hiatus. I have been in classes where I was a “bottom feeder”, rather than my usual top part of the class. Have there been some uncomfortable times? You bet. But I have carried on, and I have learned a lot that helped me as a student, as a teacher, and as a teaching consultant.
For example, I have a new appreciation for those who struggle. I know how scary it can be to ask questions in class or during office hours when you don’t want to reveal how little you know. I understand student frustration when a course lacks clarity because I have grappled with assignments that have minimal or contradictory guidelines. I have relived the exhaustion that stems from staying up too late at night to study for an exam or finish off a paper and how that can affect my focus the next day in class (and at work!). I have felt the anxiety of being required to work with complete strangers and trusting that I will learn something valuable.
Experiences like these are all real and fresh and raw. And they have become part of who I am when I do my job and consult on course designs and end of term evaluations. So, if you want to heighten your awareness of how students experience your course, don’t just imagine what it’s like. Go back and become a student again. Even learning a new skill or hobby can count. The goal is to live the student experience rather than the teacher experience. It’s a humbling endeavour, and it provides insights that research articles typically do not capture.