Living the Student Experience – Donna Ellis

student1In 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.

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Donna Ellis

Donna Ellis has supported the teaching development of Waterloo faculty members and graduate students since 1994. In her role as Director, she oversees the development and delivery of all the Centre for Teaching Excellence programming and services, which include individual faculty consultations; events directed at graduate students, new faculty, and established faculty regarding face-to-face teaching, blended learning, and emerging technologies; online resources; curriculum and program review consultations; and research support services. Donna has a PhD from Waterloo’s Management Sciences program and completed her dissertation research on instructional innovations. She also has an MA in Language and Professional Writing from Waterloo, and has taught in the Speech Communication program. Donna, along with her husband, spends time away from work raising three fine boys.

2 thoughts on “Living the Student Experience – Donna Ellis”

  1. There’s nothing quite like being a student… I can really connect with your comments, Greg, about how we can also learn about our own teaching by reflecting on our experiences in others’ classrooms. All of us who do teaching observations in CTE feel similarly, I think, when we see the many different and interesting methods that our faculty members and graduate students use in their teaching. We too learn so much by watching others. That’s one reason why we have the Open Classroom series where award-winning teachers invite others to sit in on a class and then join them for a post-class discussion. It’s another great way to help us reflect on our teaching. Thanks for sharing your comments 🙂

  2. I thought this was another excellent post for the CTE blog.

    I took a 100 level French course and taught a 100 level Math course last semester. Through reliving the student experience, I did develop a greater sense of empathy for the first year undergraduate student. I was reminded of what having to study for an hour every day (for one course) feels like, and could see (from the perspective of a student) the importance of staying on top of my assignments.

    My french instructor was also very resourceful, and I experienced a wide variety of teaching strategies and assessment methods implemented effectively on a regular basis. And so taking this course also helped me reflect on my own teaching style, in addition to practicing another language.

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