What Students Say

A note to myself

I believe that I can be a better educator through reflection and active engagement. I believe that I can better serve my students and colleagues by being honest with them. I believe that reflection, engagement, and honesty can help other educators improve their praxis, should they feel so inclined.

It has always been about the students

A note to students

Every term, I see evidence that you may well have been misled. I’m sorry for that; truly sorry. As an educator, I find it disheartening— indeed, upsetting— that you’ve been led to believe that your education is about what the educator does; it’s not. Education is about what learners do. You are responsible for your education. You are the only person who can be responsible for your education. As an educator, I can open doors, but only you can decide to walk through. Only you can take the steps necessary to ensure a meaningful experience for yourself, your classmates, and your instructors.

I am not here to give you answers; finding answers is your task. I am not here to set low expectations so that you can easily meet them; quite the opposite: I am here to help you to realize your potential and to prepare you to make your contribution to the world. I want to see you rise to the challenge of engaging with the world around you in new and exciting ways that will surprise and delight you… and me!

As an educator, I am driven by a desire to see my students grow into interesting and skilled individuals; as a human being, my future— and yours— depends on it. I need you to be an engaged, ethical, and thoughtful agent in the world. I need you to solve problems in ways no one has even considered before.

Most of all, I want to be honest with you. I want to be honest about what I expect of you and about what you should expect of me. I want to be honest with you because— as a human being— you deserve it. Yet, there’s risk to my being honest: you might take offense; my colleagues might take offense. But as an educator, my contribution to the world is to invest my effort in your future; I’m in this for the long term. I’m inspired by former students who go on to do great things. I’m motivated not by this week’s test scores, but by the impact that my students can have on the world, if they choose to engage honestly, fully, and compassionately.

That’s my goal; those are my reasons for being honest with you now: I’m hoping to improve the classes I teach and I’m hoping you’ll take up the challenge of improving the world in which we live, for your benefit and mine. With that in mind, I offer these examples of things with which students have filled my inbox and my office hours. Many of them are direct quotes from students, some are paraphrases, and all are authentic.

What Students Say My Response
Why do I need to take this class? As a department, we’ve tried to identify the graduation criteria that will help you continue your growth as an interesting person, job candidate, and graduate school candidate. From that starting point, we work backward to identify the underlying attitudes, skills, and knowledge you’ll need in order to attain those graduation criteria and use those as the basis for designing courses.

Necessarily, we do that behind a veil of ignorance: we don’t know who will be applying or accepting our offers of admission to the program; our requirements are meant to be fair to the broadest likely set of applicants to the program. Still, some of the requirements may be redundant for you, given your prior experience, knowledge, and skills. If that’s the case, ask whether there’s a method established for testing out of the course. There may not be, for any number of reasons.

Understand that our goals for students are not entirely about the knowledge you will acquire; if they were, you could just read a book and be done with your education. We’re also interested in the attitudes and skills related to collaboration, problem-solving, and teamwork you’ll develop and the relationships with your peers and with faculty that develop as a result of your efforts. Can you participate as a team member who supports the goals of the team, supports other team members as they develop their skills, and brings a diverse knowledge-base to bear on a given task?

I shouldn’t have to study anything I don’t already know, that I’m not already interested in, or that I disagree with. Really? Then why are you in school?

I assure you, most things in the world— indeed in the universe— are things you do not yet know. That should make them worthy of study in your mind, not unworthy.

You study a topic to discover to what degree it interests you. You can’t reasonably decide what interests you until you’ve studied it for a time.

If you’re only going to consider ideas with which you already agree, then why bother studying at all? How can you hope to understand why you hold the beliefs you do— and why others hold their beliefs— unless you consider ideas that contrast with what you already believe?

Your class fits my schedule… can I register for it? While you probably can, it might not be in your best interest to do so. You should be taking classes that will broaden your perspective, enlighten you, enhance your skills, and inspire you. If the most expressive thing you can say about my class is that it fits your schedule, then perhaps you should be looking for a different class; one that inspires you.
This class isn’t in my major, so it can’t be my first priority. Excellent; priorities are important. However that neither excuses nor gives exceptional status to you handing in sub-standard or late work. The standards for the course are the standards, regardless of the reason you take a class. Anything else would be unfair to the other students.

Exceptions may be made for events outside your control: health crises, legal obligations, etc.. However, you control your course load, time management, hobbies, travel plans, etc.

I work 60 hours a week, volunteer with the little league, and am taking 12 classes. Your other commitments— however extensive— don’t change your obligations to this class. You decided to be in college at this time in your life and you decided to be in this class.

It is not your instructor’s job to lower the course expectations to fit your busy schedule. Rather, it’s their job to hold everyone— themselves included— to a high standard in order to ensure both a quality education— would you want anything less?— and to encourage your personal growth.

Everyone with an advanced academic degree has had to figure out how to balance school, work, and home life. It’s difficult, but many people before you have done it. Be inspired by them, ask them how they’ve managed, and find a balance that works for you.

My work is missing/late/weak because… There’s always an excuse— valid or not— that simultaneously absolves oneself of responsibility and casts blame on others, on forces of nature, on time constraints, what have you.

I’ve found that a good habit to adopt is to avoid excuses altogether and instead directly accept responsibility.

The software sucks. It’s more reasonable to assume that the software is simply different from that to which you’re accustomed. But that’s OK; you’re here to learn. You’ll be confronted with new tools for the rest of your life; consider this a chance to adapt now.

If there are problems with the software, don’t shift blame for your experience to the software. Instead, take responsibility for the experience: (1) identify the problem, (2) describe how to replicate it reliably, (3) confirm that the problem occurs for others, and (4) think of 2 or 3 ways it could be made better. You can then share that information with your instructor, the software designers, etc.

The textbook sucks. This is more likely. However, all textbooks are problematic, in my experience. So, I usually don’t use textbooks; I prefer simply books. Moreover, I prefer books that I want to own because I think they’re good enough that I spend my own money to own them.

If the book(s) required for your class aren’t written in a way that matches your learning needs, ask for and seek out other high-quality resources on the topic. The instructor, reference librarians, and the Web are there to help.

Ultimately, you must be responsible for your own experience.

The course sucks. Despite our best efforts to design meaningful learning experiences for students, we do sometimes fail to deliver the learning experience we had intended. Sometimes, the mixture of instructional-style, learning-style, content, time, and place don’t come together in the ways that educators hope.

Educators try not to take it personally, and you should follow suit. A poor learning experience for you is likely a disheartening teaching experience for the instructor, too. Or it might be a positive learning experience for others in the class.

If you have suggestions for improving the experience, discuss them politely and constructively with your instructor. Good instructors are always thinking about how to improve their courses and concrete suggestions from students about how to improve the learning experience are usually welcome.

A positive learning experience consists of the students and the instructor working together to create a healthy and inspiring learning community.

The instructor sucks. Unfortunately, this happens, too. If you believe that the instructor is doing a poor job, but wants to do well, meet them to discuss your observations about the class, your learning needs, and your suggestions for improvement. Most instructors want to do well by students, but, like you, are pressed for time and can have difficulty stepping back to see a larger perspective of the class.

If you believe, however, that the instructor in being unfair to students or is in some other way professionally deficient, consider discussing it with the department chair. Again, try to be constructive and specific: what is the instructor doing or not doing that undermines the learning experience? How could it be corrected?

The above statements all seek to shift responsibility away from the learner…to which I say: Your education isn’t happening to you. You’re an active participant in the experience and you have choices about how you engage– or fail to engage— with that experience. Having a sense of agency about your experience will allow you to have better learning experiences, even under difficult circumstances. My advice: Don’t be passive.

The bottom line: you are responsible for your experience. What can you do to make it a better experience for you, your classmates, and your instructor?

The questions on the exam/quiz/homework didn’t come from the textbook. That’s probably true. If they did, then I would be asking you only for the most shallow learning possible: pattern matching phrases in questions to phrases in the book. It would also suggest that I’m delivering the shallowest learning experience possible: just copying & pasting the publisher’s content.

I hope for more from myself and my students: I want you to be synthetic thinkers [1]. You need to be able to examine the evidence, deconstruct it to understand its critical aspects, and reconstruct it into novel solutions to novel problems.

Most of life’s important questions aren’t answered in any textbook.

The questions on the exam/quiz/homework don’t seem to be about the same core concepts as the lecture/textbook/readings/discussions. That is a reasonable and sophisticated concern. Please, bring it to your instructor’s attention.

If you’re right, then the instructor may be doing a poor job. If you’re wrong, then there’s a disconnect between the way your instructor is evoking concepts and the concepts you’re expecting and you should work that out together.

Why are you being so critical of my work? Accept that any work can be improved; try not to invest your sense of self in any particular version of your work. Instead, assume your critics are trying to help you improve your work. Accept responsibility for the state of your work (“you’re right; thank you for making me aware of it”); ask your critic how you could have done better, if they haven’t offered (“do you have any suggestions for how I could have improved it?”); consider those alternative courses of action carefully; and strive then to do better in the future.
I had to learn it on my own. Only you can learn; your instructor can’t do it for you. So, yes; absolutely. When students say that they had to learn the material on their own, I consider it a compliment.

You are a student and your jobs as a student are (1) to learn to ask interesting questions— a very difficult thing to do— and (2) to learn to answer questions on your own. Your instructor’s job, as an educator, is to provide you with learning experiences that challenge you to become more than you were when you joined their class.

This is hard. See I had to learn it on my own.

Learning is difficult: biologically we know that learning expends metabolic energy; it’s not just time spent on-task.

I’m confused. Excellent! That means there’s a question rolling around in your head. Your task is to ask the best questions you can so that your instructor and your classmates can help clarify your thinking and their own.
I’m frustrated. Again, that’s not a bad thing. That means that you’ve found something that you haven’t mastered, yet. Break it down. Try to build up a mental model [2] for how the thing works. Try some boundary cases to test your model. Figure out some aspect of the phenomenon about which you can ask interesting questions.
I’ve spent 10 hours on this one question! Chances are that you’re not approaching the problem the way your instructor expected. Assessments are meant to be challenging, but (usually) not impossible. You should be asking questions— of yourself, your classmates, and your instructor— rather than working in isolation.

Step back. What simple things might you have overlooked? Are you certain you understand the meaning and implications of the key phrases in the statement of the problem— both what they include and what they exclude? What assumptions are you making?

Learners often fall into the trap of believing that, if they don’t immediately know how to approach a problem, then it must involve some new skill or knowledge that they have to hunt down. More often, a workable approach can be found by combining the skills and knowledge you already have: be synthetic [1].

I don’t know whether this is what you wanted, but here’s what I did. You don’t know? Then why didn’t you ask?

Review assignments as soon as possible after they are given. If you’re uncertain what’s expected of you, ask.

You need to be responsible for your experience.

Did we do anything (important) last class? Of course we did!

First, as soon as possible after the class you missed, you should get together with a classmate you trust to find out what we did and discussed. This will help them, too, as they try to crystalize the ideas well enough to present them to you.

Second, well before the next class meeting, you should discuss your understanding and any remaining questions you have with your TA or instructor during their office hours, via IM, or via email. This will help you as you try to crystalize the ideas well enough to present them to the instructional staff.

This repeated effort to restate and clarify one’s understanding of the course materials has been shown to be a critical factor in how deeply one learns [3].

Please do not wait until the next class meeting to find out what’s going on with the class.

The time immediately before and after class are not meant for the instructor to condense the entire previous class meeting for you. That is time for the instructor to setup, clean up, and deal with relatively minor administrative issues: signatures, returning papers, etc.

Will I get credit, if I turn this in? Instructors spend months preparing to teach each course; it’s possible they’ve spent years developing the content. You’re paying to be in the class. Your goal, one supposes, is to learn, improve yourself, and possibly improve your chances of securing an interesting, satisfying job.

So, why are you asking this question?

Do the work. Turn it in. Demonstrate that you’re willing to exert the effort required to learn. If you get ‘credit’ for it, that’s a bonus.

You surely will not get credit for asking this question.

How many pages do I need in my paper? As many as it takes to present a complete and concise version of your understanding of the topic; no more and no less.

Writing about and presenting your ideas are major factors in how deeply you learn [4].

My paper was exactly the same as student X’s and yet you gave them a different mark. First, they’re unlikely to have been exactly the same, otherwise your instructor would be charging you both with plagiarism [5].

It’s always possible the instructor made a mistake or didn’t apply the marking rubric consistently; for every paper you write, your instructor has to read and evaluate 10, 20, or even 30 papers from your classmates. I once taught a class with 350 students; in such classes, it’s nearly impossible to be precise in marking papers. Remember that small variations in percentage-based scores are unlikely to change your final course grade.

It’s also possible that the papers might have differed in some subtle ways that your instructor values: argument structure, clarity, conciseness, quality of external sources, degree to which information was simply being restated versus reinterpreted, and so on. Instructors are usually looking for evidence of engagement and depth of thinking. How do the papers compare on those measures?

These questions— and many others, not listed here— reduce to:

What’s the least work I can do and still pass?

Professional educators— who are themselves devoted life-long learners— usually find these questions disheartening, at best.

Again: Do the work. Turn it in. Demonstrate that you’re willing to exert the effort required to learn. Worry about the gold star later, if ever.

I need an A, B, C, etc. in this class. The syllabus outlines what you should be doing to earn your desired grade. If you have specific questions about the expectations laid-out in the syllabus, please discuss them with your instructor.
Please, just tell me what I need to do! I believe I have:

  • Be engaged.
  • Be honest.
  • Be responsible for your own experience.
  • Be a responsible member of this learning community.
  • Communicate clearly and concisely.

Learning isn’t about word counts or margin widths or numbers of pages. It’s about honest engagement in the experiences in which you find yourself. It’s about trying to improve yourself and to support others— including the instructor— as they work to improve themselves.

I did exactly what you/the book said to do, but it’s not working. It would be more helpful for you to document each step you took and exactly what happened as a result of each step. By doing this, you may find an issue with your process or with your expectations. When reporting a problem, explain:

  • what you intended to do
  • what you actually did (in enough detail that your instructor can reproduce the issue)
  • what you expected to happen
  • what actually happened (do not say that “nothing” happened. Something happened, even if it was that the computer screen stayed the same and the on-screen pointer stopped responding.)
If I send you my work, will you help me? Look at it from the point of view of your instructors: if you do not send them your work, they most surely will not be able to help you. Now, you’ve spent your time emailing the instructor & waiting for their response plus their time responding & waiting for your response… all without giving them the context or data they need to think about your issue or help you.

Send your work and be specific about what issues you’re experiencing— screenshots, your draft paper, and your source code are all wonderful!— so that your instructor can try first to reproduce them and then debug them.

I emailed/posted an hour ago, but I haven’t heard back. Try to be patient. Instructors and TAs don’t work 24/7. And even when they are working, they’re often teaching, conducting research, reading, writing, in meetings, or marking papers. Expect that it will take some time for them to get back to you.

A reasonable expectation is that you’ll get a response within 1 business day… add time for evenings, weekends, holidays, etc.

Given this likely lag, be as informative as you can be in your initial email:

  • instructors are often teaching several classes at once, so be explicit about which class you are in.
  • some students may be lagging behind or working ahead, which assignment, chapter, quiz, unit, etc. are you referring to?
  • what is the problem for which you’re seeking help?
  • what steps have you taken already to try to solve your problem?
  • attach your draft, source code, or other work products; without seeing the work you’ve done, your TA or instructor is just guessing at what your issue might be.
  • exactly what happened when you tried your solution? (“nothing” is almost always the wrong answer.)
But the assignment is due today! Don’t expect help on an assignment in the hours leading up to the submission deadline. Those deadlines are yours. Don’t try to make your time management challenges your instructor’s problem. Your instructor is available for dozens of hours a week to discuss the class with you. It’s irresponsible to wait until the day an assignment is due to contact them.

Deadlines are when you should be wrapping-up your work, not when you begin it. You have days— possibly weeks— to work on assignments for a reason: they… take… time; especially if you intend to do them well. Plan accordingly.

If you don’t know, yet, how to plan your time, there are resources both on campus and online [6] that can help. Everyone had to learn this at some point; don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Can I meet with you tomorrow? Avoid this question; it’s too vague. The purpose of your request shouldn’t be a mystery.

Provide context and ask directly for what you need:

  • What is the agenda for this meeting?
  • Do you just need a quick signature, or is this likely to be an hour-long deep thought session?
  • Do you want to discuss the class, or do you need advice on grad schools?
  • Is there a time constraint?

Provide enough information so that both you and your instructor can prepare for the meeting.

Why does it have to be tomorrow? Have you checked your TA/instructor’s posted office hours and preferred methods of contact? Exert the effort to find a mutually agreeable time to meet, rather than just thinking about your own schedule.

Requests for meetings constrain what else people might do with their time. Clarity about the purpose and time constraints for the meeting improve the chances you’ll get what you need.

Did you get my email? See Can I meet with you tomorrow. While you may have sent only one email to your instructor, they are likely teaching 3–4 classes this term with dozens or hundreds of students. Provide enough context in your communications so that your instructor can quickly assess the situation and provide help.
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12/2012 What Students Say by William E. J. Doane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.