The impulse to teach as we were taught, or as we thought we were best taught, is powerful. We forget that most of our classmates reacted much differently to the courses we took. Most did not go on to major in our discipline, and only a few went on to graduate study. The majority were less successful academically. Clearly those courses that worked so well for us worked less well for many of our classmates. Bette LaSere Erickson, Calvin B. Peters, Diane Weltner Strommer, Teaching First-Year College Students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006, 44.
Maria Montessori used to begin her lectures to teachers by asking an adult in her class to stand next to a model of a child blown up to adult height. It was, apparently, a shocking way to remind teachers of the profound differences between child and adult. In some ways the differences between typical college students and their professor can be just as vast. Often our students are of a different age and generation, with different goals and interests, and different learning styles and abilities. Those differences make up some of the obstacles to successful teaching. In this section we look briefly at some of those differences and offer hints and strategies for compensating for them.
Overview of this Section
One of the main challenges for many people teaching their first philosophy course is that they are asked to do this at a time when they have a variety of conflicting pressures on them because of their role as a graduate assistant. In addition to this challenge, there are a number of other obstacles raised by the character of our students:
- Different goals.The central paradox of teaching is that often we and our students have different goals in the classroom. We want them to learn to think like a philosopher, they want to get the highest grade for the least work. Closing this gap is our biggest challenge.
- Resistances. Teaching is hard work under any conditions, but we also work under the constraint that some students actively don't respect our discipline, and don't want to be in our intro course. Partly because of this, some of us teach this course only under protest. How can we remedy this unhappy situation?
- Developmental differences. The college years mark profound intellectual developmental changes for many young people. Understanding their developmental stage can help us to help them to be better learners.
- Generational differences. Each generation has its own values and styles. “Generation Y” presents its own challenges.
- Non-traditional students. The 18-year old full time college student no longer dominates the higher education scene; older and part-time students bring new challenges and opportunities.
- Different learning styles. Not everyone learns in the same way, and not all students share the learning styles of their instructors, but there are ways we can compensate.
- Dealing with diversity. The new generation of college students is more diverse, and more aware of its diversity. Our teaching should reflect that.
- Different Time Perspectives. New psychological research suggests that one of the big sources of tension between students and faculty has to do with different perspectives on time.
- Lack of background. Our students know a lot of things, probably more than we did at their age, but they typically don't know what we think they know.
- Different abilities. For a variety of reasons, the percentage of students with disabilities is also on the upswing. What strategies do we need to help these students learn?
- Different legal environment. Every aspect of life has become more litigious, so we need to understand the constraints that this puts on us.
- Parents. First we heard that parents were not involved in their children's education, now everyone attacks the over-involved "helicopter parent." How should instructors relate to parents?
- Students with Asperger's. We see more and more students in college who have Asperger's Disorder. We have some recommendations for how to help them learn.
Update: July 2, 2012
Author: John Immerwahr