Friday, October 8, 2010

Why I Like Some Classes More Than Others

By Susan Codone

After 8 years of college teaching, I have learned that I simply like some classes more than others.  Not just the students, necessarily, but the classes themselves as a whole.  For these classes, I often find myself smiling as I heft my books and head down to the classroom, anticipating a good class session.  After some thought and a little reading, I’ve been able to capture just why I like some classes more than others—at least six solid reasons.

The first reason I like some classes more than others is simply attendance.  I like it when my students are there!  Those classes with the best attendance are more successful, in my experience.  In fact, an article by Nitsa Davidovitch and Dan Soen in the College Student Journal (Sept 2006) reports on a study conducted at an Israeli university.  Over 9,000 students were surveyed, and the higher the student’s class attendance, the more highly the student rated the instructor.  I generalize that to mean the students performed better as well.  Coming to class more often makes class better!

The second reason I like some classes better than others is the students’ participation.  Raymond Jones, writing in College Teaching (2008), says that class participation can be a way both to increase knowledge and apply it contextually, and that all students can benefit from other students sharing their insights.  When students participate regularly, the instructor is able to build on their knowledge because it is shared.  This makes class better!

The third reason I like some classes better than others is seeing the pride students take in their work.  When students work hard and are proud of what they do, they get more satisfaction from it as well as greater learning.  Pride is motivating.  Lisa Williams and David Steno, writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2008), say that most psychologists agree that pride is a positive emotion coming from achievements that can be attributed to effort and ability.  They also state that when someone feels proud about a recognized accomplishment, like a graded assignment, they may feel an incentive to “pursue further action in that valued domain”.  In other words, pride makes you continue to try harder.  I like it when my students feel pride in their work because it makes them want to continue doing well!

A fourth reason I like some classes more than others is the cohesiveness of the group – the sense of belonging the students have to the class.  David Kember and Natalia Li wrote in the International Journal of Lifelong Education (2001) that students who feel they belong to a class have better quality learning outcomes and find the class a more fulfilling and enjoyable process.  They recommend having personal relationships with students to encourage this sense of belonging.   In my experience, it doesn’t take much to generate this cohesiveness – just a little interest from the instructor and time for the students to get to know each other and the expected learning outcomes, and to commit to both.

A fifth reason I like some classes more than others is the common conversation that often springs up, both along academic lines and more personal lines.  As I become more familiar with the students, I begin to know the athletes and when their games are; I know the engineering students and their work in design, and I become accustomed to talking with them all about class material and their extracurricular lives.  Debra Myhill writes in Research Papers in Education (2006) that Vygotsky’s wrote this first – it was his belief that language is fundamental to learning and meaning and that this effect is at the center of any discussion of how classroom conversation can promote learning.  Myhill writes also of an “internally persuasive discourse” where students are encouraged to develop a range of speaking and listening roles.  This kind of discourse shapes learning, makes class more interesting, levels the playing field, and opens up opportunities for instructors to develop classroom conversations common to all students.

A final reason I like some classes more than others is when my students buy in to a common class purpose.  This is sometimes called engagement in the academic literature, and represents the process by which students invest themselves into a class.  Some schools try to understand this process better.  For example, Rachelle Heller, Cheryl Beil, Kim Dam, and Belinda Haerum write in the Journal of Engineering Education (July 2010) that at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, they surveyed 135 freshmen students to see how they would define engagement; 74 responded and half of those indicated that engagement is related to faculty involvement, their own interest in the topic, and their interaction with other students.  It is clear that students who buy into a class or are engaged with its content are more successful.  There are ways to foster this engagement.  I prefer to get to know my students, show them I am interested in their experiences, and try to convey my excitement for the topics I teach.  I am always gratified when they respond well to this, and it always makes me like the class even more.

Sometimes it’s hard to capture exactly what about a class makes it likable; you just know that you like that class more than others and you’re always happy to hold class sessions.  When students attend and participate, it simply makes our job easier!  Conveying content is facilitated by students who want to be there and who take part in class.  When students take pride in their work because of their expectations and those of the instructor, class is better.  When classes form into cohesive groups, communication is shared and students are happier.  When there is common conversation and a common class purpose, learning flows and everyone benefits.  And I like those classes just a little bit better!