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Start your first class with a question … and a promise

As in any group of diverse individuals, learners come with varying identities, histories, levels of motivation, prior knowledge and experiences, as well as different wants, needs and openness to change. This means that teaching is inherently as much about process as it is content. By that I mean holding a dual focus on how people learn, participate and engage (process), as well as the substantive knowledge, skills and information required to meet your course’s learning outcomes (content).

In fact, I suggest that the process may be even more important than the content, given the rapidly changing landscape of professional practice across virtually all disciplines. The proliferation of knowledge in any given field is so vast and accelerating that the skills of curating, critiquing and assessing knowledge, and bridging knowledge to application, are the most important capabilities students can master. In other words, students most need to learn how to learn. 

It is tempting to approach teaching from a content mastery perspective versus from a “deep learning” perspective. Resist the temptation! By all means, prepare lesson plans, lecture notes and course reading lists. But create a space in the lesson plan for students’ own self-discovery, peer-to-peer collaboration, applied/experiential learning and exploration. Include as many questions as answers in your lecture notes. And approach your students as equal partners in the learning process: you have expertise and professional or scientific knowledge in your field of study, and they are experts in their own lives, including their hopes and dreams for the future.

Whether I am teaching in a face-to-face or an online classroom, I like to start the first class of every semester with a question and a promise.

Here’s the question: “What are you curious about? You’ve enrolled in this class on [insert course title]. What would you most like to learn more about?”

This sets up the expectation that each student has a voice in their own learning, and that they are at the centre of the work we will do together. It also reminds students that the course is more than just another grade or credit towards their diploma. They will actually get to learn about things that interest, excite and inspire them!

And here’s my promise: “My cornerstone commitment to you is my intention for this class to be among the top tier of courses that you have ever taken. I am committed to supporting your success in an outstanding learning experience – so I am eager to hear your feedback as we go, to help me deliver on this promise to you.”

While this may seem a tad grandiose, the promise simply reflects what every student yearns for in their deepest human heart: an opportunity for transformation, discovery and inspiration. I signal from the very start that I want only the best for the class, that I genuinely care, and that we are in this journey together. By modeling my own highest standards, I set an implicit example and expectation that they will bring their “A” game as well.

In short, I think the most important advice for a new professor is orienting ourselves to supporting students’ learning, versus delivering content. That shift changes everything, including ourselves.

 

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You know when it’s your first time, but not always when it’s your last

 

This morning I had the pleasure of handing out awards of distinction to about 100 college students. In addition to their regular coursework, each had the option to take it further and demonstrate achievement and competency to the highest standard. This had no bearing on their actual course grade and was totally voluntary. “Winning” this award is not a competition – except with oneself.

 

The fact that such a high proportion of students were motivated to excel in the first place was inspiring. It reminded me that when students are engaged, they will work far beyond our expectations (and the requirements on the course syllabus).

 

What was the secret ingredient that resulted in this level of uptake and motivation? I think the heart of it is that these students felt truly cared for by their teaching faculty. They perceived corrective feedback as having the best of intentions. They kept striving to succeed knowing that someone really believed that they could.

 

After the awards were distributed I was asked to say a few words to the group. These were students from across all academic semesters; some new to the program and some in their final weeks before graduation. I asked them who was attending the ceremony for the first time? And who was there for the last time? And I reflected that we don’t always know when it’s our last time.

 

While first experiences are clear and often memorable, we don’t always know (as this group did) when it’s the last time we have a chance to: learn, do our best, say what we really feel, take a risk, show compassion, dig deep. Or, we figure it out long after that “last time” is past.

 

All of those students did the semester like it was their last time. I bow down to that.

 

 

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