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Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
Week 4: Reflections on Students, by a New Teacher
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By Joseph Stuart, September 30, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, Professional Development, What is Education?

At the end of August 2010 I commenced my career teaching history at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. I graduated with my Ph.D. in June and am now beginning the life I have worked so long in preparation for.

The first four weeks have flown by as I learned to navigate the campus, to utilize new classroom technology, and the names of my colleagues. As classes began I asked my students to introduce themselves and tell everyone something about the communities from which they come. Many, perhaps 75%, are from small towns in the Dakotas and in Montana. As in any group of students, mine has varying degrees of ability. But I have been impressed by their openness and by the number of them who actually do the assigned readings.

And I have noticed a certain wholesomeness in many of them—and an eagerness to please. One student came up to me after class and said, “Dr. Stuart, I have a quotation I think you would like.” “Go for it,” I responded. “Well, my Sunday school teacher once said to me that history is important because it allows us to look back over our lives, see how God has worked in them, and then be able to trust in Him more in the future.” I paused, looked at him, and then said, “That is beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.” He thought for a moment and then commented as he turned to go: “I just thought it was the kind of quotation you would like.” I smiled.

Other comments have come to me via the preliminary assessment forms I handed out in my World Civilization I class during week 4. The purpose of these was simply to take the pulse of my students: what is working well and what is not. Students answered (anonymously) four assessment questions: (1) What do you especially like about this course? (2) What do you especially dislike about this course? (3) How can the instructor improve this course? (4) How can you improve your performance in this course?

Some students commented that they really appreciated the philosophical approach to world history that I take. Others responded well to intellectual challenge: “The topics brought up in the lecture really make me think” and the class “challenges your mind.” (Whew. I am relieved that it is the mind that is challenged—after all, we are in a university!)

Besides the expected negative comments about how much reading is assigned, many students gave excellent suggestions on how to improve the course: incorporate more artwork, have more group discussions, lecture a little more slowly, write more clearly on the whiteboard, relate more to the textbook, and offer study-guides for the weekly quizzes.

Other comments were both dispiriting and a little humorous. In response to question 1, “What do you really like about this course?” one student wrote: “I really like the view of the river from the window.” This young person went on to say: “I dislike the fact that everything in this class revolves around religion” (we just finished the chapter on the rise of the world religions during week 4). Another poor student answered question 3, “How can the instructor improve this course?” with two words: “Dumb down.” He or she answered question 4, “How can you improve your performance in this course?” also with two words: “Drop it.” Well, I have noticed that my students are definitely honest!

In the assessments for my American Revolution and Early Republic class, one student answered question 2, “What do you especially dislike about this course?” with this: “Paper writing, confused about the footnote way to write” (!). On a more positive note, another student in that class responded to the same question with: “Really nothing, it’s probably the best of my class day.” Comments like that, and when students come up after class just to ask more about the material we are covering, really make my day. These students give me the energy needed to wake up in the morning and to keep on trying to prepare the best lectures that I can. There are few professions in which one can interact in such a healthy way with young people. Though the life of a university teacher is full of work day in and day out, including weekends, I get to do what I love: converse about ideas and books!

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3 Comments
Anonymous on Oct 1, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Joseph,

Terrific post! I'll bet your enthusiasm and honest engagement with ideas encourages the same from your students. (If they know that you honestly want to know how the class is going, they will honestly tell you (for good or for ill!)). I love that no matter how many times I may teach a class, my students are coming to it for the first time--and from so many different interest levels and vantage points. It makes every semester different and new. You are right--we are so fortunate to do what we love!

Lee Trepanier on Oct 2, 2010 at 10:29 am

It is the few that we touch that matters the most to us. Glad to read your experience comports with this.

Anonymous on Oct 5, 2010 at 8:49 pm

I'm glad to hear things are going so well, Joe!

Someone recently suggested to me a three-question mid-semester evaluation form that I have begun to use. The questions are (roughly):

1) What elements of the course have been most helpful in your learning?

2) What elements of the course may be inhibiting your learning?

3) What possible changes to the course would help you learn better?

There's a clottedness to the phrase "your learning," but the reason such formulations were suggests was because it tends to cause the students to think of the course in relation to its major aim. As I said, this was just suggested to me this semester, but I've been pleased with the kinds of responses these questions garner: to wit, more productive answers than I have received in past semesters, when using other questions on mid-semester evaluations.

Do you plan to repeat the evaluations after mid-term sometime, but before the end of the semester?

Last updated on Oct 5, 2010 at 8:50 pm.

about the author

Joseph Stuart
Joseph Stuart

Joseph Stuart is Assistant Professor of History and Catholic Studies at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.