The Aha! Moment and Connecting with Students: Musings from the Garden
One of my goals as CETL Director is to assist in building and sharing these methods of quickly learning about our students.Katherine Goodman, PhD | Division for Teaching Innovation & Program Strategy Sep 25, 2023
I get a bit philosophical when I’m gardening. My mind wanders while I do the repetitive tasks of planting or weeding or harvesting. Lately, I’ve been thinking about my new role as director of CETL, and so I’ve been contemplating what we mean by excellence in teaching and learning. I intend this to be the first in a series of posts that share my definition of that phrase.
There are many ways to describe it, but when instructors chat about why we teach, often a description, not of us, but of our students comes up. When students make new connections, their faces light up – we can see the “aha!” moment. It is the moment we strive for. When that happens, we know something worked. We feel like successful teachers.
That moment isn’t always visible, and there is no guaranteed checklist for making it happen. The best we can do in our classrooms, in the way we design assignments and other learning experiences, is make it more likely.
My garden’s soil was originally stiff and unpliable clay, and most seeds couldn’t grow in it. Over the years I have amended it with compost and better soil until what is planted has a much better chance of surviving. If the learning experiences I provide students are like my garden, maybe I should ask, is my teaching like clay soil? Does it create an environment where only the most persistent students can learn? Or can I develop my teaching so that all the “nutrients” are readily available for seeds of knowledge to grow?
When I am mulling over these things, I like to go back to basics. The Rhetorical Triangle is often used as a tool for teaching students how to make appeals to the audience, through logos, pathos, and ethos. In other words, strong, persuasive arguments use a combination of logic, emotion, and credibility to drawn in and convince an audience. (If you’re familiar with this idea, you probably have your own writing instructor to thank.)
The three corners of the triangle are often also translated as the Content (aligned with logos), the Audience (aligned with pathos) and the Writer or Speaker (ethos). Whenever one of these three things changes, the fundamentals of that strong, persuasive argument should change. Our “audience” – the specific group of students facing us– changes every semester. Shouldn’t something about our courses be changing too?
Many instructors shape the content of their courses by looking at the standards of their discipline, accounting for future courses that depend on foundational knowledge or skills learned in their course. Many have developed content-rich lectures over the years, with interesting assignments and deliberate exam structures, all designed to align with providing the knowledge and skills students will need. They have focused almost exclusively on the logos part of the triangle. And yet…
- If we do not know where are students are in their journey when we meet them, will these detailed plans actually work?
- If the prerequisite for our course was two years ago, and the students haven’t used those skills since, is it a leap too far to start our first assignment?
- If they are transfer students whose prior work doesn’t fully align with the vocabulary we are using, will they be able to apply that prior learning?
- If they have work or other experience that already covers a good portion of our course, how do we encourage the use of that knowledge, instead of boring them until we get to new (for them) material?
- How can we know what to do if we don’t know our students?
- If we know that the “garden” of our courses needs to support the growth of a wide variety of seeds, I mean students, how do we begin?
We begin with the students themselves. This can be difficult with large courses or with shorter course formats. Even with these challenges, it is crucial that we develop courses that connect with students, the actual people sitting in our courses, not an imagined version in our minds. We can do this through quick in-person polls, surveys through Canvas, and other tools, even when we can’t do longer icebreakers that are possible in smaller courses.
This is one of my goals as CETL Director – to assist in building and sharing these methods of quickly learning about our students. And then, more importantly, how to use that information to make our teaching better, so that we can be more likely to get to those “A-ha!” moments. I hope you’ll join me as I develop and explore ways to update our teaching to better address what our students need to engage.
On the Journey,