The Facts of Undergraduates

If you’re driving through the city and you’re in a hurry, you’re probably going to arrive at your destination and be under the impression that every light was red. You notice the red lights because they get in your way – worse, you may have convinced yourself that you need greens all the way and anytime that this situation doesn’t occur you have to deal with your expectations being thwarted.

Some of you, reading this, are getting angry or frustrated just reading this.

Setting up false expectations is the best way to get disappointed, frustrated and angry. I always set myself up with a positive mindset before lecturing or student contact, because starting a lecture or a meeting angry or frustrated is just going to set you up so that every negative interaction makes it worse. But, throughout an entire course, there are certain things that some people are going to do, we can’t just prepare for a course full of quiet, always attentive, highly intelligent, well-prepared and engaged students. Let’s look at a short list of other behaviours and my list of positive preparation for it.

  1. Students may not show up to lectures. Some students will stop coming and won’t come back – a lot of students will come back if the lecture is useful, interesting AND you have things like recordings or notes to let people catch up with missed lectures. Unless 100% attendance is required (and the question there is always “Why? Where is the educational value?”), giving people a mechanism to get back in is probably going to work better than holding a hard line. Recordings, and podcasts, let you collect your thoughts and review what you said – these help you as much as they help students.
  2. Students may not prepare. Once you start requiring preparation and you give students some value for that (participation, marked quizzes, things like that) students tend to re-optimise and prepare. This is a great opportunity to add some formative or small summative exercises in that can get great discussion or participation going.
  3. Students aren’t always focused on your lecture. There are many things going on for our students and they’re trying to work out where to spend their effort. This is a challenge, sure, but what a great opportunity to invest enthusiasm, talk to people and try to bring out the passion that brought at least some of your students in. Getting students talking to each other gives you a huge scaling factor and a communications network where your students can’t hide.
  4. Students just don’t do assignments sometime. I’m a great believer in giving a clear indication of what is required at the start of the course. This isn’t just me being prescriptive, this is a fantastic opportunity for me to review my expectations, my thoughts, my grading schemes, review changes, integrate new content. My course profile is not just a way to let students know what will happen if they don’t do things, it lets me frame the whole course to lead students into the necessity of the assignments and integrate that knowledge from lecture to tutorial to assignment to final exam.

Accepting that some things will not match your vision of the ideal student doesn’t mean that we have to walk into every lecture under a thundercloud. Yes, there’s effort involved, but there almost always is to achieve a good outcome.

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