Getting Into the Student’s Head: Representing the Student Perspective

I’ve spent a lot of time on the road this year – sometimes talking about my own work, sometimes talking about that of a research group, sometimes talking about national initiatives in ICT and, quite often, trying to talk about how my students are reacting to all of this.

That’s hard because, to do that, I have to have a fairly good idea of how my students see what I’m doing, that they understand why I’m doing what I’m doing and I have to be honest with myself if I can’t get into their heads.

Apart from this kind of writing, I write a lot of fiction and this requires that you can get into someone else’s head so that you can write about their experience , allowing someone else to read about it. This is good practice for trying to understand students because it requires you to take that step back, make your head fit a different brain and be honest about how authentically you’re capturing that other perspective.

Of course, this is going to be hard to do with the ‘average’ student because, by many definitions, I’m not. I am one of the ones who passed their Bachelors, a Masters and then a PhD. Even making it through first year sets me apart from some of my students.

Rather than talk about my Uni, which most you wouldn’t know at all, I’ll talk about Stanford. Rough figures indicate that Stanford matriculates about 7000 undergraduates a year. They produce roughly 700 PhD students a year as well. So let’s assume (simplistically and inaccurately) that Stanford has a conversion rate of undergrad to PhD of 1 in 10 (I know, I know, transfers, but let’s ignore that.) (At the same time, 34,000 students apply to Stanford and only 2,400 get admitted – about 7%. We’ve already got some fiendish filtering going on.)

So someone who has graduated with a PhD and goes out to teach is, at most, similar in process and end point to 10% of the people who managed to get all the way through. And that’s the best case.

So whenever those of us who have PhDs and are teaching try to think of the student perspective, thinking of our own is not going to really help us, especially for first year, as it is those students who don’t think like us, who may not see our end point and who may not be at the right point yet, who need us to understand them the most.

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