I attended The Pacific Sociological Association’s 88th Meeting in Portland, Oregon from April 6 to April 9. This was a particularly exciting year for me for two reasons: This was my 10th year of attendance (yay for made-up anniversaries!) AND my graduate school mentor Karen Pyke served as president.
Karen’s concern for disadvantaged populations is infectious and inspiring, and since she was conference president, I knew her research interests would be well-represented among the sessions. I hoped to leave the conference equipped with renewed passion and updated research for my students. It was the end of the term, so I really needed a boost in enthusiasm, which I am sure many of you can relate to.
WHY I DO WHAT I DO
As expected, many of the sessions reminded me of why I decided to become a Sociologist. I was reinvigorated with a drive to make a difference among oppressed and exploited populations. And yet, the session that had the most impact on me was a teaching session. The presenters expressed concern for their students, many of whom have personal challenges and struggle to make ends meet. Their stories reminded me of the opportunity I have to support and encourage the population right in front of me: my students.
EQUIPPING STUDENTS FROM DAY ONE
The presentation that was most helpful was entitled “Strategies for Building Rapport in the Post-Secondary Classroom” by Dr. Henderson. She begins the first day of class with the syllabus and “pro tips for academic success.” These tips may seem obvious to us, but many students (especially first generation students) need guidance with basic study skills.
These are abbreviated versions of the tips she discussed at length on the first day of class:
- GO TO CLASS: Being in class is the best way to see which topics and pieces of information are important to your instructor. Certain things will be emphasized and you will hear it first hand.
- WRITE IT DOWN: No matter how tired and bored you are, do the best you can to take good notes. If the instructor seems to emphasize something, or repeats it several times, put a little star next to it in your notes.
- ORGANIZE YOUR MATERIAL: Students should organize their material for each BIG TOPIC, by identifying its SUBTOPICS and corresponding details.
- SLOT IT IN: When you are reading (or viewing) these extra materials, don’t consider them to be separate or isolated from the lecture material – slot them in – that is integrate them with your lecture notes into their respective BIG TOPICS and SUBTOPICS.
- UNDERSTAND, RATHER THAN MEMORIZE: For many students, this is the toughest piece of advice. We have been socialized to memorize material and regurgitate it on tests and some students have memorization skills down to a fine art. However, in any course where analytical thinking is expected, it is better to understand the material as well as remember it. When you are studying, try to put definitions and concepts into your own words. (Pretend that you are trying to explain the material to someone else who is having a hard time getting it).
- READ THE QUESTIONS CAREFULLY: If you are allowed to do so, highlight the key words right on the test paper and/or make little notes to yourself about some of the pieces of information you need for the answer. Take note of how many marks each question is worth and spend your energy accordingly.
- DO THE BEST YOU CAN UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES: People have busy and stressful lives. We have good days and bad days. Do the best you can under the circumstances of that particular test. You will still be the same wonderful person at the end of the test that you were at the beginning – no matter what grade you get.
These tips were meaningful to me because I have had many frustrated students come to my office, disappointed that they haven’t earned A’s, despite reading the textbook. What I’ve learned is that many of my students read while doing a number of other activities and therefore do not comprehend what they have read.
INTEGRATING STUDY SKILLS
In an effort to support my students, I have recently started to integrate study skills into my lectures. It was nice to hear from another professor who has noticed the same issues and tries to prepare them for college in a straightforward, understanding way. In reviewing Dr. Henderson’s student evaluations, it is clear that her students feel supported. It is worth noting that a number of them reference “do the best you can under the circumstances” in their reviews. According to Dr. Henderson, by beginning the class in this way, more students seek help when they need it.
While I had the opportunity to hear about new research and many other teaching strategies at PSA, Dr. Henderson’s presentation made a lasting impression on me. I plan to share Dr. Henderson’s pro-tips this fall on the first day of class and throughout the term. If you would like to read longer versions of her tips, I am happy to forward them to you.
THE GRAND FINALE
PSA President Karen Pyke wanted to add some fun to this year’s conference, so she hired a band from Northern California. As you can see, the band members were more than just musicians! It was a delight to see distinguished, serious scholars from grad school sway to the sound of the beat.
On the first day of Introduction to Sociology, I tried the tips, presented them in the way recommended by Dr. Linda Henderson, and was successful! My students completed a “free write” on day two which indicated that they had read AND reviewed notes from day one. They were so much more prepared than they typically are and seemed delighted to show off what they remembered.
I had thought, as a young professor, that reminding students to read and providing them with study tips would be patronizing for college-level pupils. I now realize that a thorough discussion of what is expected of them and how to do it enables them to feel supported. I am very encouraged by the results of their first free-write!