This resource was written by Julie Wilson and Kathy Tong, as they reflected on their experience attending a training event held in October 2018.
We attended the ESCALA training conference in October, and it impacted our perspectives and made us think how we, as professors, could more effectively teach students coming to Vanguard from diverse situations and diverse backgrounds.
These differences may affect how students learn, requiring us to adjust our teaching methods to meet their differing educational needs.
Illustrating the Advantages Some Students Have
One of the teaching strategies we experienced illustrated advantages some students have. This was an activity where each group was to create a “house of cards” using a card deck and anything else that might have been dropped on our table to assist us in this project.
Each group tried to complete the task with what they were given, however some groups had many more items, such as clips, stickie notes, etc. that gave them an advantage over other groups. This illustrated that some students come to college with more advantages than others, and those without these advantages have to struggle more than other groups. It also showed us that expectations of the teachers might need to be broadened to realize these differences.
Another activity provided additional insight. The facilitators wrote questions on several poster boards around the room. Participants were asked to walk around silently and write their answers on the posters. The debrief afterward identified benefits to this teaching activity as no matter how different backgrounds were, all would feel “free” to participate because it was “safe” and somewhat anonymous.
Some of the questions written on the posters included:
- When did you learn about fairness?
- When or how did you learn to be an advocate for yourself?
- Who or what influenced you in the way you think about money?
- What did you learn from family about work & responsibility?
- How does your family handle conflict?
After writing responses, the facilitators asked us to stand by the poster we most identified with and discuss our answers amongst the others standing with us. This activity allowed us to explore our backgrounds with this non-threatening, somewhat anonymous experience (we could share what we wanted).
It also served as a reminder that our students have differences in their perceptions which might lead to different expectations in the classroom. It also helped develop an understanding that students might not be as prepared as other students, such as if they were educated in a K-12 poverty school system versus a suburban, well-equipped school system. Such educational experiences impact students as they may lack role models and could deepen the perception they might not have the same capabilities to succeed like their classmates.
High-Context and Low-Context Cultures
We also discussed “high-context” and “low-context” preferences in learning. Students that prefer “high-context” liked connections with the professor and were more apt to seek out assistance if needed. Those that preferred “low-context” might rather be quiet in class, staying in the background and not reaching out to the professor.
This concept was impactful to us as we were surprised to learn that not every student wants to interact with professors in a “high-context” manner, which is one of Vanguard’s strengths—how we mentor and connect with our students.
Understanding the different backgrounds and expectations students might have was helpful to me in becoming aware that students have different expectations in how they connect with others, especially professors. It also reminded us that students may not feel comfortable seeking out mentorship opportunities, and some are at risk for not doing as well as their abilities would allow them.
Considering how we can adjust our teaching to meet these differences was an important “take-away”. Some other suggestions by the facilitators included providing very clear, specific expectations for assignments, such as using rubrics and providing examples of successful assignments.
By creating learning environments that demonstrate clear support, students can be convinced that professors want them to succeed, and students will learn to trust that we are not “out to get them,” which might have been their experience in their past learning environments. Creating opportunities for group activities and individuals to self-assess and get immediate feedback also helps guide and motivate students to learn.
Other teaching strategies we played (and experienced) in the conference were low-stakes (anonymous) quizzes (Kahoot, Quizlet, Poll Everywhere, and Menti.com). Menti.com was an app where anonymous responses that participants would text from their phone would be displayed on the big screen in response to a question or statement.
Other interactive teaching strategies demonstrated included asking a polling question during a lecture, or asking students to turn to their neighbor and ask them to describe the concept that was just taught. These activities equalize the students in that they are able to respond in a small group instead of in front of the entire class and see what other students answered in a “safe” manner.
Participating in these activities impacted us by helping realize that for many reasons, background, family dynamics, upbringing, personality, etc., there are some that students prefer participating in class using methods that are “safe” and “low-context.”
This allows them to feel free to participate in activities when they are able to do so by sharing only what they want to share. Also, it was helpful to consider what we would want students to remember 10 years from now, so I can focus my teaching on what matters most in the long run.