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Volume 1 No. 1

February 2005


The importance of connecting
Distinguished Professor of Higher Education, Vincent Tinto’s research found that students’ success in college depends on the formation of meaningful connections with mentors both in and out of the classroom (Leaving College, 1987). Engaging students in learning depends on connecting with them—both personally and intellectually. Scott Paris, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, has written about what he calls “strategic learning” as requiring both the “skill” and the “will” to learn (Paris & Cross, 1983). Engaging students requires faculty to attend to both. The first challenge is discovering who students are—their interests, values, and goals. What, for example, are their expectations about your course, about college teaching, or the purposes of learning? Second, what are students prepared to learn? What do they know? What experiences have they had? What background can you connect with as the course progresses? Setting rigorous but reasonable goals for student learning depends on knowing about the students and their “skill” and “will.”

Connecting happens in class when you recognize students and value their ideas. It happens when you respond to their written work or to e-mail messages or Blackboard posts. Connecting extends to office hours, impromptu meetings at the Blinker, or follow-up when they’ve missed class. Connecting also includes communicating with students about the course and how students are experiencing it.

Asking students for feedback after a test, paper, or project, at midterm—even at the end of a single class—communicates your concern for students and their learning. Plus, the feedback can provide you with invaluable information about how students are experiencing the course—in time for you to make adjustments or review key material. Faculty use a variety of techniques for getting feedback—informal discussion, midterm evaluations, or a set of easy-to-implement practices referred to as Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs). Minute papers and other CATs can be used for a variety of purposes, including getting to know students and answering some of the questions mentioned above. The CSTL website provides an overview of such techniques and links to other sites and resources.

Students working together
Relying on the traditional lecture for college teaching has become less prevalent as faculty incorporate more cooperative and experiential learning in their classes. The increase in group work and team projects in part reflects the complexity of our society; the abundance of information makes it difficult for one person to research all the information and to make decisions alone. Team learning gives students real world experiences and changes the traditional authority in the classroom by forcing team members to work with each other to make decisions instead of looking to the instructor for answers.

Research supports the effectiveness of cooperative learning. Cooper et al. (1990) found that cooperative learning improves critical thinking, self-esteem, multicultural relations, and positive social behaviors more than traditional teaching approaches. Astin (1993) concluded from a study that involved over 27,000 students that student-student interactions and student-faculty interactions (both basic teamwork components) are the most important influences on academic success and satisfaction.

An overview of student teamwork (basic configurations of teams, integrating team exercises with other course work, establishing a climate for supporting teams, guidelines for teams, etc.) is available on our website A more complete introduction to using student teams is available in Using Students Teams in the Classroom: A Faculty Guide by Ruth Federman Stein and Sandra Hurd.

Astin, A. (1993). What Matters in College: Four Critical Years Revisited. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cooper, T., et al. (1990). Cooperative Learning and College Instruction: Effective use of Student Learning Teams. Long Beach, CA: University Academic Publications Program.

Inviting students to assess their own work
The ability to self assess is central to ongoing learning. Inviting students to take an active role in assessing their own work rather than remaining the passive objects of others’ observations, helps students create relevance, meaning, and coherence in their educational experiences. Self assessment enables students to develop the critically reflective thinking required for understanding their own learning so that they can direct their process more responsibly and take charge of the improvement of their learning in informed ways.

Research on student learning has supported the importance of self assessment. For example, through ongoing study of their students’ performance, Georgine Loacker (2000) and her colleagues at Alverno College identified four skills inherent in self assessment: observing carefully, analyzing or interpreting observations, judging that is informed by analysis, and planning that extends the process toward future strategies for improving their work.

Educators who support self assessment share with Alverno faculty a number of underlying assumptions:

Self assessment is integral to effective learning. Effective student learning is characterized by self awareness concerning the state of their own learning, what experiences they bring to the learning situation, what standards they are prepared to meet, and how well they are meeting them so far.

Self assessment is developmental. The process of learning to self assess is gradual, complex, and uneven, requiring that students “practice intentionally, regularly, and with consistent reinforcement” from program faculty.

Self assessment is based on explicit criteria for the performance. Students can increasingly deepen their understanding of what an effective performance might look like when the criteria for beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels have been articulated for all involved.

Self assessment is an interactive process enhanced by feedback from instructor and peers. Students can develop a more comprehensive understanding of their own performance by learning to consider varied perspectives of how to improve performance.

Self assessment contributes to students’ self-confidence. Through continuous practice of self assessment, students learn what it means to make an informed, responsible judgment of their own or another’s performance. They experience increased confidence in their own judgment when they can validate a performance for themselves. Eventually students’ ability to make informed judgment includes the ability to articulate their own criteria for a given performance as well as for ongoing improvement. (Loacker 2000, p.8-17)

Loacker, G. (2000). (Ed.), Self Assessment at Alverno College. Milwaukee: Alverno College Institute.

MacGregor, J. (1993). (Ed.), Student self evaluation: Fostering reflective learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 56. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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Related Topics from our website:

The Teaching Professor Newsletter

Teaching and Learning Conferences

Tips for Better Teaching from The Chronicle for Higher Education

Student Ratings of Teaching Effectiveness: Creating an Action Plan

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