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
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
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
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
A more complete introduction to using student teams is available in
Using Students Teams in the Classroom: A Faculty Guide
Federman Stein and Sandra Hurd.
Astin, A. (1993). What
Matters in College: Four Critical Years Revisited. San Francisco, CA:
Cooper, T., et al. (1990).
Cooperative Learning and College Instruction: Effective use of Student
Learning Teams. Long Beach, CA: University Academic Publications
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
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
Loacker, G. (2000). (Ed.),
Self Assessment at Alverno College. Milwaukee: Alverno College
MacGregor, J. (1993). (Ed.),
Student self evaluation: Fostering reflective learning. New Directions
for Teaching and Learning, no. 56. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.