By our Pupils We'll Be Taught

This restates and expands on the entry A New Idea for Education posted 3/5/09.

Does it really make sense to learn things, when you aren’t going to use them again after the test? Students know it’s going to happen, but I’m realizing that teachers do it too. When teachers teach, they learn about their students. They learn how their students learn best. They become more effective teachers. But after the final exam, what they learn is mostly thrown away.

In any student / teacher relationship, communication goes both ways.. Good teachers monitor non-verbal communication, class participation, test performance, one-on-one interactions and a myriad of other sources of information. They gradually develop a profile of each student which helps them to reach into the student’s mind to make a connection. I haven’t taught semester long classes, but even in shorter term training, as I learn about my students, I become a more effective communicator and have more success.

Most students, especially in academic disciplines, are pretty well adapted to educational culture. The teacher’s default approach will probably work pretty well with them. It’s the other students who need a different approach: the students who learn kinesthetically rather than through books and lectures; those who need a detailed explanation and are not willing to accept new information “just because”; the student who can develop a relationship with the material, but can’t maintain a relationship with classmates. There are as many combinations of learning characteristics as there are students.

What if placement tests, learning style surveys, high school information, and the students own suggestions could be used to develop a profile of learning characteristics for each student? What if instructors could verify and add to that information? With that profile, the students can learn about their own educational strengths and weaknesses. Teachers, tutors and counselors will have insight into how to be most effective with that student. Each semester will start out on a roll instead of having to get going again from a dead stop. While information about a student’s strengths and weaknesses can be helpful, it cannot be a strict prescription. Material cannot always be adapted to a student’s strengths and weaknesses. In a lecture hall, there is not as much room for customization as in smaller classes and tutoring.

Practically, I envision that when a teacher receives a class roster, the roster would include some summary information about the class and how that class compares with others in the college and department. That could help the teacher decide which instructional methods to use. There would also be a few key words on the learning characteristics of each student. After the first day of class, an instructor might check to see which students stuck out in class and what special needs there may be. For students who need more than a line to describe their learning style, there would be a reference to where to find those notes.

This information could also be mined to increase effectiveness college wide. For example, we could measure changes in students’ learning strengths over time and students could how see those changes impact them. There may be relationships between learning characteristics and career choice. Even student or teacher demographics may have a significant impact.

There are potential problems with this approach. No one wants additional testing. No one wants additional work for instructors. There could be a privacy concern in developing a “profile.” And of course, this idea may not work at all.

This idea occurred to me when reading about how businesses study their customers individually and as groups. I thought about the difference between business and education in how we “maximize” our relationships. That thought process grew into the ideas above. I am new to higher education, working on institutional research in a community college. I have described this in that context, but I can see applications in other environments too. I think this is an idea worth exploring.