Matthew Aiello-Lammens Ecologist at Work

Struggling learners and what I missed

I was recently asked on two separate occasions what I felt the biggest challenges I’ve faced teaching are, and how I overcame them. The first time this came up I immediately thought having to deal with academic dishonesty. I’m deeply disappointed when I catch a student cheating. Did I not make the expectations for original work clear enough? Did I make the assignment too difficult, forcing the student to turn elsewhere to find answers? Could I have prevented this situation? As a teaching assistant, I would defer to the primary instructor, but in situations where I was the primary instructor (e.g., lab instructor) I’ve always deferred to the academic judiciary system - it’s there to protect both the students and myself, and in my experience, it’s generally very fair. While I maintain that this is one of the most challenging things I’ve dealt with as an educator, between the first and second time I was asked this question, I helped teach my first Software Carpentry workshop, and was reminded of another significant challenge I think most educators face. What do you do with a student who is seemingly unprepared to learn the material you are teaching?

Putting this challenge another way, what do you do when a student is unable to move at the pace the class “should” be moving? There are different schools of thought on this, and to some extent, it depends on the course being taught. For example, while giving recitations for biostatistics, I tended to move at the pace of the student who needed the most time to fully understand the material. This was mostly fine in this context - there was no preset amount of material that needed to be covered and I could always go over my allotted one or two hour slot. On the other hand, when covering matrix projection models for applied conservation, I had to stick to a certain pace to cover the requisite material, and ask students who got hung up to come talk with me later. This is easy to do when you’re feeling stressed about getting through material, but I know from personal experience, it’s hard on the student. When I was studying physics as an undergrad, there would often come a point when I lost the thread of the lecture I was in. Try as I might, after this happened, I’d pretty much tune-out for the rest of the session. On a good day, I’d work through what we had just been presented, slowly catching up. On a bad day, I’d sit in class feeling like I was never going to understand this. Either way, I knew I’d have to go home and closely read the text book.

So with this in mind, when half way through my introduction to programming with R section, on the first day of the SWC workshop, I noticed a student blankly looking at their screen during a challenge exercise, I had a good sense for how that person probably felt. I helped them out as best I could with the few minutes I could spare, but we had no helpers, and the rest of the class was ready to move on. I felt both bad and sad as I shuffled back to the front of the room after saying, “ask me about this at the next break”. They didn’t. And they didn’t come back for day 2. I don’t know if their experience on day 1 was the reason they didn’t show for day 2, but that’s the conclusion I drew. But what was I to do? The class really needed to move along.

I thought about this quite a lot in the following days, and what I realized I had failed to do was to seek that student out after day 1, and try to understand their motivations for taking the course. I think motivation in learning is really important (as do people who have thought about this much more deeply than I). I can’t help but think that if I were able to have understood this students motivations, I could have at least tried to connect them back to the material, even if they had to struggle with it. Going back to my own situation in physics, why didn’t I change majors, even though I struggled to keep up in so many of my courses? I was motivated to learn physics. I found it challenging and interesting. I wanted to understand it, even if it meant a few lectures filled with despair.

Here’s another anecdote. The first course I TAed as a grad student was a large intro bio lecture course. In my section of the course there was a student who spent most of the first half of the semester hovering right around the C mark. They came to me expressing concern about not passing and we talked about what they needed to do. For the rest of the semester this student was always at my office hours, handed in every assignment, and tried every extra credit problem that was given. They wanted to get that passing grade and they were willing to work hard for it. They were motivated - not actually for love of biology, but because they needed that passing grade to get their diploma. All the student needed from me was for me to understand their motivations and to point out to them that a passing grade was within their reach. Honestly, I was really blown away by how hard this student tried. And of all the grades I’ve assigned, the B- that student earned gave me one of the best feelings as an educator.

SWC workshops are short, much shorter than a semester long course. But you can be sure that the next time I see a student struggling, I’m going to go out of my way to find out what’s motivating them to be in that room in the first place.