My colleagues and I constantly study, research, and question education. We love to discuss the latest teaching theories, try new techniques in the classroom, and push ourselves to improve. So it was a bit shocking for us to find out our students know as much as we do when it comes to running a classroom!
Before the end of the school year, we asked secondary students to anonymously reflect on their year. What kind of activities helped them learn better? What was detrimental to their learning? Their answers were deep and insightful… and often surprising.
Generally speaking, students liked classes that were engaging, challenging, and creative. They reported that they want to feel personally involved in their education and they want to be successful. But reaching those goals looks different for each of them – there is no cookie-cutter education that will serve everyone equally. We analyzed all of their comments and answers and came up with a list of the most common suggestions our students made to help them learn better:
Teach to different learning styles. Where some students want less reading handouts, others want more. One student wrote “I’m not a verbal learner and don’t tend to enjoy group work or class discussions.” We have to keep in mind that students learn differently and make sure we don’t focus too much on any one activity (i.e. basing most of our classes on long class discussions, videos, or reading and answering questions).
Change it up. No matter how much students liked certain activities, they complained if classes became too routine. Students said that doing the same thing every day “leads to drowsiness,” they “lose concentration,” and don’t like it when things are “very predictable.”
Allow for creativity. When we asked how teachers could improve classes, the most common response (by far) was that teachers should use more hands-on, creative activities involving music, movement, or drawing. Many students said they enjoy making documentaries, videos, and photo projects. They see the place for essays and written reflections, but think they can show their learning through other products as well.
Listen to their opinions. Overall, students said they enjoyed class discussions, as long as they didn’t go on too long, and if everyone got a chance to participate. They asked for more student-to-student interactions where the discussion is led by students rather than the teacher. They learn best when they’re allowed to give their opinions and debate subjects, and say that they dislike it when teachers have “dogmatic opinions.” They think teachers tend to call on the same students over and over again. In observing classes I have to agree: it’s sometimes clear that teachers’ eyes may move to the same side of the room or to the students closest to where they’re standing. Monitor this. Move around the classroom during discussions and make sure all students get a chance to be heard.
Connections are important. Students overwhelmingly like classes that connect with other classes or to things that are happening in the real world. One student said that s/he liked studying World War II because it “helped me put into context what I was studying in nuclear chemistry in Science.” Students said that they like classes where they had the “ability to question and understand what is going on in world around us at the moment,” and where they got a “broader view of society and the way the world works.”
This echoed the words of Linda Christensen, author of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching about Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word, and Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-Imagining the Language Arts Classroom. In an interview she says, “Classroom work has to be about big ideas, about the world; it has to be consequential and matter to students’ lives, otherwise, why are we learning about it? … Instead of focusing on a novel, I now focus on a historical period or an issue, like language, and I problematize it: Why is Standard English the standard? What was happening during the Great Depression that we need to understand? Who benefited? Who lost? We no longer read novels without understanding the larger social forces at work.”
Make it challenging. Surprisingly, students didn’t appreciate classes that were too easy. They complained that some teachers gave superficial lessons and didn’t delve deeply into a subject, or that not enough content was covered. They asked for clear expectations, a study guide at the beginning of a unit, and challenging work.
Be the teacher. Students felt that sometimes teachers had such a friendly connection with their students that they lost control of the classroom. They said that a teacher’s “lack of ‘grip’ on the class made it hard to work” and that in some classes “being productive is nearly impossible.”
A word on projects.
- Give choices. Most of the students said they like doing projects, as long as they’re not the same tired old research project (research, write an essay/present). They asked for interactive activities, simulations, and free choice in the way they present their learning.
- Give up control. Students asked to be involved in developing projects. Rather than telling them what to do, they said teachers should “allow students to express ideas on how to develop ideas and projects.” They also felt that when they had to “figure things out for themselves” they learned more.
- Make it meaningful. Often students feel that projects are simply busy work – in order to avoid this, they need to see how the project connects to the curriculum. Make sure these connections are clear and directly stated in a checklist.
- Individual vs group work. Over and over again, students mentioned that they don’t always want to work in groups. Give them the choice to work individually. Several students also said they don’t want to always work with their friends but don’t know how to get out of it, so they would like teachers to assign groups instead of letting them choose.
These are all good reminders that the more we give up control, step back, and let students do the work, the more they learn in the long run..