By Jim McDonald
Posted on 2020-11-13
Each year brings a new group of students. Sometimes a class can be new preparation for the teacher, too. While teachers are responsible for the preparation for courses, we need to keep in mind the important effect the students’ backgrounds have on science teaching and learning. Getting to know students and their science background, or lack of it, may benefit how you cover content. This is especially true because it is becoming increasingly likely that your students will differ more in their demographics, preparation in science, attitudes toward science, and interests than just a few years ago. These differences are further heightened in distance learning and meeting with students virtually.
Knowledge about students will enable you to refine the presentation of material, class discussions, comments, illustrations, and science investigations so that they are more effective learning experiences. References to student interests, backgrounds, knowledge, and even anxieties can make the class seem more personal and the students’ interest more accessible.
The following are things I have tried successfully in my science teaching to discover more about my students.
• Find out about their experiences in other science classes, with the particular subject in the courses you teach, and especially in survey or introductory classes.
• Early in the school year, write personalized comments on students’ assignments and invite students to discuss their progress with you.
• Have students write the answers to some connection questions to get to know them better.
Science experiences. Since I work with teachers of science, I ask my students about both their positive and negative science experiences, concentrating on teachers and the kind of experiences they had that promoted or hindered learning. First I have them think about it individually and write their answers. Then they interview two other students, listening for common themes or answers. We then discuss it as a class, since others will have similar experiences. We focus on the common answers to use as data and to get to know one another. The answers are used to connect with my themes during the class.
Positive learning experiences included hands-on learning, science investigations that had a real-world connection, discussion of current science events occurring locally and around the world, being given a choice of how to do a project, and lab experiences that had multiple pathways to a correct answer or result.Negative experiences shared by students included covering content too quickly and in insufficient depth, requiring too much memorization. When asked about how much of that information had been retained, students say it was forgotten as soon as the test was taken. Other common responses included just using the book, answering questions at the end of the chapter, and too many PowerPoint slides that students had to copy in handwritten notes.
Personalized comments on assignments. In the beginning of the year, I recommend establishing a dialogue with students through the comments you write on their assignments. You could do the same thing by asking them to elaborate on a particular point, or having them talk to you about something they wrote. Students sometimes respond to me in an e-mail or approach me before the next virtual class. This lets students know that you are interested in their thoughts and opinions and that you genuinely want to get to know them and their thoughts about science.
Connection Questions. I have students write answers to five connection questions on a card. I refer to the card throughout the semester as I get to know the students personally. The five questions are
1. What do I need to know about you?
2. What do I need to know about you as a learner?
3. What do you expect from me as the instructor?
4. Describe your biggest fear (concern) about this class.
5. Describe your expectations for this class.
Students submit their answers electronically so I can start using them immediately.
Connecting with your students in multiple ways will pay dividends in various ways. When you cannot see them in person, it is especially important to get to know them in other ways. Try the ways that work for you. Thank you for all you do in teaching science in these challenging times.
Jim McDonald is a professor of science education at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. He has served as president of the Council for Elementary Science International, NSTA’s elementary affiliate, and as chair of the NSTA Alliance of Affiliates. E-mail feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jimscienceguy. He would love to hear about what is working for you or other ideas that you use with students.