Thursday, June 11, 2009

Three Down, One to Go

Well, only one more week of actually classes for the summer course, but I’ll have a full week’s worth of grading to do after the class ends: a pile of papers and a pile of finals.

I’m mostly enjoying being a teaching assistant. Even though the class is a summer course and most of the students are taking the course as a requirement---for some, it's the last requirement before graduating---the students have been keeping up with the work and really engaging with the class. I’ve had a couple of discussions that resembled dental work, especially this week, when we’ve been talking about a rather dense, difficult book. But with a little prodding, the students got into the discussion. I also took a little more control of the discussion this week, which definitely reduced the awkward silences and kept us more on track.

I have a few students who are more challenging than others. One boy is very enthusiastic---perhaps a little too enthusiastic---but not very bright. Before class, during break, after class, and during office hours---he never runs out of questions. Unfortunately, he proves that there really is such a thing as a dumb question. I feel like I’m spending way too much time repeating lecture material and reviewing the readings for him. I believe that he is doing the reading, but he doesn’t know how to read---at least, not in the academic sense. He doesn’t seem to know how to learn independently. And I’m not a learning specialist. I can tell him a few basic strategies: read everything twice, stop every 10-20 pages to make notes or summarize---but without any background in pedagogy or cognitive theory, I’m not sure how helpful I can be.

Another of the students has an identified learning disorder and struggles with writing essays. Despite giving her twice the time on the midterm, she still couldn’t complete the essay. I feel badly for her, but I don’t know how to help. Essay writing has always come easy for me. I’m sure I was probably taught how to write an essay at some point, but it’s been at least 20 years since I’ve really thought about the process. And at the same time that I want to help her, I also want to be reasonable in the accommodations that I make. I can’t give her unlimited time, and I can’t exempt her from the essay. Again, I’m not trained to handle students with learning disorders, but I’m still supposed to teach and grade them.

With both these students, I’m confronted with not only their learning challenges but so my own biases and snobbery. I’m no genius, but academic learning has always been relatively easy for me. I’ve never had to think about how to learn from a book or how to write a coherent essay. And although I know that we all have different types of intelligence and different ways of learning, I still tend to measure intelligence by my own biases. Even though I know that the girl who struggles to write an essay is not stupid, I still find myself thinking that a college student ought to be able to write a well-developed essay on demand. And that the student who has difficulty with identifying and remembering the important ideas in a reading just isn’t smart, when perhaps he was never taught how to read at an advanced level or simply learns better in other ways. I get frustrated not just because I can’t help these students, but because I can’t understand them. I’m not sure whether it is a failure of empathy or imagination. Perhaps its my own learning disorder that I can understand the students’ struggles on an intellectual level but I can’t grasp them on an affective level.

So what do you all think: At the university level, what responsibility do we have as teachers to understand and meet the students’ diverse learning needs?


At 11:46 AM , Blogger nwt said...

Very interesting, difficult question, Lisa. Of course I don't pretend to have an answer. But I do think that we ought to be specifically trained for working with students who have unconventional patterns of learning. If the university admits students with such patterns---which I believe it should---then it must train its staff to work with them. When I think of the accommodations they make for athletes, I can imagine no reason why unconventional learning patterns should not also be accommodated. I'm sure you agree with me here. A separate question is whether a student truly has a learning "disability" or whether she was never provided with particular skills but could still acquire them. In the latter scanrio, the burden should not be borne by whoever happens to be teaching an affected student at a given moment. Rather, the university should step up its efforts to assess student skills and take a proactive approach to fill in gaps left by less-than-stellar primary and secondary education.


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