The first time I walked into a classroom as a new teacher, I did all the wrong things. The course was a remedial English class for first-generation college students. I waltzed in with my grammar worksheets and sentence-diagramming exercises, chattering about the importance of subject/verb agreement and how to correct dependent sentence clause fragments. I was met by rows of blank stares.
On our first break, one of my students pulled me aside. “Ms. Long,” she told me, “we have no idea what you are talking about.” I thanked her for this transformative feedback, threw my lessons plans out the window, and started from scratch.
Fortunately, they all returned to class after the break, and I apologized for the rocky start. Arranging our chairs in a circle, I asked the students, “Why are you here? What do you hope to learn? Why is written communication important in your life?”
Most importantly, I asked them this: “What can I do to help you be successful in this class?”
As teachers, we are subject matter experts, and we are passionate about sharing our knowledge with our students. But the first step to our students’ success is engaging them. We have to check our assumptions and make sure that we meet students where they are. The truth is that many of our students don’t know how to learn — and as many as one in five also live with mental health conditions that can negatively impact their ability to succeed in the classroom.
We all want our students to succeed, but we need to show students exactly what success looks like and provide them with a roadmap to get there. Time management, note-taking, and study skills can be customized to individual learners. Here are some strategies I use to help students develop as learners.
Establish a Learning Baseline
One thing I do in my classes that would also work well in middle school or high school courses is a first-day-of-class writing assessment. Using the essay “What True Education Should Do” by Sydney Harris (1994), I show students how to divide the essay into sections (“chunking”). In groups, I ask the students to number each section and practice basic annotation skills — like highlighting or underlining words we don’t know or ideas that seem important.
Some students in each group are already familiar with these concepts, and they are able to demonstrate and coach their classmates. They then write their own “mini” essays using the reading as a model, telling me what a teacher is like and what a learner is like.
Build Trust by Offering Resources
If you can find a way to help your students share their challenges with you, you can start to build trust and find ways to engage them. At the end of the mini essay described above, I ask students to tell me what I can do to help them succeed. This helps me to identify my first-generation college students, English-language learners, and students with learning disabilities and/or life challenges.
Teach Students Basic Time-Management Skills
Many students have never thought about using a planner or setting regular study sessions. I introduce this concept early in all of my courses, demonstrating a variety of ways to manage their assignments, from old-fashioned notebook planners to smartphone calendars.
I also try to provide a rough estimate of how long I expect each assignment to take, offering supplemental resources for students who finish quickly and want more. I also provide coaching sessions for students who are not able to complete their assignments in the expected amount of time.
Additional Resources to Help Students Study
There are a wide variety of tools that can help students to succeed. Some that I regularly share with my students include the following:
- TED talks/videos: Many authors today, myself included, have given TEDx talks or lectures that are available online. If we are reading an assigned essay or book, I point the students toward a relevant video resource to accompany their reading.
- Khan Academy: This resource is not just for math anymore. Khan Academy offers a wide variety of supplemental resources to help students reinforce their learning. (Note: If you are currently trying to develop an online class, this resource is a great place to start!).
- Time Management: Education Corner, a website that collects a variety of resources for teachers, provides a good overview of how to set semester, monthly, and weekly deadlines and how to help students to prioritize their assignments.
- Note-taking: I teach my students the Cornell Notes system developed by Walter Pauk. However, I stress that they should modify this approach to fit their own needs. Here’s an overview of Cornell Notes.
- Reading, Writing and Citing Sources: My go-to resource for both MLA and APA style is the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). This website also offers examples and tips for a variety of common student essays.