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Julianne Scibetta

Understanding Today’s Students: Teaching by Example

By Julianne Scibetta, Albany College of Pharmacy

The beginning of the semester is a fantastic time for many things: friendly and exciting reunions, new people to meet, new decorations, new fashion, new trends, new courses. And yet the beginning of the semester is often the worst time for engaging students in material. For new students particularly, a fresh start means there’s a blank slate; nothing yet connects or makes sense. Juniors and seniors fall into their old habits of digging in to the ground and plowing ahead without a second thought to the meaning. Even in interdisciplinary or interconnected curricula, September is hardly enough time for themes to mesh and congeal.

Providing context, and even providing simple real-life and relatable examples, to students is an area in which I admittedly have extreme difficulty doing. Accomplished teachers and professors have had years to amass hundreds of anecdotes and examples – sometimes as much experience as your or I’ve been alive. For me, it takes an extreme effort to come up with relevant, relatable examples to convey the meaning of something simple like time management – and I know that still these examples aren’t always good or relevant enough.

Imagine what it must be like for a new tutor to experience this personal and internal frustration; a frustration that may be shared with a tutee who is struggling to understand a concept. We know that, untrained or unmentored, we teach as we’ve been taught, and we teach as we learn best. I am a visual learner – I tend to make handouts, charts, graphs, and use humorous pictures. Tutors are not exempt from this awareness, as they repeat the examples they vividly remember from their own schooling to teach others. As being mostly peer tutors and not classroom instructors, they’ve hardly had time to ponder the implications of their examples or even the pedagogy of teaching by example. And, as I’m sure many of you would agree, we shouldn’t have to ask them to. We may guide them and teach them, but ultimately we leave them to be the creative, confident, independent thinkers they are to model and convey to their tutees.

Coming up with relevant examples is a kind of advanced analytical thinking that many students take years to develop; tutors, often recognized for their critical thinking abilities and communicative skills, may be ripe for the picking with these techniques. Even though I worked as a writing tutor at my college for three years, I didn’t understand the power and the pedagogy until I worked as a teaching assistant at a summer camp the summer before my senior year. Having to create lesson plans on my own, rationalize how I was going to transfer information and structure learning was a much more difficult task than I had ever anticipated. With that singular experience I gained a profound admiration for every teacher I ever had, professors included. I felt ashamed of myself that I had wasted the first three years of college stuck in a learning rut.

You can facilitate tutors and students in their own development of critical and analytical thinking skills in a variety of quick ways:

  • If tutors are paid for their preparation time, ask them to meet with the instructor to learn more about his or her specific pedagogy.
  • Facilitate a tutor’s ability to observe an instructor in the classroom for his/her own learning about teaching and learning – provide direction for observations and feedback forms, or utilize campus professionals who specialize in teaching and learning techniques.
  • If permitted, allow a tutor to skim an instructor’s version of a textbook for hints and clues on ways to relate information through problems or examples.
  • Begin an evaluation system that incorporates tutee, peer, and supervisory observations and feedback.
  • Strengthen rapport-building training and techniques taught to tutors. The more comfortable students are with each other the easier it is to take risks and accelerate communication and learning.
  • Encourage and support undergraduate student teaching assistantships or other academic leadership opportunities within your institution.

These steps increase the general college community’s awareness of powerful teaching and learning partnerships that can exist, with the local benefit of strengthening the skills and reputation of your own tutoring staff.

Next month, we will explore a subset of students who are particularly at risk for falling into the memorization-regurgitation trap – sophomores - and how we can address their specific needs.

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