Tag Archives: students

Letting magic happen

20140505-204644.jpgMagic can happen in the classroom, a tutoring session, or meeting with a colleuge in their office. You have to embrace it. Let there be space enough for it to happen and lastly, you have to let go of your agenda so it has space to flourish.

Today, I popped up to someone’s office for a few minutes so we could discuss questions that I had after the workshop. I mentioned my idea of turning students’ perceived negatives into a positive. There was a lot of discussion at the workshop about how the students are not ready for university level education. The lecturers talked about how students use electronic devises in the classroom and how disruptive it can be to them as they try to teach. It seems this topic of discussion comes up quite a bit no matter which country I’m in. They started talking about how students multitask in their personal time or time away from the classroom. The conversation then took a sharp and predictable turn to “but they’re multitasking poorly.” So, this morning in our conversation I mentioned to the woman conducting these workshops, that multitasking is exactly what lectures expect from students, they just don’t want them using electronic devises to do it. For example, if a student is taking notes they are multitasking. The student has to listen to the instructor, process the information, and then translate it into notes on their paper. In order for the student to take notes well they have to listen, process, and write almost simultaneously. My real point was basically, like with employees, when training (teaching) you have to meet students where they are and then go from there.

I had a few more questions for her about South Africa’s higher education system, as a whole. It is a completely different system than I’m used to in the United States. The only instructors who get courses on pedagogy are in the education faculty (department). Other faculties (departments) assume teaching is common sense, everyone can do it. I was a bit surprised by this way of thinking but at the same time, not totally surprised. If this meeting had happened back in February, I would have been blown away. However, having been here this long and worked with as many students as I have, I had already picked up on this attitude. This attitude reflects in their teaching practices as well because in the workshop they mentioned several times not wanting to “spoon-feed” students. I know I mentioned that in the previous posting on this workshop but it really made an impression on me!

We went on to discuss the biggest debate in South Africa’s higher education circles, the restructuring of higher education to a four-year degree. This does not mean that South Africa is considering transforming to a liberal arts based educational system, but rather this additional year would be a transition year. She stated that many students drop out because they aren’t fully prepared for university life and this unpreparedness expresses itself in two ways. First, students who don’t have to work, away from home for the first time, and cannot handle this level of freedom. These students end up failing out of university because they party too much. The second group fails out of university because they are not fully prepared academically. So, these students come to university, but they are not fully prepared for the academic rigor they encounter in the classroom. Additionally, these students are generally balancing more responsibilities along with adjusting to university academics. They are probably working and could also be taking care of their younger siblings for example.

I’m looking forward to my next workshop on Thursday, Authentic assessment of student learning.


Meeting students where they are

I met with my regularly scheduled appointments.  Each time I meet with these students I come away with questions on how to better serve them and how they are functioning at the university, in general.  The International Office connected these particular students because they are having a difficult time with their classes.  Some of them were almost kicked out of the university for not passing enough credits.  However, working with them on particular writing assignments is not always what I’m asked about when they come to meet with me.  This week George (not his real name) brought a friend along to his appointment.  They both had questions about basic study skills.   The questions weren’t just “how do I study?” No, rather these questions were along the lines of “I get up at 3am to study.  Then I go to class and I’m falling asleep but when I lay down to sleep I’m wide awake.  What should I do?”  My first thought was one of “This isn’t what I’m here for.  I’m not an expert on this.”  But how can I deny them some sort of help when they are trying and reaching out?

Then I recalled so much of what I’ve learned about what it means to be the first in your family to attend university. They are here without a personal safety-net.  The type of support many of us take for granted.  If you aren’t the first in your family (village) to attend university, if you run into a snag you can call home and one of your parents or even an older sibling can help you work through the issue.  Even if they don’t have the answer they know enough about how a university functions and the systems in place they can direct you how best to find the help you need.  These particular students do not have that resource and bring with them a different set of disadvantages than the South African students.  I don’t want to say worse because to each student their set of disadvantages are their own personal struggle and I do not like getting into “my suffering is worse than yours” arguments.  Since I’m coming from the outside I also do not want to put qualifiers because it can get too close to judgement for my liking.

While they lack a personal safety-net of family or community, they are here as a group.  They help support each other through the difficulties they have had getting assimilated into South Africa’s university system.  Each time I work with George and the other Nigerian students I always have it in the back of my mind how limited my time is here.  Empowering them with off-line tools for improving their academic writing because they do not have internet at home and computer labs are difficult to access here on campus.  Often when I was at the Write Place and working with English 190 students I would give students links to online resources, it became second nature.  I especially like giving students links to EngVid videos because then students can easily watch it over at their own pace to better understand the topic.  George told me that he has tried to watch the links I sent him in the library but that sometimes the computers in the library are too slow to view them properly.

So, we had a conversation about study habits.

Creating Better Assignments (Workshop)


Today, Linda from the Academic Literacies: Writing (ex-Writing Center) held a workshop on Creating Better Assignments.  The workshop gave me a better for for the work being done by the Writing Center staff with the faculty at NMMU.  The lecturers that attended the workshop were all graduate students who are finishing their degrees.  The students said that they were hired as “temporary lectures”. Is this the equivalent of  a graduate assistantship?  I don’t know exactly, but that is my best guess.  Two of the students who attended the workshops were teaching subjects that are not their specialty area.  One student lecturer was a double major in History and Literature as an undergraduate but getting his masters in Literature. While the other student majored in Political Science and both of these graduate students are currently teaching history.  I spoke with one of the students after the workshop and he lamented that it seems no one is really interested in South African history.  Departments have been cut almost to the point of elimination.  Of course academia in the United States has been suffering from the same sort of effects as government funding turns towards Business schools and STEM majors.

Anyway…back to the workshop…

I thought the demographics of the workshop were interesting because we get quite a bit of training before graduate assistants teach and then throughout the semester while we are teaching.  I felt bad for these graduate students who just seem to be tossed into the classroom.

As you can see from the above graphic the workshop focused on a scaffolding approach in hopes that the instructors would transition the students through a series of assignments during the term. She emphasized that deep learning depends less on the amount of writing a student does and more on the design of the writing assignment.  Her mantra?

“Quality over quantity!”

Linda also urged the instructors to think about different types of assignments for different levels (first year, second year, and so on).  Therefore the instructor can work students up to a large assignment through a series of smaller assignments.  Sometimes I think it can be difficult, as a grad student, to remember what it was like as a first year student.  Where as if you have been teaching for a few years, you have had exposure to more first year students and so, you may not have a clear first-hand knowledge of being a freshmen but you’ve been around it more than some grad students.

Then Linda spoke about teaching with “empathy and diversity” but not as we normally think about diversity in America.  In the States we normally talk about diversity issues and what we mean are racial, religious, gender, and sexual orientation.  In this case she was referring to gaps in background knowledge and situational diversity of the students sitting before you.  She cautioned the instructors to be empathetic to students’ diverse needs.

  • Are your students hungry?
  • Are they struggling at home with an abusive situation?
  • Are they struggling financially?
  • Or in other ways that may not be apparent just by looking at them.

These struggles may show themselves by a student frequently missing class because they only have one class that day and cannot afford the 3 taxis to school and then 3 taxis again to get back home.  She also urged the teachers to be flexible on how assignments can be turned in.  For example, allowing students to turn in a digital copy of an assignment, which saves them the cost and hassle of printing is another way to be empathetic.  This part of the workshop struck me as both something we could talk about more in the US but also it seemed very South African of her to mention it (ubuntu).  While, we do have students that struggle I think sometimes we expect people to enter the classroom and be the same as students no matter their background(bootstrap mentality). This is where I feel fortunate to be in the writing center culture because I think we deal with students who are marginalized on a more regular basis.

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Previous Writing Center Post…Next week I will write about the writing respondent training.

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