You Probably Don’t Know Your Students as Well as You Think You Do (and That’s Okay, but You Still Have to Design for Their Success)

Now, obviously, you know them better than I do, so listen in this blog post for what is useful to you and ignore the rest.

And even if we teach at the same university, in the same program, you know them differently than I do. Even if we teach the exact same students, we know them differently. That’s because students are different people in different classes, in part because they are different at different times of the day, among different peers, and in different contexts–just like you probably present yourself differently to different classes that you teach.

But, still, you probably don’t know your students as well as you think you do. That doesn’t make you a bad teacher–it just means that they are good students, ones who have learned how to succeed in class despite barriers elsewhere and without you knowing.

Right now, I’m seeing a lot of my teaching colleagues who are suddenly teaching remotely say that it’s okay to use high tech solutions or make complex demands on their students because “I know my students and their needs.”

The thing is, while that may be true(ish) when they are in your classroom, it’sless true when they are learning remotely. At this point, many of them don’t even know their needs.

You’re a kind, friendly, caring teacher–and students like you! That doesn’t obligate them to tell you about their struggles, even as you need to quickly put together a remote classroom where they can succeed despite them. Just assume you’re teaching people carrying burdens you don’t understand.

By George Eastman House – https://www.flickr.com/photos/george_eastman_house/3333259091/, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53596134

Take every college student with k-12 children living in Kansas. Yesterday, they all learned that their kids won’t be in school again until August. That was a barrier they couldn’t have known they were going to face. When you were teaching them F2F, you might not even known that they had kids. As of today, they are now homeschooling parents. You don’t know what they are going to need because they don’t know what they are going to need. They won’t know for a week or more as the public school system figures out what it’s going to do.

And the situation is going to keep changing like that, possibly every day, which means that their needs are going to be changing day by day. The student who today can agree to attend a synchronous lecture might not be able to tomorrow if his father falls ill. A student who has a webcam today might not tomorrow when it breaks and she can’t afford to replace it because she lost her job. A student who today can go to the library to use free WiFi can’t tomorrow when it closes. A student without children might become the caretaker for nieces and nephews if his sister is deployed to serve with the National Guard.

And you probably don’t know the problems that are going to most interfere with your students’ learning: poverty, domestic violence, family status, and disability status. And you have no right to know these things, and students have no obligation to share them with you, even when you ask them really kindly in an anonymous survey.

In fact, students who face these kind of burdens have probably succeeded in part because they have not shared this information with their professors.

Yes, you are probably a kind-hearted professor who would support any student facing the kind of burden I list above. But not all professors are, and, indeed, many would use this information against students–using it as evidence that a student isn’t “serious” or “committed” or couldn’t hack it in a competitive job or graduate program. Students learn that quickly, and those who face these challenges but have been successful have probably been successful in part because they’ve learned it well. (Sure, there are exceptions.) I bet if you grew up poor, you know what I’m talking about: the last thing you want to do is to signal to everyone how poor you are. Poverty tells–like, in the US, crooked teeth–shape how people see and treat us, and students viewed and treated as poor are already limiting their chances for success. (Think about it: If being poor got you ahead, then everyone, regardless of income, would be trying to convince others that they are poor. We don’t–we try to convince others that we are affluent or at least middle class.)

But every day:

  • brilliant poor students figure out how to use the computer lab so they can spend their money on rent instead of a laptop
  • students with abusive or controlling partners figure out how to take classes when their partners are at work so that they don’t know they are enrolled.
  • students with children figure out how to rely on their parents to provide childcare so they can study.

The strategies that vulnerable students use to succeed F2F may become impossible now.

Asking them to trust you with knowledge about the barriers they face is kind if you are willing to help them (because you may be able to help them), but you cannot rely on their responses to reveal to you how to proceed with your teaching. Some of them–wisely–will not tell you about what they are carrying, and others do not yet know what they will be carrying.

Assume that your students are going to have a lot going on, that some of it will be unpredictable, and that none of it is your business to know–and yet you must design a remote course around it.

When you design a F2F course, you don’t have to think much about how to help these students be successful because other entities do this for you–for example, by supporting a campus childcare center, scheduling classes in the evening, and making campus handicap accessible. If you receive training and support in designing a fully online class, you will be taught how to design for the needs of vulnerable students. But if you are suddenly moving from F2F to remote teaching, you probably aren’t thinking about these things and there aren’t enough supports in place on campus (like giving every student a laptop) to guarantee success.

So now, you have to ask yourself: Is the work I’m requiring reasonable for a student who didn’t sign up for an online course but who is now taking one, even if they are vulnerable and even if I–or they–don’t know it?

If not, redesign.

You likely won’t get this perfect, and there will still be students left behind. But we can reduce that by designing for our most vulnerable–even when you don’t know who they are.

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