What do first year students want in a college instructor?

19 Jan

Affect Matters

What attributes are first year college students looking for in their instructors? To find out, we asked over 350 first year University of Minnesota students participating in a ULibraries’ Fall Orientation day. We asked students “What is the most important attribute of an effective college professor?” Students wrote their answers down on large pieces of paper. On reviewing the data gathered via our informal poll, the emerging theme is that students are more concerned with an instructor’s affective qualities than with teaching skill and subject matter expertise. 

In total, we analyzed over 360 student responses. The description that follows provides a quick summary of themes that emerged. To do this analysis, we typed up all of the responses and indicated the number of times a specific response was repeated. Often times students would underline or circle a previous written response to show agreement. In those cases we counted the response twice. From this list we grouped responses to discern themes.

We found that the attributes students were looking for overall were not related to subject mastery or linked to particular “good” teaching skills. Students pointed, instead, to affective attributes of an instructor – like caring, understanding, and kindness. To provide a quantitative analysis, the 368 responses were sorted into three main categories: instructor knowledge and intelligence, teaching skill, and personal attributes. Personal attributes are mentioned twice as often as teaching skill and ten times more often than instructor knowledge and intelligence.First Year Data Figure

What is the most important attribute of an effective college professor?

The Top 8 responses to this question are listed below, ordered from most to least responses, with number of students noting this attribute listed in parentheses:

  1. Caring and understanding (44)
  2. Passionate and enthusiastic (39)
  3. Friendly & personable (26)
  4. Helpful & supportive (26)
  5. Clear communicator (23)
  6. Approachable (21)
  7. Engaging and interesting (19)
  8. Humorous (12)

So what does this mean for your teaching?

Below are concrete steps you can take to address the top five attributes identified by students.

  1. Show that you care about students. This doesn’t mean that you have to become BFFs with your students, nor does it have anything to do with reduce your course aims and expectations. Engaging students in vigorous learning and displaying modes of caring are not mutually exclusive. Caring can be communicated by welcoming students to each class session, thanking them for turning in assignments, noting your appreciation for thoughtful questions in class, or inviting their “real reader” responses to the readings, then listening fully to their responses. (And, if you’re interested in reading more about balancing rigor and caring in your teaching I recommend Peter Elbow’s “Embracing Contraries in the Teaching Process” still highly pertinent essay from 1983: http://wiki.ggc.usg.edu/images/3/32/Embracing_Contraries_in_the_Teaching_Process.pdf.)
  1. Let your enthusiasm for your subject show. Chances are, you are teaching a subject that you care about. Let your students see the genuine enthusiasm you have for your topic.
  • Integrate your research and scholarly pursuits into your curriculum
  • Tell stories about your evolving research and study to the topic
  • Link the topic – and sometimes student work – to current events that relate to your topic
  • Provide extra optional resources for student who want to learn more
  1. Establish rapport with your students. Establishing rapport with students was one an important attribute of successful new faculty according to Robert Boice in his book Advice to New Faculty. Boice studied new faculty to identify the traits of those who did particularly well in their early years balancing teaching with research, writing, and other faculty duties. The suggestions below are inspired by his findings
  • Arrive to class a few minutes early and chat with your students
  • Communicate immediacy with an open posture, leaning forward, and smiling at students
  • Respond to potentially annoying student questions with positive comments
  1. Be helpful and supportive by showing students that you want them to learn. You can do this by telling students on the first day “I want you to succeed in this class”.
  • Encourage students to attend your office hours
  • Provide advice on the best way to study for your class
  • Encourage students to study in groups, or consider setting up study groups for students
  • Consider putting some of these suggestions in your course syllabus to set the tone from the beginning of the semester
  1. Be a clear communicator. This teaching skill can be addressed in many ways. Below is a simple four-step process that addresses one aspect of clear communication: what are the important things that I need to know from class today?
  • Provide students (and yourself) with the 1 – 3 most important points for your class session
  • Use these points as an organizational framework at the beginning of class
  • Refer to these points during class as you transition from one point to another
  • Use these points as a summary tool at the end of your class session

We can’t know if the 360 students we polled are representative of all first year students, but we can suggest that they are likely representatives of students, and, in this, serve to remind us that who we are may be as important to student learning as what we know, and how we teach.

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