How to show students that they matter, inspired by episodes of two of my favourite podcasts

Yesterday I went on a lovely after-work walk with one of my favorite podcasts (check them out, all highly recommended!), and I want to mention two podcast episodes Iistened to recently, through the lens (mixing my metaphors here, but you get the idea) of how to show students that they matter to us as teachers.

The first one is on the Tea for Teaching podcast on the topic of Transparency in Learning and Teaching (link to episode). Transparency in Learning and Teaching, or for short, TILT, framework  helps teachers be more transparent about what they are asking students  to do, how students are supposed to do it, and how the teacher and the student will know that they did good work. For that, whenever a new task or assignment or activity is presented, there are three things that should be discussed and clarified:

  1. Purpose. Why am I, the teacher, asking students to do the activity? Which skills are they learning or practicing, what knowledge will they gain, and how is all of this relevant for students’ lives beyond just doing what the teacher asked them to do. It might be perfectly clear to us as teachers what goal we have when we assign some work, but that does not mean it is clear to students at all! But considering student motivation, it is super important that they see a task not just as busywork, but as meaningful. Talking about the purpose of the task also helps them connect it to prior knowledge and maybe brings up questions as to how it fits in, or about gaps in knowledge or skills that they now want to close.
  2. Task. This is about clarifying what exactly is supposed to happen and making sure that students have a game plan or at least know where to start. But that does not mean that everything needs to be disclosed: if figuring out a process, or being creative in the approach to a task, are learning outcomes, that is part of the purpose of the task. But it needs to be made transparent when that is the case, so students understand struggles as desirable difficulties that support their learning, rather than as signs that they don’t belong (which might lead to lower investment in figuring it out or even trying, or to a lot of energy going towards dealing with their doubts of belonging rather than the task). I really liked the framing of discussion on the episode on how uncomfortable situations (e.g. group work) might be desirable over comfortable ones (e.g. lectures). Even though being lectured to feels like more learning is taking place, whether that learning took place or not will only come out when it is tested. Doing that testing, hitting a barrier in understanding, can either happen during the summative assessment when it’s too late to fix any gaps, or it can happen before and be appreciated as a tool that lets us know what exactly we need to learn, in a safe environment, with teacher and peers there to help. It might be uncomfortable, but it definitely benefits learning!
  3. Criteria. How will teachers and students know whether a product is good? For that, we need to discuss criteria. These could be in the form of checklists or rubrics (potentially co-created, but definitely discussed), and the suggestion is to use them in combination with real-world examples that students apply the criteria to and discuss how they are met (or not), to get a better understanding for what good work looks like. Thinking about criteria it is, as always, important to think about what it is that we really want to assess. Students’ best work, or how fast students are (which might be down to sheer luck that they find the right materials quickly, or due to privilege that they know whom to ask)?

There is a 1-page pdf on “the unwritten rules: Decode your assignments and decipher what’s expected of you” of the TILT group that I really really recommend you check out. It’s written for students so they can take ownership of their own learning by asking the right questions before they start working on a task. Check it (or the full episode, obviously!) out!

The second episode I want to recommend and summarize here is from Lecture Breakers, on “create engaging virtual environments“, and what I found super fascinating is the way they talk about “welcome pages”: the landing page in the learning management system, or the shared screen people see when they enter a zoom meeting, or maybe even the slide that is on the projector when people enter a room. I have always liked to start teaching before I start teaching, for example recently I have sometimes had powerpoint’s auto captioning function on a black screen running for the chit chat I had with early participants, and then, when it was time to start the official part, just quickly talk about this cool tool that I discovered, and how it can be useful, and that it can even show translations of what you are saying! But the time before the official start could also be used constructively for so many other things, like showing fun “did you know…?” facts. You see, this episode sparked a lot of thoughts in me!

Anyway, some things that were mentioned are

  • showing a countdown timer to when the official part of the meeting is starting (my pet peeve as someone whose understanding of being “on time” is “being there 10 minutes before”, is the “oh, we’ll just wait a few more minutes so more people arrive…”. BUT I HAVE BEEN HERE ON TIME!!! ;-)). I don’t know if such a timer would prevent people from getting up to get coffee 15 seconds before the official part starts, but at least it shows that I am serious about starting on time (which people also find out rather quickly otherwise…).
  • having themed backgrounds, either regarding the topic of the session, or season / holiday-ish. I’m not a fan of pictures just for decorative purposes (which are only distracting from learning), but I can see the benefit of having different welcome slides every time to show that I’m not just re-using old slide decks over and over, but am actually aware what time of year it is ;-) And also there can be interesting stuff on the pictures that are either potentially sparking conversations between participants, or that we’ll come back to later.
  • music running as people access the page. This is one idea that I personally hate — especially in an online setting. I don’t want to listen to your choice of music in my own home waiting for things to get started! I can see the benefit of doing that in in-person meetings to encourage chats between participants that don’t know each other yet — easier to talk to someone when there isn’t dead silence in the room and it feels like all others are listening in — but even thought they report that students like the music on the welcome page (and ok, it does make the teacher more approachable and better to grasp as a person), I am really not a fan.
  • QR code to some introduction of the teacher, where you can see them in motion and hear their voice (which reminds me of so many things: the importance of names [do you know my favourite article about the benefits of using name tents? If not check it out!]; of the tool that my awesome college Rachel Forsyth introduced me to, that gives you a link that you can put in your email bio (or anywhere, really) with a sound file to your name*.)**
  • vulnerability — letting students know that you, too, are experimenting and learning, and that some things might work better than others…
  • that there is some tool to have bursts of confetti on the screen! Since I was on a walk while listening to the episode and didn’t go back to search for it, I don’t exactly know how they do that, but I will definitely find out next time I need to urgently procrastinate on something, and then I’ll let you know! :-)

So much for today. And if you are looking for something to listen to, you know my recommendations…

* And you could even invite students to record their names so you can learn to pronounce them correctly! There are also tools like that give you the pronounciation of names (and despite the very whiney voice, at least the pronounciation of my name works pretty well; but the phonetic spelling says mee-ree-yahm, which is a syllable too many, the correct pronounciation is “Mir-yam Gless-mer” (and pronounces “Mir-yam Gless-mer” pretty well then if you ignore the american accent)…). Here is me saying it myself:

** If you want to watch and hear me speak, there are tons of videos of me talking about rotating tank experiments here

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