Seven Deadly Assumptions about Students

The following article in The Teaching Professor for May 2004 seemed particularly interesting. The author details 7 "deadly" assumptions we can make about students that may negatively affect their achievement, motivation, or desire to stay in school.

  1. Students will apply the content on their own after class.

    This won't happen--not because students are lazy or don't care, but because they don't know how to do this. Part of the difficult work of teaching is finding or creating activities that allow students to practice the application of content in a context where the professor can guide and facilitate their work.
  2. Students don't need the instructor or the task to be structured.

    This does not mean there is no room for spontaneity or open-ended tasks. It does mean that at some point the expectations for and reasons behind student work are made clear. Helping students see why they are learning something, how they will use it in the future, how it will empower them to do more complex tasks and how it is building their skill set can be profoundly motivating.
  3. Students learn best by hearing the expert version first.

    This is actually a less effective teaching method because it allows students to remain passive; it does not ask students to try to do the thinking themselves.
  4. Students can integrate new information by just listening.

    One characteristic of disciplinary experts is that they have an extensive network of concepts and ideas and examples into which they can quickly and easily place new knowledge. This network not only provides connections between ideas, it also significantly speeds up the learning process. A characteristic of novice learners (i.e. our students), however, is that they lack this network. The "obvious" connections we may see between new material and old, may be invisible to the majority of our students and only dimly perceived by our best students.
  5. Students should do their own work during class time.

    Practicing with and learning from classmates is far more effective for students than just working on their own. The slower students may learn from the explanations of their brighter peers (who may understand the questions of fellow students better than the professor). Stronger students learn by having to explain the material. Everyone wins.
  6. Students don't need much guidance from the instructor.

    Teachers can build scaffolds for student learning--that is, provide temporary supports for students to use while they build their own understanding.
  7. Students can overcome complexity gaps between class work and tests.

    Students need practice applying course content in new and more complex ways before they arrive at an exam situation. There should always be congruence between the kind of thinking required during lessons and the level of thinking required during evaluative assessment. There should also, in my opinion, be congruence between those two and the level of thinking that will be used in subsequent application of course material in later courses.

These were good, though challenging, reminders. They point towards some of the real and demanding work of teaching--trying to close the gap between expert and novice learning. I hope you find something of value here that you can take back to your work with students.