Hearing a student who hated research at the beginning of a term say they love research so much that they are considering becoming a researcher by the end of the year brings joy to my heart. Not every student leaves my research classes wanting to become a researcher, but I can say that they feel safe in their learning environment and leave understanding how to critique research. The secret to my approach involves being an empathetic educator who responds to student requests in a timely manner.
Being an empathetic educator means listening to student concerns and responding accordingly. For example, one of the most successful learning strategies I have used in my class was in response to student concerns that they were unsure how to complete a literature review which was worth a major percentage of their final mark. Rubrics and detailed instructions were not enough. In response, I walked them through the entire process as a group activity. With Google Docs and the projector, we discussed ideas and students took turns in putting them into the final paper. As a class, they created their own samples to follow for the individual assignments which, in turn, fostered shared responsibility for learning.
I believe in a shared responsibility for teaching-learning. Thus, the majority of my teaching is discussion based. Typically, I will have a PowerPoint with some key discussion points or messages that I want students to consider. Students are expected to prepare for class by engaging in preparation activities, which often include a mixture of readings, videos and other resources. This approach is often referred to as a flipped classroom. The PowerPoint acts as a loose guide for discussions and contains a few ideas of activities that we may or may not complete in a class depending on the needs of the group. Each class is, therefore, different even when I teach multiple sections of the same class. It is my role to respond to the evolving needs of each student group and remain flexible.
Although I rarely lecture, there have been times when students have said that a lecture is what they need. To increase student engagement in these situations I aim to break up lectures with examples, short videos, and activities. Flexibility is a key component of being an effective educator. For the most part, I give students what they ask for providing that it is ethical and realistic.
Flexibility in the classroom and online also means being willing to listen to and consider different points of view. Engaging students in discussion is facilitated by an acceptance of logical and evidence-based opinions that may actually conflict. Such discussions promote memorable learning while my role is to set the stage for a safe space where divergent opinions are valued. I empower the group to set guidelines around appropriate peer behaviour, encourage expression of opinions, and acknowledge participation.
Recognizing that each class is unique, my teaching strategies vary based on student needs. In an online environment, more frequent follow up is needed to ensure students are not struggling. My goal is to ensure that students feel connected to the course in a meaningful way. Ideally, assessments would be frequent and worth smaller percentages than in-person classes. Gamification is presenting in the literature as a strategy of particular value in an online learning environment that I have integrated into one of my courses in 2017. Anecdotal evidence suggests it has been well received by students.
The flexibility that online learning provides changes lives. My appreciation for online learning stems from my personal experience as a teen mom who would not have been able to finish high school on time without the virtual school. The empathy I hold for students who are managing children and/or other responsibilities while in school is what has pushed me towards flexible online course delivery. I help students gain access to the flexibility of on-demand learning no matter what kind of course they are enrolled in.
My original values statement was “where complexity meets clarity” because I believe that students need simple explanations of course concepts in order to succeed. If I cannot simplify a subject enough so anyone can understand it, then I need to review the topic until I can. This way, I take ownership of gaps in student learning when the student is demonstrating investment in the process. Many examples of how I have simplified topics can be found in my teaching materials.
I aim to use multiple modalities for class preparation to target multiple learning styles. Often, I will use readings, videos, quizzes, and activities. When students enter the classroom, I expect that they have completed some of the recommended preparation but not all of it. Students are free to choose what helps them meet the course objectives. Unlike some of my colleagues, I believe that it does not matter how students acquire their learning as long as they do so. I am quite aware that some students come to class “unprepared” because they learn better doing the preparation work after the class. As long as they are actively engaged in their own learning, it does not bother me if they choose to learn in a different way than suggested. Likewise, I welcome meetings with students who wish to talk about expectations before they work through the course material.
From a pedagogical perspective, I aim to give students as much choice in their learning as possible within the limitations of the collaborative curriculum of the program I teach in. While a variety of resources helps me meet the needs of students, I love to offer choice in how they want to be evaluated. For example, I am able to allow students to present in person in my office or in front of the group or via video. At times I am also able to allow students to choose the type of assignment they wish to complete. That way they can do what suits their learning needs most. The practice of choice helps me achieve one of my main goals of being approachable.
As an educator, I have made a conscious effort to be approachable right from day one. I want students to come to me if they are struggling in any way. This value stems from my research around safe student learning in the clinical setting. Students need to feel comfortable discussing their mistakes and weaknesses. Students often come into my classes already knowing me through my YouTube presence. To humanize myself, I start with an introduction of myself that highlights relatable aspects of my life. I make a point to tell them that I do not know everything, but can help them find answers. Whenever I am asked a question, no matter how large or small, I do my best to find the answer and follow up to see if they got the help they needed. To make learning more memorable and fun, I also incorporate humour into my classes whenever possible. Students also really appreciate small efforts like follow-up emails.
I value integrity and ask students to be honest with me. To promote their honesty, I remain non-judgmental when I am helping them problem solve. As my research suggests, a lack of honesty can be unsafe in the clinical setting. As such, I am honest with students about my expectations and how I view my role in their learning. My expectations include that school policies are followed. I explain the consequences for a breach of policy in the first class in order to make expectations clear.
Part of being honest involves following through in difficult situations. I recognize that the need for student remediation may include course failure. I believe that school policies regarding assignment submission and plagiarism should be followed. If I did not follow through, I would feel like I had lied to the students which could promote dishonest behavior among them. Some students I have failed have thanked me after some time has passed because it was what they needed. Further, students who have been passed by others have confided in me that, after about a year, they felt it would have been better for them to have failed. For these reasons, I need to be firm when students have not met course objectives.
I have adopted a humanistic teaching and learning philosophy that assumes the learner’s motivation to learn is derived from his or her individual needs, self-concept, and subjective feelings. As an educator, I strive to do the following:
- Create an engaging, stimulating, and enjoyable classroom environment
- Engender respect for all cultures and ways of thinking
- Use varied strategies to accommodate diverse learning styles: discussion-based activities, lectures with opportunities for questions, relevant cases, critical thinking exercises, technology-supported activities, and so forth
- Encourage self-directed learning
- Offer situations of choice for students
Given my personal values and nursing education more generally, the above aspirations are grounded in the traditions of Kolb’s theory of experiential learning (1984, 2015) while my use of technology to support learning reflects the principles of critical digital pedagogy as described by Morris (2017):
Educational technology…is bent on efficiency and designed on models of evidence-based education. But critical pedagogy—and critical instructional design by necessity—recognizes that digital learning is an area of education about which terribly little has been determined. And so, at the end, critical instructional design is inquiry-based. Not unlike Freire’s problem-posing model of education, this approach to teaching and learning online asks more questions than it offers answers. Using this approach, we try to imagine how to design a course, or moments in a course, that plan for the unexpected, when teacher and student both become learners.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Kolb, D. A. (2015). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Morris, S. M. (2017, May 1). Critical Digital Pedagogy and Design. Invited Lecture. Iliif School of Theology. Denver, CO.