Teaching Unblindered

07.10_teaching-unblindered

In a now-classic scene in Star Wars: A New Hope (Episode IV for those of you keeping track), pilot Luke Skywalker has one shot to destroy the Death Star. He must fly in a narrow channel and hit a small target. To concentrate, he focuses with the help of the Force, keeping emotions and distractions at bay, almost like mental blinders. Racehorse trainers similarly use blinders so the horses focus on the race. The focus helps Luke save the day and keeps horses on track. We teachers often wear different kinds of blinders. I suggest we take them off.

Teachers have a lot on their plates. The average fixed-term instructor is teaching four to five courses per semester, 10 or more courses per year. Tenure-track instructors teach perhaps half that number and add research responsibilities to their position descriptions. Sprinkle in healthy doses of service. When it comes to teaching, the traditional model has been to focus on delivering content and skills to students. Each class plays a role in the curriculum, and the instructor finds it incumbent on themselves to make sure the students get the content the class is designed to cover. The blinders are on. The focus defaults to coverage.


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In a now-classic scene in Star Wars: A New Hope (Episode IV for those of you keeping track), pilot Luke Skywalker has one shot to destroy the Death Star. He must fly in a narrow channel and hit a small target. To concentrate, he focuses with the help of the Force, keeping emotions and distractions at bay, almost like mental blinders. Racehorse trainers similarly use blinders so the horses focus on the race. The focus helps Luke save the day and keeps horses on track. We teachers often wear different kinds of blinders. I suggest we take them off.

Teachers have a lot on their plates. The average fixed-term instructor is teaching four to five courses per semester, 10 or more courses per year. Tenure-track instructors teach perhaps half that number and add research responsibilities to their position descriptions. Sprinkle in healthy doses of service. When it comes to teaching, the traditional model has been to focus on delivering content and skills to students. Each class plays a role in the curriculum, and the instructor finds it incumbent on themselves to make sure the students get the content the class is designed to cover. The blinders are on. The focus defaults to coverage.

The pressure to cover material is sometimes less real than it is perceived to be. Some programs, such as nursing, do have to prepare students to take national exams. Premed students will be taking the MCAT. Some programs need to cover courses and content for accreditation requirements. Often, instructors cover more than they need to, and some disciplines have taken strides to change this. For example, in 2021, the American Psychological Association (APA) released guidelines for teaching the introductory psychology course that greatly reduced pressure for content coverage. Instead of instructors covering all 16 chapters in a book, the APA recommended the selection of 10 chapters with a simple way to make sure students still got a wide exposure to psychology (instructors pick two topics from each of five pillars of the field).

The blinders of content can have a lot of consequences for teaching. Sometimes, course design and class time so skew toward content coverage that there is little time for active learning activities or skill development. Yes, more instructors pay more attention to skills and attempt to cut down on coverage. It may help to know that taking time for deeper processing does not need to mean cutting a lot of content. When you take time to develop skills, students can then take more content anyway, as Craig Nelson demonstrated some time ago in his biology classes. This may be old news to many of you, so let me hit a bigger reason to take off the blinders.

In our focus on content and our own class, we often forget that students are taking other classes too. The average college student takes five classes at a time. Using the formula of two hours out of class for every hour in class, most students should be spending 50 or more hours every week on their academic work. That is a lot of time. Although not all students spend as much time as they should, realizing that students have other classes to work on in addition to ours is an important first step in looking beyond our blinders. But there is much more we should consider.

Classes do not exist in isolation. The moment one considers the variance in our students’ lives, we realize that many are contending with more than just our class and their other classes. Students at some schools have to travel more to class every week than others. Some students have childcare or other caregiving responsibilities. Many students work, some up to 40 hours. Add those hours to the amount we expect them to spend on classes, factor in some time to sleep and you quickly get to why students are stressed.

Stress itself is on the rise. Even before the onset of the pandemic, self-reported stress in America has been increasing and college students are no exception. This past academic year, more students emailed me about mental health issues than ever before. This anecdotal evidence is echoed at colleges around the country. Students have anxiety, experience depression, and must contend with a variety of stressors. Many students experience food insecurity. Not knowing where your next meal is coming from or going to class without having eaten enough makes it difficult to learn. Food is just one of the basic needs to think about. Many students have problems paying rent or finding safe places to stay. Some students, especially women and nonbinary and LGBTQ students, also experience physical threats and feel unsafe.

Mental health, food and safety issues, and financial and physiological insecurity all tax the human condition. These already important factors are accentuated by trauma and higher education has been paying more attention to the need to deliver trauma-based education. How much do we know about student financial issues? How much do we realize that students walk around daily also fearing for their physical safety? Fortunately, there are some great ways to get informed. Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid and the Betrayal of the American Dream provides a deep look at the financial issues students face. George Bonono’s The End of Trauma: How the New Science of Resilience is Changing How We Think about PTSD provides an up-to-date take on trauma, with a sharp critique of how the public misuses the term. Perhaps the best overview of all the issues facing our students outside of our classes, and your one stop if you have limited time, is Sarah Rose Cavanaugh’s Mind over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge.

Even a quick perusal of the literature regarding what our students face should make clear the need for us to take off our teaching blinders. We cannot afford to focus only on content. We need to create mechanisms and carve out time where we can acknowledge our students’ different challenges to learning. Just as each of us has lives outside of the classroom that most of our students fail to recognize, so too do our students have trials, tribulations, and challenges that may keep them from learning what we are striving to help them learn. Teaching unblindered involves asking ourselves how we will redesign our courses, restructure our class time, and change our interactions with our students to factor in all that goes on in their lives beyond our single class. The more we can do this, the better our students will learn, and the happier and more comfortable they will be doing it.

So what will it look like to teach unblindered? If you are open to taking a holistic view of education and include a consideration of the students’ lives outside of your class, you can start by writing a warm, welcoming syllabus. Acknowledging mental health issues in the syllabus could increase chances of students reaching out for help (Gurung & Galardi, 2022). As you look ahead to your next semester or term, consider your class policies. Examine your late policies, your deadlines, and your attendance policies. Do they provide a buffer to the students who experience hardships? Doing so does not make you a pushover (see this recent piece). Is your grading inclusive? Even if you are not ready to try not grading, your grading scales, rubrics, and policies can influence how students approach your class (see Grading for Equity). And remember, to take care of our students, we need to also take care of ourselves (Cavanaugh, 2023). More care for all. That’s a goal to work toward.


Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is associate vice provost and executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of psychological science at Oregon State University. His latest book is Study Like a ChampFollow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.