Teaching and Learning Forum 96 [ Contents ]
Is it really so hard to respond with your 'best shot' to the individual learning needs of your students?
University Counselling Services
Teaching Learning Group
Curtin University of Technology
This paper is essentially about the learning needs of students with disabilities and medical conditions, who may be more dependent on good teaching to assist their learning, but we argue that all students wish to experience good teaching and that it is not so difficult to provide it. We also argue that accommodating the needs of students with disabilities and medical conditions, requires quality teaching practice, and if you improve learning for these students, you benefit all students.
The key ingredients of good teaching are well known (Gibbs, 1992; Gibbs and Lucas, 1995; Ramsden, 1992). They can be summarised in three words - clarity, coherence and care. Learners look for clarity in what they learn, how they have to learn and how their learning will be assessed. They also look for coherence between the different elements of the subject they are studying and how they fit together; between the subject and the course as a whole and between the course, their lives and future employment. Finally, all students respond to the care shown by lecturers - in the enthusiasm for the subject, in the way they teach and above all, in the way they relate to students as individuals. Students need and appreciate good teaching. They are astute education consumers and are able to provide valid and reliable feedback on the quality of their learning experience.
Our students need quality teaching in order to be effective learners and successful graduates. Quality learning emphasises learning for understanding and the development of analytical thinking, problem solving and professional communication skills, prized by employers. As student numbers rise and workloads increase, we need to ensure that student needs, especially those with special needs are not neglected.
Our obligations to adjust our style of delivery, our methods of assessment and access to all aspects of the learning environment (buildings, laboratories, etc) to the needs of students with disabilities and medical conditions are not only morally bound, but are also enshrined in both state and federal disability legislation.
As Elizabeth Hastings, Federal Disability Discrimination Commissioner (1993), wrote:
It is the responsibility of the ... educational institution ... to demonstrate than an adjustment is 'unjustifiable hardship', not the responsibility of the person with a disability to prove it isn't.
Teachers will need to examine their methods of teaching and assessment, and the institution as a whole will need to develop policies and strategies which respond as creatively as possible to students with good minds, enthusiasms, vision, life plans and special needs.
Most lecturers are interested in teaching and want to be effective teachers (Baker, 1993), but there are a number of obstacles in the way of good teaching in the present higher education system. While these are many and varied, some may be described thus:
The university factor
Some of these obstacles are systemic and beyond the scope of individuals to change. Many are just facts of life with which we must cope. Despite these barriers to effective teaching and learning however, there are many simple things every lecturer committed to good teaching can do to support students with special needs, and therefore make a difference for all students. You don't have to go out of your way to accommodate students with special needs - what you do for them will benefit everyone. We're talking about good teaching practice. Below, we include some suggestions for simple changes you can make which will result in substantial improvements in student learning. We also hope these will enhance your satisfaction in teaching and iron out some of the frustrations.
- limited human and material resources
- large class sizes
- work overload for staff and students
- lack of reward
- no acknowledgment for going the 'extra mile'
- lack of personal support
- requirement to do 'more with less'
- changing demands on the services universities are now required to provide,
the student factor
- the range of student motivations for being at university
- perceived lack of choice about course of study
- mismatch between course expectations and reality
- mismatched expectations between staff and students about what each requires of the other, perhaps due to lack of opportunity to clarify or due to not recognising the need to
- the gap between rhetoric and reality
- student worries - fatigue, pain, disability, poor health, economic factors (jobs and worry about money), family responsibilities, relationships, lack of incentives, feeling unsafe about seeking support from others.
- Make the aims of your courses and classes clear to your students - use course outlines (available in alternative formats), overheads and group discussions.
- Make important information and instructions available in more than one format eg oral, written, etc.
- Be aware that different-coloured papers cause different contrasts for the written texts - remember this when preparing handouts and notices.
- Speak clearly and face your audience when giving a lecture - behave as if everyone is lip-reading (someone often is!).
- When presenting a video, give notice of this and offer students an opportunity to view the video in advance or to talk to you about it. Use other media to support the visual - overhead transparencies or a written handout of the main points.
- Explain to students how the different topics, lectures and areas in your subject fit together - use course guides, flow charts, mind maps, short overviews, lecture outlines, periodic recaps (remember to make all these available in different formats).
- Provide links between the different subjects in the course to show how they fit together - through team teaching, combined projects, cumulative skill building across subjects.
- Emphasise the relevance of the course to students' lives and future careers - through learning activities which relate to 'real life', presentations by professional workers in the area, projects which take the students into the community, etc.
Self-care is essential - look for resources in the university which can assist you. This paper is about supporting you, using small teaching tips and availing yourself of the support which is available, so that you will realise that giving 'your best shot' is not so hard, or time-consuming! You are not alone.
Do not be distracted by the arguments that if you do all this for students, then you are 'spoonfeeding' them, and that if you make lecture notes available they will not attend the lecture - experience shows that this is not the case. Students will attend classes which they find enjoyable and useful. Providing support for students in the form of clear objectives and lecture notes will help students to become effective learners. Helping students get the most out of class sessions should be the aim of good teaching. If students don't come to class, don't 'blame' the students. Rather, ask yourself, why are they not attending? If they are not coming to lectures because they have the lecture notes, then perhaps the lecture is superfluous or the time could be used for some other activity.
- Show enthusiasm for your subject. Be a model for your students.
- Use the support people available - staff education support unit, Disability Adviser etc.
- Use computer programs eg 'Powerpoint', to assist in the simple preparation of lecture notes and overhead transparencies (OHP) (this makes it easy to reproduce notes and OHPs when requested by students).
- Extend an invitation, either in the first lecture or in the unit outline, for students with special needs to make themselves known to you or to the Disability Adviser.
- Allow students to tape-record your lectures.
- Place copies of the lecture notes, summary handouts and overhead transparencies on closed reserve.
- Use multi-formatted material, eg visual, oral, written (large and standard print).
- Understand that if you are approached with reasonable requests by certain students, you need to develop a repertoire of ways of responding appropriately, eg, if asked for copies of lecture notes, then provide them; exams on coloured paper, then refer to exam organiser, etc.
When staff feel the 'odds are against them' in their efforts to practise quality teaching, there may be an element of learned helplessness at work. This paper argues that it is the simple things (well within everyone's reach) that can make a difference, and that it is not so hard to give it your 'best shot'. It is important to:
- Know where you can go for support yourself.
- Accept the need to make these changes and that there will always be a pattern to students' needs. You can anticipate these, put them into perspective and understand that there are reasons behind them. It is about depersonalising the issues and dealing with the areas that you can fix. Do what you can and hand on that which you can't.
- Incorporate the small tips, detailed in the paper, into your routine teaching practices.
Gibbs, G. (1992). Improving the quality of student learning. Bristol: Technical and Educational Services Ltd.
Gibbs, G. and Lucas, L. (1995). Using research to improve student learning in large classes. 3rd International Improving Student Learning Symposium: Using research to improve student learning.
Hastings, E. (1993). The Disability Discrimination Act, 1992: Its impact on tertiary institutions.
Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to teach in higher education. London: Routledge
|Please cite as: Stickels, C. and Radloff, A. (1996). Is it really so hard to respond with your 'best shot' to the individual learning needs of your students? In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p157-160. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/stickels.html|
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