Influence on Learning Important, Generic Skills

Influence on Learning Important, Generic Skills

In some ways, the student voice has been the most powerful in traditional schemes for evaluating teaching at the college level because student evaluations are often the only systematically collected data on teaching. Nevertheless, the way questions are asked of students, and – more important – the way they are used, often diminishes students’ sense of the value of their role in this process. These student “voices” have provided a unique source of data through which to further inquire into the nature of good teaching and good teachers as well as the qualities they possess which might cause them to be perceived as so effective.

Student statements appeared to cluster into five categories. They may be identified as follows:

Teaching Characteristics.

This category includes statements that focus on certain aspects of teaching behavior. Rather than emphasize an effect on the student, the statement highlighted some technique or approach that the teacher used which impressed the student as the most notable characteristic to convey in this setting. Examples of statements in this category were, “always well prepared and well planned”; “great lectures, provided confidence”; “casual style, made me feel at ease”; “he was rigorous, strict, but fun”; “he was the most incredible teacher I’ve ever had … he made history a fascinating subject … he gathered us around; we were family; we went to class to be entertained by Dr…” These comments, and others, contained observations about style, delivery, commitment to preparation, etc.

Content and Knowledge Facilitation/Inspiration.

This category includes statements which reflected the help and inspiration given by teachers with emphasis on the specific subject matter they taught. Such things as making the subject easier, more meaningful, more important to the students – all these were included, as long as the content knowledge appeared to be the focus of the student’s comment. Examples were, “instilled in me a love of mathematics, challenged me”; “relates content to current events, keeps students’ attention, challenging – inspired me to become a history major.” “He was amazing because he made a daunting subject easy”; “…explain difficult things in a straightforward way – and do so in a way that doesn’t make you feel inferior; this is rare …”; “from what he’s taught me, my designs in the future will be much more informed …” A number of these comments centered on the ability to communicate with understanding, the importance of connecting content with student’s real life experience, and an intangible ability to “connect” or to inspire – passing on a love for the content and an appreciation for it beyond a knowledge level alone. The imbalance in the direction of university teachers in this category is partly a reflection a larger total of statements for university teachers, but it also may reflect a logical greater emphasis on the content of the discipline at the postsecondary level.

Character Building.

This category includes statements which suggest the focus of the student reflection is on the teacher’s influence in terms of personal growth. Here, response to challenge and expectation “bring out the best” in students, and the sense is that these teachers helped students attain new and enduring levels of personal strength, character, and potential. Examples of statements in this category were, “… talked about a paper I did for her and she ‘destroyed it’; then she put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I will never expect less than scholarly work from you.’ That made me look at myself and produce what she showed me I was capable of …” “he showed us excellence and that we should set high standards and could reach our goals”; “never expected anything but the best; challenged me the most.” In contrast to the last category, this one is weighted heavily in favor of the pre-university teachers. Again, it would be reasonable to presume that such a weighting derives from the fact that earlier school levels would be the logical places for most people to learn and to remember learning “life lessons” which helped build the character and moral foundations for adulthood.

Care. Concern. And Nurture.

This category includes statements which stressed above all the importance of the teacher caring about the student as a person, “being there” when needed, taking the time and effort to support the student during hard times, and other aspects of mentoring, advising, counseling, and supporting. Examples of statements in this category were, “he has a way of relating to students and really shrinking down the university and humanizing it”; “When I came in I was a rowdy student; he gave me words of wisdom … all through my college career I’ve kept coming back to him … couldn’t have gotten through school without him…” “I chose her because of the friendship she has shown to students, … looked out for us”; “… friends. She taught me self-discipline and how to shape up; helped me become interested and involved. She was a mother, friend, sister, and confidant.” While this category was third in terms of frequency of statements, it is notable that the emphasis on personal care and support was as high as it was for these outstanding students – perhaps reflecting an unexpected enduring priority need – and that this category of reflection was even a bit higher for university teachers than for earlier stage teachers.

Skill Enhancement.

This category includes statements which emphasize influence on learning important, generic skills. Study habits, ways of thinking, levels of analysis capability – these are the kinds of “gifts” students noted here. Examples were, “… taught me there is more than one way to do something”; “I learned how to voice my opinion and how to value others…”; “taught us to be critical, not only of our writing but of our lives…”; “taught me how to think hard and put concepts together.” As with the “character building” category, the nature of these influences may again place them at an earlier stage for the majority of students in terms of “memorable” change points and passages.

These categories are certainly not mutually exclusive, and the students’ statements were not precisely separable. Nevertheless, the emphasis on students’ voices and the ways in which they talked about their most influential teachers broadens our perspective on a persistently interesting and complex area and demonstrates the importance of personal connection at all levels. For in each of these categories, the teacher connected to the student through some enduring, personally important channel. The matching of a need with a quality that a teacher had the ability to offer – and the desire, the care to offer it – stuck out in these students’ minds. So, while one teacher was “effective” for one student because of the match between their needs and abilities, another teacher – for other reasons – was most effective for another student.

In this paper, experience of the student – if seen only through the glimpse of a selected single observation – has been put forward for consideration. The insights available from such a process hold their own interest and form their own contexts. Such insights may not answer the questions, but they add to the idea of an ongoing conversation which continues to change and grow.


Megan Wilson is a teacher, life strategist, successful entrepreneur, inspirational keynote speaker and founder of Megan champions a radical rethink of our school systems; she calls on educators to teach both intuition and logic to cultivate creativity and create bold thinkers.



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