Don't You Remember?

Oct 21 2010 Published by under teaching

A compilation of several questions from several readers boils down to:

Don't professors remember what it was like to be a student?

That is: Don't professors remember what it was like to learn something for the first time? Don't professors remember what it was like to take a boring class (so why would anyone teach a boring class)? Don't professors remember that exams are stressful (so why would anyone give an exam, especially a stressful exam)? And so on..

Well, I think it's fair to say that we sort of remember and we sort of don't. Is it so different from how parents don't really remember what it was like to be a kid, or even if we do, we have changed our ideas about how adults should think and act?

In a way, it is different because parents are all-powerful and infallible beings, but professors who teach may still be learning how to do so, may be teaching a course for the first time (even if they are "old"), or may be trying out some new material in an old course. We are supposed to try to find inspiring and thoughtful ways to do so, but this isn't easy. It isn't that we've forgotten that we shouldn't be boring and articulate, it's just that teaching requires considerable skills, and some of us possess these skills in less abundance than our students would like, despite good intentions.

But consider this: In some of my classes, students give presentations. I am always very entertained by the fact that the vast majority of students create presentations of the sort that they would definitely hate if they were listening to the presentation rather than giving it. Even if I discuss in advance how to give a good presentation and even if these students know exactly what they like and dislike about presentations to which they have been subjected by professors, most of them will have dense, text-filled slides that they will read, word-for-word to the rest of the class. Most of them will have no clue how to explain a topic that they have researched intensely but about which their audience knows little or nothing. I watch the presenting students glance with annoyance at their fellow students who are sending text messages during their presentations. It is fascinating. We have much to discuss after the first round of presentations in each class, and presentations do start to improve after that (although some never let go of the text-filled, narrated slide mode of presentations).

I see the same thing when graduate students and postdocs give informal presentations in my department. For example, an individual who had mocked a professor who gave a text-slide filled talk just weeks before did the exact same thing in his own talk. Why? Why don't we all learn from what we observe in others? I don't think the main cause is related to age and distance from one's student days. Based on these examples, it seems to be human nature.

Even so, I think there might be an element of age to some of the situations that motivated readers to wonder whether professors remember anything about their academic youth other than their GRE scores. For example, when we teach a class year after year after year, we know exactly what questions students will ask, we know what concepts will be most confusing, and we can work to improve our explanations, examples, and presentations accordingly. Despite this, I have, however, noticed a tendency in myself to forget what exactly students know and don't know about some topics. That is, when you've explained something a billion times, you may start to forget that there are aspects of it that may be completely unfamiliar to students encountering the topic for the first time. Or, if you've spent many many years teaching a particular class, you might get bored with certain topics and decide instead to liven things up by talking about a new (but more complex) topic, skimming over or even skipping some elementary concepts. Each time I (re)teach a course, I have to think very carefully about the basis from which I should explain each important concept, and each time I have to (re)work out the logic of my explanations. Some things about teaching get easier with time, and some things get more difficult.

Not long ago, I spent 3 years working my way through the beginning, intermediate, and advanced undergraduate courses for a particular language that is useful for my research and my international collaborations. If you had asked me before I took these classes whether I remembered what it was like to take an exam, I would have said "Of course, I've taken a gazillion exams." I was very surprised to find, however, that I didn't really remember, at least not in a visceral way. But even though I was a 40-something professor taking a non-degree course pass/fail, I got very stressed out about the exams in those classes (in part because the exams were impossible, but that's another issue). Nevertheless, I know that the exams, and the act of studying for them, helped me learn important things, even though I hated taking these exams with every molecule of my being.

That's why my answer to the basic question is: yes and no. Yes, we remember, but maybe not in a visceral way, and even if we do remember, it doesn't necessarily influence whether we are good teachers or not.

Something that students could do to help us ancient, disconnected professors (and, therefore, help you, our students) is to ask substantive questions that help us figure out what you know and don't know and to give constructive advice (on evaluations, for example) about teaching style. And if that doesn't work, you could scream "You just don't understand!" and stomp out of the room, slamming the door. Maybe that will jog our memories of what it was like to be young.


12 responses so far

  • someone says:

    When teaching, sometimes I find myself thinking along the following lines: "I have been repeating the same thing for 5 years, didn't you learn it by now?" Of course, I realize that they were not there the first 4 years, but really bothers to repeat the same again and again, and making the same jokes, and so on. I really like when students ask because it changes the path a bit.

  • Marcus says:

    I always think of this question in terms of professional development. Do professors remember they once had a first talk, first conference, first paper submission, etc. That much of what they know about how to navigate such things is unlikely to be known by a first year graduate student (or some other novice).

  • I've found it very useful to take courses as a professor, particularly ones that push on the limits of my knowledge.

    I did not find the exams stressful (but then I did not find exams stressful as a student either).

    I present material the way I would have liked it presented as a student, though this often does not fit the desires (or perhaps needs) of the students I'm presenting to. So the problem may not be that we don't remember, but that we have different tastes from the students.

  • Thanks as always for your sharing your thoughts on all things academic. I am a first year grad student in evolutionary biology and I am trying to figure out teaching, being a grad student, and the whole world of academia. Your memories and current point of view have helped a lot to demystify this experience.

  • FSGrad says:

    I think about this a lot with an analogy of language proficiency. I speak a foreign language fluently, but I was not always this way...I could not tell you, however, when I learned certain vocabulary or grammar points or when I knew that I had magically passed from bumbling to competent to comfortable to fluent. I therefore have a very hard time when confronted with beginning students in the same language, or beginning English speakers whose first language is my second. (e.g., "what do you mean that *this phrase* is an incomprehensible idiom?? it looks just like English to me!")

    Science is a foreign language, and learning to manage in academia is like coping in a foreign culture. We lose our perspective on being bumbling, culture-shocked students as we move forward.

  • Principle Investigator says:

    THANK YOU for pointing out that students (and more advanced members of academia) can be harshly critical of others' talks, clearly articulate how they could be improved, then turn right around and do all the same things wrong. I tried to have students take turns presenting in my course one year, and while most (all?) found presenting to be a valuable experience, some complained bitterly about being required to listen to their classmates - a sentiment with which I sympathized.

    Also, I think the point made by gasstationwithoutpumps is an important one. Many of us succeeded under particular classroom conditions in college that may be quite alien to our current students. I, for example, found it normal and easy to take frantic notes for an hour or more while the professor lectured in a large hall, usually without any visual aids or in-class exercises or even questions. I am constantly making conscious efforts to remind myself that my classroom at my SLAC cannot be like that.

  • Anonymous says:

    Another thing to consider: people who end up as professors were probably exceptional (or at least above average) students. I'd be willing to bet that as undergrads we were more self-motivated, more likely to do the readings, more likely to attend class, study, ask questions, go to office hours etc etc and EVEN more likely to accept responsibility for the occasional bad grade. (And by bad grade I mean a B!).

    Nobody gets to teach a class in which all the students are above average. Alas.

    • This is a really good point. Even if the prof does remember what it's like to be a student- s/he's remembering what it's like to be a good student- and may tailor her teaching methods accordingly.

    • muddled grad says:

      Very true. The first time I TAed this realization hit me. While I was only an year or two out of undergrad, and I knew there were bad students as well as good I didn't really think of all the possible reasons as to why some were "bad" students. Though I was able to cater etc to those who were struggling to understand the concepts but willing to put in more effort, I was pretty stumped as to how to handle those who just couldn't be bothered and then complained about teaching when they got failing grades 😐

    • AnthroBabe says:

      Another agreement here. That we, as professors, WERE the good students really colors our ideas about how to teach. Cs are just a-okay for many students. I deal with this all the time and probe my own teaching style, even when dealing with students within the major. I can't put myself easily in the shoes of a student who just doesn't care and only wants a good grade.

  • Quill2006 says:

    I recently finished student teaching in an elementary school library, which is, I imagine, quite a bit different from teaching classes at the university level. We had one unit where the 5th graders were choosing and writing about a topic that was very controversial; think death penalty, gun control, etc. A difficult assignment, meant to be challenging.

    When we put the unit together, though, we didn't identify the thing we'd be asked about most frequently. I was definitely blown away the first time a student asked me, but I came to realize that I'd assumed the students were familiar with something they'd never been taught.

    Most of the students in every class did not know the meaning of "pros and cons."

    We should have begun the unit with an explanation of the concept and a short exercise working with the term, but it never occurred to us that they wouldn't know. It seems like such a simple, obvious concept to an adult. I can't remember when I learned what "pro and con" was at all. I can remember to some extent what it was like to be an elementary school student (though not as well as I'd like!) but not the specifics!

  • becca says:

    Not only are they remembering what it's like to be a good student, but they are usually remembering what it's like to be a good student in a field they were interested in and showed some sort of talent for. That's one reason the language student 'cross training' Science Professor underwent may be particularly useful.

    That said, the 'nobody gets to teach a class where everybody is above average' is true only in a limited technical sense (i.e. 'average' for that class). When you are teaching students at a college or university, even one that is not particularly selective, you are *still* getting the 'above average' students. If you're students are lamentably limited, try going back and teaching high schoolers.