Recently, I joined a group of undergraduate students in the class “the jazz ensemble.” This made me nervous because participating in this class confronted me with my insecurity as a not-too-talented saxophone player. I was surprised to learn that in this class I display behavior that I often observe in my students; in the jazz ensemble I sometimes keep a low profile, I do not want to stand out, and I procrastinate tackling more challenging pieces. This is because I want to stay in my comfort zone, but in doing so I forget that we do the growing when we get out of our comfort zone. How good it is for me as a teacher to be in a student role again, it helps me understand my students better.

Our teacher, Jonathan Cullison, sets a wonderful example in providing positive reinforcement, regardless of the level at which we play. The text balloons in the figure capture some of his comments. He urges to never give up (never, ever stop playing), to make mistakes (so we can learn), and to express ourselves. Note that words of judgment are absent, but he certainly provides correction where needed. Imagine what our STEM classes would like if we gave students permission to make mistakes, to never stop playing, and to express themselves!

Teaching necessarily involves correcting students so that they can master the material. How do we provide correction? One much used model is to simply give a grade, either with or without feedback. This model of correction is based on judgment, and it may communicate that “if you do it wrong it will hurt you.” Our current education practice in STEM Higher Education is largely based on grades. Please pause here and reflect on why you give grades, and what you communicate to your students with your grading practice?

Correction can take many different forms, it may focus on what is wrong, or it may focus on what steps students can take to become better. How do you correct students? We learn better when we are motivated and feel safe. Positive reinforcement helps students to be motivated and feel safe. Here are a few habits for positive reinforcement.

  • Remember the time when you were a student. What did some of your teachers say or do that made you feel insecure or unsafe? And what did your best teachers do to support you and grow your confidence? What practices do you want to bring to your classroom?
  • Teaching is about helping students learn, not about judging them. Be aware that learning is about the student, while judging is about us holding a judgement.
  • Reward questions, even if you feel the question is silly or unneeded. It is through questions that students learn! Why would you discourage students to ask questions?
  • Whenever you provide correction, praise first and correct later. “You are making great progress, and you could consider …”
  • Praise in public but criticize privately. This avoids adding a sense of public humiliation to any criticism that you may provide. And you could replace an attitude of criticism by one of correction.

Think about how you would like to be treated as you are learning. The Golden Rule–treat others as you would like to be treated–applies to teaching too. How can you bring the Golden Rule into your classroom?

Discussion points for a group conversation

  • Can you remember a teacher that empowered you? What did they do to empower you?
  • How might you disempower students unintentionally?
  • What practices do you have to provide positive reinforcement?
  • Do you use assessment and grading to provide positive reinforcement? If so, how do you do this? If not, do you want to change this, and what would you like to change?

Roel Snieder, Teaching with Heart project

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