Teaching in Uncertain Times

Four things to keep in mind when teaching today’s college students.

Posted Jun 29, 2020

I hear this a lot these days:  “Everything’s Different.”  But that’s a trap that I don’t want to fall into. As I look forward to teaching my students in the fall, I need to look more deeply into such an extreme statement and think carefully and critically about what’s different, and how different, and what’s the same.

One obvious difference will be the mode of instruction:  Class will convene at the regular time, but we will not be on campus. One of the great joys of teaching for me is face-to-face interaction. Thus, my first reaction to teaching via videoconference was, “Everything’s different. Now I have to learn how to teach from scratch, after decades of teaching.” I immediately signed up for my University’s courses on online teaching.

But not everything is different. One thing that remains the same is this principle:  We teach better when we are aware of our goals. In their book on backward design, Wiggins & McTighe (1998) encourage teachers to start their thinking about a course with a question like, “What do I want my students to be able to do, and to know, when they leave my course?” rather than something like, “What do I lecture about on the first day?” or “Should the midterm be worth 50 or 60 points?” When I realized that my goals for my students remain the same, the difference in format simply became an opportunity to find new (and better?) pathways.

(Of course, my goals for the education of my students have been changing. For example, I’ve been placing more emphasis on the skills it takes to participate in a democracy and to help all my students achieve more of what they want in their lives. More on this in a different post.)

Here’s another constant:  To meet both my and my students’ educational goals, it helps if I understand what students are getting out of college and how they’re getting it. To help with this, I found a series of national surveys of alumni from Gallup, Inc. The latest one is the 2018 Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey, called Mentoring College Students to Success. Here are some of the findings and the implications I derive from them.

Relationships with professors is a good thing.

The first survey in this series, called the Gallup-Purdue Index (2014), found that students with the best outcomes (including well-being, employee engagement) are more likely to report …

  • … having professors who “cared about me as a person.”
  • … having “at least one professor who made me excited about learning.”
  • … having “a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams.”

I need to find new ways of demonstrating my caring, enthusiasm, and encouragement. For example:  On campus, I had lost of one-on-one meetings during my office hours. In our new virtual environment, I can still meet with students, but I will find ways to transmit my messages clearly over distances. Being more intentional about it may even make me more effective than I was in person. In addition, some students may feel more comfortable clicking on a Zoom link than coming to my office. Thus, my ability to reach more students may increase this fall.

Mentoring is a good thing.

The survey found that mentoring is predictive of academic achievement, higher self-confidence, and other benefits. About 90% of students who had a mentor received advice on academic and career issues. About half received advice about personal issues.

The good news is that much of the mentoring done in college is by professors. The bad news, however, is that “only a quarter of college graduates nationally strongly agree that they had a mentor.” In addition, “first-generation college students and minority graduates who had a mentor are less likely than their counterparts to identify their mentor as a professor.” Thus, I have some work cut out for me. The authors of the survey say this:  “These results suggest an opportunity for colleges and universities to encourage minority and first-generation students to develop personal relationships with their professors.” I say:  I want to create my own opportunities and develop my mentoring skills for all of my students.

Career advice is a good thing.

Speaking of career advice:  “Eighty-eight percent of graduates received at least some career advice from either faculty or career services.” Students who get career advice feel “confident about their future.” This finding is not surprising, as a major function of a college education is to prepare students for careers. What was surprising, at least to me, was that students were more likely to get career advice from faculty than from career services offices. This finding means three things. First, I want to have good advice to give. Second, I want to make sure students know that there are people who dedicate their professional lives to helping students develop and meet their career goals. Third, I want to be on the lookout for those 12% of students who don’t seem to get career advice from anybody during college.

Challenge is a good thing.

Students sometimes say something like this to me:  “I don’t understand why I’m not doing better in your course; I was a great student in high school!” That’s when I explain (again) that college is different from high school—and why bother coming to college if you are not going to improve and develop new skills?

The survey results support this point:  “Perceptions of academic rigor are the strongest predictors of graduates’ perceptions of the value of their education and the degree to which their institution prepared them for life after college.” Students who are “challenged academically are 2.4 times more likely … to say their education was worth the cost … [and] 3.6 times more likely to say they were prepared for life outside of college.” Consequently, I can continue my approach of high expectations of my students and providing adequate resources and opportunities necessary for students to meet those expectations. And now we come full circle:  “Graduates who say their professor were invested in them personally and made the material they taught relevant are far more likely to say they were challenged academically.”

The physical, emotional, and societal contexts in which students will attend college this fall are vastly different than they were a few weeks ago. I welcome the opportunity to apply important principles and knowledge to achieve our goals in these new environments.


Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Arlington, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.