To initiate conversations or wait for students to come to you?
In the physics classroom, this is a question that many inexperienced (and probably some experienced) instructors wrestle with.
In a new paper Ido Roll and myself show that the answer is that you should initiate conversations. By observing Teaching Assistants (TAs) and students in a first-year physics lab, we show that proactive TAs enhance student engagement. The money plot, given here, shows that lab sections with a higher frequency of TA-student interactions also had a higher level of student engagement. The connecting factor is that this correlation is explained entirely by TA-initiated interactions (ones which did not begin by a student getting the attention of the TA). So, being a proactive instructor can boost student engagement (and, indirectly, learning).
Proactive interactions work for both the students and the instructor. The students get a reduced barrier to instructor access, so they can get the help and support they need. The instructor gets important feedback about how the students are doing, so they can keep their finger on the pulse of the classroom.
But, perhaps the most beautiful part is that this research doesn’t prescribe the standard “tastes bad but is good for you” medicine. Students value proactive instructors. How do I know? Well, I asked the students.
At the end of my term as a TA in an interactive lecture, I asked the students for opinions on my practices. I provided two guiding questions: 1. What did Jared do well to support your learning in the lecture? 2. What else could he have done?
Being proactive and initiating conversations–something I deliberately focused on given the results of my research–was identified as useful by 30% of the students. This was the second most frequently mentioned behaviour, after the expected comment about helping with physics questions.
In addition to these positive comments, the most criticisms I got were about not reaching enough people.
So the research shows a bump in engagement with increased instructor attention and the students themselves say that proactive interactions are useful. If this all isn’t good enough, the kicker is that it’s extremely easy to get students to talk to you.
My main strategy is to open with a generic (i.e. not necessarily physics related) question, like “How’s it going?” Students can take this wherever they need. Sometimes it’s, “Yep, I think I’m getting it,” and I move on. Other times, it’s, “Actually, I’m having troubles here…” and I jump into tutoring mode. It’s much easier for a student who’s getting it and doing fine to tell you they don’t need help than it is for some students who are having troubles to seek you out when they do need help.
In summary, the answer is definitely that you should initiate conversations. Be confident in yourself, help students, boost engagement, and be proactive.