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Reaching out to lower the first step to success

November 8, 2011

Recently, a bunch of my students did pretty poorly on an assessment. This caused me to lapse into a big useless speech about student responsibility, and harp a bit on the fact that students should be taking advantage of all the resources they have to diagnose and learn from their mistakes (checking the answer key, giving oneself detailed feedback, coming to office hours, etc). When I lapse into these scolding exhortations, in the moment, I feel like I’m getting students to start to take greater responsibility for their own learning, and I’m just certain that my speech is going to be the key to getting them to take advantage of smorgasboard of learning I’m putting before them. But what I forget is that this rarely happens. And so yesterday, I sent a couple of quick emails to a few students that read something like this:

Dear X,
I want to invite you to meet with me (hopefully before the re-assessment) so that we can go over any confusions you may have and make sure you’ve mastered this material. I think a small amount of work can yield dramatic improvement in your understanding. I would very much like to find a way for us to meet regularly to answer your questions and make sure you are making the progress you are capable of making in physics.

I’m able to meet before/after school, or even via a hangout in google+ if you like.

The students I sent this email to wrote back within minutes to set up a meeting in the next couple of days.

Shouldn’t students do this on their own? Am I being soft by reaching out to them? Sink or swim? I don’t think so. I think it must be incredibly intimidating to look at a paper filled with things you don’t understand, and try to figure out what to do next. Sometimes, it might be so intimidating (or I might be so intimidating) that the thought of seeking me out directly is too much. But, I need to remember how powerful this small act of reaching out can be in helping a student to lower the threshold of that first step so that it seems surmountable.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2011 8:02 pm


    I recently emailed one of my students that is currently sinking (not swimming) in one of my courses. My message was “If you would like to chat about study strategies please let me know”, but you reached out even further to your students by being much more specific about what could be accomplished by meeting with you AND made your invitation much more specific by indicating your availability. I’m filing this away for my future communications of this type. Thanks.

  2. November 9, 2011 6:16 am

    If they should do it on their own, when should they learn how to do it? I think this is another one of those things (like organization) that we often just expect students to be able to do without ever showing them how to do it. And then ignorance of how to ask for help (or even that it is okay to ask for help!) helps create that division line between the “smart” kids and everyone else. Ugh.

    Anyway, this post reminded me of what a very good sophomore student of mine told me the next year (when he was a junior). He said that when I corrected their homework in red ink, there were a lot of them that never left the mailbox because they looked too intimidating. (This was pre-SBG, by the way.) Wow! And from a good student, too! So imagine what that must feel like to a student who is feeling even a little lost or confused (much less a lot lost or confused).

    • November 9, 2011 6:47 am

      Great point about the corrections in red pen. When I first started teaching, I remember a teacher telling me she didn’t use red pen because it was so intimidating to students. At first, my reaction to this comment was negative—were we coddling out students so much that they wilted at the sight of red marks on their paper? Then as I began to think about it, and really look at what papers looked like when I went to town with feedback, I realized that if a simple shift of color would help my students to digest my feedback on less negative terms, it was a win. Green and purple are now my colors of choice, and I’m glad that we get students to give themselves feedback in orange. All of this makes me think that Andy’s voice feedback might be even more helpful to students in seeing that feedback really is about building up a conversation between the teacher and student.

      • November 9, 2011 7:23 am

        I haven’t been doing the orange pen thing (Frank is a lot more color-coordinating-conscious than I am), but when I go over a test with a kid, I just hand them my pen while we’re talking and let them write their own notes about what we discuss. They seem to appreciate that a lot, too. I tell them they are going to write something that will mean more to them than what I write. And then I just finish writing on it on my own when we’re done. I don’t know/think that all of the notes being in the same color is confusing to them. They can probably recognize their own handwriting and phrasing anyway.

        • November 10, 2011 1:34 pm

          ‘Red pen’ damaging students???? Seriously???? If kids are this fragile these days, then the end is truly nigh. Really, that makes me want to give up.

        • November 10, 2011 4:20 pm

          Hey Adrian,

          I think you must have misread my reply. I certainly didn’t say that I had been “damaging” students by using red pen. But with the quantity of feedback that I was writing on their homework, this student told me (long after the fact) that it was intimidating enough for him to him that he postponed looking at that feedback. Note: this student was one who did well for me, then went on the Advanced Studies in Physics class where he was a rock star (one of the best students in a very strong class taught by another teacher) and is now off studying engineering, I believe, at college.

          The take-away for me was that if a student who was resilient, interested, and committed enough to pursue and excel in science wasn’t getting worthwhile use of the feedback that I had put time into writing for him, then changing my format so that students saw my comments as helpful rather than punishing was probably going to benefit everyone. Every student is certainly able to get pretty darn good at physics by the end of the year, but not all of them start with the requisite confidence to make the commitment to getting better. I need to make sure that I am teaching them how to learn as well as setting up situations where they can learn physics. I can’t expect them to already have every skill that they need in order to learn well (including the skill of seeing a lot of feedback on a page as a good thing, rather than a shaming or judging or… whatever… kind of thing), and when I see evidence that they in fact don’t have a crucial skill, then I need to structure my class in a way that they can learn it.

          By the way, I personally suspect kids have always been “this fragile”, and our willful ignorance of it has created the myth that there are so called “special” people who are “smart” and “gifted” and “talented” who can learn things like math and science and that there are people who cannot because they are “not good enough.” That particular myth? Well… talk about something damaging students…!

          Sincerely, an imperfect but well-meaning physics teacher who is trying to get better at teaching,


  3. November 10, 2011 4:52 pm

    The kid was ‘intimidated’ by comments written in red pen?? It’s a wonder he managed to get up and come to class at all – I bet the toothbrush prior to his arrival seemed like a major obstacle with all its ‘bristliness’. Honestly, I am speechless. Teaching ain’t what it used to be.

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