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JOHN EGGERS COLUMN: What can we do to help all college students succeed?

John Eggers

Did you ever receive an "F" in a class—K-12 or college? I failed a physiology class in college many years ago. At first, I was disappointed in myself for failing, but after years of teaching I believe the professor just didn't know how to teach. So if a professor doesn't know how to teach and the student doesn't do well, whose fault is it?

No doubt many "D's" and "F's" were given out this past semester in colleges and universities throughout the United States. A poor grade or failing grade may have been enough to cause a student to drop out. What a shame. Can a student learn from his or her mistakes? Yes, but what if it wasn't his or her mistake that caused the failure? What if the system or the teacher failed the student? Is that possible?

We often put the onus of learning onto the student especially in higher education when it should be a joint venture. In all of my teaching years going way back to 1969 while teaching at Temple University, I never felt good about giving a student anything lower than a "C." I felt I wasn't doing my job if I couldn't motivate a student to earn a decent grade. When students didn't rise to my level of expectation, I took it personally.

My rationale was that if I loved what I was teaching, why couldn't I project this same love for my subject on to my students? This is what teaching is all about. Obviously, most students will not love the subject being taught as much as the teacher but at the very minimum, teachers can project enough passion and emotion to cause a little fire in their students—at least enough to pass the class.

But isn't it possible that a student just didn't work hard enough to pass in spite of what the professor did to help the student? Certainly. We shouldn't hand out passing grades without students' first earning them. What I am saying is that we need to ask ourselves, "Have we done everything we can to help our students learn?"

We have many amazing professors in higher education who exemplify superb teaching. They are superb because they haven't forgotten those tried and true teaching methods they learned way back in Teaching Methods 101. These are important because they can make the difference between students failing or not failing. When we use these tips consciously, students will learn. Notice I didn't say "might learn." I truly believe that all students will learn and all students will graduate.

Let's get to know our students. Let's learn a little about them. Call them by name. In the physiology class I failed, not once did the professor call me by name. I doubt if he could even connect my name to my face.

Let's tell the students something about ourselves. Begin to build that trust. Let's tell them about the struggles we experienced in higher ed. Let's remind ourselves that trust is the antecedent of all learning.

Let's teach with passion. Let's put some emotion and fire into our teaching. We know that the brain recalls emotional events almost instantly. Let's not be boring. Let's ask ourselves, "If I were a student in my class today, how would I have graded it?" Let's make things interesting and relevant.

Remember why we are teaching. Let's remember we teach music, math or middle school administration because we have a love for Let's project this same love onto our students.

We need to test the students every time we teach. If they aren't getting it, we have to go back and re-teach it until they do get it. How can we go on when the students haven't learned what we already taught them? Testing can be a good teaching tool—not for the students, but for us. When students fail a test, whose fault is it?

Occasionally let's give the textbook to the students and have them teach. The best way to learn something is to teach it.

Let's continually go back to see if our students are remembering what we already taught them. We should do this relentlessly. We can't just teach one thing one time and expect students to get it. Some will, most won't.

When some students aren't getting it and we know this because we are testing them often, we need to find a way to give more time to these students. Our educational system is set up under the assumption that all kids can learn at the same rate and in the same amount of time. We know this is not true. We need to make allowances for this error.

When one of our students is not doing well, we need to do something to help him or her. I believe all colleges and university can graduate 100 percent of their students when we go the extra mile to help 100 percent of our students.

If we all did these basic things, students will succeed. But what if the student just doesn't come to class? The first question I would ask is "Why?" and then I would go find out the answer to my question. The point is we should never give up on our students.

I hope this little step back into teaching 101 didn't insult the intelligence of any of my teacher colleagues. It helps now and then to remind us what works. One of my favorite teacher quotes is from science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein, "When one teaches, two learn." Teachers, more than any other profession, never stop learning—especially how to teach.

Riddle: What did one lamp say to the other lamp? Hey! You turn me on! When we turn on students to what we are teaching, I just can't see any student failing.

John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.