Letting Students Surprise You

I have a student in the class I’m now teaching that doesn’t talk much. By other indications, however, she’s reasonably engaged. Her body language is positive. She shows up for class. Her writing needs some work, granted, but shows evidence of thought prior to being handed in. Generally she struck me as a student who was doing what she could but perhaps had priorities elsewhere other than my class. And I was fine with that. I’m not a professor who feels my class ought to be my students’ first priority every minute of every day. For most of them, it’s an elective that fills a general education requirement, so I expect some amount of “box-checking” in their attitidues.

This student, however, really surprised me the other day. We have a course blog, where students rotate posting think-pieces and reflections every week. Any student is welcome to post at any time in addition to their required posting weeks. Given the aforementioned quietness of the student, I was surprised when I saw a blog post from her during a week when she wasn’t assigned to post one. I was even more surprised when I read the post. My quiet student had emailed the author of one of their assigned books to ask him a question and had received a response!

My dropped jaw turned into a big grin as I read my student’s blog post. After turning in her recent exam, she tracked down the author’s website, found his posted email, and emailed him. She asked him, essentially, one of the questions I had asked the students on the exam. In no time at all, she received a response (that, incidentally, confirmed her answer to the exam question). Her blog post was her story of the process and the author’s answer to the question.

As I said, I was very pleasantly surprised. This student was certainly not the one I would have pegged to email an author. But she did, and she blogged about it, and it made my day.

I’ve (obviously) been thinking about this incident for a while. While it certainly teaches us something about assuming too much about our students, it also creates an interesting question: do we give our students the means and opportunity to surprise us? I dont think I am wrong in guessing that faculty want more students to surprise us in this exact way — by confounding our assumptions about them, by showing interest in a question or text, by using their own skills and initiative to go above and beyond the class parameters. How can we create the space and conditions for them to do just that?

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The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Texas Wesleyan University (CETL) promotes a student-centered university by providing resources and professional growth opportunities to faculty on enhancing instructional practice, integrating technology, and promoting essential student skills.

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