What do students need and want? As educators, professors grapple with this question for much of our professional lives. 

One way of answering the question is to focus on a list of core competencies such as Tony Wagner’s seven survival skills  which include critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration.

I have been thinking of more direct ways of answering the question. In other words, what do students need to achieve those core competencies? My answers seem to always lead back to one word – “interaction“. Specifically, three categories of interaction:  interaction with the course subject matter, interaction with the professor and interaction with other students.

Interaction with the course subject matter. Instead of learning just pure theory, most students want to interact with the subject matter of a course by applying it, experiencing it, and/or critiquing  it.  Applying it could be done by working on case problems or analyzing a current issue or event. Experiencing it could be working in a relevant industry for a co-op work term or a clinic such as the Law and Business Clinic at the Ted Rogers School of Management. Critiquing it could be challenging students to question underlying assumptions or widely accepted beliefs in class or online discussions.

Interaction with the professor. Traditional lecturing to students – or better known as the “sage on the stage” (SOTS) – is not interaction in the literal sense. It usually involves one-sided communication by a professor to a group of students in a lecture hall. SOTS worked great for Shakespeare’s Henry V rousing his troops at Agincourt or Steve Jobs introducing the original iPhone.  However, SOTS often does not work well in our reality of multi-hour classes over a full semester covering subject that is not obviously interesting. 

In and outside of the classroom, students want to have mutual interaction with their professors. That interaction could be speaking with students in small groups as they are working on an in-class activity. It could also be providing direct feedback to students either in class or online in a discussion forum.

Interaction with other students. Working collaboratively is widely recognised as a key skill that students need for success. One common way of developing this skill is to have student work in groups for assignments and presentations. Another way is to have students discuss case problems in informal small groups before having a full class discussions. Another thought is to provide students with some guidance on how to work well in a group. I tell my students that work for a group project does not necessarily need to be allocated such that each person’s contribution is the same and equal. The allocation should recognise each person’s strengths and weaknesses.

Interaction. A simple, yet important and complicated word.


About Wayland Chau

Post-secondary educator involved in teaching and course design for face-to-face and online learning.
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