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FYI: I am teaching undergraduates, and am fairly recently out of grad school myself.

I find myself unconsciously treating/regarding students differently based on their engagement with the class. I find that I tend to favor students who do their work, arrive on time, and participate in discussions over those who do not.

By "favoring" I don't necessarily mean that I give them special treatment or higher grades - but I find that I do treat them better, visibly. I am more patient with them and speak to them warmly. Enough that students have noticed.

I believe I am having trouble being professional, having been in their position so recently. I can see that certain students are really enjoying the material and find the work to be exciting, and I respond emotionally to that energy.

I realize that it is inappropriate to treat students differently based on the level of their engagement with your class, so how, if you teach, do you not take it so personally?

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    I realize that it is inappropriate to treat students differently based on the level of their engagement with your class — [citation needed] – Mad Jack Jul 22 '16 at 3:31
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    Why is it not appropriate to match your level of commitment to the student's learning, to theirs? If somebody has not bothered putting in a reasonable amount of prior effort, I as a teacher cannot do it for them. This is a lesson that university students must learn, and the sooner the better: you are an adult with responsibility. Some think it harsh to treat them this way; it is worse to coddle them through and have them fail spectacularly later. – Nij Jul 22 '16 at 4:04
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    I think this is a good question and I'm interested in seeing some answers. Your last line, about not taking it personally when a student seems less committed or excited, really resonates with me. Some level of emotional investment helps you be a better teacher, but you still need the right level of detachment in order to be professional with all of your students. – ff524 Jul 22 '16 at 4:37
  • It might be worth some self reflection on your social style (way of interacting) meshes with your 'favorites' - in that case you need to get a little out of your comfort zone. Becoming more flexible typically requires conscious intent. You might look at Social Styles training (which I found quite useful in many contexts in life). – Jon Custer Jul 22 '16 at 13:41
  • @Nij I definitely tend to veer in this direction, largely because my professors had never coddled me, and it had always been a motivation. My problem now, as a professor, is more that I don't want to discourage under-performing students by favoring better-performing ones. I find it difficult not to appreciate students who are doing well in fear of offending or discouraging ones who are not. I hope that makes sense. – nuprof Jul 23 '16 at 2:35
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[Since there will be very different views on this matter, I've kept my answer in first-person to indicate that this is my viewpoint and not a guideline of a sort.]

Whilst I agree with the comments that to an extent, it is perfectly natural to respond differently to different levels of engagement, I think a good strategy is to consider the world outside of the classroom and remember that behaviour in the classroom is a product of many causes.

I do this when I teach and I notice that I start disliking students for not turning up, lack of engagement etc. I then recall my first year at Undergrad level. I was severely depressed, attended barely 20% of my classes, just about managed to pass the year. I am sure I must have appeared absent, disinterested, the sort of student that my lecturers would ask "why would they be here in the first place if they don't attend anything?" - but my classroom behaviour (or rather, the absence of it) had absolutely nothing to do with the classroom itself, nor the teaching, not even the material.

My personal background helps me to consider such a scenario- but I think there are plenty of other things, such as:

  1. undisclosed/not-diagnosed disabilities and/or illnesses affecting students
  2. international students having to find their way in a very foreign world
  3. related to 2., oftentimes young students and their first experience abroad, on their own
  4. family background: crises at home, responsibilities for parents/grandparents/siblings that would not normally be considered
  5. Perhaps just the natural way of things: students realise that what they thought they would love to study turns out to have been an illusion. They are not at the stage of dropping out (possibly due to parental/financial pressures) but are clearly not willing to

Whatever they do, I try to refrain from judgements on their character as much as I can. When a student is not responsive to my teaching, it does not necessarily imply a judgement on me, either.

  • "refer" -> "refrain", I believe? Must have been an autocorrect. – Nij Jul 22 '16 at 21:09
  • Thanks so much for your insight! This has definitely been the concern for me, as I do not want to develop a bias towards a student without knowing the full context. It is self-concerned of me to think that a student's level of engagement with the class is fully reflective of the material. – nuprof Jul 23 '16 at 2:30
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The issue of favoritism has been extensively studied at the primary and high school level (K12) but not so much at the university level except when it involves student athletes. At the primary and high school level favoritism can cause havoc in terms of the learning environment, causing resentment, alienation, and seriously damaging your influence with the students. However, I am not sure if this translates to the university setting.

It appears your primary concern is with the social setting or how you interact with the students as you state that the grading is still fair and consistent. One way to make sure that your treatment of students socially is consistent would be to develop some sort of a log in which you track how many times you interacted with a student in class and how you perceived you treated the student. Make a table with the student names, number of times you interacted, and the level of warmth and you will begin to see a trend over time.

This assumes you have the time and patience for such an approach. I wouldn't waste a lot of time with this but maybe a 1-2 weeks of data collection followed by direct intervention to connect with the students who have had less contact with you would be enough for a semester.

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