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Petkov: Quality of instruction crucial to students’ success

Antonio Petkov, Columnist

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One of the key determining factors of our success in a particular subject, and possibly even our decision to follow through with a particular career or major, is the quality of our instructors.

Although the impact may not seem quite as dramatic now as it was during our formative years, it can still be a deciding factor. Particularly when the quantity of material is so immense and the time period that we have to absorb it is so brief, it becomes difficult to shrug off a poor instructor and convince ourselves that we can make it through just fine with the textbook and online resources. Classroom learning is still a major part of the learning experience. My first quarter at Northwestern was definitely an opportunity for me to learn this the hard way; I did not know much about the professors and assumed the teaching strategies employed in teaching the sciences were homogeneous.

They weren’t. Not even slightly. The quality of instruction varies widely from professor to professor even within the same subject. This seems self-evident to some of us, but I say it anyway to remind you that when you are picking your classes on CAESAR based on the most convenient times, you may be making the biggest mistake of the entire quarter.

I should point out that some of my professors during Fall Quarter were great; by no means is this meant to be a diatribe. I merely intend to share some observations I feel are useful when it comes to learning and teaching.

It is only this quarter, having chanced upon professors who actively engage students, that I understand the difference a good instructor can make. Good instructors are those who enunciate, who have an organized lesson plan, who are actually reachable during office hours and who sit down with you and provide you with genuine, useful, one-on-one feedback when you ask them about very specific methods with which you can improve your understanding. They can make you enjoy the subject in spite of yourself.

Students are not perfect; we need lots of time, guidance and patience. Regardless of where or what we are studying, regardless of how smart or self-assured we are, students need time to absorb, process, internalize and practice new information. We should be given periodic feedback so that we know where we stand with the amount of work we’re putting in. The counterargument to this is that “This is college. Everyone is on their own. It is not the responsibility of faculty to babysit students who don’t put in the work.” This is true, but it is equally true that the faculty are there to guide students and to suggest ways to improve the learning process. They need to be invested in the students, and they need to be approachable. They need to make the subject relatable, teach the student understand why the subject is important and maybe even help the student enjoy it. That is the mark of a great instructor.

As learning strategies go, assigned homework is definitely a useful technique despite the complaints of those who view it as a nuisance. It may seem simplistic, but assigned homework that is due on a specific day, even for a small percentage of the overall class grade, encourages students to do the work, interact with the material and seek help from the instructor and their peers more than not having official homework due or having too many “suggested” problems from the text. When it comes to assessments, it would be better to have more of them more frequently. Each assessment would not be so high-stakes, and students would need to study the material more closely and more often, lowering the possibility of a class getting out of hand and reducing the need for last-minute cramming.

Students also need time to grasp the material. A professor cannot expect to blitz through a concept just once and be done with it. Many of us have seen the professor who never pauses lecture or the one who says, “Questions?” and half a second later, returns to the futile business of trying to burrow through the blackboard and the wall behind it using only a piece of chalk. Professors need to repeat key principles and concepts over and over again. Just because a particular subject is taught at the university level does not mean that this fundamental pedagogical principle ought to be neglected. No matter how smart the students think themselves to be, they definitely develop a greater mastery of the material with repetition. It may seem silly, but it really does allow many students to develop a deeper understanding of the concepts.

Learning and retention are important. They help students remember and apply what they have learned long after the final grade for the class has been posted. In this regard, instructors who are truly invested in their students play a crucial role. That is far more important than cramming at the last minute and doing well on a few tests, with only a superficial and short-lived grasp of the subject matter.

Antonio Petkov is a McCormick freshman. He can be reached at antoniopetkov2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. 

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