Instructors often use their past experiences as students to validate their decisions with current students. Could this be the biggest instructional mistake they make?

I was listening to a TED Talk by Celeste Headlee called “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation.” Headlee is a journalist and radio host and knows a thing or two about reaching an audience.

What struck me was her Rule Number 6:

“Don’t equate your experience with [your audience’s]. It’s not the same. It is never the same. All experiences are individual.”

All experiences are individual.

That seems obvious, but instructors do this all the time – they use their past experiences as students to validate their instructional decisions with current students.

These are all actual remarks I’ve heard from instructors when discussing how they came to teaching decisions:

“When I was in high school, I just loved Jane Eyre.”

“I had a professor in college who would give the most amazing lectures. I ate up every word.”

“One time, I took a test that was just a blank piece of paper. It really forced me to prove what I knew.”

Could this be the biggest mistake that teachers succumb to when designing their instruction – that because they liked or disliked something, their students will also?

It’s an easy fallacy to fall into. We can’t climb into our students’ heads and find out what they’re thinking or predict what will engage them the most. So what do we do? We use our preferences from years ago and extrapolate those preferences to the hundreds of students we teach. Clearly, there are some issues with that strategy.

And I’ve done it myself – right here and here and here in this very blog. Probably all instructors do it to one extent or another.

But while we can’t get inside our students’ heads, we can ask them questions. We can ask what kind of teaching methods work best for them, what type of projects they learn most from, and what educational experiences from their past (not ours) were most rewarding to them. Surveys, formative assessments, or even simply talking to students can give us this information. But often, we don’t take the time to do this. We should, though.

Don’t teach the way you like to be taught – teach the way your students like to be taught. Because like Headlee noted in her TED Talk, all experiences are individual. While that might not make teaching as easy, it will make it a whole lot more rewarding for students. And who knows? Maybe you’ll be that teacher that students will remember years from now when they think back on their great learning experiences. “I had this terrific teacher once, who actually taught us how we liked to be taught…”

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