Intentional Communication, the Students in the Middle, and Me

Categories: Teaching Effectiveness Award Essays

By Joshua Freed, Political Science

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2023

Two terms ago, I reflected on the structure of my communication with students. I realized that my students fell into three categories. First, there were the actively engaged students who felt comfortable coming to office hours or exchanging emails regardless of their performance in the class. Second, there were the students struggling in the course—never many, but always a few— with whom I was actively communicating to make sure I could support them with the right tools, resources, and opportunities for recovery towards an acceptable grade. The third group of students, however, was made up of those in the middle—students who were doing well, regularly attending, regularly contributing something small to the discussion, but with whom I wasn’t really in communication. By virtue of not struggling, but also not actively seeking my additional support, these students were not receiving the same kind of intentional attention and encouragement as the others. They received only collateral support, or the general support and general encouragement I offered the class as a whole. Could I develop a habit and strategy for being more intentional with this middle group of students that’s also compatible with the standard teaching workload?

The first solution is obvious, but ultimately untenable: we might require each student to meet with us at least once in the first two months of the semester in office hours so that we have the foundation for a working relationship throughout the semester. The ice is broken from the start. In fact, I taught for a wonderful instructor who required this of their GSI’s; this was effective in multiple ways—it reinforced names, helped build early connections, and forced the students to get comfortable with reaching out to us. However, as effective as it was, I also overstretched my capacity, my schedule, and likely my contractual hours to meet this requirement. Furthermore, in a class with 85 students—as my current course is—this would be logistically impossible. 

For the past two terms, I have taken a different approach. At the start of the term, I randomly assigned my roster to 8 equal groups. I set each group then as a reminder on my computer, which triggered each Monday morning. In simpler terms, every Monday, I gave myself a list of approximately 10 randomly selected students to be more intentional with that week. If I hadn’t met with them yet, I sent them a note encouraging them to reach out for office hours. If they contributed to discussion that week, I sent them a follow-up note thanking them for their participation. If I saw them walk into lecture, I said hello and encouraged them to reach out if they needed anything. If they hadn’t spoken in discussion in a while, I could explicitly tell them I wanted to hear their perspective and encouraged them to bring a thought for the beginning of section that week. This semester, I have received unparalleled engagement from precisely the students that were out of touch before—the students in the middle, who could do well in the class without initially needing or wanting my support. 

I consider myself to be a very intentional teacher, but I could quickly become overwhelmed with the expectation of being intentional with all 85 students over the course of a whole semester, let alone at once. By giving myself a structure to hold myself accountable to every student, I was also able to create the opportunity to focus on a smaller subset of students each week. My evidence for the effectiveness of this approach will only be anecdotal until the next set of evaluations are published. However, I find that I currently have a higher quantity of sincere and authentic relationships with students this term, while at the same time I feel less pressure, less stress, and less anxiety about the possibility that I am serving some students more than others—or worse, letting some down. I strongly believe in the effectiveness of this kind of structural approach, but I also think is can only be a reinforcing mechanism for other intentional pedagogical practices.