by Audrey Haynes, Integrative Biology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2019
“It’s nice to know someone actually cares.” A student in Biology 1B said that to me at the end of a meeting. She had not passed the first exam and we were brainstorming about how to improve.
For a variety of reasons, students fail courses every semester at UC Berkeley, presenting a challenge to all instructors. How can we help the students most at risk of failing? Reaching individual students during a lecture or section when you are outnumbered 30 to 1 is tough. Students who are failing are often less engaged or may not show up to class at all. I’ve found sending personal emails is a small action with big rewards. Following up those emails with a meeting is especially valuable.
In Biology 1B, for example, there are three midterms and a final. A poor grade on the first midterm is cause for alarm, but there are still enough outstanding points that a student can feasibly bounce back. This semester, after the first midterm, I emailed every student in my sections who didn’t get a passing grade. In the email, I noted that they didn’t do as well as expected and offered to meet with them.
When we met, I asked students to reflect on their preparation and the exam. Did they feel prepared? How much did they study and how was that time spread out? What techniques did they use to study? What resources or help had they sought out? Looking over the exam, what kinds of questions or topics did they lose points on? Before they left, I asked them what they would do differently in preparation for the next exam, ensuring that they vocalized their intentions. I offered myself as a resource, encouraging them to attend office hours or to write to me. These meetings were valuable in part because courses typically guide students on what to study, but leave them at sea on how to study.
These conversations also highlighted the fact that students often struggle in classes for reasons unrelated to their academic abilities. When I asked if they felt like they could focus on the course, every student expressed non-academic concerns. Without prying into their personal lives, I urged students to seek out available resources focused on health and well-being.
In a large class, individual meetings can be an enormous undertaking. But research supports that just a personal email from an instructor can have a positive effect on grades.¹ A brief, well-crafted email can prompt reflection on study habits, point out helpful resources, and motivate engagement through a sense of accountability. The emails can even be identical, but individually addressed.
I can’t definitively say that my own emails and meetings improved student’s grades. I have a small sample, no control groups, and, as of writing this, my students haven’t taken their second midterm. What I can say is that every student I emailed wanted to meet and expressed gratitude that I’d contacted them. One student said before the meeting that she had been completely avoiding thinking about the class, but now felt motivated and more confident. Other students commented that no instructor had ever reached out to them personally, and that it was nice to know, in such a large class, that someone was actually paying attention. Multiple students were excited to hear about the availability of a particular resource they had been previously unaware of. Each student reflected on their studying and left with a plan of action. To me, these are all successes.
¹ Z. Cohen, “Small Changes, Large Rewards: How Individualized Emails Increase Classroom Performance,” The EvoLLLution (2018); S. E. Carrell, M. Kurlaender, M. P. Bhatt, “Experimental Evidence of Professor Engagement on Student Outcomes,” Working Paper (2016); C. Flaherty, “Can ‘light-touch, targeted feedback’ to students improve their perceptions of and performance in a class?,” Inside Higher Ed (2019).