WonkHE had an article last week about pedagogy of care, and it prompted the strongest memory from back in the day of being a first year undergrad. One of my professors paused in the middle of his 50-55 minute sprint and stated that he had been reading in an education journal about the value of taking a short break in the middle of a lecture. We were thus given a few minutes to discuss anything we liked, before returning to our lecture on… the aromaticity of pyrroles. I recall being so impressed that my professor cared enough to think about what might make the hour of borganic chemistry more appealing.
Some of the strongest affective experiences I have observed as a teacher relate to moments where there has been demonstration of care. An early moment in my time at Edinburgh stands out. I used to teach a very large class of biological chemistry students; a course that traditionally falls under the awful term of “service teaching”, meaning that the course is taught by faculty in one school (chemistry) to students who belong to another (biology). I was buying a coffee after a lecture and a student was next to me in the queue. They thanked me for my lecture and for ‘caring’; I actually wrote down the words afterwards: “only you and [course organiser lecturer] care”. I don’t think that was true (about the other staff) but it surprised me because I was feeling that my first run at this course had been very unsatisfactory. But I was trying things out, and to this student at least, that meant I cared.
What is care and why does it matter?
Susan King’s recent article (2022) on tactics used to engage students during the pandemic describes a Monday check in session to keep students on track, connected with faculty and with each other. She relates a quote from a student (p. B):
“Professor King did an amazing job of maintaining a nurturing environment in the class. Her Monday check-ins are so healing, and I love how she takes the time to interact with us students.”
Many people will have experience of similar sentiments from their students during COVID. We ran Thursday webchats in chemistry at Edinburgh where Senior Personal Tutor, Director of Postgraduate Studies, and me would just “check in” with students. Much of the sentiments expressed – both in the King study and in our experience – relate to the notion that faculty were demonstrating care – doing something considered beyond the set expectations of “teaching”. In Cooper’s (pre-pandemic) article about students’ perceptions on whether the lecturer knew their name in a large class context, they coded a group of responses along the theme of ‘student feels an instructor cares’, with a sample quote provided (Cooper et al, 2017, p. 7):
“[Instructors knowing student names] shows that the instructors care about all of the students individually and they have invested interest in ensuring that everyone feels welcome and that they have every opportunity to succeed in the course.”
I think at the heart of all of this is human connection, and in a way there is no surprise that Novak’s human constructivism is a powerful conduit to achieving meaningful learning (Lowery Bretz, 2001, p. 3). Human connections – and the consequent considerations of motivation and interest, and in general the affective domain – must play an enormous role in the extent to which students will learn.
Care in practice
Of course (almost) everyone involved in teaching students does really care, but perhaps it is beneficial to consider how that care might be articulated. I am not sure that I am advising that we walk into our classrooms with winning smiles and trying an ever crazier array of teaching approaches are a positive way forward. We can however show expressions of care through how we design our learning materials, and articulate the value they have in supporting student study, or how we invoke tone in our feedback, or even in showing we know names and using them more frequently (or asking if we don’t!) as we speak to students. These are all ways of demonstrating care and showing that we know the human connection is important.
Cooper, K. M., Haney, B., Krieg, A., & Brownell, S. E. (2017). What’s in a name? The importance of students perceiving that an instructor knows their names in a high-enrollment biology classroom. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(1), ar8. https://www.lifescied.org/doi/10.1187/cbe.16-08-0265
King, S. M. (2022). Approaches to Promoting Student Engagement in Organic Chemistry Before, During, and After the COVID-19 Pandemic: Insights and Reflections. Journal of Chemical Education. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.jchemed.2c00862
Lowery Bretz, S. (2001). Novak’s theory of education: Human constructivism and meaningful learning. Journal of Chemical Education, 78, 8, 1107 https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/ed078p1107.6