Let the students do the teaching

One of the best pieces of teaching advice I received as a new St. Lawrence College instructor came from School of Business professor Tom Brennan.

Our conversation took place in 2008 when I was struggling to develop diverse teaching approaches to accommodate all the different learning styles of my students. I’d been educated all my life by instructors who stood at the front of the room and lectured (and bored the hell out of most us) and I didn’t want to be one of them.

“Get the students to teach the class,” Tom said.

I felt like he’d hit me in the head with a big rubber hammer.

Let students take over the classroom? But wouldn’t chaos erupt? And how would they learn what I knew they needed to know. Wasn’t that like letting the inmates take over the asylum? Indeed, some teachers do feel this way.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Assist student empowerment and enliven lessons by helping students to lead their own lessons

Students, especially college-level students, bring their own wisdom and experiences and we need to give them credit that they can think critically. There’s no reason, if given the right information with the right format, structure, and support, that students can’t lead an effective and informative lesson. It’s an effective way to teach and it’s empowering for the students.

The simplest example of how teachers can do this is through the study of a textbook or chapter in a textbook. Sure, a teacher could assign students to just straight-up read that text, or the teacher could deliver a lecture about it. Even better, teachers could have the students teach the chapter or text to one another. This can be done by splitting the class into groups and having each group study a chapter, or a few pages of a chapter.

They are then given a suitable amount of time to digest the information and then they present a summary of what each group learned. This way, each group becomes highly knowledgeable about the subject on which they presented while the information as a whole is learned by the group.

Of course, the effectiveness of this depends on student enthusiasm and the expertise level of the facilitating instructor. The instructor must correct errors and do so in a positive manner while maintaining the lesson’s flow. To make these lessons more fun, I create competition and offer prizes, like chocolate bars and pens, to the best presenters.

Not all students like this method of teaching—some still prefer me to lecture, which I still occasionally do.

One way I empower students is to have them submit regular evaluations of my lessons as well as a simple mid-semester evaluation of my lessons and teaching style. I then present the results of these evaluations. Gratifyingly, my reviews get better every year. But, even more important is that my classes improve every year—thanks to the constructive feedback of my students.

Students tell me they appreciate that their opinion matters and they like that they are contributing to the improvement of the courses I teach (first-year Writing for Marketing and Writing and Editing for the Office).

Help students plant the seeds of success together

This past week, I had my most awesome experience yet with student-led teaching. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t a student-taught class, but a graduate-taught one. I brought five recent Advertising-Integrated Marketing Communications graduates before my first-years for a talkshow-style career panel that revealed the secrets to their success in the program. The second hour of the class saw the grads each facilitate a breakout discussion with smaller groups of students. I gave the grads guidelines, but they didn’t need them.

I could hear the exploration and excited discovery that was happening within the groups and I deliberately stayed away to enable the grads to freely facilitate their discussions.

The students left wide eyed and excited, and I am certain a heck of a lot of transformative learning took place.

Indeed, this experience was a crystallizing reminder that we teachers need to hand over—or at least share the keys to—our classroom lessons a lot more often.

About teachingteacher

Business communications instructor, journalist, corporate communications writer and media trainer ... and Masters Candidate M.Ad.Ed.
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2 Responses to Let the students do the teaching

  1. Rachel Rose says:

    Such a great lesson Frank. I try to remember to turn the tables on my students especially when I am feeling stretched, uninspired or stuck. This lesson holds across all areas of life I think, reaching out instead of trying to take it all on by ourselves. Their is truly a million different applications for this in ones life and they usually all end up positively and more enriched than we could imagine. Perhaps this is a great lesson for a new dad to carry over into his life? I can guarantee there will be some stretched points on the road ahead and getting help and turning the tables to look for the answers outside of ourselves may just help to lessen the load!!! Congrats on the new baby… I loved seeing the pictures of you beaming with your beautiful ladies on FB!!! All the best to you.

  2. Rachel, thanks for commenting.

    I love the way you phrased this technique: “reaching out instead of trying to take it all on by ourselves.”

    I never thought of it that way. In truth, it takes just as much work to prep for such a lesson. And it takes focus and engaged students to make this style of learning work. However, it is does, indeed, rely upon others to come up with the goods.

    And, yes, I suppose this is a good lesson for the new dad. 😉 Having said this, I’m never shy about asking for help from friends. I’m a big believer in giving and receiving among friends and family.

    A big hug to you, Rachel,


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