Similarities and Differences Between Teaching Middle Schoolers and Undergraduates
This past Fall semester I taught my first undergraduate course -- Reflections on Learning, an introductory educational psychology course. The course focuses on bridging psychology topics and how they influence learning environments, and is a required course for education majors, but is also offered as an elective to other students.
I had 22 students. Through survey responses, I learned about half of the class was education majors focused becoming “better teachers” and the other half enrolled in the course as an elective with the goal of becoming “better learners”. The students ranged from freshman to super-seniors and there was a pretty even split of young women to young men. Most of the students were from Michigan and very few represented other parts of the country or had international backgrounds.
As someone that has mainly worked with middle school students, I had my so many assumptions about working with these different groups would be. I expected undergraduates to have had more diverse educational experiences. I expected students to take ownership of their learning more. I expected students to be more social with each other. For a couple of weeks, I was sort of displeased with how classes were going and then about halfway through the second unit, I had an epiphany.
Yes, there were some differences in working with early teenager versus early twenty-year-olds, but my main realization was that both groups were adolescents -- and I needed to take a more thoughtful approach to treating and teaching undergrads as the adolescents they are.
Viewing Undergrads as Adolescents
Typically, when we think about an adolescent we think a teenager. We often think of puberty and sex and rebellious behavior that begins in middle school and ends in high school. However, adolescence ranges from the pre-teen ages of 12 to the real adult-ish age of 24. Adolescence is marked as a period of rapid developmental changes, a time when we are constructing our realities based on the people and information around us.
In my case, I had forgotten that my undergrad students, similar to middle school students, are still growing to understand themselves. They are taking on more academic and social responsibilities, exploring their personal interests with much more autonomy and deciding who they want to become in this world. It slipped my mind that their organization or studying skills may be underdeveloped and that they may still need coaching on how to reflect deeply or how to advocate for themselves and their future students. I forgot how easily their personal and social lives can become a priority over schoolwork.
How Do We Teach Them?
In this post, I want to highlight a few similarities and differences I have observed from working with middle school students and undergraduates and how instructors can prepare to support undergraduate learning.
As the first exam approached, I remembered what it was like to be an undergrad in a course with a lot of information. I remember cramming. I remember starting the study guide but not finishing it. I remember the panic after a couple of weeks of rarely revisiting my notes and expecting to retain a bunch of information.
One similarity between middle and high school students is the general lack of self-regulation skills. Or the ability to plan, monitor and evaluate one’s progress. Even after 12 years of schooling, many students struggle with organizing notes, knowing how much time to put into studying, the best ways to study and recall information etc.
As an instructor, I had a major realization about how important clear instructions and modeling how to learn information is for learners of different ages. They need instructors that help them prioritize time management or how to pick between learning strategies for different types of information. Towards the end of the course, I pushed the benefits of metacognition -- or the thinking and planning of tasks before we actually do them a lot. Especially for undergraduate students, they are attempting to balance academic responsibilities at a time that socializing and professional development of sorts is battling for their attention.
Differences in How They “Do” School
The most striking difference is how these groups are “studenting”. In middle school contexts, student egos, behavior, and problems with attention mark what being in a middle school classroom is. Students are still being “conditioned” into how to behave, how to study, how to take notes etc. Students are constantly being told to “be quiet” or “raise your hands”, systems that keep order but stifle authentic knowledge sharing and building. These students are being groomed into future businesswomen, engineers, nurses etc.
Thus, one thing that was different in teaching undergraduates, is the amount of conditioning that has taken place in terms of how students “show up” in class. Often students were hesitant to share anecdotes or to become “experts” on a subject because they are accustomed to being lectured at and being passive learners in the classroom.
As an instructor, it has been necessary to consider how undergraduates are soon-to-be young professionals and thus need to be “schooled” about the hidden rules of the real world. I had to consider how many students have lived in their own little boxes their whole lives and needed to provide concrete examples of how their lived experiences may greatly differ from their future students’, co-workers, colleagues, and supervisors. Most importantly I had to drive home that development and learning does not stop at a degree and we should not be passive in our own learning as adults.
Considering How “Home” Influences School
In the K-12 setting, it is common that the student population at the school is representative of the local community or neighborhoods. By in large, assumptions can be made about the quality of learning taking place, the demographics of the school, the funding etc. In middle schools, it is more apparent to teachers and administrators how students’ home lives are influencing their academic achievement and behavior and how they can play the role of a positive mediator.
Teaching an undergraduate population, students are drawn to the university or college for different reasons - the majors, the distance from home, the campus culture. These students are bringing 18+ years of family background, family and personal beliefs and bias across geographic and cultural borders and into the classroom. In addition, as a university instructor, you have less time to learn about students’ lives and gain a full picture of how their past and current home situations influence their educational experiences.
As an instructor, it has been important to recognize that my undergraduate students are acclimating to the college setting and making a “home” of the campus. They need support and encouragement around taking care of their mental and physical health. They need correction and grace when it comes to dealing with implicit bias and/or microaggressive behavior. In many cases, they need instructors to remind them they belong in your class, in their major or at the university.
Going into my second semester of teaching undergraduates, one of my main goals is to handle my undergraduate students with care. Care meaning to respect them as young professionals, but also understand teach them as young developing adolescents.
Briana Green is a first-year Ph.D. student and
creative writer based in East Lansing, Michigan.
She shares about her graduate research and teaching experiences and aspects of her lifestyle on her blog: inherlane.com