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5 Learning Characteristics Teachers Need to Know About Their Students

Adam Rusch, PhD
Adam Rusch, PhD
University of Illinois
Turnitin Product Consultant






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Designing a new course can be an exciting proposition for a teacher. Perhaps you’ve been tasked with developing a curriculum for an area that you’ve long had a passion to explore. Or you may be developing materials for a core subject that needs a fresh approach. Either way, you know that your job is to help students recognize the importance and relevance of the topic at hand.

There are so many technological tools and pedagogical approaches that can be used in the classroom that you may have a hard time choosing which ones to use. There may be no right or wrong answer, but it is important to think about the students who will be taking your class as you make your choices. Here are five learning characteristics teachers need to know about their students as they prepare to teach them.

Students have their own motivations

While you may (or may not) find the topic of your course to be a fascinating subject, students will always have their own motivations for being there. Are they taking your course as a core requirement of their curriculum or as a general education requirement? Does your course have a reputation for being hard or easy, important or fluff, a weed-out or a blow-off class? These factors will most likely be outside of your control.

What is in your control, however, is the way you set the tone when your students arrive. From the first moment in the classroom or the first login to your online portal, you need to help them understand why they should make an effort to engage with the class. Some student groups may need more emphasis placed on why the topic is relevant, while others may be looking for more collaboration with their peers.

James Middleton and his colleagues have proposed a model of intrinsic academic motivation to help instructors understand their students. They believe that in order to be motivated, students need to understand why a learning activity is interesting, stimulating, and affording personal control. Understanding your students’ motivations for enrolling in your course is the first step towards extending that motivation towards engaging in the learning activities.

Students come in with expectations

Alongside motivations are the expectations that students will have when they come into your class. Some of the standard expectations will be that you are communicating with them, providing them with ready access to course materials, and giving them feedback on their work. You’ve likely developed strategies for how you handle this from your previous teaching experience.

What you should also consider are the environmental expectations that your students have developed. Are you starting to teach in a new program where the LMS structures courses in a way that’s different from your normal format? Are your students coming to you from a prerequisite course with an instructor who has a completely different pedagogy?

Just because your students have certain expectations doesn’t mean that you have to cater directly to them. Your course may need to be different and require students to follow a path they find uncomfortable. As with your students’ motivations, sometimes it’s necessary to understand where they are coming from so that you can find the best way to guide them to your methods. You can help them see the benefit of putting the work into your course by relating it to their own goals.

Students have a code of honor

Students are looking to you, the instructor, to set the tone for academic standards. We have an entire industry of Academic Integrity products like those offered by Turnitin because sometimes instructors need help with making sure that standards are being met. These tools can support the creation of original work and with an academic integrity policy that supports these standards, students will prioritize their code of honor within the classroom.

Donald McCabe makes the case that cheating can only be eliminated by creating an environment where integrity and learning are seen as core values. If an environment doesn’t treat academic dishonesty as a serious offense, then you are in danger of making students think that perhaps cheating is necessary to keep up with their peers. But if your culture exemplifies honesty as a core value, students will be more likely to direct their energies to engage with your course rather than just focusing on getting the grade they need.

Students are self-directed

You might be rolling your eyes, but lean into this: Your students are self-directed. Really, they are. It may not seem that way when you are trying to get them interested in working on a class project but they can be incredibly resourceful when they decide it is in their best interests.

One of the most important ways to help students focus on your class is to remove the barriers to participation. Be sure that your technology and pedagogy are well-suited for your topic and course structure. Many instructors have set up elaborate systems for students, only to discover that nobody is using them. With a multitude of tools available on the Internet, students can quickly adapt to different systems for independent work or collaboration. Part of your job will be showing your students why your systems (both technological and pedagogical) are valuable so they will direct their efforts to participate in them.

Students are collaborators

Many learning theories promote collaborative activities as an important part of the learning process. Collaboration provides an opportunity to learn from the knowledge or perspective of another person and to clarify information through the back-and-forth of conversation. Your students have most likely had collaborative activities incorporated into many of their previous courses.

Krajcik and Shin (2014) mentioned collaboration as a key aspect of project-based learning because it mirrored the kind of problem-solving activities that experts employ in the real world. This means that it is not only a way to prepare students for the way they would need to engage outside the school, but it was also a way to bring familiar methods of engagement into the classroom.

The key to making collaboration work for your class is to scaffold activities carefully. As we have discussed previously, students can let their own motivations, expectations, and self-direction lead them away from the topic you are trying to teach. Think about what will motivate them to collaborate on the things they actually need to learn.

There are all sorts of students and situations that will make each class unique and it can be a challenge to figure out how they will interact with your learning tools and teaching pedagogy. But the choice of how to set up the learning environment will be up to you as the instructor. Hopefully, considering these five learning characteristics will help you find the best way to engage your students.