Interac Teaching Experience Essay

From the Student’s View: Difference

by Derek Bruff

In this column, we feature the perspectives of Vanderbilt students, focusing on what they find effective (or not) in their learning experiences at Vanderbilt. For this issue, we interviewed several students and asked each one to describe a course or two in which the teacher was in some significant way different from most of the students in the class. Student perspectives can help teachers analyze their own teaching more critically. However, each student interviewed here presents only one of many perspectives that might be brought to the particular course he or she describes.

Teaching Styles

A topic often mentioned by the students as impacted by differences was teaching style. One student spoke of a class taught by a teacher educated in a different culture. The student attributed some aspects of the instructor’s teaching style to his cultural background. “For example, he wouldn’t really answer questions in class. Students were supposed to sit and listen during class. Questions were for office hours,” the student said, adding, “Once we got used to this style, it was fine.”

Another student described two courses in the same discipline, one taught by a female professor and one by a male professor. The student found herself responding better to the more interactive teaching style of her female professor than to the more formal style of her male professor. She said, “With him, we would talk about theoretical issues but we didn’t really get personal. He sat at the end of a long table, and it was like him against the class.”

When asked why she thought he taught in this manner, the student answered, “I don’t know if it was because he’s from another country or because he’s male or because he’s just that way.” Other students expressed similar difficulties in identifying the source of a particular teaching style or behavior when there were multiple differences between themselves and their teachers. For example, another student mentioned a professor who seemed to have higher expectations of his students than those to which the students were accustomed. However, the student was not sure if that was a result of his teacher’s cultural background or recent experience teaching at another university or both.

A Culture of Inquiry

One of the themes that emerged from these interviews was the difficulty of creating a classroom atmosphere in which students are free to critically discuss issues about which the teacher or the students have strong opinions, an atmosphere called “a culture of inquiry” by philosophy professor David Wood in this newsletter’s lead article .

One student mentioned this difficulty as she described a social science class in which the professor brought up a number of issues that made some of the more conservative students uncomfortable. “She would bring up these subjects, and you could just watch people go rigid,” the student said.

Other students described teachers who seemed to them to have overcome this difficulty. One student mentioned a social sciences professor whom she felt was fairly liberal. She said the professor usually refrained from sharing her own views on the issues discussed in class, adding, “That helped encourage people to say whatever they thought, no matter what it was.”

Another student described a professor who similarly downplayed her own beliefs about a course topic. He told of a course on a particular religion taught by a professor who practiced that religion. “On the whole, she tried to present a pretty objective view of the religion,” he said. “You couldn’t escape her as a variable, but since we focused on the texts, the class was more academic.”

On the other hand, some professors appeared to meet with some success by disclosing their personal views and experiences. Another student described taking a class on social issues in which the professor used her personal experiences to help students connect to the content of the course. “You can relate to the topic more when there’s someone standing in front of you who knows someone who’s dealt firsthand with the issue we’re discussing,” the student said, indicating that Vanderbilt students can have a hard time relating to social issues to which they are not often exposed.

That approach was not without its problems. The professor stated early in the semester that she wanted the students to express their opinions, even if they were different from hers. However, the student indicated that she did not always feel comfortable doing so. “You don’t want to say something your professor is not really going to like when they’re giving you your grade,” she said, adding that this was especially true when the grade depended largely on class participation. She said that while some students felt hesitant to share their opinions, the atmosphere in the class was generally much better than the one in a course she attended for one day before dropping. She said of that class, “I didn’t agree with what the professor had to say at all, and it would have been very difficult to remain in the class. I felt that if you didn’t think what she thought about certain social issues, you were really going to be at a disadvantage.”

Overcoming Differences

Several students described ways in which teachers overcame what might be seen as problematic differences between themselves and their students through commitment to student learning, appropriate use of humor, experience, and finding common ground on course content.

One student described a foreign language teacher she once had for an introductory course. Since the students were not fluent in the foreign language and the teacher was not fluent in English, communication was sometimes difficult. The student attributed the success of the class to the teacher’s determination. “She wanted us to get it, and she would help us get it any way that we could,” the student said. “Had she been a teacher who was a little less likeable, we might have more apt to see problems.”

Another student described a science course taught by a female professor. The majority of the students in the course were male, and the teacher seemed to defuse any potential problems arising from her gender by using humor, particularly humor on topics often associated with the subject and those who study it. “She might talk about Star Trek,” the student said, “or about t- shirts featuring engineering jokes that people wouldn’t get unless they were scientists.”

Experience was also cited as a way of overcoming differences. One student mentioned a course in which the teacher was male and all the students were female. She indicated that the teacher’s experience with women in his personal and professional lives helped him relate to the students in the course. She said that he was married and had two daughters, “so I think he knew how to act with girls.” Also, he had taught the course a few times in the past, and she said, “He knew what he was facing.”

One student described a lesson he learned as a freshman in how course content can overcome differences of culture and language. “When I began taking these science courses with teachers from China, India, Japan, Turkey, and all over Europe,” he said, “I realized that they all understood the same equations, the same science. I felt that I was making my own personal world larger by seeing these other people doing the same thing that I did.”

From: Teaching Forum 5:2 Spring 2003 CFT Newsletter

In addition to adding color to a classroom, defining classroom goals and policies, and showcasing student work, bulletin boards can be interactive teaching tools. Bulletin boards can be “another teacher” in your classroom. Bulletin boards that change periodically to reflect new lessons help visual learners better understand new material, reinforce new words and concepts, and challenge students to participate in new ways.

Using Bulletin Boards to Teach

Bulletin boards can be education tools as well as colorful decorations. Teachers can use bulletin boards to teach math, language arts, geography, and other disciplines. Bulletin boards can introduce new topics and generate student interest. A bulletin board with dinosaur bones, for example, can introduce a unit on dinosaurs. Students assemble the bones into the skeleton of a dinosaur, either on their own or step-by-step, adding a bone as they complete another activity so that the skeleton emerges piece by piece. A math bulletin board might give the answer to a problem and challenge students to create all the problems they can think of with that answer.

Bulletin boards are also self-teaching tools for students. Teachers design learning activities using the boards and movable parts affixed to them and students can move from board to board during free or quiet time to complete the activity. Students can add their own literary compositions to blank bulletin boards or respond to prompts given by the teacher. Students can also voice their opinions on bulletin boards, voting on favorite books and recommending reading material to others.

Bulletin boards used as word walls can be powerful vocabulary-building tools. As students are exposed to new vocabulary, key vocabulary words are added gradually to the wall. Teachers facilitate review activities to practice the new words. Activities that allow students to interact with the word wall, such as those that involve moving the words to different categories or locations on the wall, help students understand and retain the new vocabulary.

  • Word Walls: How to create and use a word wall with your students. 

Interactive Bulletin Boards

Bulletin boards that challenge students to interact with them can engage them in the learning process more effectively than static display bulletin boards. Static bulletin boards can become simply part of the classroom décor after a few weeks, while interactive bulletin boards that change according to topical lesson plans can hold student interest and help different kinds of learners assimilate the new material in their own way and at their own pace. By allowing students to help create bulletin boards and to interact with them, students take ownership of the classroom and of their own learning experience. Students are challenged to be active learners and to actively seek out new information, to create new artwork, or to achieve higher grades that will be displayed on the boards.

Students can respond to prompts issued by the teacher to help create the boards. For example, students can bring in or draw pictures of words that begin with a certain letter, or items of a certain color, and post them to the board. The teacher can then prompt students to rearrange the material according to new categories. For example, items that begin with the letter “D” can then be rearranged by categories such as “animals”, “things”, and “people”. Bulletin boards can be self-quizzes that students help create. Students can be the “experts” on part of a topic or book and create questions or clues that are posted on the bulletin board. After providing time for students to research the answers, the original posters place their answers underneath the questions. Students then move from board to board to lift the flaps and grade their quizzes.

Creating Bulletin Boards with Students

Students can interact with bulletin boards by helping to create them or to provide their content. Students can create bulletin boards by working together to create small pieces of a larger project and piecing them together to form a completed whole. Students can work together to make a map of a region under study, filling in mountains, rivers, cities, indigenous groups, and other features as they are discussed in class. Students can work together to create great works of art by painting, drawing, or making a collage of a section of a famous work of art that will then be pieced together with other student works to create the larger finished masterpiece. Building a castle or house, a nature or farm scene, or “building” an animal lets students take the lead in learning about a new topic and giving them a finished product to display, which helps them take ownership of their learning experience.

Students can also provide the content of bulletin boards. Reader’s choice bulletin boards allow students to recommend favorite books and voting bulletin boards let students voice their opinions on books, movies, or artwork. Students write and post questions about their reading material or the current lesson to question bulletin boards and other students can discuss and post answers.

Interacting with bulletin boards after their creation is important to reinforce learning. Simple review activities led by the teacher, such as question and answer games, can keep student attention focused on the board and help cement new concepts. Answer quests, in which students must move from board to board to find the answers to questions, can also help review material. Moving the pieces of the bulletin boards to categorize the information differently, such as moving the animals in a farm scene into groups according to color or size, can keep the material fresh.

  • Creating Bulletin Boards: How interactive bulletin boards work and how to involve students. Site includes examples of interactive bulletin boards with explanations of how to implement them.

Interactive Bulletin Board Ideas

  • Middle School Math: Bulletin board examples for middle to early high school mathematics, including information on how to create the board and how to use it interactively with students.
  • K-8 Mathematics: Interactive bulletin board ideas and instructions for kindergarten through eighth grade mathematics.
  • Elementary Ideas: Bulletin board ideas to get everyone involved. Suitable for early elementary school.
  • Elementary Bulletin Boards: Interactive bulletin board ideas for elementary school classrooms. Site also includes math and language arts bulletin board ideas.
  • Reading Bulletin Boards: Interactive ideas to get students more involved in reading. Suitable for later elementary and middle school.
  • Word Walls: Word walls can be used as bulletin boards. These walls help students learn vocabulary and spelling.
  • Dinosaur Bulletin Board: An interactive bulletin board about dinosaurs integrated into a multi-day lesson plan about dinosaurs. Suitable for early elementary school students.
  • Bulletin Board Baseball: Uses a bulletin board decorated as a baseball diamond to help students solve math problems.
  • Butterfly Bulletin Board: How to create an interactive bulletin board on butterfly anatomy, integrated within a larger lesson plan. Can be adapted for other animals.


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