— Jeanne M. Slattery
One of my concerns about teaching online for the first time stems from my questioning of the assumption that the most important thing that happens in college is the transmission of content knowledge from professor to student. As a psychologist, I tend to suspect that there’s more going on than that. In his summary of the literature, Michael Lambert (2003), for example, attributed 30% of the change that occurs in psychotherapy to the client/therapist relationship — twice as much as he attributed to the therapist’s specific interventions and theories! While I haven’t yet seen similar research for university teaching, I expect a similar pattern: our techniques, our students’ beliefs that they can learn and grow, our relationship with our students, and outside factors all influence how they learn and grow as people and professionals.
Students often talk about the ways that their relationships with their professors turn them off from a class or subject. Some complain about faculty failing to acknowledge their hands and questions. Others feel ridiculed and internalize what they perceive as their teacher’s skepticism about their being able to learn. On the other hand, some faculty do more than just acknowledge students: they actively mentor them and help them grow and attempt things that they hadn’t expected to be able to do. Janie Morgan Gibson, for example, said:
I think the reason that they have been helpful is that they have taken the time to get to know me, to teach me what they know, but to make sure I have the opportunity to ask questions and pursue my own goals/activities with their guidance and support. They have also been helpful by being honest about my strengths and weaknesses, provided feedback about what may help me learn and grow, and encouraged me to think through my own projects/problems/obstacles/etc., which helped me improve my ability to assess situations both professional and personal more effectively.
It’s not just what mentors do, but also how they do it. Gibson continued,
Mostly, they made it clear that they were invested in me, which helped me to feel comfortable asking questions, making mistakes (which I hate to do in front of people, but…), and exploring different avenues of thought.
Amber McMillen concurred, saying that her mentors were “supportive in the classroom and outside, accepting of my quirks and knew just how to gently push me — and keep pushing me!”
It’s hard not to read Gibson’s and McMillen’s words without thinking about Carol Dweck (2008), and her description of growth mindset (which sounds a lot like that sense of hope that Lambert, 2003, identified). People who have developed a growth mindset (rather than a fixed mindset) recognize that learning takes effort and errors are important learning opportunities. Gibson’s mentors, for example, have helped her (a) recognize both her strengths and weaknesses, (b) learn what will help her grow, and (c) think through her projects/problems/obstacles/etc. Both Gibson and McMillen recognized that they didn’t need to be perfect and that a mistake is an important part of the learning process rather than only a failure.
Both Gibson and McMillen describe people who actively took them under their wings and mentored them. My colleagues, Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan and Melissa Downes, report somewhat different experiences when talking about mentors in their professional and teaching lives. Sauvage-Callaghan, observed that her “most influential mentors were probably people who were not even aware that they were my mentors.” Different role models helped her recognize “how essential it is to be passionate about what you teach,” be open to “low culture,” and consider how to be a professional and scholar. Downes talked about having mentors who modeled professional behavior, but who also listened to her and encouraged her to discover internal and external resources for growth and success.
In my own life, I’m more like Sauvage-Callaghan, in having many role models whose examples have helped me consider how I want to approach my career, but fewer people who I saw as actively mentoring me. Many of these people are probably unaware of the impacts that they have had on my life. However, I remember those people, like my composition professor, who believed in me. She took my writing seriously and suggested that I become an English major. I don’t remember her name, but her suggestion has gained weight with time.
Mentoring matters. It matters among colleagues, in our classrooms, with our majors, and in Gen Ed courses. Mentoring is never simple, but it seems that in our online courses the process of mentoring becomes particularly vexing. It seems that there are three different things that we want to do when we’re teaching: develop students’ understanding of our discipline’s methods and theories, build skills (e.g., writing, critical thinking, and presentation skills), and foster our students’ growth. Good teaching seems to address each of these three things well, yet some online — and face-to-face — teaching may focus primarily on content, especially content from the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). Face-to-face teaching offers opportunities to easily connect with students around the department or before and after class. These things seem less possible in an online environment.
This semester has been the first time I am teaching online. Much of what I say here about the difficulty of mentoring online is not as significant as I imagined, although I don’t have the intensity of interactions that I do when I am teaching face to face. Nonetheless, my concerns have kept me consciously remembering my own role models and mentors, and considering how to approach mentoring my students — in my responses to their emails, the ways I design my assignments, the feedback I offer on their papers, and the resources I provide over the course of the semester. Going into this semester thinking about these questions has been helpful and made me a more effective mentor.
Anderson, L. W, & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives. New York, NY: Longman.
Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine.
Lambert, M. J. (2003). Implications of outcome research for psychotherapy integration. In J. C. Norcross & M. R. Goldstein, Handbook of Psychotherapy Integration (pp. 94–129). New York: Basic Books.
Thanks to Melissa Downes who, as always, has helped me consider my language, organization, and ideas in this essay more carefully.
Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and is writing Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at email@example.com