Communication as a two way process

Almost all students will benefit academically from a sense that they are part of a learning community In order to build that sense of community it is important that communication is not only clear and accurate, but that it is also a two way process, that students understand that they are welcome to contribute to the learning and teaching dialogue and their contribution is respected. Most mainstream, New Zealand students will have begun to develop this understanding as part of their secondary schooling but many non-mainstream New Zealand students (for instance, Refugee Background students, Pasifika students, Maori students) may not have the same understanding of the educational process. One of the best accounts of these differences in understanding is still At School I’ve Got A Chance, a PhD thesis by Alison Jones, now Professor of Education at Auckland University. Many international students from different educational cultures will experience the same differences of understanding. 'In China, I was afraid of the teachers, so I would never go and see them. New Zealand lecturers need to overcome this mindset of Chinese students and really emphasise that they are happy to see students. One of my lecturers put his timetable in the course outline, with when he would see us. That was very helpful.' [Rose, international student, from China.]

Part of communicating is getting to know the people that you’re communicating with: 'it’s good if the lecturer finds out what the students know in order to be able to provide background and context to fill in the gaps'[Pacific male students].

Several of the teaching staff were very aware of the need to get to know their students as the basis of good teaching.

Part of building a good relationship with your students is getting to know them and to do that you need to talk to them and find out something about their lives and how they’re getting on with the course. Tai Ahu, Assistant Lecturer

It is important to know your individual students and their abilities as well as you can. This is more easily done in smaller classes, but there are ways of doing it with larger classes as well. With larger classes it is particularly important to stress your accessibility and availability. Karen Smith, Senior Lecturer

I take slightly different approaches in my PG and my UG (300 level) class. With the PG class I start with the class lists and find out as much as can about the students from their academic record … In the 300-level UG class I also look at the class lists and try to get a sense of the students from that information but I don’t have time to read the academic history of each student. Sara Kindon, Senior Lecturer

One of the themes that came through in conversations with teaching staff was the potential for assignments, and particularly early assignments to assist with getting to know your students both personally and academically.

You need to know your students. Setting an early assignment is a good way of getting some feedback about people’s capabilities. If individual students are not doing well you need to talk to them and get some idea of what the issue is. Professor Warwick Murray

You can also set assignments which will help you learn more about your students. For instance in EPSY 241 students do a digital presentation on adolescent identity. They can include audio and video material and they show how their media use influences their identity development. I always find I learn a lot about my students, their ideas, understandings and background as a result of this assignment. Chris Bowden

I think it’s important to set an essay or writing assignment of some kind fairly early on and to explicitly use this as a diagnostic process. Professor Jonathan Boston

A few lecturers, commented on the importance of taking tutorials as part of building a relationship with students and ensuring good communication.

As part of building trust and communication between myself and the students I walk around the lecture theatre and talk to them during the lecture – make sure they’re on track. I also take tutorials … and I think that’s important for getting to know students and knowing how well they’re coping with the course. Christian Schott, Senior Lecturer

In order to teach such a diverse group well you really need to know your cohort. There are 800 students in first year law, divided into three streams. So getting to know the cohort is quite a challenge. I study the enrollment statistics, learn at least some names, and accept requests to speak at first year events (although a bit less now that I have a young family). One of the most important things I do is to take a tutorial. It’s one of the only ways that you can get a good sense of how the students are dealing with the material. Grant Morris, Senior Lecturer

Office hours are part of the process of two way communication

'Lecturers usually have office hours, but the hours in the course outline aren’t always correct, things change. Some tutors don’t have any office hours at all and if the tutor is marking my assignment, I’d rather talk to the tutor because the lecturer and the tutor don’t always give the same advice; they’re different people, with different viewpoints so of course they don’t give the same advice.' [Refugee background student, female] And even when lecturers are available during the office hours stated on the course outline, many students still feel ‘shy’ about approaching them. Urging students to use office hours and making it clear that they are truly welcome during that time, is an important aspect of building communication and can also help you protect your own time elsewhere in your schedule.

Many of the teaching staff were aware of the importance of office hours.

It’s worth repeating in several classes that these are your office hours, and that you’ve seen quite a lot of students but there are still some you haven’t seen and that you welcome them to use the opportunity to come during office hours. Karen Smith, Senior Lecturer

It’s also important to make clear that they’re welcome to come and talk to you and that they know when your office hours are. Of course you have to be clear about the boundaries as well. Tai Ahu, Assistant Lecturer

The co-ordinator needs to have office hours, publicise their office hours and make sure students know they’re truly welcome to come along to office hours. It’s also a good idea to plan to make yourself available for a bit of time after the lecture. – important things often get said then. Professor Warwick Murray

To teach like this you need to spend time with students – as long as they need. There is a tension between this approach and how long we are told we should spend in student consultation. I have office hours but I also have an open door policy and I make sure students know it. Chris Bowden

I also try to provide plenty of out of class support. I stress that I’m available for consultation in office hours and I’m happy to read drafts and give feedback on them. Professor Jonathan Boston