The College Classroom Can Be a Judgment-Free Zone

Professors should remember what it’s like to be a beginner.

Step inside any gym and you’ll likely see a familiar sight: regular gym buffs, for whom the gym is a second home, using the workout machines with ease. You will also see intimidated newcomers nervously looking around, afraid to approach machines that look like medieval torture devices.

The novice’s intimidation in a fitness club is perhaps why one major fitness chain’s motto is “Judgment Free Zone.” After all, a gym is supposed to be a place where people of all backgrounds can come to take control of their health and fitness.

A college classroom is no different. A group of 30 students presents a multitude of challenges for a teacher. It is not uncommon for any group of students to possess vastly different academic levels and varied levels of interest in the subject matter.

It is not uncommon for any group of students to possess vastly different academic levels.On the one hand, a teacher should stimulate intellectually gifted students and integrate their contributions in class discussions as a means of both enriching the environment and fostering student participation. Conversely, leaving struggling students behind is a major failure for any teacher, whose charge should be to raise the subject-matter knowledge and understanding of all students.

This is heightened in the community-college setting, where a typical classroom might include a student who could transfer to Harvard and one whose abilities fall far below average. How can a teacher effectively reach students with such disparate abilities?

A teacher’s first rule is to meet the students where they are. For a political-science teacher, this means dealing with the reality that many students dread taking a class about politics. Given the dysfunction of our political system, who in their right mind wants to study it?

Students pursuing careers in nursing, engineering, or dental hygiene might rightly wonder, “Why should I have to read The Federalist Papers?” In my class, the very first day begins with a discussion question: Why do so many people tune out of politics? This allows me to address not only some students’ hesitation to be in a required class, but their general disdain for, or indifference to, our political system.

Other such discussion questions frame lessons from political science in general terms: What are some of the advantages the wealthy have in society? What are ways you’ve been stereotyped? What are the most important problems facing you and your generation? By starting lectures with these motivating, thought-provoking questions, I remind students that honest inquiry is the foundation of the scientific method—and that the things we learn in a political-science classroom are applicable in many other domains of life.

Second, positive feedback is more effective than criticism—for all students and maybe for teachers. Often, students with low aptitudes have internalized negative messages about themselves. Perhaps they’ve been told they’re a bad writer, or maybe that they’re a “bad test-taker” (whatever that means), or maybe they’ve had their perspectives belittled by a teacher or family member.

While these negative ingrained messages cannot be undone by a single teacher, a word of encouragement and a positive learning experience can have a profound impact. This can be anything from praise for an in-class contribution, to personalized feedback on an exam or paper, to simple acknowledgement of the progress made throughout the semester.

A word of encouragement and a positive learning experience can have a profound impact.Encouraging, empowering feedback works for students at the high end of the spectrum, as well: Many times, I’ve had conversations imploring talented students to apply for Harvard and Stanford. Every semester, the most common form of feedback I get from students is, to quote one recent conversation, “You’ve made me hate politics less!”

Perhaps the most insidious form of negative internalized messages is from students who come from countries that do not have a culture of citizen participation in government. For students from such backgrounds, assignments like attending a city council meeting or a town hall with an elected official can be a powerful motivator to do well in class, to get involved in local government, or even to aspire to office themselves.

Every year, I take a group of students to the state capitol building, where we meet with elected officials and sit in on floor debates. This year’s group included students from Burma and China, two countries without a recent history of participatory democracy. Giving these and other students a front-row seat to the legislative process opens up a new world, one in which they can see the process live and in actionStudents of all levels seem to benefit from the experience.

Another important mindset for teachers is to encourage students to take control of their own learning experiences. Although I give students a list of suggested topics for research projects—among them midterm loss for the president’s party or why young people don’t like to vote—many students do their best work when they choose a topic close to them, one in which they have a specific interest.

Students often ask, “Does this topic sound good to you?” I always have the same response: “Does this topic sound good to you?” This kind of response shows students that learning is involved in what we’re doing and that it goes beyond simple regurgitation. For such assignments, active interest and engagement from the student’s perspective is important, at least as important as the academic soundness and rigor of the project.

One of the ways I engage my students in the classroom is through oral reading, but this can be intimidating for students with reading difficulties. I experienced this acutely in a recent classroom: I asked a student to read a passage orally early in the semester, and she struggled to complete the few paragraphs. After what must have been a publicly embarrassing situation, she never returned to class. Since then, I tell students at the beginning of the semester to privately inform me if they are uncomfortable reading aloud.

One of the most persistent pitfalls for any teacher is to forget what it’s like to learn new material for the first time.Although instructors have to be mindful of the needs of at-risk students, the academically zealous should be given the opportunity to shine. For the more proficient students, writing assignments give them the opportunity to explore their interests without training wheels. Some students will want to choose their own topics, which gives them the ability to take their newly-acquired passion to the next level.

One of the most persistent pitfalls for any teacher is to forget what it’s like to learn new material for the first time. For all the wisdom and competence that decades in the classroom provide, it’s often easy to forget the nervous feeling of being called on by a teacher in class and put on the spot in front of peers.

A way for experienced teachers to reacquaint themselves with the sometimes helpless feeling of being a beginner is to learn a new skill—perhaps an instrument, a sport, or drawing. For me, training at my local boxing gym twice a week isn’t just good physical exercise.

Going through difficult drills on the speed bag and heavy bag—while being taught by expert instructors who are younger than I am—reminds me of the clumsiness and frustration of a neophyte, something my students probably experience every semester. But it also reconnects me with the joy and thrill of slowly mastering a new subject matter. That’s the task of a teacher: to give students at any level the tools to master unfamiliar material.

Teaching a college course is never easy, and it’s quite a challenge when you have a huge range of students, from the well-prepared and highly-motivated to those who are academically weak and apathetic. I have found that it is possible to bridge the gap, but it requires a great deal of effort.

Even the most advanced experts had to start somewhere. Jack Nicklaus had a first swing coach. Vladimir Horowitz had a first piano teacher. For instructors who have been studying and teaching content for decades, it can be easy to forget the feeling of being a beginner. If we want to inspire the next generation of leaders, we have to be just as enthusiastic to help every student’s journey.

Knox Brown is an assistant professor of political science at Tulsa Community College. He studies and teaches American politics. He received his B.A. in political science and his Ph.D. in political science from UCLA.