Skip navigation
The Skills Agenda

Teach the students you have, not the student you were

As we start a new fall semester, instructors should keep in mind that today’s students come from a vast array of backgrounds and still have pandemic-related stress.


Effective teaching requires empathy for and an understanding of students: who they are, where they are starting from, and what they wish to accomplish. When we have a sense of our students’ interests and motivations, we can make small changes in our teaching practices that have large impacts on student learning.

A challenge for many instructors can be shaking off the idea that their past self is representative of today’s students. When we shape our courses in ways that reflect our own past educational experiences and/or please our past student self, we miss the opportunity to reflect on what our actual students want and need.

Today’s students: what to expect

Available data suggest some important patterns to consider:

Long story short: instructors should expect their students to have a vast array of backgrounds.

On top of this, many of this year’s students have experienced two years of pandemic educational disruption. They have pivoted to the point of dizziness. They saw high school extracurriculars disappear, or at least contract. Some middle-year students are starting their first on-campus semester and have had limited opportunities to be part of a campus community until now.

This year’s students have also lived much of their teenage and early adult lives with financial disruption, global disruption, and political polarization. And, of course, endless YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok content.

So what does this mean for you as an instructor?

Adapting teaching to your actual students

In 2018, Sara Goldrick-Rab wrote: “As educators, we need to lead the way and design our pedagogical approaches for the students we have, not the students we wish we had. This requires approaches that are responsive, inclusive, adaptive, challenging, and compassionate.” Here are steps in that direction:

Check out the available data about your students. See if your university provides you with class-specific and/or program-specific information. For example, my own university provides instructors with a Know Your Class infographic that provides some basic demographics. Universities will differ in the information available to instructors; be sure to become aware of what is available to you.

Educate yourself on neurodiversity and learning. In her Inside Higher Ed article on teaching neurodiverse students, Kathryn Welby writes, “As the higher education landscape continues to change and diversify — offering opportunities for all students to attend, participate and thrive — we should continue to strive to be more inclusive and accessible for students of diverse abilities. Minor adjustments to our practice can ensure we are providing the tools to promote success and equity for everyone.” Among her recommendations are creating a one-page supplementary guide to your syllabus, providing a clear agenda for classes, and including an end-of-class reflection.

Adopt explicit instruction approaches. I have written before about the value of explicit instruction. This includes stating directly how class content and assignments link to the course learning outcomes and providing transparency in how assignments are assessed. If you have skill development among your course learning outcomes (something I am in favour of!), provide instruction on the skill and opportunities to practice it.

Assess the representativeness of your learning materials. Schucan Bird and Lesley Pitman write, “Students view the reading list as an important instrument for learning, providing them with the ‘key’ or ‘main’ texts in the subject area. … Yet, existing research highlights that published or highly cited works do not necessarily reflect the discipline as a whole … and curricula can present a distorted view of a field with a more pronounced tendency to list particular publications, for example, by male, white scholars.” Consider how your course materials – including readings, videos, podcasts, and guest speakers – include (or do not include) diverse voices. You can assess the gender balance of your reading lists with Jane Lawrence Sumner’s Gender Balance Assessment Tool (GBAT). As you assess your materials, be sure to consider if there are voices you might include that connect with your students’ backgrounds.

Show empathy and compassion – to your students and to yourself. This year’s students have been through a lot over the past few years. And so have you. Err on the side of compassion.

Continuing the #SkillsAgenda conversation

Is your program or university doing innovative things regarding student skills training and professional development? If so, I would love to hear about it. I also welcome opportunities to speak with universities about skills training. Please connect with me at [email protected], subject line “The Skills Agenda.”

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

Loleen Berdahl
Loleen Berdahl is a 3M National Teaching Fellow, an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Her most recent book is For the Public Good: Reimagining Arts Graduate Programs in Canadian Universities (with Jonathan Malloy and Lisa Young, University of Alberta Press 2024).
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *