Knowing What Students May Not Know

By Amy Sexton, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor

My college career began in the early 1990’s, before wireless internet and personal computers were in most homes.  When I was a junior in college, I remember completing an assignment that used the acronym URL. The details about this particular assignment are fuzzy now, but I recall that I had no clue what a URL was, even though the design of the assignment seemed to assume that I did know.   I was a brand new transfer student at a four-year university, and I had just completed an Associates of Art degree and was a work-study student in the library.  I felt like I should know what a URL was, and I remember feeling a sense of shame that I did not.  In fact, I felt so much shame that I was embarrassed to ask any of my professors or the library faculty whom I worked with what the letters URL stood for. So, even though I was a student who prided myself on always doing my best work, I skipped all the questions that pertained to the foreign term URL and submitted an incomplete assignment.

Eventually, I did figure out that URL meant Uniform Resource Locator, and in this case, the assignment was referring to web site addresses.  I share this story to better illustrate an important lesson that I am reminded of  time and time again as a teacher and tutor:  Educators should not assume that students have the knowledge, skills, and expertise that we think they should have.  Whoever had designed and/or assigned the assignment that I remember assumed that I, and many other students, would know, or should know what a URL was.

In my work with students, I have came across many other terms that educators use regularly that may be foreign to students, especially since students often ask questions in tutoring that they might not want to ask their instructors.   I offer here a very small sample of some of the terms and processes that academics may understand well, but students may struggle with.

Syllabus:  Every college class has one, and most professors have written, revised, or edited one.  Students, however, may not know what a syllabus is, or they may not realize the wealth of information that they can access via a good syllabus.  I suggest that instructors begin every new course with an activity, lecture, or previously recorded video that clearly explains what a syllabus is, where the students can find the syllabus for the course, and what type of information students can find in their syllabus.  A syllabus treasure hunt is an especially fun activity that can get students acquainted with the course syllabus.

Rubric(s):  Instructors often tell students to follow the rubric or mention that they grade by the rubric.  Indeed, the rubric is a wonderful tool, but it is a tool that is likely not familiar to many students.   I recommend that all instructors introduce the rubrics that they will be using to assess work to their students and show them out to use each rubric to guide their efforts.  Even better, show students assignments and excerpts that scored very well on the rubric as well as examples that scored very low.  Taking the time to teach students about rubrics should also help generate quality assignments.

Template:  This is another tool that can be very useful to students, if they understand what it is and how they should use it.   Instead of simply telling students that they have a template to follow, consider showing them how to use it.  Students may not realize how they should go about utilizing an APA formatting template, for example.  They may need someone to show them how to personalize the template and replace the information included with their own, especially if they are new to using word processing software like Microsoft Word.

These are only three of the hundreds of terms and terms that educators may understand very well, but that students may need a little extra scaffolding to help them understand them and how to use them.  What are others that you can add to this list?

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