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The importance of supportive academic peer groups

 A student texted me last night for help on her theme study, a 12-page analytical essay that we’ve been working on, off and on, since October.

Her text: “I’m kind of confused now that I was reading my essay. So the three books I read I gotta write an essay about it?”

Um, yes.

Her question left me baffled. This is an AP class. We’ve been working on this essay for nine months. There are two days left, and my student still doesn’t really understand the point or requirements of the assignment.

And then she decides to seek support by texting me directly instead of looking at the resources I’ve provided or asking one of her friends in the class.

On the positive side, I suppose it’s a good thing that she recognized that she was lost. It’s also a good thing that she feels comfortable to ask me such a basic question.

But I fundamentally don’t understand how this situation is possible. I mean, I’ve checked in with all my students multiple times. We’ve had checkpoints and several classroom activities. I’ve always known that she was behind, but never did I think she was this far behind.

It leaves me wondering three things: (1) How little are my students understanding me and my class? (2) How can I teach my students to be more cognizant of where they stand? (3) Why don’t my students get help more often from their peers, and what can I do about it?

The last question intrigues me the most right now. Although I don’t want to discourage my students from asking me questions — even low-level ones — I must say, It’s a problem if you’re going to your teacher two days before a major assignment is due and and asking, “What’s the assignment?”

Like organization and time management, this skill of knowing how to utilize your friends as academic support is something that needs to be taught.

After all, a peer can communicate in a way that you understand much better than a teacher can. So why do so few of my students go to their friends for help? Is it that they don’t trust their friends for academic advice? Is it because my students don’t talk about schoolwork with their friends?

It’s a mystery. Whatever the answer is, I have to figure it out. Just as parents want to know who their kid’s friends are, teachers should help students cultivate a supportive peer group that cares about their education.

For students first in their families to go to college, this may not happen naturally. That’s why it’s so crucial.

What do you think? 

One comment

  1. Tony

    First, I think that sounds awful familiar. Second, I think when students ask questions like this they are REALLY saying – “I know what the assignment is supposed to be, and I am (lost, confused, checked out, too far behind – fill in blank) and by acting as if I know nothing, it will hopefully lead to you giving me a way to get out of this dilemma.”
    I might respond to a question like this under such circumstances with asking the student:
    a. what do you know about this assignment? tell me everything you recall.
    b. what have you done so far and what have you not done? be honest.
    c. so, what can you do, realistically, between now and two days from now. how can I help you do it? who else in the class can help you? what is the worst thing that can happen and what is the best thing?

    I loved teaching, but honestly, these interactions with student really tried my patience to no end. Along with not being able to pee when I want, this is tops of my list of reasons I am glad I have moved on.

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