Do You Recognize Each of Your Students as Individuals?

Lead Features March / March 18, 2019

-Dr. Thomas Mennella-

We all have goals: We want to matter. We want to be important. We want to have freedom and power to pursue our creative work. We want respect from our peers and recognition for our accomplishments. Not out of vanity or selfishness, but of an earnest desire to fulfill our personal potential.” – Ryan Holiday, author, marketer, and entrepreneur

This belief is most true of our students. Students want to matter. Students want to be important. And they want recognition – our recognition – for their accomplishments. Even the most confrontational or indifferent student in your class wants you to respect them. In fact, they probably crave your respect and acceptance more than any other student in the class.

As we dedicate this issue of FLR to recognition, let us not lose sight of the most important form of recognition in education: the recognition of student effort and accomplishment. When I taught traditionally, spending my time in the classroom lecturing and assessing student learning only through exams, there were many moments of recognition; times when I was impressed, or blown away by student work. I’d enthusiastically scribble, “Wow! Great insights!” or “Incredible reasoning! Excellent job!” and move on to the next paper to grade. I wish I could say that I graciously envisioned my students reading my praise and being empowered by it, but I didn’t. As I said, I just moved on to the next paper to grade. I know, now, that my praise probably fell on deaf ears, diluted by the many other comments (mostly negative) scribbled over the same exam, diluted by the red ink it was written in, and especially diluted by the impersonal delivery of a hand-written note on a graded exam. This was not recognition.  

Fast-forward just a few short years to my flipped classes now as students work together in groups and explore deep, critical thinking problems and cases in class, while I go around the room. I engage in dozens of micro-conversations with these student-groups during each class session. Often, I’ll be called over by a student, and they’ll say something like, “We don’t have a question. Can we just run our thinking by you?” “Sure,” I always reply. And, often times, that thinking is impressive, and it impresses me more than I ever expected. When it does, I look my students in the eye, and I say “Wow! Great insights!” or “Incredible reasoning! Excellent job!” And they beam. They are empowered. This is recognition.  

The relationships between a teacher and their students are both intimate and imbalanced. To them, we are one teacher. To us, they are many students. They try to prove themselves to us, and it is our job to judge them. Most importantly, they willingly allow us into their minds, and then we have a self-imposed moral obligation to do right with that access. The criticisms we levy against their work will likely stay with our students for a lifetime, and our praise might very well be forgotten before the weekend; again, intimate and imbalanced. For all of these reasons, our approach to the relationships we have with our students – with all of our students – is critically important and Flipped Learning gives us the time and space to foster those relationships. With those relationships in place, the recognition we provide to our students will be richer and personal.  

In flipped classes, instructors must use their time to get to know their students. What do their students understand? Where are they struggling? What motivates them? What do they avoid? Who are they? And, what recognition do they crave? It is then the instructor’s job to tailor their praise, guidance and coaching to each student. Differentiate each student’s experience in the classroom; sounds challenging, doesn’t it? There isn’t enough time in the day for that, right? Wrong. Do you treat your partner, your children and your co-workers the same? No. Why not? The answer is simple: they are different people and you have different relationships with each of them. Your differentiated treatment of these people is automatic; it’s what we do as social creatures. Your students are different people, and you need to have different relationships with each of them. Once you do, your instincts will kick in, and you’ll have tailored experiences with each student because that is our automatic nature. The key is knowing each student as an individual, and Flipped Learning makes that possible. Then, you can give recognition to the achievements of each student on an individual basis and watch them beam back at you in appreciation.

As I sit here in my office writing this piece, I am on the cusp of mid-term week. Following best practices, I’ll be ending this week by conducting mid-term evaluations. This is an opportunity for my students to give me feedback – mid-term – so that course corrections can be made that impact them, instead of final evaluations that can only hope to help the next wave of students. This semester, I’ve added two new questions to my mid-term evaluation survey: “Do you feel respected and included in this course?” and “Name one thing that the instructor could do to make this course more inclusive for all students.” These questions are not about course logistics, teaching methodologies, or grading. These questions are solely about relationships. When my students feel respected and included in my classroom, the doors to relationships open. When those relationships form, criticism can be delivered compassionately, and praise can be considered genuine. Most importantly, through those relationships, recognition has value.

So, perhaps the time has come to recognize our peers, our colleagues and ourselves for a job well done. Perhaps such recognition for educators is long overdue. But before we indulge in patting each other on the back, let us each take a moment to reflect: are we recognizing our students? Are we recognizing each of our students as individuals? Are we delivering recognition to each student for their unique accomplishments? Until that answer is ‘yes’ for all of us, we still have more work to do.


Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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