Listen to Your Students

Richard Feynman has been one of my heroes since my high school days.

He said, “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” As a teacher, I’ve used that statement as a cornerstone of my teaching philosophy.

When my students ask me questions, I listen to them, I paint the question with the colors of their emotions, and I try to understand why they asked this question. Often I find it is caused by my poor explanation of the subject, sometimes it is because I delivered too much too soon, and rarely the question was caused by the student’s failure to pay attention, do their homework, read the text, etc.

I take the opportunity to refine my content on delivery; I use the feedback of their questions to improve my work.

I also listen to my students when they give me feedback. Recently a student gave me feedback on a course I teach—they were brutally honest and, I have to admit, absolutely correct. One of their colleagues attended the same course years ago and had described the experience to them prior to them showing up. Their expectations were not met because the delivered experience had changed. Why did we change the experience? Because we were forced to add three more exams to the course, which changed the nature of the delivery.

I’ve listened to them, however, and I’m working out a plan to restore the wonderful experience their colleague had while meeting the exam requirements. It’s a tough challenge, but I think it can (and should) be done.

I’ve worked for teaching organizations that didn’t listen to the students—it was painful to watch them ignore useful feedback because “we know what we’re doing”.

That attitude strikes at the cornerstone of my teaching philosophy, Feynman’s quote about having answers that can’t be questioned. If we don’t listen to our students, how can we improve our teaching to deliver the learning experience they need?

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