Learning is an exercise one needs to undertake oneself. On the other hand, teaching is an exercise where one makes others learn. It is not only one of the most challenging of all exercises, but is also one that has been instrumental in all human development and progress of our civilization. The way great teachers go about is also a lesson for other wanting to be like them.
When it comes to a student challenging their statement, different teachers have different approaches. Some prefer to undermine such an attitude with something like, “first try to understand…” or “you should read again…” and dismiss it without much attention. A few may even take offence with a statement like “who is the professor here? … listen to what I am saying..”. However, there is also a small category of teachers, who encourage such tendencies and even categorically ask their students to critically challenge what they are saying.
It is this last category of teachers, who are often able to get the maximum learning outcome from their efforts.
For a teacher, there are two great challenges to be dealt with before the process of teaching really end up in learning. The first is to ensure that the students are actually following what the teacher has to say, and the second is to ensure that they are absorbing the content in a way that they will enable them to make use of that knowledge some day. For good teachers, professors and trainers, being able to deal with these two challenges is the most important part in fulfilling their teaching assignments.
That is the reason why great college professors, instead of taking offense, like to see their students challenging their statements.
As one rises higher in the hierarchy of learning, the subjects tend to become more complex. In some cases like humanities and arts, there are also possibilities to taking more than one view on the same issue, or dealing with same subject differently. Many of the academic theories that form the basis of higher education in subjects like economics and law have their own limitations, and some come with a set of presumptions that may or may not be applicable in a given context. In all such situations, unless the students are aware of the bigger picture and know the limits of what they are learning, the task of the professor will not be complete.
In faculties belonging to science too, everything is not always in black and white, particularly so in empirical science like medicine, and a lot of analysis of scientific evidence is required as part of scientific research, with need for objective critical analysis, before any view can be finalized. Even more fluid are the conclusions and learning drawn in management discussions and case studies, since they involve multi-factorial variant analysis, generally on a qualitative basis. The maximum degree of nuanced approach, however, is probably reserved for subjects relating to public policy and governance, where even the objective of an intervention changes from one stakeholder to another, and the final decisions are often on the basis of political bargaining rather than technical analysis. Thus, it is easy to make out why faculties like political sciences and public choices can never be devoid of debate, if students are expected to make anything out of them.
Professors, like most other human beings, have their own egos, and being questioned is an attack on that ego that they would also like to avoid. In fact, given the nature of their vocation, the level of their knowledge and experience on the subject, and the fact that there is always a certain degree of ego-friction going on between the trainers and the trained, one would usually expect them to dislike being questioned by their students. It may also seem like an attack on their authority as well as putting a question mark over their knowledge and integrity. Being challenged by one’s students can often attle the teachers and instances when being questioned leads to negative or even retaliatory responses are not unheard of. Yet, it is the approach in this regard that is often the differentiating feature between an ordinary professor and a great one, and the reasons are not difficult to understand.
When a student challenges a professor in a college, it indicates that the student is actually following what the professor has been discussing. Not only that, it also means that the student has been able to absorb those issues thoroughly, in a way that now, she can use that knowledge to develop her own arguments. Moreover, the fact that the student is able to put an argument across is also an indicator of a high level of confidence on the part of the student. Such confidence, if well placed, as would be true if the argument being made is relevant to the discussion, is always a positive signal.
Thus, most great professors like being challenged because it is an indication of a certain degree of their success in transmitting the knowledge and making their students mentally active on that topic. This is also the reason why some of them go out of their way to involve students in discussions, even at the cost of occasionally converting discussions into debates. One of the pioneers in this technique was Socrates, who used it with Plato, his pupil. Many of the great professors follow some variant of the Socratic tradition in teaching their students even today.
Great professors make use of every possibility that comes their way to teach. A student challenging them is invariably such an opportunity. Whenever that happens, it invokes a lot of interest in the classroom. How the professor responds to the objections is something that most students find more interesting than the usual subject. It is like adding spice to a dish, and for a great professor, it is also welcome for that very reason. Such discussions are a great tool for learning. In fact, it is not only the students who learn in such discussions. It is a learning experience even for the professors, as it gives them an idea about what their students are grasping and what they are not, where the misconceptions may be and what could possibly be the areas in which the professor can improve his own skills and approach.
Great professors are great not just because they make their students learn a lot. They are also great because they continue to learn themselves.
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