Sobering Lessons Learned When Shadowing Students

In a recent article posted by Grant Wiggins (A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days – a sobering lesson learned), he posts the experiences of a former high school teacher who has entered a new role as a high school teaching coach. The article is a reflection piece that explores the experiences of the teaching coach shadowing 2 students for 2 days. What the teaching coach is exposed to, is an eye opening experience.

The post has a fully detailed explanation of the two day shadowing event, and although the experiences being talked about are in the context of a high school experience, many of the key learning experiences from the teaching coach are relevant to any level of teaching. Below is a summary of the key learning experiences the teaching coach identifies in the article, as well as some exemplars of how instructors here at the University of Lethbridge are trying to provide a more enjoyable and engaging classroom experience to our students.

Key Takeaways from Shadowing Students.

1. Students sit all day. Sitting all day is exhausting

Students sit all day. Sitting all day is exhausting.

  • Felt lethargic and exhausted at the end of the day.
  • Found it difficult to absorb content
  • Was amazed at how alert other students were

What could be done differently?
(suggestions from the article)

A Nerf basketball hoop at the back of the class for students to shoot hoops in the opening minutes or final minutes of class. Promotes movement, gets blood flowing and the mind working.

UofL Practices
Some instructors feel that their students need to speak with each other in the first class to make sure they become comfortable with open dialogue early. Dr. Jan Newberry from the Department of Anthropology strives for this in many of her classes, especially intro level courses. By having students gather information about each other in groups, Jan is providing the students with an opportunity to get to know one another, but also is getting them to learn to work together. Besides the social benefits of working together, the activity gets students moving around and keeps the class lively and not lethargic. If you would like to read more about these types of activities, read Jan’s article, The Space for Active Learning that was published in the 2014-2015 issue of A Light on Teaching Magazine.

2.  Students sit and have to absorb content for approximately 90% of their day.

Students absorb content for about 90% of the the day.

  • In 8 periods of shadowed classes it was rare to see a student speak
    (test taking, other student presentations, etc)
  • Students have to passively absorb information most of the day rather than grappling with the information.
  • Little opportunity to share knowledge
  • Little or no student autonomy related to their learning

What could be done differently?
(suggestions from the article)

  • Break classes into ten minute mini-lessons
  • Set an egg timer to control lecture length
  • Start each class by focusing on essential questions from the reading given for home work.

UofL Practices
Being directed to disrupt the instructor to ask questions, or to comment may seem foreign to some students, especially if they just came from high school and have experienced a sit-and-absorb kind of learning environment. But at the UofL, Dr. Jay Gamble an instructor in the English Department, reports that he encourages his students to disrupt his lecture to ask questions and become more involved. In opening classes, Dr. Gamble may dress as a student and deliver the narrative(lecture or reading) from the students perspective (sitting in desks with students). He hopes that this process will help students overlook his role as strictly authoritative, and that the students will more be open to “disrupting the narrative”, by asking questions, or commenting on relevant points.  Jay Gamble first shared his thoughts on “Disrupting the Narrative” with us  at a Talking About Teaching event in 2013. Click here to view visual notes from this event.

 3. Students feel like a nuisance all day long

Students feel like a nuisance all day long.

  • Always being told to sit and be quiet
  • This is not expected by adults
  • Cynicism often comes through when commenting to students

What would I do to combat this?
(suggestions from the article)

  • Think of how you would answer your kid if they were answering rather than your student.
  • Create a closer bond with students and have them hold me accountable for my sarcasm.
  • Exams structured to have 5 min reading time to answer question related to the test material. All students write when the question period is done.

How is this addressed at the UofL

Although there is usually more dialogue occurring in classes at the post-secondary level, students can still become disengaged with a course. They may just be disengaged with certain topics within the course, but require the course to complete their degree. Students can become especially disengaged if they have developed a just-get-through-the-course way of thinking. One way of getting students to become more concerned with their learning, is by letting them decide or provide input into the course assessment plan. As students help decide assignment types, exam weightings and more, they are being empowered to become more of a stakeholder in their own learning, rather than just a consumer of content.  Jennifer Mather from the Department of Psychology has tried incorporating a democratic process into the assessment planning of her courses for a number of years. To read more about this process, see Jennifer’s article Who’s Learning is it Anyway?  that was published in the 2013-2014 issue of A Light on Teaching magazine.

Reflecting on Your Own.

Think about the classes you teach. How much of your class time do students sit and absorb content in your class? Do you feel your students are engaged with the content in your class, or are they engaged with duplicating the text of your slides/notes? Do your classes incorporate time to help students achieve higher levels of meaning and conceptual understanding? Are all or most of the deep-learning activities in your course completed in class or outside of class? Do students work in groups or as individuals? What do you do in your class to help students be comfortable? What activities help wake up your students? But most importantly, how do you feel you would learn if you were taking the course?

Look at the answers you provided. You may just find some insights in how to increase student engagement in your class.  If you are interested in increasing engagement in your class, but are unsure how to implement certain activities, contact the University of Lethbridge Teaching Centre, and one of our Educational Consultants would be glad to work with you. (403.380.1856 or


Gamble, Jay. “Disrupting the Narrative.” Talking About Teaching September 2013. Teaching Centre. University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge. 20 Sept. 2013. Lecture.

Mather, Jennifer. “Whose Learning is it Anyways? Inclusion and Democracy in the University Classroom.” A Light on Teaching Sep. 2013: n. pag. Teaching Centre. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.

Newberry, Jan. “The Space for Active Learning.” A Light on Teaching 12 Sept. 2014: n. pag. Teaching Centre. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.

Wiggins, G. (n.d.). A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days – a sobering lesson learned. Retrieved October 21, 2014, from