Rumour has it…

Student: [waves book at teacher in hallway] Sir, this is the right book for our course, right? 

Teacher: No! The correct book is the one I listed on the course outline, ordered through the bookstore, and showed you in class! Where did you find that one?

Student: A friend took your course a couple of years ago and said this was the book…

Forbuden_Frugt_smager_bedstThis was the gist of a conversation a friend reported to me last week. He was frustrated that despite his efforts to ensure that students had access to his chosen course text, this student – who, he says, is a good student who has taken other courses with him – seems to have ignored the official channels and relied instead on information from another student. And this isn’t just a matter of a new edition of a recurring text; the books in question are two completely different tomes.

Many teachers have experienced the hearsay phenomenon: a student will let slip that there’s a rumour circulating that a deadline has been extended, or a reading eliminated, or a class cancelled, and the teacher is left scrambling to undo the misinformation. As we can perhaps surmise from the list of examples, often the rumours are wishful thinking – of course students hope that deadline will be extended, or they’ll have one less text to read, or find themselves with a free period. But how do these whispers get started?

One might think that we have so many communication resources now – online course management sites, class Facebook or Twitter feeds, institutional message servers, and so on – that students would have access to any and all class-related information, straight from the horse’s mouth.

But there are at least two factors interfering with straightforward communication:

1. Teachers are inconsistent in their dissemination of information. Not all of us use online tools, or only use one, or use the online facets of our courses sporadically or selectively. We assume that giving students information in class – perhaps even writing it on the board – ensures that the information has been received, and that any students with questions will contact us directly. Other teachers, however, use online tools to complement and reiterate – so an assignment deadline presented in class is also posted online, along with links to resources or templates.

Obviously, we cannot impose one or the other model onto all teachers – but we can, perhaps, start letting students know if we’re typically on or off-line when it comes to information. And believe me, I am not suggesting that we spoon-feed students, or hold their hands, by repeating the same information in multiple media.

2. The second factor is the seemingly unlimited means of communication between students. Sure, the teacher may have a course Facebook page, and might reply to emails within 24 hours, and provide resources online, but that’s nothing compared to how many ways students have to talk to each other, 24/7. Rather than wait until 9 a.m. next morning for a teacher’s email response, why not text a classmate at 2 a.m.? Or go online to the students’ secret Facebook page and ask the whole group? By the time anyone actually gets to talk to the teacher, dozens of people have already chimed in, and the rumours are flying.

Does that mean that we have to be available 24/7, by text, email, Twitter and Instagram?

I certainly hope not…

Once again, perhaps it comes down to training students how to be good students. Training them to not rely on each other for information that should only ever come from the teacher – it’s one thing to share resources, class notes, study tips, and so on, but if a classmate says “I heard the teacher say she’s cancelling the next two classes,” it’s imperative that the teacher confirm or deny the rumour, immediately. That said, the responsibility is also the teachers’ – we need to be sure that information is available even when we’re not, whether that means including deadlines on course outlines, maintaining an online calendar, or sending group messages with any new or amended information.

I think the hearsay phenomenon is a well that may stand to be tapped – I’d love to hear from you. Comment below, or send me a message, with your strategies, war stories, or feedback.

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