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How a “Study-Partner Attitude” Removes Common Barriers to Learning

Biology professor Mikhail Khoretonenko, PhD, shares how he defeats common student stressors, including costs, tests, and conflicting schedules.

Educator

Mikhail Khoretonenko, PhD

Assistant Professor of Biology , Lakeland Community College, Kirtland, Ohio

PhD in Virology, MSc in Chemistry

It is not always easy to make the classroom a comfortable learning space. This is true enough in any university, but perhaps even more so in a community college, where many students are adult learners, first-generation college students, or traditional students trying to ease into the college experience. Interestingly, biology professor Mikhail “Mike” Khoretonenko, PhD, rises to the challenge by showing students at Lakeland Community College that he is not a “sage on the stage” but a “study partner.”

“The position of teacher in the classroom is a position of seniority, there’s no argument about that. But I try to come down from that position to where we can play a game of questions and answers between each other,” Khoretonenko says. “Often, they need a little push here and there, so instead of just giving answers away, I drive them by asking questions so they can figure things out. And we can sit down in the middle of class and chat about any questions they have.”

This is just one example Khoretonenko’s philosophy of patience, accessibility, and good humor—a combination that he has found turns his classroom into a refuge. In his five years at Lakeland Community College, Khoretonenko has worked to identify the most common stressors his students face, and he has tweaked his teaching practices to reduce the barriers between student and teacher. Below, he shares how he does it.

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Context

“I tell students that my goal is not to build barriers but to help you overcome barriers. I tell them, ‘I’m not really teaching. I’m helping you to learn.’ That is my study-partner attitude.”

— Mikhail Khoretonenko, PhD

Course: BIOL 2700 Microbiology

Course description: This course, designed for allied health and biotechnology science students, introduces the study of microorganisms and their impact on human health. It focuses on the interactions between human hosts and microbes as well as microbial cell organization, patterns of growth and metabolism, and identifications of medically important microbes.

Overcoming 5 student fears with a study-partner approach

Here, Khoretonenko shares some of the common stressors he has found that students face in the classroom—and how instructors can address them with a knowledgeable, accessible study-partner attitude.

1. Barrier: Students feel disconnected from their professors

At the beginning of the semester, Khoretonenko learns as much as he can about his students, and he memorizes each one’s name as quickly as possible. (His classes usually number about 20 students.)

“Within two weeks, I know every student by name—and the names of their dogs, where they went to school, and where they work,” he says. “We’re not exactly becoming friends, but we know each other very closely, and that creates a different learning atmosphere in the class.”

2. Barrier: Student schedules conflict with class times and office hours

Due to scheduling conflicts (which are common in his student population), Khoretonenko’s students can find themselves unable to be available at preset times.

To ease their worry, Khoretonenko keeps a “loose” office-hour schedule. “If your schedule and my schedule don’t match, just shoot me an email and tell me when you want to meet,” he tells students.

He also ensures that they can learn any material they missed, primarily online. To that end, he posts useful graphics on his YouTube channel, which he augments with his own markups and narration. These mini-lessons are open to the entire class, providing a resource for study and review.

3. Barrier: Students cannot afford expensive books and course materials

Costs for learning materials are an often-overlooked source of anxiety, Khoretonenko says. He does his best to use only open educational resources (OER), such as online textbooks, lab books, videos, and graphics. For all his courses (microbiology and anatomy and physiology), for example, he provides links to three online textbooks for his students to refer to if they choose, but he does not teach from the textbooks themselves.

“We use them only as a loose foundation,” he says. “And what I like most about these books is that they are online-based. If I find mistakes in them, I can send a report and it will be corrected immediately.”

4. Barrier: Students worry that they cannot grasp abstract concepts

Solving this is about adding context to concepts, says Khoretonenko. He tries to show his students how science affects various clinical and therapeutic environments where they may work (now or in the future). The crux of the approach? Practice quizzes, given for each section in the semester. These help students gauge their knowledge and progress—and get a sense of what to expect on exams. “We go over these quizzes in class so they can figure out the way I ask questions,” Khoretonenko says. “On my side, I can see which concepts are confusing and need more coverage or explanation.” These are low-stakes quizzes, and Khoretonenko encourages his students not to worry too much about the grades they receive. Most still do at first, he says, “but they quickly come to understand that wrong answers on the quiz won’t change their grade much, and then they start to really appreciate quizzes as study tools and exam practice.”

5. Barrier: Students fear they will be “tricked” on exams

Students yearn for consistency and predictability in their classroom time, Khoretonenko says. “My students often work, and they may not have time to study everything they possibly could study,” says Khoretonenko. “I came to the conclusion that I need to tell them exactly what I will ask on the exam.”

So, for each section of material covered on a test, Khoretonenko creates a question-and-answer study guide. The guides leave abundant space for notes and analysis, and often run to 20 pages apiece. “If a student can answer the questions on the study guide, he or she can answer practically all questions on the exam,” he says. If Khoretonenko does add a question that is not in the guide, he gives students an extra point for a correct answer—but does not subtract for a wrong one.

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