April 2, 2010

Learning from Experience: How Teaching is Like Golf

By: in Faculty Development

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Management professor David A. Whetten, who now directs a faculty development center, admits with honesty that for some years he didn’t think there was much he could learn from people who “studied” education. After all, he was in the classroom doing education and had learned much from that experience. In a wonderful piece [reference below] he explains how a conversation with his golf instructor resulted in an important insight about the nature of experiential learning.

“One day on the driving range, I was demonstrating my swing while remarking, ‘Practice makes perfect.’ His disarming response was, ‘Only if you begin with a good swing. My advice to you is to either stop practicing or change your swing.’ In teaching, as in golf, repeating poor teaching mechanics can actually move us away from, not closer to, our performance objective of effective student learning.” (p. 340) Faculty do learn from experience, however the more salient question is ‘What have they learned?’

“So what changes in my swing as a teacher am I trying to make that I wish someone had corrected early in my career?” Whetten asks. (p. 340) He explains that early in his career a new faculty member asked advice about teaching at a top-tier private business school where MBA students would not tolerate poor teaching. “My recommendation at the time was to find the highest-rated MBA teacher and attend every class for a semester, taking copious notes.” (p. 341) But that’s not the recommendation he’d give today. Now he’d find the MBA course where students report learning the most, and then he’d carefully examine the design of that course. “It’s not that we can’t learn anything of value about learning by observing great teachers; it’s that emphasizing classroom observation perpetuates the myth that the key to learning is a talented instructor.” (p. 341)

And this leads Whetten to the most important lesson he’s learned: course design. He explains with another example. As a teacher he prizes discussion and he reports working diligently to learn how to lead those discussions effectively. “. . .as I crafted provocative discussion questions, I did so with the expectation that my answers needed to be significantly more profound than those offered by the students—otherwise, I reasoned, I wasn’t adding value as a teacher. In contrast, I have come to understand that the most important things I can do to influence student learning involve carefully planning what my students—not their teacher—will do before, during and after each class.” (p. 341)

The remainder of this excellent article then articulates some of the most important principles of learning-centered course design. They include:

  • beginning with explicit, high-level learning objectives;
  • using valid developmental assessments of student learning;
  • selecting course activities that foster active and engaged learning; and
  • aligning course design elements.

The alignment issue is not one easily understood by most faculty. It relates to whether what is taught is consistent with stated objectives for the course and whether students are tested on what they have been told is important to learn.

Reference: Whetten, D. A. (2007). Principles of effective course design: What I wish I had known about learning-centered teaching 30 years ago. Journal of Management Education, 31, 339-357.

Excerpted from Some Lessons Learned about Learner-Centered Teaching, October 2007, The Teaching Professor.

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