August 26, 2009

Finding the ‘Sweet Spot’ of Teaching and Learning

By: in Philosophy of Teaching

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Avid golfers and baseball players often talk about the elusive “sweet spot.” Find it, and you can make the ball go exactly where you want it to go, almost effortlessly. There’s a sweet spot to teaching, too. And, just like in sports, it takes a little experimentation to find and is a thing of beauty when you get it right.

In the recent online seminar, Balancing Challenge and Support in Undergraduate Teaching, Dr. Ike Shibley, associate professor of chemistry at Penn State Berks, guided participants through a variety of exercises for finding the sweet spot for an optimal learning experience. The goal? To provide students with enough support to help them succeed but also enough challenges to help them grow.

Drawing from Maryellen Weimer’s Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, Shibley encouraged participants to think about different policies and teaching strategies that need to be kept in balance when addressing Weimer’s five keys:

  • Balance of power – Although teachers have the final say, what are some things you can do to empower students?
  • Course content – How do you balance the need for your students to know certain facts with the desire for higher level thinking as well?
  • Role of the teacher – Are you the “sage on the stage” or the “guide on the side?” Or can you play both roles depending on the situation?
  • The responsibility for learning – Students have to be willing to learn, but it’s up to the instructors to create the type of climate where this happens more readily. Are you willing to cede some control by offering your students more choices?
  • Purpose and processes of evaluation – Do you offer self-check quizzes or allow student input on low-stakes assignments?

Shibley also used case studies to demonstrate different ways to balance challenge and support when creating learning goals, rubrics, and attendance policies, as well as the importance of making your students aware of campus support services.

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