Effective Teaching Strategies
Do you ever wonder whether your students care about your course material? Do you question whether your students appreciate how the information you address in class is relevant to them? Do you feel like there is often a mismatch between your intentions for your class and what your students actually want to learn?
One of the best practices in teaching and learning is the use of a three-part case study, or a scenario-based story, to help students deepen their understanding of a concept. The three parts of a case study are a scenario-based story that focuses on a specific, hypothetical problem, supporting literature that aligns with the main themes of the story, and guiding questions that help the learner gain the most from understanding the concepts and objectives of the case study by applying critical and higher order thinking skills.
It was an idea for framing an exam review session, and it came to me at 3 a.m. in one of those slightly desperate bursts of inspiration that dare us to do something different and unconventional. That was five years ago. Since then I’ve used the idea in undergraduate survey courses, graduate seminars, and lots of other courses in between. I’ve decided it’s a good idea and worth sharing with others.
During the final meeting with one of my speech classes, I asked each student to give a few parting words to the class. I found a similar message resonating from many who spoke. Soon after, I received an email from an advisor at our school asking me to share some tips on fostering learning in the classroom. Since I had recorded that final speech class, I decided to use my students’ comments as the basis for my advice.
What is intuition? It’s one of those terms that is hard to get a handle on. And yet teachers rely on their intuition every day. A situation unfolds in class: some kid in the back moves restlessly and takes an iPod out of his back pack. Those sitting nearby look at what he’s doing. A couple of them start whispering as he continues to fuss with his iPod. Some students in the next row glance backward. The teacher continues to present information. She pauses to ask a question, and all the while she’s sees what’s happening in the back of the room. She rightly assumes that she’s lost the attention of students back there. She opts for an abrupt break in the instructional action. She stops talking, turns to the board and, without speaking, writes a question there. Then she faces the class. “Stand up. Everybody stand up.” Students shuffle to their feet. “Now look at this question. Spend the next couple of minutes talking with the persons around you. In two minutes I want answers and examples.”
The title is borrowed from text in an excellent article that challenges our use of the “what works” phrase in relationship to teaching and learning. Biology professor Kimberly Tanner writes, “… trying to determine ‘what works’ is problematic in many ways and belies the fundamental complexities of the teaching and learning process that have been acknowledged by scholars for thousands of years, from Socrates, to Piaget, to more recent authors and researchers.” (p. 329) She proceeds to identify six reasons why the phrase hinders rather than fosters an evidence-based approach to teaching reform (in biology, her field, but these reasons relate to all disciplines). “Language is powerful,” she notes. (p. 329) We use it to frame issues, and when we do, it guides our thinking.
Can we reform teaching and learning throughout higher education one class at a time? I used to think so, but the pace of change has made me less optimistic. I just finished preparing an article for The Teaching Professor newsletter that reports the results of a survey of 744 full- and part-time faculty teaching at eight two-year technical colleges across Georgia. The researchers presented the respondents with a list of 18 instructional strategies and asked them to identify how often they used each one in their last 10 class sessions. Over 90% of the respondents said they lectured for four or more class sessions with more than 50% of those saying they lectured during all 10 class sessions.
I’m working my way through a 33-page review of scholarship on instructional change in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines. The authors reviewed an impressive 191 conceptual and empirical journal articles. However, what they found isn’t impressive both in terms of the quality of the scholarship on this topic and in terms of instructional change in general.
Most college students struggle with the vocabulary of our disciplines. In their various electronic exchanges, they do not use a lot of multisyllabic, difficult-to-pronounce words. And virtually all college courses are vocabulary rich—unfamiliar words abound. Most students know that the new vocabulary in a course is important. They use flash cards and other methods to help them memorize the words and their meanings for their exams. Two days later, the words and their meanings are gone.
There’s no hidden agenda here: Asking the question of what makes learning difficult doesn’t imply that the objective is to make the content easy. Material can be so watered down that its basic integrity is compromised. In the same vein, there’s no justification for making material harder than it needs to be, but the right balance between difficult and easy is not the subject of this post.