No, the objective isn’t to make assignments optional, but two benefits accrue when students are given some choice about assignments. The first is motivational—when students select the method they will use to master the material, they can pick an option they think they’d like to complete. And if an assignment option looks appealing, that increases the chance that students will spend more time working on it and more learning can then result. Second, the practice confronts students with themselves as learners. With teacher guidance, they can be challenged to consider why they find some assignments preferable. They can be encouraged to consider what skills the assignment involves and whether those are skills they have or need to work on developing. A strategy such as this moves students in the direction of autonomy and maturity as learners.
In more than 20 years of teaching, I have learned that too much information frustrates rather than inspires students. Today, however, with a few clicks of the computer mouse, any teacher can retrieve an overabundance of information. What is more, courseware makes distributing this information to students amazingly easy. As a result, teachers risk (unintentionally) giving students much more information than they can reasonably digest, including electronic texts, supplementary texts, and background information. The key to avoiding information overload is remembering course goals.
In the July 10, 2013 post, I shared some ideas about learning with students precipitated by an article that made an interesting distinction between “doing for” students and “learning with” students. The post generated some good responses and prompted Aron Reppmann, a philosophy professor at Trinity Christian College in Illinois, to send me an email. “I think you have your finger on something that’s often missed in debates about professors’ posture toward students: namely that to say that we learn with and from our students is not necessarily to say that we are always learning in the same way as our students.”
I’m betting that many of you are in the midst of grading a large stack of papers, projects or other final assignments. Too often these end-of-course pieces of work don’t live up to our expectations or students’ potential. It’s easy for us (especially the elders among us) to bemoan the fact that students aren’t what they used to be. It’s better to use our discontent to consider whether our course assignments are effectively accomplishing our course goals.
Sometimes, in informal conversations with colleagues, I hear a statement like this, “Yeah, not a great semester, I doled out a lot of C’s.” I wonder, did this professor create learning goals that were unobtainable by most of the class or did this professor lack the skills to facilitate learning? I present this provocative lead-in as an invitation to reflect upon our presuppositions regarding grading.
As Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Anderson point out in their venerable book on grading (now available in a revised 2nd edition) goals can motivate students. Unfortunately, too often they are motivated only by the goal of getting grades and getting courses out of the way. Walvoord and Anderson suggest you tell student you know they
You were hired because of your deep subject matter expertise; knowledge you want to share with your students. The problem is, the number of hours in a typical semester hasn’t changed, but the amount of information in your discipline continues to grow…and it’s all critical. Or is it?
The findings of a recent study documenting differences between the priorities that faculty and students give to various learning goals will not come as a surprise to many. Those differences are an undercurrent that flow through most classes.
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.
It’s a balancing act educators often face …how to structure interactions with students to provide appropriate levels of assistance, while encouraging them to take ownership of their learning. In preparation for an online seminar on this topic Dr. Ike Shibley, associate professor of Chemistry at Penn State – Berks, provided a few strategies for faculty to try.