THE Teaching Professor Blog
The Teaching Professor Blog is written by Dr. Maryellen Weimer, professor emerita at Penn State Berks and one of the nation’s most highly regarded authorities on effective college teaching. Many of you know Maryellen as the editor of The Teaching Professor newsletter and from her book Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, which is considered the go-to guide for educators looking to adopt a learner-centered approach in their classrooms.
The Teaching Professor Blog features a new weekly post from Maryellen on such topics as: the scholarship of teaching and learning, student engagement, classroom policies, active learning, assignment strategies, grading and feedback, and student performance.
My interest in participation and discussion continues. How do we use them so that they more effectively promote engagement and learning? A couple of colleagues and I have been working on a paper that deals with how we define participation and discussion. (Side note: If you want to challenge your thinking about an aspect of teaching and learning, consider focused conversations with colleagues and the purposefulness of a writing project. I have said it before and will likely say it again: We have so much to learn from and with each other.) One of the new insights that has come to me out of this collaboration involves the relationship between participation and discussion. I used to think of them as being related, but I didn’t see them as interrelated.
October 15 - Could We Be Doing Better with Our Assignments?
Assignments are a terribly important part of the teaching and learning equation. They aren’t just random activities that faculty ask students to complete for points and grades; they are the vehicles through which students learn course content. By studying for exams and engaging with content as they write their papers, students deepen their understanding of key concepts and build learning connections. In short, assignments represent learning experiences for students and, as Dee Fink reminds us, we want those learning experiences to be “significant.” Is that how you’d describe your most often-used assignments? Are they the only ways students could encounter and explore course content? Are they still the best ways?
My colleague, Lolita Paff, has been exploring student attitudes and beliefs about participation. Most of her beginning economics and accounting students describe themselves as “limited” or “non-participants.” They say they don’t participate because they don’t want to look foolish in front of their peers or they learn better by listening. At this point, she has gathered some rather compelling data that grading isn’t motivating her students to participate more. “I had been pretty strongly in the if-you-grade-it-they-will-do-it camp. The evidence surprised me and made me rethink grading participation,” she writes.
October 1 - When Should We Lecture?
There are purists among us who would say that we should never lecture, but I don’t think that’s terribly realistic, and I’m still not ready to totally rule out lectures. As faculty, we bring expertise to learners and having an expert around when you don’t know something can be very helpful. Do most teachers still talk too much? They do. Are lectures fraught with well-established impediments to learning? They are.
September 24 - Diversifying the Role Course Content Plays
Peter Burkholder’s recently published piece in The History Teacher (highlighted in the October issue of The Teaching Professor) is another reminder of how much we need a different way of thinking about course content.
We all pretty much agree that we try to cover too much material in our courses, programs, and majors, but the thought of leaving things out often causes personal and profession anguish. We argue with ourselves that a certain piece of content is too important to cut, and our students need to know the information to pass certifying exams and to get jobs. Then there are departmental expectations. Most courses establish knowledge bases for subsequent courses. Our colleagues are depending on us. We further complicate matters by making course and instructor reputations a function of content quantity. A decrease in the amount covered means lower standards and a dilution of the intellectual currency of the course. Bottom line: We know we’ve got a problem, but these realities and our thinking have us backed into a corner.
September 17 - When to Use Whole Class Feedback
Whole class feedback … you know, when the teacher returns a set of papers or exams and talks to the entire class about its performance, or the debriefing part of an activity where the teacher comments on how students completed the task. I don’t believe I have ever seen anything written about this feedback mechanism, even though I think most of us use it pretty regularly. Is it a good way to provide feedback? Do students pay any attention to feedback delivered in this way? When is whole class feedback most effective? After an exam? During group projects? Is it better to provide the feedback verbally or post it online? Should students be involved in this discussion of how well the class did or didn’t do?
September 10 - “She Didn’t Teach. We Had to Learn it Ourselves.”
Yesterday I got an email from a faculty member who had just received her spring semester student ratings (yes, in August, but that’s a topic for another post). She’d gotten one of those blistering student comments. “This teacher should not be paid. We had to teach ourselves in this course.” I remember another faculty member telling me about similar feedback, which was followed later with a comment about how the course “really made me think.”
September 3 - Those Magical and Mysterious Learning Moments
I’ve been reading some old issues of The Teaching Professor newsletter and ran across a lovely piece by William Reinsmith on learning moments. He’s writing about those times when students get it, when something turns the lights on and they glow with understanding. It may be a moment when they finally figure out how to do so something—a long elusive skill or a solution to a problem. Other times it’s a moment of insight, often a possibility or explanation that had never crossed their minds, or a set of ideas that come together and create a new perspective on a familiar issue.
Most students begin college, the academic year, and new courses motivated and optimistic. Many first-year students expect to do well because they were successful in high school. Some are right, but others will only find similar success if they work much harder than they did in high school. Yet most start out expending the same level of effort. They will talk with their classmates and convince each other that an exam covering three chapters can’t be that hard, so they put off studying and then “look over” the chapters the night before— happily dealing with any and all interruptions and distractions.