December 10th, 2018

The First Day of Class: Using ‘Meta-Teaching’ to Help Students Adjust and Engage

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meta-teaching

I taught my first class in 1992. At the time, I was young, eager to teach, and woefully unprepared to deal with an 8:00 a.m. general education class at a mid-sized regional university. I naively anticipated walking into the classroom, putting down my stuff, and fielding provocative and interesting questions from students about the topics we were about to cover in our Introduction to Psychology course.

I was met with what most of us are met with when we enter the college classroom: students eagerly awaiting specific instructions on how they can succeed in the course. They are there for many reasons: the course fulfills a requirement, the time is convenient, or they heard the course is easy. Regardless of the reason, the students were there and it was up to me to make sure that they succeeded in the course.

Since my first class, I have had the privilege of teaching for the past 25+ years. And, each semester, I think about what I am trying to do with my students and how I am going to use what I learned to help the next class of students learn more efficiently. I have come away with some observations:

  1. Get to class early on the first day and spend that extra time chatting with the students.
  2. Be prepared for late comers.
  3. Set the tone early for things that are important to you in your class.
  4. Help the students adjust to your course and your expectations.

The first three pieces of advice come from the work of many scholars of higher education, including books by McKeachie and his colleagues (Svnicki & McKeachie, 2014) and Jim Lang’s book on Small Teaching (Lang, 2014). These books offer a number of ideas for setting the right context during the first days of a course and the importance of doing so.

However, the last point, that of helping students understand your course and expectations, comes from experience, what others have written, and cognitive science. For most of us, we are rich with experience, and for many of us, we have read what others have stated about teaching. However, to really understand why it is important to provide students with some kind of context of how your course operates, we need to understand a bit about how students learn and what is necessary to scaffold up the understanding of complex concepts.

To that end, consider that memory is a process that is iterative and contextualized. That is, we need to take multiple passes at something to learn it and the context in which we learn it matters a great deal. When we learn in isolation, our knowledge tends to be isolated as well. We may memorize a lovely stanza from Shakespeare, but without the context of how the stanza was delivered, or some understanding of the context of the lines within a play, we create isolated knowledge that doesn’t connect to anything else. In short, we create fragmented knowledge. It may be a rich understanding of the stanza, but without the context to frame and embed the knowledge, we are left with something that is less than ideal.

What we hope for and from our students, is that when they learn, they learn in ways that helps them use the knowledge in other, similar contexts. For that to happen, we need to be cognizant of the context in which the knowledge resides, the context our students possess, and the strategies we use to help students learn the information. By explaining the rationale for what we are teaching and providing students with the context of the information that they are learning, we are helping students create knowledge that is useful and embedded. I use the term “meta-teaching” to describe this to students. By telling students the content, the reason for the content, various ways to think about the content, reasons that the content matters, I help students develop a rich, clearly defined knowledge structure that is embedded in existing knowledge and that can be drawn upon, under different contexts, when the student requires it.

Meta-teaching presumes that a faculty member explains to students all the reasons for what they do in class. It’s extra work for the faculty member, but it takes away the mystery from the classroom and creates a better opportunity for students to more fully understand the intentions of the faculty member and the course.

References

Lang, J. (2014). Small Teaching.  San Francisco: Jossy-Bass.

Svnicki, M. & McKeachie, W. (2014). Teaching Tips (14th Edition). New York: Cengage.

 

Chris Hakala is the director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Scholarship at Springfield College, where he also serves as a professor of psychology. Over the years, his research has focused on reading comprehension, teaching and learning, effective faculty development and assessment. In addition, Chris has been invited to present at many conferences around the country as well as dozens of colleges and universities on topics ranging from reading narrative text to how to effectively manage large classes, or how to engage students in ways that maximize student learning