May 1st, 2013

It’s Time to Face What Isn’t Working in Our Courses and Find Out Why


Not everything we do in our courses works as well as we’d like. Sometimes it’s a new assignment that falls flat, other times it’s something that consistently disappoints. For example, let’s take a written assignment that routinely delivers work that is well below our expectations. It might be a paper that reports facts but never ties them together, an essay that repeats arguments but never takes a stand, or journal entries that barely scratch the surface of deep ideas.

We know in our heart of hearts this assignment (it could also be a classroom activity, a collection of readings, or almost any aspect of instruction) doesn’t work. Maybe we’re telling ourselves it’s not our fault. Students can’t write. They didn’t learn how to write in their composition courses. Other teachers aren’t making them write enough. They don’t want to learn to write. They hate to write.

To be sure, students aren’t blameless. Often they don’t expend much effort on written assignments. But blaming students shouldn’t become the default mode that keeps directing us away from those aspects of instruction that aren’t working.

Often teachers avoid facing what doesn’t work with one of my least favorite sayings, “It is what it is.” In other words, nothing in the world can be done about the problem beyond passively accepting it. Given the kind of students we teach or given what we’ve come to believe about ourselves as teachers, we muddle along and hope for the best. We shouldn’t be asked to face what can’t be fixed — or so it seems some have convinced themselves.

But we can face what isn’t working and I’d like to suggest how. First, there’s got to be a willingness to find out why it isn’t working and that question needs to be approached with an open mind. This means not looking for the reason while already suspecting you know what it is. It also means being willing to pursue the answer wherever it leads, even if that ends up being your front porch. Finding out why some aspect of instruction isn’t working is easier when others are involved. You may want to solicit feedback from students. You may benefit from input provided by colleagues—those who can offer wise pedagogical counsel. Finally, this task must be approached with a firm belief that the vast majority of things that aren’t working in our courses can be fixed. The “vast majority” doesn’t mean all and “fixed” means made better (generally significantly better), but not perfect.

Here’s a great example illustrating how this can work and why it helps to involve others. In the paper referenced below, Paul Van Auken, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, starts out admitting to being disappointed with the quality of student work done in a semester long research project he assigned in an introductory sociology course. Students weren’t very engaged in the project and couldn’t seem to write a final paper that synthesized their learning in the course. He made one change that improved student engagement but not the quality of their papers. He decided to find out why—why weren’t students able to pull it all together in their final paper?

Several months after the course was over he asked a colleague to convene a focus group of students who received low C’s to low B’s in the course. His colleague facilitated and recorded a 90-minute discussion during which these students talked about their learning and experiences in the course. Much to Van Auken’s surprise, the recording revealed that students had way more understanding of the issues and concepts of the course than they conveyed in their papers and this was two months after the course had ended. A colleague wondered if maybe his assignment didn’t allow students to demonstrate their knowledge. Could he try giving students more options for sharing what they’d learned? He could and he did. Students still had to write a final paper but they also had to create a nonpaper artifact that demonstrated their learning. The results? A teacher satisfied and excited about student learning in the course.

What isn’t working must be faced and can be fixed!

Reference: Van Auken, P. (2013). Maybe it’s both of us: Engagement and learning. Teaching Sociology, 4 (2), 207-215. [There’s more about this excellent article in the May issue of the Teaching Professor newsletter.]

  • Paul Van Auken

    Wow – thanks for reading and referencing my paper, Maryellen!

  • T Day

    For the last 11 years, the end of every semester has included several days of class program revision. I look at test answers that don't often return the answers I expected and reword them or eliminate the ones that don't appear to have the value I'd hoped for and re-evaluate homework and team assignments for the same kind of reasons. This is the first semester where that all seems pointless. The for-profit school where I work has been overwhelmed by "education" gurus who believe all similar courses should be exact replicas. They are busy formulating course programs that cater to the lowest common denominator of instructor and student in the interests of "retention" and other over-complicated words that mean "clinging to income."

  • T Day

    (continued) The standardization movement in the US has been an embarassing failure and will continue to be until the fools who advocate it are rousted and run out of town on rails. I took a French course (101) at the state (MN) U last fall and was amazed to find that McGraw Hill had taken over the department and the course was driven by a computerized schedule and assignments with no flexibility or connection to reality allowed to the instructor. Our "prof" was probably an excellent instructor, but the course program was insane and after four weeks 35 students was reduced to 8 who had extensive high school French and even they struggled to keep up in an "Introduction to French" class. I joined the dropouts and marvel at the University of Minnesota's high rating as an educational facility when complete idiots obviously run the place.

    • MPW

      I agree. The suggestions in the article work very well, assuming that individual teachers are allowed to make changes. I'm finding out more and more that this is a big assumption.

  • kathyr

    There are no stupid questions, right? So … what is a ''non-paper artifact" and how is it graded?

    • Jim Gort

      I have been asked plenty of stupid questions, but, this is not one of them. A non-paper artifact is an assignment (deliverable) that is not your standard paper (research paper for example). The traditional non-paper artifacts is the overused individual or group powerpoint (or prezi) presentation. But the sky is the limit. How about a student does a rap? A role play? Creates a case study and facilitates discussion? Creates a video? Facilitates an interactive discussion. Facilitates a group or individual activity. Recite a poem. Creates a game.

      Now, the grading can be more problematic. It can be difficult to be objective – but this is often the case (or at least the perception) of the students. You can create a rubric, but that can stifle the creativity. You can have the students "grade" the efforts as part of the process.

  • Kim Parker Nyman

    This is an excellent article that reminds us that we, too, have to be open to the educational process – even if what we learn is challenging, unpleasant, and/or contrary to our previous assumptions.

  • Saff

    what isn't working can be faced, without being fractured and instead, being freely fathomed (with the wholegroup/ class,) to be fundamentally fixed.

  • Paul Van Auken

    Great to see the nice discussion and alliteration!

    And thanks for the question, kathyr. I wholeheartedly second what Jim Gort writes. They don't always work and it is indeed challenging to grade them, but I have had very cool artifacts that have been effectively used to convey learning, including raps (written and performed), folk songs (written and performed), videos of various kinds, short plays (written and performed, with hand drawn scenes for the backdrop), children's book, games, paintings, drawings, and photo collages, 3-D design plan for a new urbanist riverfront development, etc.

    See the Teaching Sociology article for much more detail, and feel free to email me if you would like more info about particular assignments, grading, etc.:

  • Angela Elkowitz

    I agree. I teach adult students and see some of them struggle with writing. They come to the classroom with so many other skills besides writing. Using these suggestions in my classroom will give my students an opportunity to "shine" in demonstrating their talents using their personal skills/talents. We should not "give up" teaching writing, but I like the idea of allowing alternative measurements from time to time.

  • sanjmeh

    Writing is a key skill and if you find students are lacking there then there will be a problem in their jobs. Just like public speaking was earlier – and is still is. I liked the last sentence: What isn’t working must be faced and can be fixed!

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