May 1st, 2013

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

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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.]