August 31st, 2016

Word Choice: What You Call It Matters to Teaching and Learning


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Language influences thought and action. It’s a fundamental idea in linguistics. I remember first encountering it in a class when I was assigned S.I. Hayakawa’s classic Language in Thought and Action. But it’s a principle that’s easy to forget. Here are a few examples that pertain to education, with the question being—how does what we call something affect our teaching and students’ learning?

Homework – The word carries a great deal of negative baggage. How many students look forward to doing homework? “Be sure you have the homework done before you come to class.” My colleague Lolita Paff has renamed these assignments “warm-up” exercises. “They get you ready to perform really well in class.”

Teaching Professor Blog Extra credit – Most teachers are opposed to extra credit—and for some good reasons. The students who ask for it the most tend to be the ones who aren’t putting much effort into the regular course work and have finally figured out they need a lifeboat. But students love extra credit—a significant number of them (sometimes it’s the vast majority) will do it, even if it counts a trivial amount. I have made the point before: homework assignments can be designed so that they require robust intellectual activity. What would happen if faculty members start thinking about extra credit as an additional assignment—a chance for students to learn important content they didn’t get the first time or an opportunity to explore material more deeply? So we call it extra credit, but it’s really another assignment—does the shift in language change our thinking?

Participation – For most of us the word triggers thoughts of teacher-student verbal exchanges. The teacher asks a question, one or two students raise their hands, and if not, the teacher calls on someone who might attempt a weak answer or take a pass. Participation rewards students who talk and implies that they’re the ones who are engaged. I’ve heard several faculty members say they talk about classroom engagement activities because it broadens what counts as participation. A student can be engaged by demonstrating good listening behaviors, for example.

Go over – Ask students how they plan to prepare for the upcoming exam and they will say that they’ll “go over” their notes. Ask teachers what they plan to do after the exam and they will say they’ll “go over” the most missed questions. “Go over” sounds like a high flying pass through the notes and over the questions. Wouldn’t “getting into” both be a more productive option?

Covering content – It’s such a revealing metaphor, which in reality regularly means smothering students with material. “Cover” can mean to go across, as in covering the distance between places, but it also means “concealing,” such as leaves covering the grass or the forest floor. That meaning sets up a troubling relationship between faculty and content. Shouldn’t we be using content rather than covering it? We use the content to develop a knowledge base so that students who’ve had a course on the subject know something about it. And aren’t we using the content to develop those all-important learning skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and evidence analysis?

Instructional design – The phrase sounds fine. It means assembling the materials and activities of a course so that they accomplish specified goals and objectives. But the phrase doesn’t resonate with faculty, most of whom put their courses together with the textbook table of contents on one side and the syllabus on the other. Dee Fink came along and proposed that what faculty should be doing was creating significant learning experiences, and all of a sudden faculty caught a glimpse of what it means to be an instructional designer. When they figure out the details of an assignment, an activity, or a course, they shape the learning experiences students will be having in the course—and don’t we all want those to be significant events? Thank you, Dee!

Teaching – Until the early 1990s we focused our efforts solely on teaching. We identified characteristics of effective teachers and worked to incorporate them. Good teaching made for good learning. Then teaching was coupled with learning, and we started talking about them together. Teaching stopped existing in a sort of splendid isolation. Learning was no longer the assumed, inevitable outcome of good teaching. For many of us, our thinking made a paradigm shift. Teaching shouldn’t be the driving force. It is learning that should be energizing our instructional endeavors.

Do you have examples of common classroom expressions that we should recast? Please share below.

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  • Jim Yates

    This is RIDICULOUS!!! Enough with the Political Correctness of communication! One more example of the tyranny of imposed correctness. Call it what’s ALWAYS been called….Homework is HOMEWORK! Teaching is TEACHING!…Get real people and climb down of your fantasy world/Ivory tower!

    • Tom Leustek

      I believe that you are RIDICULOUS sir, because your comment lacks reasoning, only meaningless, inappropriate, and offensive categorizations.

    • Equalist

      Jim, expand on your argument instead of shouting. Words do matter, and this article gives reasonable basis for its position. Your comments show your rigidity or stagnation of thought. Actually, you add no value here.

  • Dr. Solis

    Learning Objectives (or performance objectives) is another phrase that I see faculty frown upon at my university (I’m an instructional designer). Without delving into distinguishing between “goals” vs. “objectives”, I always ask faculty what they expect their students to gain, do, know, perform, etc. by the end of the course and units/modules/lessons that occur throughout the semester. Most often than not it’s vague goals based simply on what they “feel” students need to learn. The problem with this mentality is that vague goals and expectations don’t provide students a clear understanding of why they do what they do in their coursework, readings, projects, etc. Additionally, as we continue to see more accreditation bodies and standards enter higher education across multiple disciplines, courses will need to streamline their curriculum with clear measurable learning outcomes/objectives.

  • lindalovell

    Since I read Grit, I have decided to change the word “participation” to “effort.” Here is my syllabus description of effort. All of these matters count for 20% of the course grade.

    “Attendance and Effort

    Reading and class discussions form the core activity of the
    course. I hope you will find discussion interesting and stimulating. Students
    earn effort points for attending class and being on time, taking notes, joining
    in class discussion, and for in-class writing or group work on the assigned
    readings. Effort is shown by paying attention, doing one’s fair part and
    staying on topic in group work, and demonstrating familiarity with the class
    reading assignments. Note that quizzes are also very important, valued in this
    percentage of the course grade. Be prepared! If you need to leave a class
    early, please make arrangements with me before the class begins.”

    I have also begun requiring students to take notes. I showed them a video on how to take effective notes, and I am making a point of mentioning the value of their notes, asking students what was just said, for example, and having a volunteer tell the class.

    • Elizabeth Cohn

      To encourage note taking I tried something last year that I call “Review & Report”. At the beginning of class I pulled a student’s name from an envelope (a hat would be too cumbersome to bring to class). That student had to review their notes from last class and report to us the key points — not everything that was said. I encouraged students to write a paragraph or underline/star key points in their notes at the end of every class as we can’t remember everything. Of course they didn’t like the assignment, but I explained the pedagogical value and most of them came around in the end to see its value — even if they hated it.

  • Dr. Knitig

    As a Humanbecoming scholar; I live in a Teaching-learning-leading-following space. I engage students as we are with each other as we cocreate a teaching-learning space; experiences. I really appreciate the students engaging with new vigor and authenticity when I learn something from them; sharing knowledge is power….

  • Laura S

    extra credit is NOT really an “additional assignment”. Being “extra” suggests it is optional and we don’t want to end up penalizing students who choose not to do it! In my experience, the students who do “extra credit” tend to be the ones who don’t need it. The ones who don’t put in enough effort to do well on required work don’t seem to care enough to want to do “extra” work. And, if they do, they put just as little effort into the “extra” work as they did with the required work and that extra work amounts to no difference in their grade.
    I use extra credit to allow me to boost an otherwise borderline grade or to drop (supplement) the lowest grade a student got on some other assignment. If the course has 1000 points to earn the extra credit assignment will not add a whole 100 additional points. If they got a 60 on something else and get an 85 on the extra credit work, then they end up adding 15 more points to their point total (the difference between the 60 and the 85 – or drop the 60 and add the 85).

  • Perry W Shaw

    Language shapes attitude. Consequently the terms we use will influence the way we approach our role in the classroom. This has nothing to do with political correctness – but rather a shift in mentality. As a form of self-discipline I try to bring the term “learning” into every element of my syllabus – to remind me and the students that the purpose of everything we do in the classroom is to promote learning. Rather than “professor” or “instructor” I describe myself as “learning facilitator”; rather than “assignments” we have “learning tasks”; rather than references we have “learning resources”. It may sound a bit artificial – but I have seen a dramatic shift in my students – and in me – since making this change.

  • Elizabeth Cohn

    Thanks for another thoughtful column. I especially appreciate the reframing of participation. I use a wonderful rubric by John Immerwahr which specifies the components of strong participation: listening, preparation, quality of contributions, impact on seminar, and frequency of participation. It takes time for students to understand that engagement with the course content doesn’t mean dominating class conversation — and in fact, it’s speaking at appropriate times that counts.

  • I love this post and spent time this summer thinking about the words I use to describe the work in my classes.

    I have changed “Journals” to “Reflective Essays” since the overall goal of the various prompts is for students to examine why it is that they think what they think.

    I changed the title of participation, why is a key aspect of my interactive class format, to “Explore and Create” to reflect the efforts my students put into exploring course concepts and creating curriculum together.

  • NJOK

    Various words have positive and negative connotations. As someone pointed out in the comments: “Language shapes attitude”.

    Think about what comes into your head if you use the word stubborn to describe someone versus persistent. It is not really about political correctness. It is about the images in our minds and the definitions/concepts we associate with them. Yes, teaching is teaching and should always be linked to learning. If not, why are you teaching???