common teaching mistakes March 1

Four Horsemen of the Teaching Apocalypse

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Four problems account for the lion’s share of serious teaching problems:

  1. Misalignment
  2. Expert blind spot
  3. Content overload
  4. Over-identification

An overstatement? Perhaps, but over the many years we’ve worked with faculty in a wide range of disciplines, we’ve seen these issues undermine students’ learning, motivation, and morale in insidious ways. Easy to fall prey to, they compromise the effectiveness of even seasoned teachers. Here’s some advice on recognizing the problems, avoiding them, and preventing the host of headaches they can cause.

Misalignment
Three important elements characterize any well-designed course: objectives (what students should know or be able to do by the end of the course), assessments (the means used to gauge students’ progress toward those objectives), and instruction (the methods and materials employed to help students acquire the knowledge and skills articulated in the objectives). A solid course design requires that these elements be aligned, each dovetailing with and supporting the others.

Misalignment occurs when these three elements are not in sync, in particular when the knowledge and skills being taught are not the same as those being assessed. “I’d never do that!” you might be thinking. And of course, no one ever means to. But it can happen more easily than most of us realize. All too often, we teach the whats (terms, definitions, formulae) and the whys (concepts, principles) of a subject but assess the hows (procedures, methods) and the whens (conditions of application).

Think of how we learn to drive. We study the whats and whys of the rules of the road in order to pass a written test. Then we have to pass a test of actual driving. Would studying for the written test prepare us adequately for the driving test? Of course not. Actual driving requires other knowledge, skills, and practice, for which road rules are necessary but not sufficient. If we prepared for the driving test solely by learning road rules, it would constitute misalignment: the instruction and assessment don’t line up.

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railroad tracks not lined up. April 18, 2017

The Three Worst Teaching Mistakes

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Mistake # 1 – Let content dictate instructional decision making.

Marshall Gregory, an English professor at Butler University, has written a fine essay that explores the role of content in learning. In the excerpt below, he discusses why we have students learn certain content. Some discussion questions follow, which I hope will encourage you to think more about Gregory’s point and more importantly about the extent to which content influences your instructional decision-making.

“In my view, the curriculum is a means to an end, not an end in itself, which means that there is no intrinsic reason whatever that says that my students must appreciate the art, ideas, or historical position of Gray’s “Elegy” [“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray]. Once students leave my course, it is a fair bet that not a single one of them will ever again have to read or even hear a reference to eighteenth-century British poetry in their whole lives. Should I conclude that those who do not learn to love this poem, or that the unwashed crowds in other courses who will never read it at all, are somehow uneducated slobs? To think that there is some intrinsic value in learning about the “Elegy” would be to treat the curriculum as an end, not a means.

“If maximum coverage is the end of education, then there are no educated persons, because even the most deeply educated among us merely scratch at the surface of all there is to know.

“My point is that teachers who love specific kinds of content often misrepresent the kind of usefulness that content will have for most of their students. Mostly, students do not get educated because they study our beloved content. They get educated because they learn how to study our beloved content, and they carry the how of that learning with them in the world as cognitive and intellectual skills that stick long after the content is forgotten. In short, the curriculum is not an end in itself.”

Reference: Gregory, M. (2005). Turning water into wine: Giving remote texts full flavor for the audience of Friends. College Teaching, 53 (3), 95-98.

Questions:

  • Do you agree with Gregory, or does the veracity of his point depend on the content? Why or why not?
  • How much content is enough in a survey course for nonmajors? In an introductory course for majors? In a senior seminar?
  • At what point do we need to challenge the assumption that more is always better when it comes to course content?
  • What would you see as the difference between covering content and using it? Is that distinction the same thing Gregory is talking about when he proposed content should be the means not the end?
  • If your students took last semester’s final three weeks into the new semester, how well would they score? To what degree would these scores be a function of how they studied? To what degree would they be a function of the instructional methods you used to teach them?

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