instructional risk-taking July 19

Taking Risks in Your Teaching

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Often in workshops when I’m speaking about the process of implementing change—deciding what to change and how to change it or considering whether to add a new instructional strategy—the question of risk lurks in the choices being considered. When attending a workshop or program that offers a range of instructional possibilities, teachers typically respond to some favorably. I see it—they write down the idea, nod, or maybe ask a follow-up question to be sure they understand the details. Not all the ideas presented get this favorable response. Occasionally, the response is overtly negative. But more often there is no response. The idea doesn’t resonate.


Good teaching. Engaged students. June 3

Is Good Teaching Caught or Taught?

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There is comfort in things that are black or white, isn’t there? It feels good to have clarity and to be able to predict an outcome with certainty. I’m a scientist and therefore well-schooled and admittedly comfortable with predictability. Because, at least in my world, when the predictable does not happen, we usually find dysfunction. Disciplinary background aside, the question of whether good teaching is caught or taught draws many of us in because we gravitate toward having a definitive answer—black or white, caught or taught. Further, most of us really do want to be good teachers and we’d love to have a recipe or formula that predicts— or even better, guarantees—good teaching. If neither one of those are possible, then we’d at least be grateful for something that affirms that we are on the right path.

Unfortunately, I think most of us know that type of either/or clarity is elusive. With most complex issues we encounter, the “correct” answer hides somewhere in the mud of the murky middle and if anything qualifies as complex, it’s teaching. As one begins to pile on the factors and variables present in every classroom, regardless of size, discipline or location, it quickly becomes apparent why some concrete advice on how to navigate those variables would be welcome salve to any teacher.

As someone in charge of faculty development activities on campus but also because I want to become a better teacher, I think a lot about how we nurture good teaching. We could address the issue by asking what works. What are the attitudes, behaviors, or practices of teachers who consistently demonstrate good teaching? We might be able to emulate them or at least pick up a new approach or insight to improve our teaching. However, there are inevitable challenges with this approach. For example, the advice offered by someone who teaches physics may not be applicable or translatable to someone who teaches in a skill-based, professional program. Are we to assume that what any good teacher does can be integrated by another teacher, regardless of discipline?

Alternatively, we could look at the literature to gain insight on what characteristics of good teaching have been studied and proven effective. There are multitudes of articles that address the “what works?” question— how is faculty teaching encouraged, or measured or taught? Often, the best of these papers not only look at how faculty perceptions of teaching change; they also look at how courses change and student learning is affected. With those approaches in mind, I offer two cairns I have taken from the literature and my own self-reflection in hopes that they provide some direction in the continuing pursuit of good teaching.

First, prepare and train for a long journey. In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer reflects on the dramatic swings experienced by those who teach. One day, you feel like a master teacher facilitating conversation and guiding students to profound insights. The next day (or even in the next section of the same course), the silence is stifling and attempts at facilitation seem to cause students to withdraw further (Palmer, 1998). In the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve discovered that if I arrive at a point where I begin to feel confident and think that just maybe I might have some good teaching in me, a miserable classroom experience inevitably follows and I recalibrate my teaching skills and abilities.

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storytime in library April 3

A University Professor Teaches in the K-12 Classroom

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During my recent sabbatical, I had the unique opportunity to teach full-day sessions for 14 weeks in two different K-12 settings. Here’s how that happened. I decided to propose this unique sabbatical project because my students regularly asked me about the clinical experience phase of the university’s library science program. The prospect of taking PRAXIS exams (two are required for library science certification) in a testing center and completing background checks and required Pennsylvania Department of Education paperwork were all student stressors. And although those of us teaching in the program can explain and mentor student teaching experiences in a library setting, our students knew very well that most of us had done our student teaching many years prior. Since then, the overall process has evolved to include complications such as required certification tests, background checks, fingerprints, and such. More to the point, I wanted to actually live the experience as a student might.

I didn’t arrive at my faculty position in this department via the more traditional route. I came to university teaching by way of the military, time in corporate America, and teaching at a community college. At this point, I do have a couple of master’s degrees, higher education teaching experience, and am a practicing and certified Pennsylvania Professional Public Librarian, but before my sabbatical I was not K-12 certified. Once my sabbatical project was approved I set out to “walk the walk,” doing the same steps required of our teacher candidates. First, there was some additional course work I needed to fill in certain gaps in my higher education-focused master’s degree in library science. Accordingly, to prepare for the sabbatical, I completed four courses outside the library science domain. Next, I obtained the clearances I did not yet possess or were not current enough to satisfy school district requirements, completed the requisite medical exams, and processed the paperwork at the sponsoring school district in order to be voted in and invited as a “student” teacher by the schoolboard.

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learner-centered teaching February 14

Is My Teaching Learner-Centered?

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It’s hard to say—we have no definitive measures of learner-centeredness or even mutually agreed upon definitions. And yet, when we talk about it, there’s an assumption that we all understand the reference.

Teaching Professor Blog My friend Linda recently gave me a beautifully illustrated children’s book that contains nothing but questions. It reminded me how good questions, like beams of light, cut through the fog and illuminate what was once obscured. And so, to help us further explore and understand what it means to be learner-centered, I’ve generated a set of questions. For the record, these questions were not empirically developed, and they haven’t been validated in any systematic way. However, they do reflect the characteristics regularly associated with learner-centered teaching.


tulips, tinfoil and teaching December 6, 2017

Tulips, Tinfoil, and Teaching

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I continue to be a huge fan of personal narratives, those accounts of teaching experiences from which the author and the reader learn much. They’re scholarly, thoughtful, and intellectual. They may start with “here’s what happened to me” but that launchpad rockets the author and reader to reflection, analysis, critique, and new worlds of understanding. These pieces of scholarship are good reading, even at the end of a long day. I strongly believe that our literature on teaching and learning is being impoverished by the reluctance of so many periodicals to publish these personal narratives.


question marks - understanding our instructional choices November 10, 2017

Questions for Bringing Your Instructional Practices into Focus

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Nothing works quite as well as a good question when it comes to getting the intellectual muscles moving. Given the daily demands of most academic positions, there’s not much time that can be devoted to reflection about teaching. But good questions are useful because they can be carried with us and thought about now and then, here and there. And they can be chatted about with colleagues, in person or online.


professor giving a lecture November 8, 2017

What about Teacher Entitlement?

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Last post on entitlement (I promise, at least for a while), but Dave Porter’s comment to the recent post on responding to entitlement identified something I’ve been thinking about but hadn’t clearly recognized—teacher entitlement. He writes that in his nearly 40 years in the classroom he’s “seen more instances of teacher ‘entitlement’ than student entitlement.” He continues, “I think clarity, mutual respect, and reciprocity have a great deal to do with the expectations teachers and students have of one another. As teachers, we create the game; it’s seems a little disingenuous to blame our students for playing it.”


Professors chatting in library. September 13, 2017

How to Make our Conversations about Teaching More Productive

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Where do your new ideas about teaching and learning come from? Perhaps some come from Faculty Focus and this blog? We certainly hope so! But most college teachers don’t get instructional ideas from the literature. They get them from other teachers, usually in face-to-face or electronic exchanges. Interesting, isn’t it, how much pedagogical information is passed on and around in these very informal ways.


College professor with students. September 7, 2017

Learning to Teach: Are We More Like Our Students Than We Think?

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How did you learn how to teach? By trying to teach like those who taught you? Through trial and error? By looking for feedback on course evaluations? As an experienced educator, what methods do you now rely to continue your growth as a teacher? Do you read articles and blogs? Talk to colleagues? Attend workshops?

Let’s get specific about some of these approaches to developing ourselves as teachers. Say you’re attending a workshop on some new pedagogical approach. The presenter moves through the slides quickly and you don’t quite see how the examples could work in your field or large intro course. Some concepts are familiar; others aren’t. Some of the central ideas—metacognition or pedagogical content knowledge—are new and it’s not clear how they relate to each other. A group activity is announced but what you really want is time to think on your own. You were looking back through your notes and not listening to the instructions, so you aren’t exactly sure what the group is supposed to do. Someone in your group tells a long story. The discussion wanders around. The presenter’s debrief doesn’t really clear up your confusion. In the end, you learned a thing or two but you leave the session disappointed.

Or perhaps you’re not big on workshops and prefer to stay current and learn new approaches by reading. An article with an intriguing idea captures your attention. Maybe it’s on using clickers to check conceptual understanding, cold calling to increase student participation in discussion, or some other teaching technique that the author swears is nearly foolproof. You skim the piece during a lunch break. It gives you the germ of an idea, which grows into an outline of an activity. You spend some extra time to prep the details. You’re enthused about what you’ve put together but worry about how much content won’t get covered. You think about asking a colleague, but you’ve left the prep to the eleventh hour and there’s no time to bounce ideas off someone. Besides, sharing a new strategy before you use it feels rather risky, so you test it out in class. The activity goes pretty well. Students don’t jump in with great enthusiasm but by the end they’re engaged, even your most quiet ones. You tell yourself to remember to give clearer instructions in the future and persuade yourself the other rough spots will smooth out the second time around.

Or here’s one of my learning experiences. I was working with two younger colleagues who suggested modifying a course the three of us teach. We all thought we could be more intentional in teaching students how to use primary literature. My colleagues were eager to try something they’d read about; I was eager to support them. However, committee assignments kept me from participating as fully as I would have liked. After several meetings, one of which I missed, my colleagues presented a model for the project. I didn’t entirely understand it, but since I missed a meeting I simply went along. I expected that with my long-time experience I could make it work. I couldn’t. My students were confused; I was confused. Conversations with my colleagues helped me figure it out, but I still wasn’t happy with the quality of my students’ work. In the end, I wished I’d understood the proposed model more deeply before launching the assignment.

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Professor gesturing in lecture hall June 28, 2017

Contradictions in How We Think about Teaching

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I like how blogging lets us stir up ideas, watch them simmer, and taste the results.

I’ll start this mix of ideas with Amy Mulnix’s insight that teachers approach learning about teaching much like students approach learning course content. Examples: students think ability matters more than effort and teachers think teaching is a gift that is given more than a skill that can and should be developed; students want easy answers and teachers want techniques that work right the first time; and both share the fear of failure. Is this a comparison from which we might learn something?