I recently took a position with a new institution and was asked to teach a senior seminar course. I determined that the best method for the students to show synthesis of knowledge was for them to develop a series of presentations investigating topics, problems, or issues in the field of kinesiology. The students were tasked with investigating and developing solutions from the current body of research. The first semester I taught the course, students were given a checklist of requirements and rubric for each presentation. I spent a short amount of time discussing the presentations during class and answering any questions students had. After each presentation they received their rubric and written feedback on their performance. As you can see in the table, the average grade actually went down with each presentation students gave during my first semester teaching the course.
Course workload is yet another of those amorphous terms regularly used in print and conversation for which we have loose and different understandings. It’s a term with connections to various topics: hard and easy courses, standards and rigor, effort and accomplishment. For students, courses with a heavy workload can create feelings of stress. Their beliefs about the amount of work involved in a course sometimes (or is it regularly?) influence their decisions about what courses to take. In an end-of-course rating comment, a student wrote of a colleague’s course: “It’s very good. She’s an excellent teacher, but engineering students should be advised not to take it. It’s too much work for a required course not related to the major.”
Recently, in my first-year seminar class, I had an opportunity to re-think my use of group projects. I had set up the task perfectly, or so I thought. I’d anticipated all the typical group project challenges, designed solutions to those challenges, and convinced myself that the final group assignment would be smooth sailing. Except it wasn’t.
Five years ago, I transitioned from a totally lecture-based classroom to a more student-centered, engaging one. Initially, I found that when students were placed in groups, they didn’t necessarily work together. What I discovered was that the activities needed to be structured collaboratively to promote learning.
The wealth of digital information has shifted our focus in higher education from developing critical thinking skills to developing critical information processing skills. Today’s students are digital natives, and many assume these students possess basic research skills because of their natural ease with technology. However, many college students lack important information processing skills to understand electronic material. Grafstein (2002) noted that “Given the seductively easy accessibility of masses of unregulated information, it is imperative that students, from the very beginning of their academic careers, adopt a critical approach to information and develop the ability to evaluate the information they encounter for authenticity, accuracy, credibility, authority, relevance, concealed bias, logical inconsistency, and so on” (p. 199).
The “find and replace” feature in Word quickly makes an old syllabus ready for a new course. Use it too many times and thinking about the course settles into a comfortable rut. Yes, we may change more than just the dates, but when was the last time we considered something beyond what needs to go on the syllabus? The literature answers that question with a few definitive conclusions and a host of possibilities. Here are some thoughts, offered with just a bit of provocation, in the hopes they might reenergize our thinking about the syllabus and what it can accomplish in the course, for students and for the teacher.
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.
How do students think about assignments? A lot never get past the idea that they’re basically unpleasant things faculty make them do. What does interest a lot of students is finding out what the teacher wants in the assignment, not so much what the assignments asks but more seeking insight as to what the teacher “likes.” Discover that and there’s a better chance of a good grade, or so the thinking goes. Unfortunately, very few students look at an assignment and think, now there’s an interesting learning opportunity.
Are there barriers to inclusion lurking in your courses?
After meeting at a diversity and inclusion session of the 2013 Professional and Organization Development Network (POD Network) Conference in Pittsburgh, the three of us set out to develop a tool to help faculty examine their courses through a diversity lens. We were driven by a lack of available resources that provide a practical approach to digging deep into the nuances of one’s course.
There’s a lot to be gained from considering ideas and arguments at odds with current practice. In higher education, many instructional practices are accepted and replicated with little thought. Fortunately, there are a few scholars who keep asking tough questions and challenging conventional thinking. Australian D. Royce Sadler is one of them. His views on feedback and assessment are at odds with the mainstream, but his scholarship is impeccable, well-researched, and logically coherent. His ideas merit our attention, make for rich discussion, and should motivate us to delve into the assumptions that ground current policies and practices.