Readers of Faculty Focus are probably already familiar with backward design. Most readily connected with such researchers as Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, and Dee Fink, this approach to course construction asks faculty to initially ignore the specific content of a class. Rather, the designer begins the process by identifying desired learning goals, and then devising optimal instruments to measure and assess them. Only thereafter does course-specific content come into play—and even then, it is brought in not for the sake of “covering” it, but as a means to achieve the previously identified learning objectives. Courses designed this way put learning first, often transcend the traditional skillset boundaries of their discipline, and usually aim to achieve more ambitious cognitive development than do classes that begin—and often end —with content mastery as the primary focus. Although the advantages of backward design are manifest, it’s probably still the exception to, rather than the rule of, course planning.
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Early in my career, I focused most of my efforts on teaching content. That is, after all, what most of us are hired to do, right? With experience and greater understanding of how learning works, my attention shifted toward metacognition. I began investing lots of time and energy reading and identifying ways to help students grow as learners while they learned the content.
The Winter/Spring 2016 issue of Peer Review highlights the powerful impact ‘transparency’ can have on learning for all students. One aspect of transparency is making obvious the intellectual practices involved in completing and evaluating a learning task. But making these processes visible for students is more easily said than done; we are experts in our fields for the very reasons that our thinking and evaluating are automatic and subconscious. It’s hard to describe exactly what we do intellectually when we synthesize or integrate, critique, or create. Similarly, it’s difficult to articulate the differences between an assignment we score as an A and one to which we give a B. Thus, a challenge in achieving transparency is developing a deep awareness of our own processes. Only then can we explicitly teach those thinking processes.
Faculty dread the grade appeal; anxiety prevails until the whole process is complete. Much has been written about how to avoid such instances, but the potentially subjective assessments of written essays or clinical skills can be especially troublesome. One common cause of grade appeals is grading ambiguity in which the student and faculty member disagree on the interpretation of required content. Another cause is inequity, whereby the student feels others may have gotten more credit for very similar work or content (Hummel 2010). In the health-care field especially, these disagreements over clinical-skills assessments can actually result in student dismissal from the program and may lead to lawsuits.
Teaching first-semester freshmen presents some unique challenges. You are teaching them not only your subject, but also how to be college students. One of the best strategies I have found is to begin with a collaborative project that asks them to research their new home: the campus.
There’s plenty of good research on study strategies that promote learning. It’s also well-documented that students don’t always use them. As most of us are well aware, procrastination gets in the way of learning. Cramming ends up being mostly a shoveling exercise—digging up details and dropping them into short term-memory. But there’s also evidence that students don’t know that some strategies do more for learning than others. And guess what? Neither do some faculty.
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a conceptual framework that intentionally asks positive questions as a process to create shared meaning among participants by integrating stories that focus on success, possibilities, and achievement. The approach can be transformational for students, especially those who are engaged in internships, practicums, and/or capstone projects. The basic tenet is to generate awareness of strengths through appreciative dialogues while implementing strategies that align with individual and organizational desired outcomes and goals. The initiative occurs first between the student and the seminar instructor and then later expands to include others, such as practicum/internship site supervisors, co-workers, and clients.
Maybe we should be making a stronger pitch for student-led study groups. There’s all sorts of research documenting how students can learn from each other. But, as regularly noted here and elsewhere, that learning doesn’t happen automatically, and some of us worry that it’s not likely to occur in a study group where there’s no supervision and distractions abound. Recent findings should encourage us to give study groups a second look.
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.”