What do we hope to accomplish when we are teaching? Students will learn the material, become excited about the material, learn to think critically? Ultimately, I think most of us are hoping that our students will connect, or engage, with the material. There is evidence that getting students to engage with the material is an important process in the learning experience (e.g., Umbach & Wawrzynski, 2005). I recently tried something new in an attempt to help my students make that connection. This is my story of an assignment that successfully helped my students connect with the material.
Effective Teaching Strategies
Teamwork is an important skill for students in every major. But despite its importance, most students do not know how to work together as a team. Their individual objectives take precedence over group goals. They can tell you what they are expected to produce. They may be able to tell you what type of group they were intended to be, whether task, educational, or support. They may even be able to tell you the components needed for groups to be successful—such as communication, a strong leader, and a common purpose. But they cannot tell you how the group will operate as a unit or the roles and responsibilities of individual members necessary to deliver quality products.
It was an idea for framing an exam review session, and it came to me at 3 a.m. in one of those slightly desperate bursts of inspiration that dare us to do something different and unconventional. That was five years ago. Since then I’ve used the idea in undergraduate survey courses, graduate seminars, and lots of other courses in between. I’ve decided it’s a good idea and worth sharing with others.
During the final meeting with one of my speech classes, I asked each student to give a few parting words to the class. I found a similar message resonating from many who spoke. Soon after, I received an email from an advisor at our school asking me to share some tips on fostering learning in the classroom. Since I had recorded that final speech class, I decided to use my students’ comments as the basis for my advice.
Critical thinking is defined as a reflective and reasonable thought process embodying depth, accuracy, and astute judgment to determine the merit of a decision, an object, or a theory (Alwehaibi, 2012). Creative thinking involves analysis, evaluation, and a synthesizing of facts, ideas, opinions, and theories. Possessing the capacity to logically and creatively exercise in-depth judgment and reflection to work effectively in the realm of complex ideas exemplifies a critical thinker (Carmichael & Farrell, 2012).
I mostly teach basic technical writing, and I face the same problem that confronts many of us who teach writing. It’s hard enough getting students to do the assignments, and almost impossible to get them to do a first draft. But writing takes practice, and if you require students to practice, that leads to an inevitable mountain of papers to grade. At my college, the trend is toward bigger classes and fewer course hours in English. This makes giving students the chance to practice all the more important, and providing the necessary feedback all the more challenging. I’d like to share a couple of solutions I’ve devised that help me deal with both these problems.
I have taught the senior-level marketing capstone course for more than 15 years. That translates to something like 28 semesters of graduates about to embark on life in “the real world.” We joke in academia about calling it that, but in fact when one considers the sheltered life of a college undergrad of traditional age, the world outside is more real than what they have experienced in our classrooms. I do not profess to be an expert at getting them prepared to face that scary world, but I do have an assignment that I think helps them at least think about who they will be in that new place. It involves blue slips. What’s a blue slip? Pink slips you know, but not blue ones.
Often faculty who teach large classes (and some who don’t) fantasize about sitting down and working individually with students. For many of us that’s the ideal teaching scenario, but for most of us teaching realities are far removed from this ideal. You can’t tutor individual students when faced with 100 of them. Or can you?
In reviewing the research on active learning in statistics, the authors of the article cited below, who are statistics faculty themselves, found some research in which certain active learning experiences did not produce measurable gains on exam performance. They “suspect the key components of successful active learning approaches are using activities to explain concepts and requiring students to demonstrate that they understand these concepts by having them answer very specific rather than general questions.” (p. 3)
The title is borrowed from text in an excellent article that challenges our use of the “what works” phrase in relationship to teaching and learning. Biology professor Kimberly Tanner writes, “… trying to determine ‘what works’ is problematic in many ways and belies the fundamental complexities of the teaching and learning process that have been acknowledged by scholars for thousands of years, from Socrates, to Piaget, to more recent authors and researchers.” (p. 329) She proceeds to identify six reasons why the phrase hinders rather than fosters an evidence-based approach to teaching reform (in biology, her field, but these reasons relate to all disciplines). “Language is powerful,” she notes. (p. 329) We use it to frame issues, and when we do, it guides our thinking.