Despite numerous arguments favoring active learning, especially class discussion, instructors sometimes worry that discussion is an inefficient or ineffective way for students to learn. What happens when students make non-value added, irrelevant, or inaccurate contributions? What about comments from non-experts that may obfuscate rather than clarify understanding? What about students who speak only to earn participation credit rather than contribute substantively to the discussion?
After teaching statistics classes for more than 25 years and seeing so many students struggling to be successful, I became increasingly frustrated by the fact that no matter how much I believed myself to be approachable, available, and willing to help students outside of class, very few took advantage of the opportunity. I began to wonder not only what barriers existed between me and my students but also how to investigate those barriers and seek solutions.
When we learn something outside the comfort zone, we attempt to acquire knowledge or skills in an area where we’re lacking. Part of the discomfort derives from learning something we anticipate will be difficult. We have no idea how to do it, or we think it requires abilities we don’t have or have in meager amounts. Moreover, poor performance or outright failure lurk as likely possibilities. In other words, it’s going to be hard and require concentration, and what we’re struggling to do, others can accomplish beautifully, seemingly without effort. Their skills, and our obvious lack of them, raise questions about our merits as a learner and maybe even our worth as a person.
When students become directly engaged in the learning process, they take ownership of their education. The following learning activities have helped me to engage students in and outside the classroom. The strategies also help keep my teaching relevant, fresh, and creative.
Silence filled the classroom when the grimacing woman wearing layers of torn sweatshirts and mismatched work boots kicked an empty desk by the door. She fished out a wrinkled paper from her jean’s front pocket and waved it high in the air. “The court sent me,” she said, looking directly into the eyes of a startled young freshman. “And I want to know, who’s gonna make me stay?” Rolling the document into a ball, she quickly darted to the back of the room and dropped it onto the desk of the biggest guy in the room. She asked him, “Is it you?”
I’ve been thinking here lately about that long mid-career stretch where there is no clearly defined beginning or ending. You’re no longer a new faculty member, but aren’t yet an old one. From a pedagogical perspective, what makes that time window unique? In a recent post on tired teaching I identified what I think is the major challenge of those years—keeping your teaching fresh and keeping yourself engaged, enthusiastic, and instructionally moving forward. On the other hand, some special opportunities are afforded by that long stretch in the middle. The question is whether we’re taking full advantage of them.
As I contemplate my syllabi for a new semester, I possess renewed hope for students eager to discuss anything at 8 a.m., yet I have taught long enough to know that I will simply appreciate clean clothes and brushed teeth. As reality sets in, I add to my grading criteria an element that I hope will encourage engagement from even the most timid learners.
“Online classes are often intimidating for first-time students,” writes David St Clair. “They wrestle with the gnawing fear that their class has no anchor in the physical world and that there will be no one there to address their fears and concerns.” (p. 129) His solution? A simple, online check-in quiz.
Here’s how the activity unfolds. The first assignment in the online course, to be completed on the first day, is this required check-in quiz. In St Clair’s case, it meets the university’s first-day attendance requirement. Students can be dropped from the course if they don’t meet that university requirement. They read the syllabus and take the quiz, which comes to them as an attachment in the course welcome email. The quiz is also posted on the course Blackboard site. Beyond fulfilling the check-in requirement, this quiz is actually a tour of course features. “To find the quiz, learn about the quiz, take the quiz, and to receive their grade on the quiz, students need to navigate through virtually every part of the online class site.” (p. 130) As St Clair points out, you could “tell” students how to navigate the features of the online course, but the more powerful way is having them discover those features for themselves.
No matter how much we debate the issue, end-of-course evaluations count. How much they count is a matter of perspective. They matter if you care about teaching. They frustrate you when you try to figure out what they mean. They haven’t changed; they are regularly administered at odds with research-recommended practices. And faculty aren’t happy with the feedback they provide. A survey (Brickman et al., 2016) of biology faculty members found that 41% of them (from a wide range of institutions) were not satisfied with the current official end-of-course student evaluations at their institutions, and another 46% were only satisfied “in some ways.”
Where were you 30 years ago? Maryellen Weimer, PhD, was writing the very first issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter, and she hasn’t stopped since.
In March 1987, Magna Publications published volume 1, number 1 of The Teaching Professor. The opening article read, in part:
“With all the enthusiasm of a new beginning, Magna begins publication of a newsletter for college professors about college teaching. … Can instruction be improved by reading material about teaching and learning? Yes. Reading about teaching forces reflection. It creates instructional awareness by causing faculty to wonder: Do I do that? Should I do that? Infusing teaching with a steady supply of new ideas keeps it fresh and invigorated.”
That philosophy of reflection and instructional awareness has remained a constant theme throughout the decades. As has the importance of keeping teaching fresh, regardless of teaching experience or discipline.