I have been doing some reading and thinking about hard courses. Courses need to be challenging, but when they become too hard, students stop trying and little learning results. So how do we find that sweet spot between hard and not too hard? More importantly, how do we create that sweet spot in our own courses through the decisions we make about content, assignments, and exams?
Humor is one of my favorite teaching tools. I rely on it—when the room feels tense, when I sense learner drift, if I aspire to make a point more memorable. Humor doesn’t cause learning, but it does help create conditions conducive to it. It doesn’t make hard content easy, but it can make learning it feel easier.
Midterm evaluations often tip toward students’ (unexamined) likes and dislikes. By leveraging the weight of the midterm pause and inviting students to reflect on their development, midterm evaluations can become more learning-centered. Cued by our language, students can become aware of a distinction—that we’re not asking what they like, but what is helping them learn. This opportunity for students to learn about their learning yields valuable insights that not only inform instructors about the effects of our methods, but also ground students in their own learning processes, deepening their confidence in and commitment to their development in the second half of the course.
Slow learning—not to be confused with slow learners—is learning that happens gradually, where understanding deepens slowly and skills advance but without immediate noticeable change. Some learning occurs all at once; suddenly, there’s a performance breakthrough. Typically, fast learning feels easy, even if it was proceeded by a frustrating period of confusion. What is finally understood is so clear, so obvious—what is finally mastered no longer seems hard.
Brief—that pretty much describes exam debriefs in many courses. The teacher goes over the most commonly missed questions, and the students can ask about answers but generally don’t. These kinds of debriefs don’t take up a lot of class time, but that’s about all that can be said for them. For some time now, I’ve been suggesting that students, not the teacher, should be correcting the wrong answers. The students are the ones who missed the questions.
Editor’s Note: The following article was excerpted with permission from To My Professor: Student Voices for Great College Teaching, a new book that brings together student experiences and opinions with advice from master educators and experts. The book was written by students at Michigan State University under the guidance of Joe Grimm, visiting editor in residence in the MSU School of Journalism since 2008.
“I spend a lot of money to go to school here. It would be nice if a professor knew my name.”
“I appreciate the fact that you asked me what I wanted to be called because my name has various pronunciations in different languages.”
Classroom Assessment Techniques, or CATs, are simple ways to evaluate students’ understanding of key concepts before they get to the weekly, unit, or other summative-type assessment (Angelo & Cross, 1993). CATs were first made popular in the face-to-face teaching environment by Angelo and Cross as a way to allow teachers to better understand what their students were learning and how improvements might be made in real time during the course of instruction. But the same principle can apply to online teaching as well.
We know students are afraid of making mistakes, often dreadfully so. And so we talk a good line about the learning potential inherent in mistakes.
But are we afraid to let students make mistakes? Is it just a problem with students not wanting to be wrong, or does our need to control learning experiences keep students from making mistakes?
We’re at that time of the academic year when the daily details begin to pile up. Teach a class, grade assignments, schedule advisees, and prep for tomorrow. It may not feel like a grind just yet, but it does require lots of focused energy, which makes this a perfect time for a quick reflection on why we teach. For some, teaching is just a job; it’s a paycheck necessity. But for readers of a blog on teaching and learning, I’m pretty sure we’re in it for something more than the bucks, which tend to be pretty modest anyway.