I need to start out by saying that the article I’m writing about here isn’t for everyone. It’s not like any pedagogical piece I have ever read, and I’ve read quite a few. My colleague Linda Shadiow put me onto it, and although the article may not have universal appeal, the topic it addresses concerns faculty pretty much everywhere. How do we get students to pay attention? Their attention spans are short and move quickly between unrelated topics. Can we teach them how to pay attention? Is there value in trying to do so?
HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
For years there has been talk about shifting a professor’s role from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.” But as some teachers leave the center stage, they may not move to the side as guides. Instead, they may find themselves hovering above students as helicopter parents hover over their children. While a complete lack of guidance is not a good idea, excessive guiding could turn constructivist scaffolds into new forms of crutches.
Kant declared false the commonplace saying “That may be true in theory, but it won’t work in practice.” He acknowledged that there might be difficulties in application, but he said that if a proposition is true in theory, it must work in practice. What about the proposition “If teachers don’t ask questions, students will ask more and better ones”? A preponderance of practical and empirical evidence shows that teacher questions suppress student questions (see the Dillon reference). Thus we have every reason to believe that if you want students to develop, ask, and attempt to answer their own questions, we have to quit asking the kinds of questions teachers typically ask.
The June-July issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter highlights a study you don’t want to miss. It’s a meta-analysis of 225 studies that compare STEM classes taught using various active learning approaches with classes taught via lecture. “The results indicate that average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sessions, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.” (p. 8410) Carl Wieman, a Nobel-winning physicist who now does research on teaching and learning, describes the work as a “massive effort” that provides “a much more extensive quantitative analysis of the research on active learning in college and university STEM courses than previously existed.” (p. 8319) And what does he make of these results? “The implications of these meta-analysis results for instruction are profound, assuming they are indicative of what could be obtained if active learning methods replaced the lecture instruction that dominates U.S. postsecondary STEM instruction.” (pp. 8319-8320) That’s a long way from the guarded language usually found in commentaries on scientific results.
There are many ways to get students engaged in a classroom, but when topics are controversial or taboo, students may shy away from sharing their thoughts on the subject. In contrast, some may be so overly passionate about a topic that they proselytize their point. One tactic that helps students feel comfortable enough to speak about controversial topics is through debates that are structured and promote students’ preparedness in defending or opposing a particular stance on a topic.
Students often think of class sessions as isolated events—each containing a discrete chunk of content. Those who take notes during class will put the date along the top and then usually leave a space between each session, which visually reinforces their belief that the concepts and material aren’t connected. But in most of our courses, today’s content links to material from the previous session as well as to what’s coming up next. A lot happens in the lives of students between class sessions, though, and if they don’t anticipate a quiz, how many review their notes before arriving in class? And so the teacher starts class with a review.
Professor Philip LaRocco is reimagining his Energy Business and Economic Development course with digitized lecture materials, collaborative assignments, and real-time feedback. With funding from Columbia University’s Office of the Provost, LaRocco teamed up with the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) to build a learning environment more conducive to the world in which his students currently intern, and plan to work in post-graduation. He is following a “flipped classroom” model—filming some of his lectures and making them available to students prior to class meetings—making way for more elaborate group review, discussions, and other collaborative assignments during class.
An email query about teaching personas reminded me how much I haven’t figured out about our teaching identities. I’m still struggling with very basic questions and wondered if a conversation here might not get us all thinking more about how we present ourselves as teachers.
Inviting guest speakers into your classroom is a classic teaching strategy. Welcoming other voices into the classroom provides students with access to other perspectives, adds variety to the classroom routine, and demonstrates that learning is a collaborative enterprise. At the same time, however, presentations by guest experts are often plagued by a variety of design flaws that hinder their educational effectiveness. Guest experts, being unfamiliar with the mastery level of the students in the class, may speak over the heads of the students, or they may present their material at a level that is inappropriately introductory. Because they are generally unfamiliar with the class curriculum, they may repeat information that the students have already learned, or their comments may not connect in any clear way with what the students already know and what they are currently learning.
In public speaking classes or classes where there are oral presentations, students often enter these environments with a bit of anxiety and trepidation about speaking in front of others. Providing in-class activities as early as possible in the semester, that allow students to share things about themselves in an informal and positive environment, can not only help contribute to their public speaking comfort level, it can also lead to community-building throughout the course. As the class progresses, students exhibit a greater likeliness to support each other, relax around each other, and even feel like they’re getting to know each other better.