HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
In their article on the effect of instructor participation in online discussion boards, Margaret Mazzolini and Sarah Maddison (2003) asked if, “online instructors [should] be encouraged to take a prominent ‘sage on the stage’ role, a more constructivist ‘guide on the side’ role, or an ultra-low profile as ‘the ghost in the wings’” when they are facilitating asynchronous discussion boards. Fifteen years later, we are still debating this same question.
What’s the best way to put students into groups? It’s the first task that confronts teachers who want students to work together. And the best reply is one of those “it depends” answers. Here are the questions on which it depends.
Should teachers let students form the groups? Students often prefer this approach. They tend to pick people they know, classmates who are friends, those in the same major, and those who share the same race. It’s more comfortable working with people who are known and similar. When groups are composed of friends, they sometimes struggle with the transition to a more professional relationship. They’re used to socializing, but now there are tasks to complete and that means functioning in different roles. If the group work is a project that requires extended collaboration and will benefit from a variety of opinions and perspectives, letting students form the groups may not be the best approach. On the other hand, for short, ad-hoc group work and for students who may be shy and not used to working with peers, knowing others in the group makes the experience less intimidating.
In the early 2000s, anyone learning about pedagogy might have encountered “learning styles,” a collection of theories that assert people learn differently, coupled with the advice to teach in ways that include visual, auditory, and/or kinesthetic learning.
Students are stressed. A recent survey revealed that mental health issues, including severe stress, are on the rise. In 2016, 65% of students reported experiencing overwhelming anxiety during the previous 12 months, which is an increase of more than 7% from the 2013 data (National College Health Assessment, 2016). We also know from decades of research that arousal levels are strongly related to performance: not enough arousal and you don’t perform well, but too much arousal (which becomes stress/anxiety) and your performance is negatively impacted (Colman, 2001). Therefore, anything we can do as instructors to reduce students’ stress should have a positive impact on their mental health and academic performance.
“Are students getting it? How do I know?” Instructors answer these questions through a variety of assessments, from small, informal methods such as asking students if they have questions, to formal, graded methods such as multiple-choice exams and research papers. These assessments provide cognitive feedback, whether in the form of a score, a correction, lack of an answer, or an abundance of questions. But is that the whole picture? While these assessments can help us gauge how well students are “getting it,” it often fails to explain why or why not.
“Your students are failing because you are failing them.” These words can cut to the core of any professional educator who strives for excellence in teaching and learning. However, hidden within that criticism is a more useful message: “To help them succeed, you must inspire their imaginations and capture their attention through meaningful and creative engagement within the classroom.”
As English composition instructors, we are tasked with teaching students how to effectively express themselves through writing as well as understand why that’s such an important skill. Oftentimes this is executed by teaching out of a required textbook that addresses the various functions of writing. However, to make the writing assignments more interesting, teachers should consider allowing students to choose topics or, at the very least, assigning ones that hold current relevance.
Recently I had reason to revisit Paul Pintrich’s meta-analysis on motivation. It’s still the piece I most often see referenced when it comes to what’s known about student motivation. Subsequent research continues to confirm the generalizations reported in it. Like most articles that synthesize the results of many studies, it’s long, detailed, and liberally peppered with educational jargon. It does have a clear, easy to follow organizational structure and most notably, it spells out implications—what teachers might consider doing in response to what the research says motivates students. Here’s a quick run-down of those generalizations and their implications.
Online students need to feel an instructor presence in their classes. Thorough explanations and effective communication help fulfill this need and can transform a mediocre online course into a great one—and it all starts with the syllabus.