Universities are strange places. People pay thousands of dollars a year to be taught by supersmart people. These supersmart people are required to do research, write grants, and bring in money and resources to their university. Teaching is only a minor—almost insignificant—part of the job. While this often goes without saying at big R1 universities, it is surprising that this is all too often also true at smaller “teaching” colleges. At my home university, Adelphi, teaching is emphasized, but this is often the exception and not the rule.
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Teaching and Learning
As longtime practitioners in our disciplines, we develop implicit skills that can be the source of some of the deepest learning for our students. In his book Experience and Education, John Dewey describes habit as “the formation of attitudes, attitudes that are emotional and intellectual…our basic sensitivities and ways of responding to all the conditions we meet in living” (35). Experiencing implies the sensing body, embodied learning, and Dewey does not shy away from the emotional dimensions of learning—both of which are often where the deepest learning happens, where students’ passion for a discipline ignites, and where experts’ best ideas originate. These often-overlooked dimensions of learning are also where empathy lives, and so it is there that knowledge might blossom not only into expertise but into wisdom.
Professors tend to cover a lot of content over the course of one class session. Yet students will probably forget most of it by the end of the semester. Why? One reason is that we focus too much on teaching, and not enough on learning. Students, therefore, don’t really get to grapple with the topic you just lectured about. They’re too busy taking notes. And most times, they don’t see a point to learning all this “stuff.”
For the last 15 years or so, I have performed improv comedy in Chicago. During much of that time, I also taught English classes at Kendall College, a culinary and hospitality school. As you might imagine, my improv skills come in handy in the classroom. Here is a brief introduction for how the basic concepts of improv, when employed skillfully, help improve the classroom climate.
Do we communicate more with students in writing than we used to? I think so. In addition to the course syllabus, the usual handouts, and written feedback on papers, projects, and performances, we now share all kinds of electronic messages with students. We exchange emails, post announcements on course management systems, and participate in online discussions. Those who use PowerPoint tend to make rather text-heavy slides. And if you happen to teach online, then virtually all your communication with students occurs via some written format.
There has been an increase in the number of universities relying on graduate students to teach undergraduate coursework in recent years. In some universities, such as Purdue and University of South Florida, up to 26 percent of undergraduate courses are taught by graduate instructors (U.S. News and World Report, 2017). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018), there were over 135,000 graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) in 2017.
As more English Language Learners (ELL) arrive on college campuses, it is imperative that institutions of higher education seek ways to engage and provide a supportive learning environment. An ELL student needs assessment was conducted at a small private college. Participants in two focus groups consisted of seven students from Bosnia, Burundi, Canada, El Salvador, Honduras, Jordan, and Vietnam.
I was the invited outside speaker at a professional development event for schoolteachers. The day’s lunch was preceded by a public prayer that inspired me to consider parallels in “callings to serve” that can be found in both education and religion. Sometime later, I happened to read a poem in a Jewish prayer book that expressed noble intentions for a worship space. The poem didn’t reference a particular faith—it was really just a set of intentions. Immediately, I thought of what professors hope for in their classroom spaces.
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.
“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.