I heard someone say today that he’s been teaching for 50 years and never really thought about his teaching. “I just go in there and teach—I don’t think about it.” And here I am having spent something like 45 years thinking a lot about my own teaching and that of everyone else. From my perspective, it’s hard to imagine teaching without thinking about it.
Teaching and Learning
Haven’t we all entertained that inquiry from an absent student, “Did I miss anything important?” The question is poorly phrased, but I recognize that it’s usually well-intentioned. The student is concerned about what he or she missed. My concern is about those continued absences and how to allow the student to make up for a missed class. The first day of class I read a Tom Wayman poem (www.loc.gov/poetry/180/013.html) that gets at the phrasing of the question and what the student misses by being absent.
There’s an assumption that students arrive at college with some idea of how to study. They have, after all, completed four years of high school prior to their arrival, earning a seat in a college classroom.
But college is different. And we all know what happens when we assume.
This summer I am reading Linda Nilson’s book Creating Self-Regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills, which offers instructors a wealth of assignments and activities to help students grow their self-regulation and metacognitive abilities. Teaching students how to learn well on their own and to evaluate that learning is a goal I have been pursuing for the past few years, and I am convinced that occasional, brief self-assessment exercises can help college students perform better as well as understand the learning process.
We are definitely way more interested in learning than we used to be. In the early years of my teaching and faculty development work, it was all about teaching: improve it and students will automatically learn more. Now the focus is on how students learn and the implications that has for how we teach.
Lately I’ve been wondering about the learning practices of those of us who teach—what we know about ourselves as learners and how that knowledge influences the decisions we make about teaching. I’ve been trying to recall what I’ve thought about myself as a learner when I was in college. I think I self-identified as a student. I took courses and learned content. I liked some subjects and didn’t like others, which was sort of related to what I thought I could do. But the concept of learning as an entity was pretty much a big amorphous fuzz.
How long is your students’ attention span? For that matter, how long is your own?
According to one estimate, the average attention span in the year 2000 was 12 seconds; by 2012, it had dropped to eight seconds. By comparison, a goldfish has an attention span of nine seconds. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone in your class could manage to be mentally present for the entire class? What kinds of learning could take place if they were?
At its most basic level, the syllabus is used to communicate information about the course, the instructor, learning objectives, assignments, grading policies, due dates, the university’s academic integrity statement, and, in some cases, an increasingly long list of strongly worded admonitions on what is and isn’t acceptable behavior in the college classroom.
Cooperative learning structures such as jigsaw and think-pair-share are widely used in college classrooms. The two most basic tenets of cooperative learning involve positive interdependence and individual accountability. “Positive interdependence means that group members perceive that the collective effort of the group is essential in order for the individual learners to achieve their goals.” (p. 176) And individual accountability establishes that students are assessed individually on their achievement of the learning goals.
Jennifer Roberts first noticed the difference a few years ago in Geology 101.
The course regularly draws 300 or more students a semester, and Roberts, an associate professor of geology, was teaching in much the same way she had since she took over the course in 2002: lecture and exam.
The influx of nontraditional adult students in higher education has resulted in unprecedented institutional competition. Colleges and universities, vying for attention and increased enrollments, seek creative solutions to attract and retain students. Many degrees have been designed or modified to follow the cohort model, creating temporary cultures of students who participate in programs following an accelerated lockstep sequence. Cohorts start and finish programs as collective groups and share instructors and experiences along the way. Productive learning environments and the temporary culture of a group encourage student productivity and enhance the overall academic experience.