nursing students July 2

The Privilege and Challenges of Teaching in Professional Programs

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Those of us who teach in professional programs have some unique instructional challenges. Certainly, like everyone else, we have content that students need to learn—and, like everyone else, we have too much content and struggle to get through it all. We’re also alike in that we want our students to develop lifelong learning skills, such as problem-solving and critical thinking. And yet, on top of this, all students in professional programs have skills related to the profession that they must truly master—a matter complicated by the fact that whether it’s a culinary program, welding, woodworking, occupational therapy, social work, or computer repair, most students begin these programs having none or very few of these skills. Moreover, unlike many of the more traditional academic majors, in our programs we are also expected to teach students how to act like professionals in our fields. And finally, the reputation of our programs depends on how well our students perform in all of these areas, as measured by a certifying exam that students must pass in order to work in the profession. Indeed, professional education has its challenges which those of us teaching in the programs along with the rest of the academic community need to regularly consider.

I’ll use my own program to further explore what makes teaching in professional programs at once challenging and rewarding. For decades, I have taught in a Faculty of Nursing at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Our undergraduate students come to us with high grade point averages, or if they are transferring into our After Degree program (meaning they have a degree in another discipline, such as science, and then take our two-year program to a Bachelor of Science in Nursing), their grades need to be competitive.  In the undergraduate program, students take theory and clinical courses and the theory courses are approved by the university.  The nursing regulatory body determines the exact number of hours students spend in each clinical area. After completion of the program, students write a North American examination before they can enter nursing practice.  Because most of our students must work part time to pay escalating tuition costs, they become experts at time management. To say it more directly, nothing is easy for students in our programs or in other regulated programs at the University of Alberta, and I suspect that is true of professional programs offered elsewhere.

Preparing students to be professionals in a regulated discipline means they must have foundational knowledge in their discipline, plus courses in related areas such as ethics, legal issues, history of the field as well as current trends and issues. In many fields, the content of the curriculum is closely monitored by those in the field or by professional boards or associations who prescribe what graduates should know and be able to do. Those of us teaching in a professional area, do not have as much curricular freedom as other faculty do. We have a responsibility to equip students with the knowledge and skills needed in the profession.

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Good teaching. Engaged students. June 3

Is Good Teaching Caught or Taught?

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There is comfort in things that are black or white, isn’t there? It feels good to have clarity and to be able to predict an outcome with certainty. I’m a scientist and therefore well-schooled and admittedly comfortable with predictability. Because, at least in my world, when the predictable does not happen, we usually find dysfunction. Disciplinary background aside, the question of whether good teaching is caught or taught draws many of us in because we gravitate toward having a definitive answer—black or white, caught or taught. Further, most of us really do want to be good teachers and we’d love to have a recipe or formula that predicts— or even better, guarantees—good teaching. If neither one of those are possible, then we’d at least be grateful for something that affirms that we are on the right path.

Unfortunately, I think most of us know that type of either/or clarity is elusive. With most complex issues we encounter, the “correct” answer hides somewhere in the mud of the murky middle and if anything qualifies as complex, it’s teaching. As one begins to pile on the factors and variables present in every classroom, regardless of size, discipline or location, it quickly becomes apparent why some concrete advice on how to navigate those variables would be welcome salve to any teacher.

As someone in charge of faculty development activities on campus but also because I want to become a better teacher, I think a lot about how we nurture good teaching. We could address the issue by asking what works. What are the attitudes, behaviors, or practices of teachers who consistently demonstrate good teaching? We might be able to emulate them or at least pick up a new approach or insight to improve our teaching. However, there are inevitable challenges with this approach. For example, the advice offered by someone who teaches physics may not be applicable or translatable to someone who teaches in a skill-based, professional program. Are we to assume that what any good teacher does can be integrated by another teacher, regardless of discipline?

Alternatively, we could look at the literature to gain insight on what characteristics of good teaching have been studied and proven effective. There are multitudes of articles that address the “what works?” question— how is faculty teaching encouraged, or measured or taught? Often, the best of these papers not only look at how faculty perceptions of teaching change; they also look at how courses change and student learning is affected. With those approaches in mind, I offer two cairns I have taken from the literature and my own self-reflection in hopes that they provide some direction in the continuing pursuit of good teaching.

First, prepare and train for a long journey. In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer reflects on the dramatic swings experienced by those who teach. One day, you feel like a master teacher facilitating conversation and guiding students to profound insights. The next day (or even in the next section of the same course), the silence is stifling and attempts at facilitation seem to cause students to withdraw further (Palmer, 1998). In the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve discovered that if I arrive at a point where I begin to feel confident and think that just maybe I might have some good teaching in me, a miserable classroom experience inevitably follows and I recalibrate my teaching skills and abilities.

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class lecture May 1

Creating a Respectful Community: Lessons from the Middle East

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My family and I have had the privilege of living in the Middle East for nearly three decades. In addition to the extraordinary Arab hospitality we have enjoyed, it also has been a time of learning. Many of my parochial assumptions have been challenged, not the least being my understandings about teaching and learning.

A notable feature of education in the region (as in much of the world) is an emphasis on rote learning. I received the bulk of my formal education in Australia and United States—countries where there is a strong focus on the development of autonomy through critical thinking. With some ethnocentric arrogance, I initially viewed the local education systems here in the Middle East as backward and destructive. These systems resulted from and contributed to the sort of authoritarian dictatorships that prevail in many parts of the world.

Over time, however, I have gained a more nuanced appreciation of local learning approaches and I believe there are elements that Western educators may do well to consider or reconsider.

In his seminal work on intercultural rhetoric, Robert Kaplan offers a set of foundational questions: (1) What may be discussed? (2) Who has the authority to speak/write? (3) What form(s) may the writing take? (4) What is evidence? (5) What arrangement of evidence is likely to appeal (be convincing) to readers?

The answers to these questions are profoundly shaped by culture. In particular, I am struck by the fundamentally different understandings of the first two questions in collectivist and individualistic societies. In individualistic societies, such as Australia and United States, the normative assumption is that it is right and healthy to promote the development of a strong autonomous voice in students. We encourage students to speak with confidence, question assumptions, and challenge those in authority.

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teaching online April 2

How Teaching Online Can Improve Your Face-to-Face Classes

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When teachers are tasked with developing an online course, their thinking often follows along these lines: This is what I do in class. How can that be translated online?

What if we reversed our thinking?

Instead of assuming what’s done on ground is ideal, what if we looked at teaching online as a means of improving our face-to-face teaching skills? The process of developing an online course, starting with a clean slate instead of converting resident instruction via technology, leads to an examination of our classroom-based course design, assumptions about learning, and ultimately improves instructional practice in both settings along several dimensions: teaching persona, power distance, instructional clarity, student interaction, and learning assessment.

Presence and Distance
From the minute we enter the classroom, students are sizing us up. Our appearance, demeanor, voice, word choice, and mannerisms project an image. Similarly, the teacher may notice a variety of student characteristics: clothing, tone of voice, behavior, and level of attention. All this happens automatically when we share a physical space with our students.

Online first impressions begin with the learning management interface, course organization, and whatever materials and resources the teacher has chosen to share when the course opens. While teaching online means we may not have to worry about physical appearance, it does mean we have to spend time thinking about how to create and maintain a presence online. Who am I? How can or should I communicate my identity to students?

I didn’t invest a lot of time thinking about this before I started teaching online. Thus, I missed opportunities to make learning personal. Online teaching forces us to think more carefully about persona, values, and priorities than the face-to-face context. Teaching online has made me more intentional about establishing and maintaining my teaching persona online and face-to-face.

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common teaching mistakes March 1

Four Horsemen of the Teaching Apocalypse

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Four problems account for the lion’s share of serious teaching problems:

  1. Misalignment
  2. Expert blind spot
  3. Content overload
  4. Over-identification

An overstatement? Perhaps, but over the many years we’ve worked with faculty in a wide range of disciplines, we’ve seen these issues undermine students’ learning, motivation, and morale in insidious ways. Easy to fall prey to, they compromise the effectiveness of even seasoned teachers. Here’s some advice on recognizing the problems, avoiding them, and preventing the host of headaches they can cause.

Misalignment
Three important elements characterize any well-designed course: objectives (what students should know or be able to do by the end of the course), assessments (the means used to gauge students’ progress toward those objectives), and instruction (the methods and materials employed to help students acquire the knowledge and skills articulated in the objectives). A solid course design requires that these elements be aligned, each dovetailing with and supporting the others.

Misalignment occurs when these three elements are not in sync, in particular when the knowledge and skills being taught are not the same as those being assessed. “I’d never do that!” you might be thinking. And of course, no one ever means to. But it can happen more easily than most of us realize. All too often, we teach the whats (terms, definitions, formulae) and the whys (concepts, principles) of a subject but assess the hows (procedures, methods) and the whens (conditions of application).

Think of how we learn to drive. We study the whats and whys of the rules of the road in order to pass a written test. Then we have to pass a test of actual driving. Would studying for the written test prepare us adequately for the driving test? Of course not. Actual driving requires other knowledge, skills, and practice, for which road rules are necessary but not sufficient. If we prepared for the driving test solely by learning road rules, it would constitute misalignment: the instruction and assessment don’t line up.

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getting your students to read February 1

Reading to Learn

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For some time now, students in my first-year biology course have been protesting that I’m assigning too much pre-class reading. I use the flipped classroom structure in most of my courses and that means students prepare for class by reading assigned pages in the textbook. To hold students accountable for completing the reading, I administer a two-stage reading quiz before we discuss the content and apply the concepts to problems during class. Those who complain tell me that reading is not part of their learning style and I’m putting them at a disadvantage.

The research on learning styles is inconclusive and contradictory (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008). The theory behind them proposes that students learn best when teaching matches their learning preference, such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. The research, however, does not support this theory in very convincing ways.

What the research does suggest is that learning occurs best when the teaching method matches the content and the learning task. Thus, if problem-solving is the skill to be learned, then practicing problem-solving is the best way to learn it. If concepts are what’s being learned, then various explanations of the concepts and practice explaining them is the best way to learn them. Learning can be approached in many different ways, and we each have our preferences about how we like to learn. But our preferences do not, indeed should not, prevent us from learning in different ways. If we find it difficult to learn by listening to a lecture, that does not mean we must live with poor listening skills. It means we need more practice at listening for meaning when we find the content challenging. If we have difficulties understanding the written material that appears in texts, that does not prevent us from becoming more skillful readers of text. It means we need a better understanding of the skills involved in reading textbook material and repeated practice in applying those skills.

What troubles me about learning styles is that they promote a fixed mindset and that evolves into a perceived learning disability where none exists. Certainly, learning disabilities are real and experienced by some students, but many of my students conflate having a particular learning style with the inability to learn any other mode. They treat their difficulty with learning from texts as an incurable problem and ask to be excused from ever having to do it. I can’t think of any profession where people are excused from reading. Rather, poor reading comprehension comes with consequences.

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student writing January 4

Write with Your Students to Promote Writing-as-Thinking

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The single greatest strategy that I know to stimulate classroom learning is to write with students at the beginning of class.

Consider your own pre-class ritual to see if writing with your students might profit you and them. In my classes, students funnel in to reach their seats. At the start of some classes, students yell, tease one another, and laugh about subjects unconnected to the class. One complains to another about a different class, “Well, I said to her it sounds like you’re telling me to rewrite the paper!” They both laugh.

In another class, students shuffle in quietly. Some place their heads on their desks. Some just stare out the window. Still others fidget. Another is worried about her sick cat back home.

Of course, I’m overgeneralizing. Often our classes exist in the spaces between these two extremes. But what’s common to all—I don’t think this constitutes overgeneralizing either—is that students don’t consider pre-class as the time to prepare for class. Instead, they tend to use it exclusively for out-of-the-classroom experiences, sending a few texts, checking the score to last night’s game, maybe studying for an examination. They don’t see the need for transitioning into learning.

I remember for a long time feeling powerless to get students “in the mood” to think about the subjects of the class when they arrive: to take out their ear buds, open their books, have their pens at the ready. Even worse, I empathized! I could understand why they see this opening time as theirs; only the final tock of the clock signals class starts and the inevitable, “I’m yours for just one hour” or however long the class lasts.

As teaching professors, I think we can forfeit those settling moments before class officially begins by providing something greater: showing students how we, as professors, need to think when class starts. But thinking is very hard to do. The brain may need retraining to begin thinking in different contexts (Oakley, 2014, p. 25).

Therefore, the best way to engineer “opening thinking” is to bring it in unawares: to show it by example so the intellectual gears start moving in the right direction as class begins, all without undue introductions, syllabus corrections, and directions. That trio deadens classroom enthusiasm quickly and leads us away from prolific writing.

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What does it mean. Questions about research. December 3, 2017

The Questions to Ask about Research on Teaching and Learning

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Faculty have access to more information about college teaching than ever before. Researchers have studied a host of instructional approaches and published results in myriad journals. Educators have shared summaries of and links to such studies informally on websites and through Twitter feeds. This is good news for those of us who want to learn more about a particular instructional method or technique before we try it in our own courses.

Not all of us are educational researchers, however, and that brings some challenges for making sense of these studies. The research questions and methods may not be as familiar to us as those in our home disciplines. Unfamiliar research approaches can make it challenging to determine how much stock to place in study findings. This challenge increases when different studies report mixed or contradictory results.

How can we assess the research quality? How can we determine whether a given instructional method is something worth trying in our courses? What follows is a set of questions that you can use when evaluating individual studies and collections of them. The goal of these questions is to help you glean information from research to consider whether or how to implement a pedagogical approach.

Is the research question one you want to know the answer to? Education researchers ask and answer questions that may or may not have practical application for our teaching. For example, although hundreds of researchers have asked whether active learning is superior to lecture, some of us are not particularly interested the answer. We don’t see lecture and active learning as an either/or proposition and instead believe that we can use both approaches together. What we might want to know instead are the combinations or particular features of lectures or active learning methods that make them more or less effective.

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Students collaborating in class. November 2, 2017

Understanding Student Resistance to Active Learning

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Fear of student resistance prevents many college teachers from adopting active learning strategies. That’s unfortunate, because these strategies have been shown to significantly increase student learning, improve retention in academic programs, and provide especially strong benefits to traditionally underrepresented student groups. Addressing two key questions may reduce instructors’ fears and increase the adoption of active learning strategies:

  1. Are instructors’ fears of student resistance to active learning well-founded?
  2. Are there effective ways to minimize that resistance?

What is student resistance and is it widespread?
From a practical standpoint, student resistance can be defined as any observable student behavior that makes an instructor less likely to use an instructional strategy. Resistance-related behaviors include passively refusing to participate in an activity, actively complaining or disrupting groups during an activity, or giving low course evaluations to the instructors who use active learning. Some authors define resistance as an affective outcome, describing it in terms of student motivation or whether students like or value the activity. But while student attitudes drive their behaviors, it’s the behaviors that faculty see. It might therefore be more accurate to think of student attitudes as a mediator of resistant behavior.

How much do students actually resist active learning strategies in practice? As with most interesting questions, the answer begins with “It depends.” How much students resist active learning sometimes depends on the type of active learning used. Active learning is not a single technique but an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of instructional practices. Some of those practices, such as “minute papers,” in which the instructor asks students to take a minute and anonymously write down the most confusing point from that day’s lecture, aren’t likely to generate much student resistance. On the other hand, active learning approaches like problem-based learning that significantly increase expectations for student ownership of their learning generate more resistance (Woods, 1994).

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brief moments of inquiry in college classroom October 1, 2017

Using Brief Moments of Inquiry to Enrich Student Learning

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Who discovered Pluto?

 A colleague described this brief exchange he had with his young daughter as they crossed Tombaugh Street in Flagstaff, Arizona. My colleague, ever the professor, pointed out that the street was named for local astronomer Clyde Tombaugh who had discovered Pluto in 1930. His daughter promptly informed him, “Walt Disney discovered Pluto.”

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