I hardly recognize myself. That’s expected when you’ve reached your 50s. Inside I feel like my 20-something self, but when I glance in the mirror I see someone much older. Sigh. At least the laugh lines and crows feet have come with some wisdom and perspective.
I recently told a colleague how I was planning to finish the semester in microeconomics. Her response, “soon you will be as I was, hardly recognizing the teacher I’d become.” That got me thinking about the ways I’ve changed as a teacher. That evolution is more dramatic than the ways my reflection has altered with time.
Insecure …to… Confident
Let’s be honest. New teachers are nervous. We might be content experts, but unless you are in education, the amount of pedagogical training provided in grad school typically ranges from little to none. We end up teaching as we were taught. I didn’t read much about pedagogy until I was tenured. I had the good fortune of working with an excellent mentor. I listened to experienced teachers. But generally, I was very nervous, insecure, and ignorant about teaching and learning in my early career.
I’m more confident now, but that’s only partly because of time and experience. A big part of that confidence stems from being more informed about my teaching. I read books about learning, cognition, teaching, technology and related issues regularly. I read several pedagogical journals. I have been conducting pedagogical scholarship for several years. I reflect on my teaching practice (this blog is invaluable to me in that regard). I present at teaching and learning conferences and lead faculty development workshops. Time, by itself, doesn’t make us better teachers. Learning, testing, experimentation and reflection are responsible for growing as a teacher and thereby increasing my confidence.
Pessimistic …to… Optimistic
Perhaps it’s my background as an auditor. Maybe it’s due to my upbringing or genes. Whatever the cause, my early teaching years reflected this view: If you don’t grade it, students won’t do it. It’s terrible to admit, but that suggests the teacher thinks many students are lazy and unmotivated. That attitude can manifest in a number of teacher behaviors that hurt student learning and/or prove self-fulfilling. When we expect the worst of students, they often deliver.
Over time, I looked at my courses from the student perspective. I discovered I wouldn’t want to be one of my students! I changed the tone of my syllabus. “Students will…” statements were replaced with “We will…” Instead of assuming the worst in students and planning for that in the syllabus, I tested the alternative position. My policies now assume the best. The result is that the worst-case scenarios (missed exams, cheating, etc) are outliers, not the norm. The more positive and optimistic I’ve become about my students and their learning, the more fun and productive my classes have become for me and my students.
Controlling …to… Facilitating
Never let them see you sweat. That’s an apt mantra for the insecure teacher. If you’re unsure of yourself, you certainly don’t want students to suspect. Often, the best defense is a good offense. For many teachers that means exerting complete control. It starts with a syllabus that spells out what will happen every minute of every class. Class sessions become scripted Powerpoint lectures. Sometimes students are given a script with blanks to fill in during lecture. Complete control means students have no say in policy, content, or assessment. Although I have never used slides to lecture or scripts for note taking, my early teaching behaviors and demeanor made it very clear, the class was MY show.
How and why did that change? I believe it started when I incorporated active learning strategies in the classroom. It’s not possible to script or control how things will proceed when students are solving problems in class. As I relinquished control student interest and engagement grew. It was scary at first. Eventually I saw that loosening control doesn’t mean bedlam will occur.
That brings me to the present. I have yielded even more control of my microeconomics course. What students will investigate during the last two weeks of the course and the format of their final assessment is a choice (within ranges). I’ll be teaching some content during a portion of each class. The remainder of each period will be dedicated to group and individual work on topics they identified in the Big Questions assignment (See https://1313lola.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/big-questions/ ).
I never had a professor/teacher let the students make the syllabus/lessons and I think this is why I am doing so well in the class. It’s a great way of teaching.
When I started teaching, sharing control like this was beyond my imagination. I wish I knew then what I know now. I scarcely recognize myself.
Content Slavery: Causes
Why is managing content so challenging? Just when I think “I’ve got this…” Boom! I end up drowning a class in too much content. I think the problem has roots in love for our discipline. Here’s an example. My husband, working with a friend and mentor, is building a strip canoe. The boat is still in the early stages, but already it’s a thing of beauty. It’s also a magnet, attracting curious boaters and neighbors who’ve spied, through our open garage door, a 16-foot creation slowly taking shape. Like a Field of Dreams moment, “If you build it, he will come…” neighbors have been making the pilgrimage to our garage to chat with the boat builder. Each time, the conversation stretches for 30-60 minutes as my husband explains the intricacies of the process, what he’s learned, who’s he’s working with, etc. Dinner has been late several times because of engaging discussions and lengthy answers about the canoe. Is it any wonder that we lecture too much or answer questions in excessive length? If you love something, you are more than happy to share what you know.
Another reason our courses are overloaded with content is many teachers don’t really believe there’s such a thing as “too much content.” In some cases, we rationalize by disciplinary expectations. Nurses: Which system of the body do you suggest we not cover: Circulatory? Renal? Pulmonary? Engineers: ABET accreditation requires it. Technical fields with licensing: We have to teach all of this for our students to be able to pass state boards.
In other cases, we just haven’t spent enough time carefully considering how much is appropriate. What’s necessary? What’s nice to know? What’s unnecessary? All content isn’t equal. Not to mention, just because we cover it, doesn’t mean students have learned it. I’m not suggesting necessary content should be cut, but rather that teachers should be really thoughtful and intentional about depth and breadth of content.
Sometimes teachers use content as defense. A class period crammed full of content leaves little room for students to think, let alone ask questions. The period follows a script; the teacher is in control. Applying this strategy, the teacher can claim the content was “taught” or “covered.” But that line of thinking leaves out learning, or perhaps just assumes that learning has occurred. Or worse, this view reduces teaching to content delivery, as if presenting information and teaching are the same thing.
Content Slavery- Solutions
What can we do to break the chains of content slavery? I recently covered too much in accounting. My response was to follow up with an apology and a few changes. I thought about how our class got overwhelmed and what I could do to get us back on track. Damage control in this case, included a very early morning email to the class. I apologized for the tidal wave of content presented at the expense of their understanding. Then, I backed up that apology with some changes in the next homework assignment. I cut out some new material, postponed some, and revisited some of the work that was rushed.
Preventing content overload is a better strategy than trying to recover from a bad class. One strategy I’ve used relates to Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo asks us to gather all similar items and then question each one: Does this “bring joy?” This is her criteria for deciding what to keep or purge when de-cluttering. Items that don’t bring joy get donated or thrown away.
This concept can be adapted to teaching and is particularly helpful in course planning. Ask “Will this content develop students professionally/personally/academically?” Purging joyless topics makes space in the course for the most important content. Identify content that can be eliminated (purging from the course) or donated (adding them to recommended reading, or making them extra credit assignments). Clearing out clutter is liberating. Imagine the teaching power and confidence that comes from focusing on the most academically vital material.
What if your content simply can’t be cut? Then consider delivery. In what areas is lecture optimal? What about video? Are guest speakers an effective strategy? Can some content be explored independently? What needs to happen in class? What doesn’t? How might students be included in some of the decisions about delivery? About content?
Going forward, I want to continue striving for balance between adequate breadth of coverage and deeper understanding. Some folks speak of “uncovering content” with students, as opposed to “covering it.” Others remind us “telling isn’t teaching.” In my case, I’m going to try to follow “more isn’t always better, sometimes it’s just more” (paraphrase of Sabrina Fairchild, in Sabrina).
What are your thoughts on the crush of content? How do you manage the balance between quality of learning and the quantity learned?
Have you ever made notes for yourself about a course? It wasn’t always part of my teaching routine to systematically think about course design during the term. Occasionally I would scratch down some notes about assignments or questions that worked or failed and stick them the course folder. But I admit they often weren’t looked at again. This is especially true for courses I teach regularly. Thus, I missed opportunities to learn from experience.
Last summer, I developed a completely online version of an introductory accounting course. I’ve taught the course online before, but only in 12- and 15-week formats. This time, it was a compressed 6-week term. And because of the novelty of the format and the “once per year” opportunity to teach it this way, I typed notes about course specifics. And I left them in a place I was sure to find them-in the electronic course folder. When I searched for syllabus my notes were waiting for me. Here’s a recap of my observations:
LESS IS MORE
My recent experience learning R (see post Teacher as Student) showed me how overwhelming a new course can be, particularly online. Keep it clean and clear. Too much information up front is confusing and intimidating. Limit the number of folders and tools to the minimum needed for students to get started. The entire course does not need to be available during the first week. Minimalist doesn’t mean insufficient or thin. But it does mean really thinking about the value of each item and organizing all the materials in a way that is user friendly and easily accessible.
TIMING & SEQUENCING
A key issue in such a compressed format is striving for balance between allowing flexibility for students’ varied schedules while helping them stay on track in the course. In this condensed course, the pace is quick. If a student falls behind or delays in clearing up confusion it’s really tough to catch up. Lesson learned: create smaller learning modules, due sooner, with earlier feedback. Build the content more incrementally. The earlier feedback should help students see if they are learning the content well and understand it sufficiently to apply it to the projects.
In addition to providing earlier feedback, it’s a good idea to offer dual submission dates. For students who work consistently, consider offering a small reward including preliminary feedback on their work. Allow time for them to revise. Then set a final deadline for the assessment. Students who miss or ignore the preliminary deadline forego receiving formative feedback.
Related to the “less is more” theme, consider holding off on content heavy discussions during the early units. Wait for students to get a handle on the basics, understand the language of the discipline, and gain some confidence about what they already know, before adding discussions. The cognitive load associated with a new discipline is significant. High quality discourse is more likely when students can devote mental energy to discussion topics later in the course.
Use class introductions, to me and to each other, to teach the online discussion process, etiquette and purpose. Include a screenshot of a “nested” discussion to show students what deep online discourse looks like. Point out the “subscribe” feature in the LMS discussion tool. It will help students keep up with the latest posts.
Weekly “How-to” emails, unit “kickoff” messages and other, targeted messages from me should be an integral part of the course. I spent more time than I anticipated responding and reacting last summer. I’d like to get ahead of the issues this time. By predicting problem spots and sending upbeat messages, reminders and encouragement I hope to foster a community of learners, not just geographically dispersed participants in the same course.
The above advice represents about half the list. The remainder focus on very course-specific suggestions: quality of instructions provided to students, the characteristics and complexity of some assignments, the structure of other assignments, and the guidance (or lack of it) given to students. If you’ve never left extensive course notes for yourself, I encourage you to make the relatively small investment of time needed to do this during and at the end of your courses. You’ll be surprised by the details you’ve forgotten.
By approaching my problems with “What might make things a little better?” rather than “What is the solution?” I avoid setting myself up for certain frustration. My experience has shown me that I am not going to solve anything in one stroke; at best I am only going to chip away at it. ~ Hugh Prather