Teaching Tip: Looking back to move forward

At this point in the semester, I’m certainly not going to suggest that you try some new approach to your teaching.   Instead, I’d like to share an idea that could help you develop your own teaching tips.

On my faculty developers’ listserv, we have been discussing the practice of writing an end of semester “case study” of one or more classes.   At one institution, every instructor is asked to critically examine each of their courses and reflect in writing on what went well, what did not go so well, potential ways to improve the course for the next offering, etc. This exercise was not part of the annual summative evaluation (although it might come in very handy), but was meant to provide a useful structure for analyzing and reviewing teaching progress.

Now, I think most of us do some kind of basic looking back at the end of the semester, but I don’t know if anyone at Marymount is doing anything quite this comprehensive (if you are, let me know!).  When I read about it, I first thought that it would take a non-trivial amount of time, particularly if taken seriously.  However, I think that the process would provide benefits that might just make that time worthwhile.  These are the benefits I see (so far anyway):

  • If you only teach a course once a year (or even less), it’s hard to remember what you intended to change unless you keep some kind of records.  While I tend to scrawl a few notes on the old syllabus and assignment sheets and throw them into the course folder, after a year these often seem incomplete and sometimes incomprehensible.  How the future me would appreciate a thoughtful analysis in complete sentences! And since the future me is the only person who gets this, I don’t have to worry about editing it for public viewing.
  • I’m pretty convinced that I would actually process more deeply and learn more from writing up my reflections than even just thinking deeply.  If there is one thing I believe in more every semester, it’s the power of writing to actually help thinking happen, not just record the thinking that occurred.  Writing is learning, and I want to learn things that will help me teach more effectively.
  • I think using this process could help me remember points I want to make about my teaching performance during the annual assessment process, for example by identifying teaching strengths and weaknesses and show how I am addressing them.  So, this process could save time while writing that document, since essentially I will have done some of the work for it in advance.
  • Finally, this process will help me identify where I want to improve as an instructor, what kind of reading I should be doing or what kind of sessions to attend at teaching conferences and what questions I want to ask my colleagues about how they handle specific teaching issues.

A couple of listserv responders suggested possible questions and formats for a course review or case study.  One is fairly structured toward the course itself and asks questions like:

  • What do I think of the course’s learning objectives?  How might they need to be changed and how hard would that be?  Do they feed into other courses or program objectives?
  • How well did students meet each objective?  What evidence am I using and is there better evidence that I could collect?  How well can I even judge how well students met each objective?  Was there an objective I really didn’t measure that well, or at all?
  • Did my assignments help students to meet my course objectives?  Do some of my assignments not really relate to any of my course objectives and goals?
  • Was the time I and my students spent on assignments and activities (e.g. completing assignments, giving feedback for and grading assignments, planning class activities) worth the academic payoff?

Another, more global approach was suggested by independent consultant Alice Cassidy and focuses on the classic paper, Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, Chickering & Gamson (1987).  Don’t be put off by the title if you teach graduate students.  The concepts are universal.

Good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students
  3. Encourages active learning,
  4. Gives prompt feedback,
  5. Emphasizes time on task,
  6. Communicates high expectations, and
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Cassidy asks instructors to reflect on how they are implementing each of the 7 principles as well as thinking about the following three questions:

* What do you do in class time, in meetings with students and through design of assignments?  How do you take part in professional development activities to explore more about these?

* In what ways do you document your work through a teaching portfolio/dossier or other material?

* When and how do you explain these to your students?

I’m definitely going to try this approach after my final grades are in.  If you already do something like this, please share your process with us, or other thoughts you have about ways we can learn from our teaching experiences.



Teaching Tip: End of Semester Stories

Students can be so annoying at this time of the semester.  They wait too long to come in for help or they avoid us and hope that somehow we will fail to notice their failing grades, their absences from class, their disengagement.  Then they come in to see you, desperately hoping for a miracle.  They are, in the words of one of my students “feeling uneasy” when alarm bells should have been sounding for weeks.

I’ve spent the last day at an advising conference, which has prompted me to concentrate on the advisory role we play with students.  Whether or not they are your official advisees, giving feedback, support, suggestions and difficult doses of reality is an inescapable part of the faculty role.  How do we respond to these students appropriately, especially when we’re annoyed by their behavior?

Peter Hagen from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey  provided one perspective on this issue during his presentation on the role of narrative, metaphor and hermaneutics in advising.  While the following thoughts were inspired by his presentation, they are undoubtedly filtered through my own interpretations and certainly capture only a portion of his argument.

Narrative – every student has a story.  (So does everybody else, for that matter – we are a story-telling species.)  Sometimes we think we’ve heard them all, fiction and non-fiction alike. But how do we interpret this story?  How does the student see the arc of their life and experiences?  Is theirs a success story?  Or is it a story of redemption, overcoming odds to succeed at last?  Or a story of contamination where a good story inevitably goes bad?  Understanding how the student sees him or herself can help us understand what they expect, and how they may interpret and structure situations so that what they expect comes true.  If the student’s story shows them as members of a group to whom loyalty is more important than individual success, how will that affect their performance in your class?  Do they see themselves as agents or as buffeted helplessly by external forces?  Instead of brushing off those crazy stories, what if we tried to dig deeper and find the conflicts between their personal narratives and the norms and expectations of higher education?  What implicit assumptions do student stories contain and how can we go about making them explicit and confronting them?  This is not to excuse students from meeting the requirements of our programs, but to help them understand how their stories both help and hinder them in achieving their goals.

Metaphor – what is your metaphor for teaching?  What is your students’ metaphor for learning?  Do they expect learning to be hydraulic — you pour knowledge into their brains and they leak it out all over their final exam? (And then it’s gone!)  Do they think of courses as boxes that are unconnected to each other or to real life?  How can we shift metaphors that limit student and faculty understanding of learning, teaching and education into others that offer new meaning?  What if thought of teaching as more akin to coaching? What if student’s metaphors shifted too?  Could that affect their understanding of their responsibility for learning?  How would it change our understanding of good teaching?

Hermaneutics – how can we learn to “read” students – what is the real meaning behind their actions?  Instead of throwing up our hands at the lame excuses, can we look beneath the surface to see what is really going on?  I think this is related to both the stories they tell themselves (and us) and the metaphors that shape their thinking.  Think of the student who turns in work late, or not at all.  What is their action saying?  Is it “I know I can’t live up to expectations so I’m not going to risk failure.”  Or “I have never had to be responsible for myself before and I don’t know how to do it.”  Perhaps “My other responsibilities (or desires) are more important than my commitment to myself and my learning.”  Or even “I don’t think rules really apply to me, because they haven’t in the past.”  We can apply the same sanction to each of those students.  But will we have asked those students to really question their beliefs and assumptions, evaluated their choices and learned from them?

For some people, I am sure that this emphasis on looking beneath the surface of student behaviors sounds dangerously like counseling.  Perhaps I’m showing my own disciplinary bias here, but I believe that if we really want to educate the whole person, we need to see the whole person.

So, just what you want to hear at the end of the semester.  It’s much easier to just give an extension (or not), assign a grade and move on.  Digging deeper takes more time and effort. But pick one or two students, maybe the ones that really bug you.  See if you can see them from a different perspective.  At the very least, you may be less annoyed with them.  At best, you will make a difference in their lives.  Isn’t that why we are here?