November 2010 Archives

* Lecture less*. Rethink the coverage/transmission model in which you do all the work in lecture, and students sit passively listening. Giving students an opportunity in class to think, reflect, and practice the intellectual skills that you model when you lecture promotes their learning and uses your time more efficiently. Consider having students analyze texts, interpret graphs, or work through problems in groups as part of the class time. An added benefit is that you see how students are processing the ideas that you’re sharing with them.

* Put time limits around class prep*. Don’t let preparation take an unlimited, unspecified amount of time. Set aside prep time and stick to that.

* Assign realistically and efficiently.* Consider sequencing assignments toward ever greater depth/development rather than asking students to write several papers or solve hundreds of problems. Your providing feedback on drafts of a single paper can be much more productive for their learning than assigning several papers with no chance for them to revise. Similarly, asking students to solve a limited number of problems that gradually get more challenging, rather than lots of problems that require only rote processing, saves you time and promotes better learning.

* Establish your grading criteria and, if applicable, your point allocations for particular assignments*. Being explicit about the basis for your grading promotes consistency in assigning grades including partial credit, and saves you time overall.

* Give thorough assignments.* Clarify your expectations in the assignment. Share your grading criteria with students, thus telling them what you value in their learning. Consider providing exemplars of prior students’ work (anonymously and with permission, of course). Save time by not having to field questions about title pages, citation methods, and research expectations.

* Have students use resources other than you*. Let your students know about Learning Resources Center and the Writing Center. If students can hone their critical reading or problem solving skills or get their drafts in shape, it may save you time for addressing their specific disciplinary questions in office hours.

* Give feedback, but don’t do all the work for them.* Ask questions, point to places where students need to rethink an idea or computation. Avoid the urge to edit their work. Instead, decide on 2-3 strengths of the paper and 2-3 areas where they need improvement. Write up these remarks separately and save them. This way you have a record for later discussion with students and a way to follow their progress. Consider providing answer keys for problem sets that highlight strategies for solving problems and point out common errors, rather than writing these same comments over and over on individual student work or not giving students enough feedback.

* Use Blackboard.* Post course materials online, rather than field questions about individual assignments or course expectations. If a student asks a question that you suspect other students share, use the communication functions or discussion board to get your response to the others.

*Adapted from materials of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, Princeton University.*

By mid-term you as an instructor often have several sources of information about your students’ experiences in your course. You have their homework, exam, and paper grades, and you may have their input on a mid-semester feedback form. These sources may show you what research bears out: novice learners often have a different idea of what doing the work in the course entails than you do. So how can you use that knowledge to help move your students forward productively?

In some cases you may want to refer your students to the Learning Resources Center for special help. But you may also want to consider some class activities that demonstrate and provide practice in the various learning processes and skills needed to succeed in your discipline. To experts like professors these processes and skills are invisible—a concept known as expert blind spot. And we as experts can often presume that what is familiar to us is obvious to our students. Below are some ways to help students develop the skills needed to do meaningful work in our disciplines:

* Help students think about their own thinking*. The practice of thinking about one’s thinking (metacognition) is a powerful aid to learning, and making students do this work explicitly can help them develop this habit. In quantitative work, occasionally ask students to explain their reasoning in words for each step in solving a problem, either in writing on homework or orally to a fellow student during class. When students are preparing to write essays, have them analyze writing samples for thesis, claims, and evidence. Consider having students read each other’s work with guidance on critique, or have students evaluate some samples of their own work using a rubric. In class discussions, ask students to explain the reasoning behind their comments.

* Model the thinking processes and specific skills needed for your course*. Show students how you work in your discipline. Demonstrate a close reading of a piece of fiction or model how you read a journal article. Show them how you interpret a data set. Solve a sample problem in class, showing students how you ask yourself questions and try alternate paths. Bring to class a stack of drafts of a manuscript you’re working on, illustrating your own revision process. Students often assume that learning should be easy—we need to show them the kinds and amount of effort required for learning, even for us.

* Allocate some points on assignments based on the processes of learning rather than the products*. Assign some points on problem sets or in-class exercises to students’ explanations of steps of a problem, thus forcing them away from “plus and chug.” Give students credit for identifying and/or generating thesis statements and evidence in portions of written work. Include drafts of papers as part of the grade (think about peer review, another powerful tool, as a way to lessen your grading burden). When students are doing design or engineering projects or major term papers, have them keep a journal or portfolio of their ideas and drafts and include it as part of the grade. Students know what you value by what you grade, so if you want your students to develop the thinking habits and practices for your discipline, help them focus their attention on the process, not just the product, through your assignments.