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May 8, 2003

Faculty Development

By Jack Prostko, Director, Faculty Development Center

With the end of this academic year in sight, most faculty currently teaching are trying to make certain that course material is covered and reviewed, tests planned, papers graded, and projects completed. The next several months are a time to concentrate on research activities, libraries or labs, and writing. But this is also a time to consider rethinking some basic assumptions about teaching--and planning ahead, so that courses run smoothly in the fall and so that the time invested now pays off in more effective student learning next year.

Too often faculty feel that the improvement a course needs depends solely on adjusting content, reorganizing materials, or concentrating on how topics, issues, or findings are covered. Yet student feedback suggests something entirely different--that what matters is how involved students become in the material presented and how much they are allowed to uncover information for themselves.

Sometimes a simple change in perspective and planning can have a significant impact on what happens in the classroom. For example, when faculty talk to me about difficulties with student participation in discussions, I ask about preparation for the class. What instructors mention, usually, is how much time they have invested in organizing the information for a thoughtful and probing investigation of issues. What they do not tell me is how they've made certain that students are prepared for this exchange. In essence, they are ready but the students are not. (Suggestions for avoiding this problem are numerous, from asking students to present brief summaries or critiques of readings, using listservs to get major problems aired before class, or setting up student study groups to raise fundamental questions.)

What this rethinking of a course requires is considering the ways responsibility is placed on students for their own learning. At UMBC we have instituted excellent programs for involving students in research, have developed new and challenging first-year seminars, and are moving toward a more comprehensive system for having students engage in disciplinary writing. But the model many of us still carry into course planning is one that requires faculty to present information which students then absorb and replicate.

Placing responsibility on students for their own learning may seem like something we have always planned for, in the sense that we know students will eventually apply their knowledge in future endeavors. But in organizing courses and structuring tests or assessments, we do not always consider the long-term impact of our course goals (and instead are testing for memorization). What do we expect students to know about the concepts in a course one or two years from now? Are students being challenged to think deeply about material and are they developing the critical thinking skills that our disciplines require for success?

These are the kinds of questions raised by several teachers engaged in the process of rethinking how we organize courses. L. Dee Fink's Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses (San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 2003) offers useful insights on structuring courses to help students retain and use information. Fink recognizes faculty concerns about students: that they "do not complete reading assignments. The energy level in class discussions is low. Students focus on grades rather than on learning" (p .4).

In response to these concerns, Fink provides suggestions for alternative approaches to course design that place increasing responsibility on students. In laying out four essential aspects of teaching-knowledge of subject matter, teacher-student interactions, course management, and design of instruction, Fink notes that "of these four basic aspects of teaching, faculty knowledge about course design is the most significant bottleneck to better teaching and learning in higher education" (pp. 23-24).

This call for attending more carefully to how we design learning assignments for students is also prominent in Maryellen Weimer's Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2002). Weimer is less interested in presenting teaching techniques than in changing our perspective on how we get students to accept the responsibility for their own learning. Like Fink, Weimer is very aware of the difficulties professors currently face with students who seem unprepared or unmotivated for college-level work. And she too suggests that we confront this problem by adjusting our assignments and our teaching so that students can not remain passive observers.

For faculty members interested in exploring course design issues this summer, the Faculty Development Center will sponsor an informal seminar series and provide copies of Fink's or Weimer's books to participants. Please e-mail me or call me at ext. 5-1829 if you are interested in attending. Meeting dates and times will depend on participants' schedules.

And remember to explore the National Teaching and Learning Forum. The current issue contains an article on "Peer Critical Learning Inside and Outside the Classroom" that emphasizes some of the collaborative learning issues raised by Fink and Weimer.

Posted by dwinds1 at May 8, 2003 12:00 AM