Tuesday, 3 March 2015

keeping your teaching fresh

I just participated in an online presentation by Maryellen Weimer entitled "How to Keep Your Teaching Fresh" hosted by Magna Publications. She always has interesting advice to give. The online community participation through Twitter and the chat function was great. So many instructors that are enthusiastic and engaged in how to create the best learning environment for their students. Here are some of the things that I learned.

Maryellen began by discussing how to engage our classes beyond the handful of students who always respond to our questions. She suggested the three-hand technique to encourage diversity of response during class discussion. This simply involves choosing the 3rd or 4th hand that goes up to answer our question or provide a comment. Sometimes this takes some time - but that is ok. Patience is important in teaching and learning.

I often use reading quizzes in my courses particularly when I use Team-Based Learning as the instructional strategy. The point of the quizzes is formative not summative assessment. Thus to decrease student anxiety about being tested on material before being covered in class, Maryellen suggested that students be permitted to bring in their own notes they prepared while reading the article. If they bring in sheets of paper with notes - that is fine. The point is to encourage student learning, not to assess what they have learned for these sorts of formative assessments. I like that and think I will use it.

She also discussed the merits of following individual quizzes with group quizzes. I routinely use these in my courses, again particularly when I use TBL as the instructional strategy. I have found that IF AT cards are particularly good at stimulating conversation during these group activities and provide a means for student learning during the assessment: Something advocated by Eric Mazur. The online chat during Maryellen's presentation queried whether or not there is an optimum group size. My reading of the TBL literature suggests that the sweet spot is between 5 and 7 students. Less than five and there is the tendency for one or two students to dominate the conversation. More than seven and there is the propensity for social loafing. Bonnie Mullinix responded to my response suggesting that the optimium group size is dependent upon class size and complexity of activity. I knew that making groups within small classes becomes redundant (creating groups is one way of trying to create the conditions of the small class) but I hadn't considered that group size should decrease in response to the complexity of the assignment. I am hoping I find a reference that corroborates this inverse relationship.

Maryellen also discussed the efficacy of study groups citing a post from the Teaching Professor (Study Groups Pay Off, Aug/Sept 1991) in which Robinson suggested that students who form their own study groups register with their instructor and email updates to them regarding their meeting and what they accomplished. Further, because students do not always have experience with study groups, instructors can guide them with emailed suggestions of group study activities and techniques and reward study groups for their efforts by applying bonus points to members of the study group based on the average that study group members earn on assignments or tests. Interesting idea....

There was also some discussion on the propensity of instructors to try a new teaching and learning technique only to abandon them as soon as they receive negative feedback from students. Maryellen suggests that trying something new is never an unmitigated disaster. Some strategies work better for some students and instructors than others. It is important for us to remember that we as instructors are not experiencing the new technique from the point of learning - it is the students. Thus it is important for instructors to seek mid-course feedback from students and then to consider the number of students giving similar comments. We shouldn't toss out a new teaching strategy based on only one or two negative comments. Implementing a new teaching and learning technique requires student feedback but also critical reflection on that feedback by instructors to determine what teaching strategies will work and how they might be improved.

The issue of providing extra credit to students was raised. Maryellen cited a survey from the 1980s that suggested that most faculty were not in favour of giving students extra credit for example in the case of compensating for a less than desired mark on an exam or assignment. Maryellen suggested that this could be used as a learning incentive if instructors permitted the possibility of extra credit only if students achieve a certain level on an assignment or exam. I am not sure how I feel about that. In her book Learner-Centered Teaching Maryellen gives the example she used in one of her courses in which students could do as much or as little of the work that was available to be completed in the course. To earn a particular grade required that students earn a certain number of marks but that there were a number of different ways to do this - few assignments for which students earn a very high percentage mark or many more assignments/quizzes for which a lower percent mark is earned. It is a controversial way of approaching the awarding of student completed work but well worth considering if only to shake up your own thinking about marking and assigning grades.

Maryellen's last piece of advice was to not change everything at once. Rather, she advises instructors to make incremental change. This is the same advice I received from my friend Mark Lewis many many years ago when I first started my university teaching career. He advised to choose one aspect of a course to change and then do only that. To do any more only hastens our burnout as teachers. In addition, when implementing an innovation in our teaching we must be careful to field test it first before inflicting it on our students. We can manage less than desired results in our classes if it is only one innovation that needs attention. But if we have a number of new innovations that we are juggling at the same time.... we shouldn't be surprised when we drop more than one ball.