Monday, 2 May 2016

teaching compressed courses

I read this paper for the Augustana Spring Workshop in preparation for our transition to teaching 3 and 11 week blocks from the 12+ weeks we currently teach in a term. Many of the best practices that the study suggest are practices that I am already trying to implement in my current courses. It seems, that best practices are to flip the classroom and holding students accountable for their pre-class preparation, and using the in-class portion for applications of the material. To do this, I have had to seriously consider what to keep in a course and what to throw out in order to keep the cognitive load for students reasonable. What I have most trouble doing when I flip a course is to vary the activities in class so that active learning does not become tedious. This is difficult. I find it relatively easy to find and design applications of learned content and to make those into team-based activities, but that invariably ends up being some sort of MCQ type problem. However, I have experimented with versions of the digital art walk with posters and communal slideshows - those work well. Also, sometimes turning the problem-solving activity into a game or competitions with M&Ms as the prize is sufficient to entice students to become engaged. But still, sometimes students are just tired and are in need of some guidance. This is where it takes experience to be able to judge what is needed at the time.

One of the things that I disagreed with in this article was the recommendation to supply students with notes. I really believe that short-circuits students learning. It is the process of developing notes that is valuable not the notes themselves. I suspect that what this best practice is really trying to promote is instructors to find and assign reasonable reading assignments and if none are found to produce their own textbook for students (rather than notes). This makes some sense but of course, how many of us are going to find the time to write our own tailored textbook for compressed courses? An alternative is to provide students with detailed reading guides that indicates which parts of the reading are critically important to attend to. I have gone to either extreme with reading guides that are overly detailed vs those that are too sparse. There is a happy medium between these two extremes.

Finally, I was surprised that by their suggestion that instructors plan the entire course rather than planning only one or two days in advance. Do many faculty plan that last minute? I have been planning my course daily instructional schedule since I started teaching in 1990! I can only assume that my mentor, Morley Riske, must have been an exemplary instructor to have been this far ahead in best practices. Actually, I don't have to assume..... I know he was an exemplary instructor. I cannot imagine teaching a course without the goalposts at the end of the term to guide where I am going with the course.

In sum, it seems that the best practices for teaching compressed courses basically distill down to flipping the classroom and using in-class meetings to apply course material in an active engaged manner. To do this requires careful planning and forethought using backwards design which includes carefully choosing preparatory reading (or other) assignments and holding students accountable for their pre-class preparation with quizzes or assignments completed at the start of a course chunk. In addition, students need frequent formative feedback to guide their learning and to also guide instructors to determine what students need help with. I also like the idea of dividing current course content into must know, need to know, and nice to know. Again, this is the approach that I have taken when redesigning courses as flipped classrooms. To reduce cognitive load for students' pre-class preparation and in order to make room for in-class application of learning, peripheral content must be ejected from the course.

Best practices for teaching compressed courses overlaps significantly with my experience in retooling courses for team-based learning.