A Radical Revision of My Introductory Course

If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that I’ve been thinking pretty widely about how to revise the teaching of my introductory course. To quote Mitchel Resnick,

To take full advantage of new technology, we need to fundamentally rethink our approaches to learning and education, and our ideas of how new technology can support them.

Well that’s what I’ve been doing and here is what I’ve come up with. In the past, my approach to lecture notes was to read all the references I assigned my students and then boil them down to their essence, explaining them in a way, hopefully, that would make the most sense to my students. It shouldn’t have been any surprise then that my students didn’t generally read the books, since I’d done it for them. Long ago I came to believe that the best way to learn something was to work through it myself rather than simply getting the answers from someone else. I think I’ve been subverting that principle with my homogenized lecture notes.

This coming semester, I’m throwing those notes out the window. I will tell my students that they need to read and make sense of the texts on their own, and that I will assume they have learned the material unless they indicate otherwise. I will begin each class by asking for questions about the readings and I will budget time to respond to those questions. But rather than lecturing from the books, the main purpose of class time will be doing what students can’t do on their own, especially teaching and modeling metacognition.

I want students to think about their learning, to make it meaningful to them, and to help them take ownership of it. I have no doubt that this will require more responsibility, time and effort on their part. I realize this is a radical change and I plan to include a fair amount of scaffolding to support the students. First, students will need regular formative feedback to help them assess their learning of the texts. To that end, I will ask them to complete the interactive quiz questions for each chapter, which are available on the text website. This feature is quite good, in that the questions aren’t bad, when students get them wrong, the software walks them thru subsequent tries, and will also email the results to me. While I may give students credit for these doing the quizzes, I won’t grade them per se, since I don’t want to penalize them for attempting the quizzes. How they score is essentially for them, rather than me.

Early in the first week of the course I will introduce them to the notion of metacognition, which I will define as thinking about and assessing your learning. I will point out that experts think about problems differently than novices do—experts think about them in terms of a framework that they already know, rather than as independent data points, perhaps in search of a meaningful framework. Then I will present them with the framework I developed in an earlier posting

The second formative assessment instrument I will employ involves this metacognitive framework. For each of the roughly ten topics in the course, I will encourage students to identify and show how to apply (in a new context from the one presented in the text or class):

• the major concepts
• the major institutional facts or findings, and
• the major theories or models.

I will promise feedback for every student who submits their responses, which again I will give credit for but not grade.

I fully expect most upper class students to drop this course since there are much easier courses to satisfy their general education requirements. But for the students that stick it out, I expect they will learn a great deal, more than most students most semesters. Wish me luck and stay tuned!

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4 Responses to A Radical Revision of My Introductory Course

  1. Wonderful and inspiring stuff. Sounds like real school to me. Please report often and in detail about your experience. (And of course there’ll be lots of lunches for those of us fortunate enough to be your colleagues in real space.)

  2. Pingback: Gardner Writes » Blog Archive » Greenlaw plans radical change for intro class

  3. Jeff says:

    Radical indeed. I think Gardner is overly optimistic about you having time to actually eat lunch…. 🙂 Seriously, I’ll be following closely your experiences in the class this semester. I think it’s a great idea.

    However, not to smack a deceased equine, but it seems to me that this is the kind of major leap in teaching that it’s harder for newer faculty to make, especially given the possibility of student backlash. (It’s too hard, he’s making us do all the work, and so on). What’s unusual here is that more experienced faculty (who have more job security) aren’t always willing to try such a radical shift in their teaching. Thanks!

  4. rrycroft says:

    I am having trouble envisioning how this new pedagogy will actually play out in the classroom. If it works well, what would the actual classroom dynamics be? It would be helpful to me (and maybe to you) to write a prospective play-by-play of what you anticipate will happen in the classroom. Let’s say today’s topic is the production possibilities frontier. You walk into class and ask if anyone has any questions about the assigned reading. A student raises his/her hand and asks why is growth represented by an outward shift in the curve. You answer. Another student asks some question and you answer. Now there are 40 minutes left in your 50 minute class. What happens next?

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