While I haven’t blogged much this summer, here is a list of things that I’ve thought about, and that have informed my planning for the Fall 2007 semester.
• Start with a plan – It’s important to start the semester with a plan for what I hope to achieve in each course, because once school starts (and especially after midterm time) faculty and students find themselves slogging thru the swamp, unable to remember and perhaps not even caring what the objective was. For best results, the plan should be visible to the students. Yes, I know this is obvious, but just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s always done.
• The role of expertise in a learning-centered course – For some time, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of student-centered teaching, which seemed to put the focus where it belongs–on student learning rather than instructor teaching. As economists like to say, “It’s outputs, not inputs that ultimately matter.” Student-centered teaching typically assumes a constructivist philosophy of learning: learners have to construct their own understanding of knowledge, instead of passively accepting the knowledge which is fed to them by the instructor. For me, a problem with the notion of student-centered teaching was confusion in my mind about the role of the instructor. Gardner pointed out that I seemed to be throwing out the baby with the bathwater (my words, not his). He suggested the term “learning-centered” or “learner-centered” teaching as a better descriptor. A course can be learning-centered, without devaluing the role of expertise by the instructor. In a true learning-centered course, the expertise of the instructor is only one source of course content, but it is a critical source since the instructor can interact with the learners in a way no text is able to. Students still have to make sense out of what the instructor says, just as they have to make sense out of texts.
• Text Materials appropriate to the course’s intent – In my career I’ve struggled with the question of whether a text is critical, optional or irrelevant. When I decided the former, my question became how to get students to read the text. The answer may be to make clear to students that texts are designed to be complementary to class lectures and discussions, and that if they don’t read the texts, they will be missing important material. Instructors always imply that, but we need to be explicit about it and honor that commitment. Of course there is some overlap between text and other resources, but material from the text which does not require explication using scarce class time should be learned outside of class. A question I’m still wrestling with: how to increase the diversity of readings that students read beyond the basic text in the FSEM?
• Think about how best to use class time – Class sessions should provide value in the form of learning for students. If they do not, it is no wonder that students don’t come to class. One fatal flaw in this reasoning could be those students who care about grades but not learning. If the learning in class sessions is not rewarded with grades, such students may not attend class. One possible way to deal with to this disconnect which I hope to exploit is to make class fun, different from the texts, compelling or “sticky.” I plan to do that by incorporating audio and visual elements (images and video) and group activities where pedagogically effective. I started this last year in my intro courses and will do more this year.
• “Sticky” class sessions – How many sticky class sessions do we need to make students see the course as sticky? 1 per week? 1 per month? I’m shooting for at least one class session for each of the twelve topics we cover in the intro course this semester.
• Regular formative assessment – How can I incorporate this into each course? Another way to weaken the ‘grades instead of learning focus’ may be to incorporate regular formative assessment into the course so that students can see how they’re doing outside of the context of grades. I plan to do this in my intro course with two tracks labeled “For a C+” ( using online quizzes) and “For a B+” (using meta activities). In the research methodology course, I’ll use a JIT wiki (like last term’s ECON 304 experiment) and Blackboard gradebook to disseminate homework assignment grades. (The homework assignments are graded, acceptable or redo, so there’s still a formative element here.)
• End of the semester/artificial school – I’ve noted before that the end of the semester creates a situation of artificial school, where faculty pretend to teach (MUST cover all the content!) and students pretend to learn (ONLY eight hours left to study before the final.) The stress of students and faculty all boosting efforts at the end of the semester creates a paradoxical situation where much less actually gets learned—this seems more than just a situation of diminishing marginal returns. It’s as if the increased activity in each class serves to shift down the production function in the others. Is there a way to restructure the course to avoid this, recognizing that there is a sort of prisoner’s dilemma or free rider problem here—if I simply assign less work, students learn more in their other courses? My two seminars last year suggested an alternative. Instead of a final exam or paper in the traditional sense I asked students to write a reflection on the course. It wasn’t merely an opinion piece but a structured commentary. In both courses students responded very well to this, seeing it as a break from the norm. Can making assignments creative and fun enable students to do a better job? Perhaps. If a final exam is necessary, perhaps a better way to do it would be to give it late in the term, but before the exam period. For now, my plan in the intro course is to include a final exam, but lower the weight on it by adding a more substantial homework element to the course grade, which can be spread over the term.