The Teaching Professor
November 1, 2010
Quizzes are standard in many college classrooms, and determining how to best use this learning format generates a variety of discussion and suggestions—if you regularly read the Teaching Professor you’ve seen any number published here. I, too, continue to search for ways to inspire the often dull quiz routine. In an effort to bring new strategies to the classroom and keep student engagement high, I have recently discovered a successful strategy that encourages a sense of community in class, offers students an opportunity to engage in collaborative learning, and motivates students to come to class prepared. Let me explain how it works
Staring at a blank screen the night before the research paper was due—this was the dilemma faced by my upper-level science students. This paper, the product of their independent research projects, is an important part of our curriculum and one component of our assessment of their scientific writing skills. However, the products of these last-minute efforts suffered. Students were unsatisfied with their grades, and reading these hastily prepared papers was painful for me. Even worse, when I returned this work, students flipped to the final score on the paper and never bothered with my comments. Buried in the final frantic weeks of the semester, amid other assignments and final exams, the learning potential of this experience was largely lost.
The typical college student dreads hearing, “Let’s review the chapters you read for homework.” What generally ensues is a question and answer drill in which students are peppered with questions designed to make clear who has and hasn’t done the reading. In reality, these exchanges do little to encourage deep thought or understanding of the assigned reading. They produce awkward silences during which students squirm in their seats, hoping to become invisible. Other times students decline to answer for fear of giving the wrong answer. Almost all the time a negative tone permeates the classroom during this review. I decided to restructure the way that I approached reviews of reading assignments, and found that by doing things differently, I could change both the tone and outcomes of the review activity. I’d like to share some of the ideas and techniques that I have found useful:
I was the invited outside speaker at a professional development event for schoolteachers. The day’s lunch was preceded by a public prayer that inspired me to consider parallels in “callings to serve” that can be found in both education and religion. Sometime later, I happened to read a poem in a Jewish prayer book that expressed noble intentions for a worship space. The poem didn’t reference a particular faith—it was really just a set of intentions. Immediately, I thought of what professors hope for in their classroom spaces.
Coaching seemed like the best metaphor to describe the way I wanted to teach. What were the best coaching practices? I questioned colleagues in the kinesiology (formerly physical education) department. The answers were scattered. Successful coaches motivated, facilitated, marketed, or delivered therapy. They yelled, prayed, hugged, talked heart to heart, or inspired with sermons. That didn’t seem like an answer.
Then I stumbled on to the obvious. John Wooden was deemed the best coach of the 20th century.
For most of my 19 years as a teacher, I retained rather rigid control over assigning grades in my classes. My students did not participate in the process until recently. A couple of summers ago, I read a book on learner-centered teaching, and it, along with some urging from my program, persuaded me to try releasing a modicum of that control. To that end, I developed an “Attendance and Participation Self-Evaluation Form.”