The Teaching Professor
October 1, 2011
As I left my desk to attend the faculty development workshop, I picked up four thank-you cards for the rotations program, a report to read, and a newsletter to edit. I’ve been to dozens of development seminars, and I’ve learned to be prepared with something else to do in case the presenter is mind-numbingly boring. The pleasant surprise of the morning was that the speaker engaged us in learning for more than three hours! How did he do that?
When I was a boy growing up in Tennessee, I did not need a calendar to tell me when fall was on its way. I simply listened to my mother, waiting for her to point out the increasingly dark shadows cast by the leafy trees. As a seasoned college professor, walking around my campus’ quadrangle in the oppressive heat of a summer afternoon, I find myself looking at the shadows cast by the giant live oaks and reflecting on the seasonal changes to come. I am also looking for students and faculty members, but I see none and their absence transforms a campus into something that it is not.
This study begins with some pretty bleak facts. It lists other research documenting the failure rates for introductory courses in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and physics. Some are as high as 85 percent; only two are less than 30 percent. “Failure has grave consequences. In addition to the emotional and financial toll that failing students bear, they may take longer to graduate, leave the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] disciplines or drop out of school entirely.”
Most frequently, authenticity is described as being “real” or “genuine,” and the advice often given to faculty wanting to develop authenticity in their teaching is to “just do what comes naturally.” But obvious definitions and easy advice frequently obfuscate deeper complexities, and that is definitely the case with authenticity.
Technology offers professors a variety of supports not possible even a few years ago. For example, to discover whether or not students are plagiarizing material, professors can use several different software programs that compare the content students are submitting with material posted on the Web. This study used the program called Turnitin. The author explains how it works. “It merely matches material presented in a specific document uploaded to the Turnitin website to material presented on the Internet.
Of all the classroom assessment techniques proposed by Angelo and Cross, and subsequently devised by faculty, the muddiest-point technique is the most well-known and possibly the most widely used. It gives students the opportunity to say, in writing, what they found the least clear or confusing about course content presented during a class session or across several of them. Faculty have used a variety of different prompts to solicit student reaction to content.
Most professors want students to know how to research and write in their fields. In fact, many degree programs now have introductory courses for majors with content that addresses these research and writing basics. However, the assumption that students learn everything they need in one course is a faulty one. All of us who teach courses for majors need to regularly revisit this content if students are to develop these research and writing abilities. Let me be specific and suggest six things professors can do that help students improve in both areas.
Our “office hours off campus” idea transpired from a speech given by Dr. Iain Campbell at a publisher’s workshop we attended. Dr. Campbell teaches large biology lecture courses at the University of Pittsburgh and few students came to his office to discuss problems they were having with his course. However, when he was sitting on the steps in front of the library reading the newspaper, students stopped to ask questions about that day’s lecture. He decided he would regularly read his newspaper there, and when the weather turned colder he moved to a coffee shop frequented by students. Before long, he was regularly meeting students off campus and never in his office.