The Teaching Professor
Current Issue: March 1, 2014
We need better data describing what’s happening in classrooms. Faculty’s and students’ descriptions aren’t always that accurate. End-of-course rating data is highly judgmental. Classroom observation by outsiders happens irregularly, is generally evaluative, and is often colored by the observer’s perspectives. The data collected in an individual classroom is usually confidential and almost never aggregated. Given all this, what goes on in a collection of classrooms—say, those in a department or even across an institution—is pretty much a matter of speculation. Are faculty using as much active learning as they say they are? Are students taking notes, or are they texting during class?
It’s good to regularly review the advantages and disadvantages of the most commonly used test questions and the test banks that now frequently provide them.
Is this situation at all like what you’re experiencing? Class sizes are steadily increasing, students need more opportunities to practice critical thinking skills, and you need to keep the amount of time devoted to grading under control. That was the situation facing a group of molecular biology and biochemistry professors teaching an advanced recombinant DNA course. They designed an interesting assessment alternative that addressed what they were experiencing.
In a small study undertaken in three sections of intermediate macroeconomic theory, MacDermott compared three assessment policies in terms of their impact on the cumulative final exam score: 1) three in-class exams each worth 20 percent of the grade; 2) three in-class exams with the lowest exam score dropped and the other two exams each worth 30 percent of the grade; and 3) three in-class exams (each worth 20 percent), plus the option of an end-of-course exam whose score is permitted to replace the lowest score on the other three exams.
Instructional strategies acquire names, labels that describe what the strategy involves—active learning, problem-based learning, cooperative learning. Sometimes the strategies gain popularity. They become widely used, and so do the terms that describe them. After a while teachers stop describing what they are doing in class. They simply refer to it by the label: “Yes, I have students work in groups. I use cooperative learning.”The problem is that we think we’re talking about the same thing, and we aren’t, as is eloquently illustrated in the article referenced below
Teaching requires more than just a keen mind; it also demands emotional energy, and that is particularly true for new teachers. But what emotions do they experience? Are those feelings more positive than negative? Are certain emotions associated with particular teaching approaches? These are all interesting questions—and all are relatively unexplored in the research on first-time teachers. In fact the same could be said of the research on the role of emotions in teaching at all career stages.
That’s what they were first developed for (clear back in the ’70s, would you believe), and in the beginning they were used to assess written work. Now teachers are finding them useful in assessing a wide range of classroom activities and assignments: oral presentations, Web creations of various sorts, graphic designs, debates, online discussions, and wiki contributions only start the list. One of the primary motivations for using them has been that they shorten grading time. The article referenced below cites other authors who suggest that they shorten grading time by up to 50 percent. Rublee, the author of this article, claims that they saved her hundreds of hours. (p. 202)
Any instructional practice that is new to you, such as group testing, giving students a role in creating a classroom policy, or getting students involved in assessment, is not just a new activity that requires attention to a new set of implementation details; it’s a practice that shines light on fundamental beliefs about teaching and learning. It raises questions, challenges what we believe, and enables us to consider how aspects of teaching and learning look when viewed from a different perspective. Maybe our beliefs can’t change, or maybe the practice doesn’t fit with a particular educational philosophy, but isn’t it better to have at least considered it or tried so we can say with authority that it’s at odds with what we believe?
It’s often unexpected and usually something of an affront: The teacher has devoted time and energy to preparing a new activity (or series of activities) for students. The teacher has opted to use the activities because they are consistent with what the research says about how students learn best. But instead of endorsing the new and exciting (at least from the teacher’s perspective) learning experience, student resist. Most of the time they do so passively, with nonverbal behaviors that eloquently convey their distaste for what is occurring. Occasionally they speak to the issue directly: “We don’t want to do this in groups. You need to lecture. That’s what we want teachers to do.” Unfortunately this kind of resistance can often be the tipping point for teachers. If they’re feeling a bit uncomfortable using the new approach, if they really enjoy, say, lecturing, if they think student objections will lead to lower course evaluations, these factors collectively or individually can be enough to persuade teachers to return to those tried-and-true instructional approaches.
Herreid and colleagues have asked themselves the question raised in the title. To answer, they surveyed the more than 1,300 teachers on the Center’s listserv (mostly biologists and faculty who teach health-related subjects), asking them to identify their favorite case and say what made it their favorite. “We thought it would be instructive to identify the faculty’s special favorites on our website, but more important, to help us identify those characteristics that make a case good.” (p. 70)
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