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The Teaching Professor Current Issue: June, 2018
Research shows that checking for understanding is perhaps one of the most important components of a teaching sequence. Most teachers provide instruction on a topic and follow up with some questions. On a good day, 4–5 students may volunteer and respond with the correct answers. The teacher then assumes that the majority of the class understands the concept and can handle a homework assignment. The teacher then moves on to the next topic.
When the topic is critical thinking skills, the assumption is that everybody knows what it is, but when asked to define it, there’s usually some hesitation and the definitions don’t all agree. If pushed on the strategies used to develop these skills that everyone agrees are important, no definitive set emerges.
By Celeste Leander, University of British Columbia Every year, we enthusiastically welcome incoming students to the academy. I teach at a large research university with a strong and proud commitment to teaching undergraduates. For those of us in professional roles, belonging to the academy means something rich. It includes discussions in hallways and offices as we chew on new ideas; learning and dissecting the work of those who came before us; and asking tough questions as we look to the future. For our students, this introduction happens in the classroom, where we take ideas, generate hypotheses, test them, look at findings and creatively apply them to problems.
Class discussions present teachers with a number of different challenges, including the often limited number who participate, those who make comments but do so without having done the reading, and the many students who, as Emily Gravett notes, treat class discussions as “down time.” (p. 75) They relax in their seats, discretely (or not) check their phones, and almost never take notes unless the teacher says something they consider important.
As teaching professors, we try to change students, whether it’s a change that increases their factual knowledge, one that gives them a new way of thinking, or one that develops an important new skill. Frustration, stress, and tension frequently accompany change, especially change that involves learning. As a result and as an expected part of our jobs, students ask us for help, which we are happy to give. But, we have to stop short of doing the work students need to be doing for themselves. I’ve been thinking lately about how we determine if we are offering too little or too much help. And here’s where that thinking has taken me.
Consider this scenario: Two sections of an art history course taught by two different instructors. Both professors show slides of paintings—six paintings each by 12 different painters, a total of 72 paintings. Professor A shows all six paintings by the artist, one after the other. Professor B mixes up paintings, showing one by one artist, followed by a painting done by a different artist.
Many faculty wonder how to help students in the dominant group understand societal privilege without making them defensive. One day, a situation arose in my course that changed my approach to this topic. I was teaching about using APA citations, and, in the course of doing so, opened my spiral-bound copy of the APA manual and folded it back on itself. After several minutes of instruction, I gave students a chance to practice. During this pause, a student spoke up, “I wish my manual had spiral binding,” and the group reverberated with this idea. I hadn’t noticed that my book was different than theirs. But apparently, while I was talking, they were very attuned to the fact my manual was spiral-bound and theirs were paperbacks that didn’t stay open that easily.