Teaching Tips for the New Semester

Steve Volk, August 22, 2016

Frank Boyd, "In Memory," Creative Commons Flickr

Frank Boyd, “In Memory,” Creative Commons Flickr

So I walked out to my driveway… and I couldn’t remember what I was there to do. Trash goes out Wednesday nights and it was Tuesday, so not that. Not to fix the flat on my bike, either; I forgot to pick up the patching kit in town. It won’t be until the next morning, in the shower, that I finally remember that I needed to ask my neighbor to feed the cats while we’re away.

Some years ago I shared with colleagues one of my favorite poems, “Forgetfulness,” by the marvelous Billy Collins. “Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,” he sighed, “it is not poised on the tip of your tongue/or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.” How true. I’m at a point where I forget that we’ve already seen the movies on whose behalf I lobby enthusiastically to go see, or the mysteries I check out of the library only to (re)encounter their strangely familiar plots. This also happens with the timely advice that I’ve received over the years, advice that, Collins again, seems to have “retire[d] to the southern hemisphere of the brain,/to a little fishing village where there are no phones.”

And now I’m even forgetting the useful advice that I’ve given.

Assuming that maybe you have forgotten it as well, and as a way to bring faculty and staff new to the college into the loop, I’ve put together a “playlist” of past readings on pedagogy and classroom practice to refresh us all at the beginning of classes. Other advice (new and old) on evaluation and assessments, reflections and reconsiderations, will come later in the semester.

Thinking About The Syllabus

The Dual Life of a Syllabus discusses the syllabus as both a “legal” contract and a learning document and suggests approaches to both aspects.

Sharing Syllabi introduces a syllabus sharing project run out of Columbia University and evaluates the pros and cons of making one’s syllabus publicly available.

The Honor Code:

The Honor Code: Time for a Conversation? traces the history of the honor code at colleges and universities and argues that there are a variety of assumptions built into this traditional pledge that need to be unpacked and discussed. The article also suggests that we need to be paying particular attention to how international students, who may have very different understandings of “honor,” understand and observe the code.

Lewis Hine,"Girls in classroom, Traveling Library at Public School Playground, July 1910," New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

Lewis Hine,”Girls in classroom, Traveling Library at Public School Playground, July 1910,” New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

In the Classroom:

Active Learning:

In Broadening Participation and Success in Higher Education through Active Learning Techniques, Marcelo Vinces looks at the research on the positive impact of active learning techniques in STEM fields.

Preparing the Environment for Active Learning explores the concept and theory of active learning and offers advice on how to help prepare students for collaborative, communicative classroom practices where they can learn as much from each other as from the instructor.

Beginnings and Endings:

In The Five Minutes BEFORE Class Begins, I argue for the importance of using the few minutes before class actually begins to help create an environment where students are at ease and attentive.

The Last Five Minutes: Class Endings and Student Learning examines relatively traditional ways to end a class (e.g., talking faster to get in everything you wanted even as the students are packing their bags and heading for the door) and suggests better ways to make productive use out of the last five minutes of class.

Class Discussions:

Inksheds and Eggshells examines a technique whereby students freewrite on a topic that has come up in class, then pass their comments to a second student, and so on for about 20 minutes until the discussion moves to the class as a whole.

Let’s Talk about It: Fostering Productive Classroom Discussions considers ways to set up a class so that discussions have the greatest chance of supporting student learning. In particular, it provides approaches to help students be responsible talkers and listeners when working with their peers.

Take it Outside! Supporting Discussions Outside of Class offers ways to structure student discussions of course material outside of the class.

Using Small-Group Discussions Effectively argues why discussions are an important pedagogy for learning, and offers advice on how to set up discussion groups, structure small-group conversations, and bring the learning occurring in the break-out groups back to the class as a whole.

Lewis Hein, "The constant visitor, Main Children's Room, 1914," New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

Lewis Hine, “The constant visitor, Main Children’s Room, 1914,” New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

Reading:

Active Reading Documents: Scaffolding Students’ Reading Skills, provides an introduction to the “Active Reading Document” approach developed at Texas Lutheran University as a way to help students at all levels of reading get a better grip on the practice.

Size Matters: How Much Reading to Assign (and other imponderables) – another post considering the question of how much reading should be assigned, and offering some tips on how to figure this out for your specific classes.

Size (Still) Matters: The Technologies of Reading and tl;dr addresses the question of how much reading is too much reading (tl;dr = too long, did not read) and how to help students be better readers.

Listening:

Preparing Your Class: Listening to Understand presents a synopsis of Lee Knefelkamp’s (Teachers College, Columbia) technique for helping students listen for understanding: i.e., for meaning, the impact of affect, communication, and response, in a responsible fashion, and in order to expand the complexity of one’s own understanding.

Visualization Strategies:

Drawing-to-Learn: Beyond Visualization suggests the strong link between image and understanding, particularly in the sciences, where visualizations can be integral to the teaching of complex concepts. Visualization, teaching students to illustrate concepts, can be an effective way of helping students understand complexity in a variety of fields and communicate with clarity.

Assignments:

In Designing Assignments for the New Semester I discuss the elements of “backward design” and how to craft assignments that are aligned with an instructor’s learning goals.

Revealing the Secret Handshakes: The Rules of Clear Assignment Design argues that there are a variety of ways in which academic success has always been an “insiders” game, and that if we are to give all our students the best chance of success, we need to design assignments clearly, explicitly, and in a way that all can understand. In particular, assignments need to state the task (what we are asking students to do), the purpose (what learning goals the assignment is designed to address), and the criteria on which the student will be evaluated.

Grading

Grading: Fairer? Better? Utopia? looks at grading practices and asks if there are better, or at least fairer, ways to evaluate student work. The article looks in particular at “specification grading,” a form of “contract grading” (see below).

Contract Improv – Three Approaches to Contract Grading.  Contract grading attempts to reduce the subjectivity of the grading process for faculty and the induced passivity of students in an attempt to arrive at a more integrative and meaningful process of assessment. There are a variety of ways to engage in “contract grading” (three are discussed in this article), but all attempt to clarify the grading process for students so that they can make more informed decisions about their actions.

New Approaches

Taking Risks:

In “The Zappa Doctrine: Risks and Rewards in the Classroom,” Sebastiaan Faber argues that the ability to take risks with one’s teaching in order to make classroom teaching a collaborative endeavor where students take ownership over their own learning and become accountable for it as well, depends on building trust, accepting one’s own vulnerability, and suspending one’s authority in the classroom.

Slow Pedagogy:

Paragraphs Take Time; Conversations Take Time discusses techniques for slowing down so as to help students build their capacity for deep analysis.

Harold E. Edgerton, "Moving Skipping Rope" (1952), Gelatin silver print, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Harold E. Edgerton, “Moving Skipping Rope” (1952), Gelatin silver print, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin

Attending to Specific Student Communities:

Avoiding Stereotypes and Implicit Bias:

The Stereotype Threat discusses research on the ways in which we carry around sets of implicit biases that can negatively impact our students’ ability to learn and reach their full potential.

Students on the Autism Spectrum:

Teaching and Supporting Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) offers some approaches for teaching students who are on the autism spectrum.

International Students:

In Teaching International Students: Opportunities and Challenges I take account of the fact that the number of international students enrolled at liberal arts colleges is increasing at a rapid pace. The article provides specific advice for how to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the remarkably diverse population which is now present on our campuses, and explores specific approaches or practices that may prove difficult for international students: working with open-ended assignments, receiving feedback on assignments, class participation, etc.

Technology in the Classroom:

Laptops in the Classroom:

Lids Down! summarizes some of the research on laptop use in the classroom concluding that they probably do more harm than good except in specific contexts.

Teaching in Troubled Times:

My take on Bertrand Russell’s “Decalogue” for teachers, presented in an article I title, “Affirming Our Values in a Time of Fanaticism”

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