Teaching: What’s Worked and What Hasn’t.

16 Aug

At the end of last semester I began to write a bit about things I would like to do differently in the classroom. Now that I’m working on my syllabi for the upcoming semester, I’m thinking about what I want to do differently this time around, and also remembering what worked really well.

In the future, I should write notes about what worked and what didn’t for each course in that course’s folder, so that when I teach it again, I have those notes. Ideally, I could jot down notes after every class (or at least every week) about what went well and what didn’t go well. That way courses can evolve over time, without having to try to remember all those details!

What’s worked well:

  • Weekly themes and organization. My students like an organized syllabus. I like an organized syllabus. Each week and class session has a theme (i.e. a learning goal or topic) and assigned reading. I don’t leave anything unplanned. If I need to change (cut readings, shift due dates) I reserve the right to do that later on. Otherwise, students get a complete syllabus, and they can go online and see the complete calendar for the course, complete with links to readings and related resources, which brings me to my next point…
  • Lore.com. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to betatest Lore.com (then called Coursekit) when it was in development last Fall. The application is free and just keeps getting better and better. I loath Blackboard– I find that the space does nothing to foster interaction between students, discourages students from posting related material, and is technologically stuck in 2003. I require my students to write one well-thought out free post and to comment at least once on a fellow students’ post each week. The online discussion has become a vital part of the class and of the classroom itself. Students continue interesting conversations on Lore. Fruitful tangents that we didn’t have time for in class are explored and debated. Shy students really shine online. Students I never hear from in the classroom make up for it in their interactions online. And I get to post all the related articles, blog posts and web resources for students to see– even if they aren’t required, students who are excited about a topic read and comment on. This summer I taught an entire class on Lore and it worked wonderfully. I’ll write in more detail about it soon!
  • Showing lots of images and videos in class. I rarely teach without Powerpoint so that I can include videos and images in my lectures and discussions. A lot of my teaching prep is spent searching for related videos (clips of documentaries, advertisements, comedians, news broadcasts etc.) and I finally started created playlists of these in Youtube so that I can remember what I’ve used before.
  • Hands-on, practical classroom activities and projects. I like students to dig into real-life data and real-life stories, and so I organize classroom activities around these (like looking up the cost of living vs. minimum wage for each state) and projects around these (updating a wikipedia page). Learning is not abstract and I try to make each lesson as related to their every day lives as possible.
  • Mid-semester, informal evaluations. I have students basically do their own short version of this list, anonymously on a note card. What works in the class? What could be improved? I go over the responses with the class and address any specific issues.
  • Grading electronically. I used Lore for paper submission and grading last semester and it worked wonderfully. I wasn’t carrying around armloads of papers– dreading the stack on my desk. Instead, I downloaded an entire folder of papers for each class, read them on my ipad, wrote comments, and posted comments and grades to Lore. I read faster on the computer now, and typing comments definitely takes about a tenth of the time it takes me to do write by hand. And I have a digital trail of each students comments over the semester.

Where I want to improve:

  • Less is more. I’ve been working on this one and it’s something I still need to work on. It isn’t necessary for a class to read every key work in a given subject matter. And even if there are 3 fantastic, easily accessible and readable pieces on a topic, I really only need to pick one. Yes, they need to read and read thoroughly, but overwhelming them with readings, no matter how interesting, only means most won’t do any at all.
  • Using readings more in the classroom. This is a big one for me. I often find that my assigned readings feel disconnected from the classroom. This could be because I haven’t been able to teach a course twice yet (so I’m flying by the seat of my pants for most classes!), but I also think it is a matter of figuring out a way to really dig into a reading in the classroom. What is the author’s argument? How do they make it? What evidence do they use? All of those questions need a space in my classroom, and I need to work them into my lecture and goals for each class.
  • More peer review of papers. Given the fact that I’m transitioning to a school where there might be some variation in writing skills, this is important. I want to work in structured in-class peer review for each substantial paper. And I might want to encourage students to peer view online with Google Docs (or Google Drive) or something similar.
  • Daily/weekly “what have you learned” cards. This is something I’ve always wanted to do to check in with students. At the end of classes, I want to hand out notecards and have students either write one thing they’ve learned in the class, or one major lingering question they have. Another way to check in with students on a regular basis.
  • Go over graded papers and exams in class. This one might seem obvious, but I failed to schedule time to go over papers and exams in class after I handed them back. There were overall areas that could be addressed briefly in the classroom, and would clear up any questions about key concepts and ideas before moving onto the next exam or assignment.
  • Develop a Digital Etiquette Policy. I have always been incredibly lax about students’ use of technology in the classroom. I figure– it’s their education, so if they’re going to goof off, it’s their choice, their adults. But, I do want to spend some time at the beginning of the semester talking about appropriate use of technology in the class, and talking about the myth of multitasking etc. And I want to have some “no technology” times in the classroom– discussions and student presentations where students have to close laptops and turn off their ipads.

That’s it, I think (although I have the nagging feeling I’m forgetting something…). What are some ways that you’d like to improve your teaching?

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