Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

What Kinds of Teaching Improvement are Most Important?

Which kinds of teaching improvement are most important for the Teaching & Learning Collaborative (TLC) to support over the coming years?  To advance that discussion, I'll suggest three interdependent goals now, and a couple more in an upcoming post:

1. Support learning-centered teaching.  There's a lovely cartoon showing a boy with his dog. The boy is talking to his friend, and boasting that he's taught Spot to whistle.  The friend responds dubiously, "I don't hear him whistling."  The first boy retorts, "I said I taught him. I didn't say he learned it!"

I hope we can help an increasing number of faculty teach in a way that's guided by the actual learning that occurs in their academic programs.  Faculty who understand teaching in this way ('the learning paradigm') believe that virtually every student is capable of excellence, if teaching can guide and stimulate them appropriately.  Because it's not obvious at the start what needs to be done to help students achieve excellence, there's a certain amount of trial and error every term - the instructor tries something and, if it works for some students, do more of it. If it doesn't work for some students, try something else.

  • The alternative view of teaching, sometimes called the 'instruction paradigm', is reflected in the comments of Spot's owner.  Teaching and learning are independent activities.  If you organize and present the content clearly, then you've taught it.  If the students learn it, that's entirely to their credit. If they don't, that's on them, too.  
Of course, it's not simple for faculty (or students) to see whether and how the student is learning, which leads to a second goal for TLC and units like it.

2. Support evidence-guided teaching. Because teaching needs to be guided by actual learning, then the faculty need to gather evidence of how the learning process is going.

More easily said than done.  For example, if the faculty member assesses the wrong thing --  testing whether the student can remember an expert's analysis when the real goal is to help students learn to analyze for themselves -- then scores or grades will mislead both the instructor and the student.

Testing what students have learned is necessary but not sufficient.  Analogy: people learning to bat in the game of baseball. Measuring their batting average, no matter how precisely, won't help them learn to hit better.  A very different kind of feedback is needed for that, e.g., slow motion video of how they swing at a pitch.  Faculty need to learn both how to provide two very different kinds of feedback for themselves and for their students: what the student has learned and how the student is learning.  Few faculty have received any training in the many ways in which these things have been done.  We can help with that.

3. Support faculty collaboration to improve learning.   I mean "faculty collaboration" in two different ways.

The first is illustrated by a research finding about composition courses.  In many evaluations of learning in composition, students are asked to write a composition at the beginning of the term and a second composition on a similar topic at the end of the term.  External graders then assess each paper without knowing when it was written.  The papers written at the beginning and at the end of the writing course often get similar grades. This does not mean that the students learned nothing about writing: over two or more courses, the essays do measurably improve.  The important lesson: the kinds of capabilities useful in life are often so complex and personal that one course often can't do not enough to create improvements large enough to measure.  As a senior once told me about something he'd learned, "I don't think I could have learned how to think that way in any one course, but, over the years, it gradually sank in."

That's why capstone courses and major projects in upper division courses can be so important: as sources of insight for faculty teaching lower division courses on where they're succeeding and where they need to improve.  

The second important kind of collaboration is between faculty and others, e.g.,  instructional designers, assessment experts, publishers and other materials developers outside the university.  I'll choose just one example: instructional designers in a number of departments at GW are currently testing ePortfolio products that faculty can use, individually and as teams, to gather and analyze evidence of student learning.

So those are my first three suggestions for where we should focus our support: learning-centered teaching, evidence-guided teaching, and collaboration to improve learning.

Over the next 5-10 years, what (additional) kinds of teaching improvement do you think that units like TLC should support?

No comments:

Post a Comment