This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Monday, September 10, 2012

How do I like to teach?

Wow, what a loaded question.  It came from Week 2 tasks of  #potcert, specifically the getting started chart.  This may be one questions very few people ask themselves.

Most people are comfortable in the way they teach, but do they like it?  I was very comfortable with the lecture style, and I was good at it.  Since I love storytelling, and have an acting background, it was easy for me to stand up in front of a class and just churn out information.  But did I like it?  It was comfortable.  Was it effective? NO.  When I saw the same students as juniors and seniors, I could tell that most of them did not remember the material. 

At this point, I should differentiate students.  It is ultimately all about the audience, and with the classes I teach, I have different audiences.  First there are my college freshmen who are majoring in biology.  There are a number of challenges with them, not the least of which is deprogramming how they have learned to game the educational system, i.e., get good grades without studying. 

Then there are my pre-nursing students.  They're taking biology to satisfy the requirements to get into the nursing program.  Here you have two types, the hyper motivated who take the initiative to ready and study daily, and those who have no idea how to study.  This second group has a high tendency to fail or withdraw because the class is "too hard."  Never mind they never came to talk to their instructor, or in many cases, showed up for class.  Still, these pre-nursing classes tend to be very bimodal in grade distribution.

In both cases, I was comfortable with the lecture format.  With the majors, I saw that it was very ineffective.  The students thought all they had to do was come to class and listen.  They never sat with the concepts, never did practice problems, or anything.  They passed the exams by cramming, but they never learned.  The good pre-nursing students studied like made, but all they learned were pieces; they rarely saw the whole picture.  The unprepared pre-nursing students most of the time fell away before I could intervene (larger class sizes).  In both cases, I saw that moving to more online assignments, such as quizzes and papers, helped.

But I realized that more was needed.  That is when I moved to a more involved online presence.  One of the things that seems to be the most effective is daily newsletters, but I realize I'm on a tangent.

Back to my original thought:  How do I like to teach is an interesting question, and one that I don't think many people consider.  It gets confused with issues of comfort and ease.  The problem is, is what I like to do effective?  This is the second question we have to ask ourselves.  It may be easy to lecture, but is it effective?  It may be easy to record a lecture and distribute it, but is it effective?  I may like case studies, but are they always effective?

It is a great question to ask yourself. 


  1. This is a serious issue for me, since I've changed pedagogies many times over the years. I am beginning to suspect that what students remember, content-wise, doesn't vary much in relation to which method we use (someday I'll do a study on this). But do we continue doing that which is not effective? At some point, I think we get disturbed by the evidence that it is not effective, as you have, and find solutions. I am hoping that the exercise is not so much about what we like to do, but about our strengths and how to leverage them. I have seen too many people abandon a method that they were comfortable with and force themselves into a mode that wasn't appropriate for them. That comfort zone could just be a jumping-off point, but like you say it's important to think about.

    And I've never seen anything, in my research or my own work, that is always effective with every student. :-)

  2. Thanks Lisa! One thing I have been doing this semester is creating "Variable Point Pools". All of the assignments in this pool have similar goals, but different routes. The idea is that students can do different things to earn these points, so hopefully they will work to their strengths.

    As for content retention, the only thing I can say from my experience is that the lecture model does not work for the majority of students. But anecdotally, I'm seeing better retention in students who write things out. Next semester, I'm hoping to have everything in place so I can start doing a study on it.

  3. Robert, I appreciate your call to think about effectiveness in our teaching practice at the outset of a journey into course redesign/online teaching. Your question fits in well with my call for an inquiry mindset (see http://jjulius.org/2012/09/14/where-is-a-new-online-instructor-to-start/). The challenge, though, is how is one to gauge "effectiveness"? And how is one to know when one's comfort level has created blinders?

    I do think that it is worth considering one's practice in the light of (a) work that distills the large body of research on learning (e.g. How People Learn); (b) sets of teaching principles that have proven helpful to many, (e.g. Chickering & Gamson, or Universal Design for Learning); and/or (c) more elaborated rubrics/checklists for indicators of quality, especially for online teaching (e.g. Quality Matters, Chico Rubric). For many faculty, hearing from experienced instructors who have already engaged in this journey and have stories of success and failed experiments to share can be equally or more effective in prompting a reconsideration of their "effectiveness."

    But I would never advise someone to completely abandon what they are comfortable with. Picking one or two different methods to try at one or two points in a course redesign is almost always more advisable than an attempt to completely reinvent one's pedagogy in a semester or year.