On 28 August, 2006, 55 new academic faculty and staff and 10 Master Teachers participated in a 75 minute panel session, Teaching . . . if only we knew the questions! The Master Teachers present were Professors Alec Aitken, Karen Chad, Susan Gingell, Jim Greer, Len Gusthart, Mel Hosain, Ron Marken, Terry Matheson, Rick Schwier, John Thompson. Collectively they represent more than 225 years of teaching.
After new teachers and staff in groups of three had discussed what questions about teaching were on their minds as they began the academic year, each participant posed a question in writing to the panel. Each of the panelists in turn responded to one or two of the questions during the session. For the remaining questions not addressed during the session, different panelists agreed to respond by e-mail to the participants who wrote the questions. The text of those e-mail responses have been collected, organized into nine categories, and produced below. In some cases, two quite similar questions have been combined into one question. The questions to which panelists responded verbally during the panel session are not included here.
So, as a first approximation of questions and concerns on the minds of new academic faculty and staff, we are posting participant questions and faculty panelist responses. This posting represents a short Frequently Asked Question. The Q[uestions] and R[responses] have been arranged into nine topics or categories. Beginning faculty and staff have more questions than the 22 here, but these questions and topics are catalysts for a continuing conversation - a dialogue of questions and responses - among new academic faculty and staff and master teachers in our mutual concern to support good teaching, engaged student learning, and each other.
We have removed references to specific individuals. The text is typically personal in tone and style, since these are e-mail conversations of questions and responses between master teachers and new faculty members and staff.
1. Classroom as learning community: instructor-student interaction, management issues
2. Engaging students and getting feedback on learning, assessment
3. Covering material versus active learning: dilemma, balance, pace
4. Enthusiasm, excitement in teaching, motivating students
5. Class notes: function, availability online, Powerpoint slides
6. Importance of reading
7. Teaching large classes: engaging students, active participation, group discussions
8. Student questions; Teachable moments
9. Research versus teaching: dilemmas, balance, life priorities
Ken Bain observes that "questions are crucial" to learning (What The Best College Teaches Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2004, p. 31). Questions not only elicit responses, they also provoke further questions. The Questions in this FAQ represent the concerns of new teachers as they engage in the exciting process of learning to teach through probing and asking questions, and following where their inquiries lead. These Responses represent reflections of master teachers based on many years of teaching. We hope this FAQ will foster reflection on our teaching practices and elicit new questions that will encourage and even inspire us and our students in the challenge and excitement of learning.
"An answer is a place where we can fall asleep as life moves past us to its next question."
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Classroom as Learning Community
Q.1.1 What suggestions do you have for how I can deal with the situation in which students come in late or leave early so that their actions do not distract or interfere with the class. R. I suggest that in your first class you have a discussion about what kind of learning community you'd like to have in your course. If you ask students what class environment will best help them learn and what things interfere with their learning, you can find out some interesting things and set up a situation in which other students might say they get distracted when people come in late or leave early so you can then ask for the class's cooperation in arriving on time and not leaving in mid-class unless it's critical. If the issue is not raised by a student, you might make that one of your contributions to the discussion. Ask students to let you know before class if they have to arrive late or leave early, and ask them to sit near the door so disruption is minimized. You might get students to leave two or three "escape spaces" if they do have to leave early. If the behaviour happens any way, either pull the student aside and try to find out why or send them an e-mail saying you've noticed they often arrive late or leave early, and you're wondering why. In other words, don't ignore the problem; be curious about its source.
Q. 1.2 I teach a range of students from first-year through third- and fourth-year. I am interested to learn about different techniques to use with third- and fourth-year students as opposed to first-years to ensure that I meet their very different needs and experience in university.
R. I understand that your underlying concern is with getting and maintaining order and respect. Your concern for a specific group of students shows me you are already alert to the differing needs of varying groups of students--the sign of a good teacher! Some of the discussion in the session about maintaining order in the classroom has already taken up your concerns. In general, if you show respect for your students, know your subject matter, and teach with genuine enthusiasm, I think students are likely to show you respect in turn. But sometimes what happens in a class is not about what you as teacher are or are not doing, and that's when you may need to pull the student aside (or send an e-mail if the personal contact proves difficult) to find out what's going on with the student.
I tend to turn over more responsibility for what goes on in class to more senior students. I sometimes make them responsible for leading a segment of class by preparing either a brief report on a subject we'll be discussing or some guiding questions for the class to consider as a group. I provide opportunities to research small points and report on them in class. I suggest you let students know you value what they've already learned and invite them to make connections between that and what's being studied in class at the moment. Learning is so often, if not always, about making connections, so it's important to foster that habit, and you can provide the opportunity to review foundational skills or materials by inviting students to turn back as well as look forward. I'd also let them know how course materials relate to your own research, and if you can find ways to involve them in your own research, all the better.
Q. 1.3 As a younger female teacher, what kind of rapport should I attempt to develop with students?
R. Your question is both relevant and frequently asked. I can answer this with a bit of experience, because a former graduate student of mine had some trouble with a man in her first class.
The most important thing to do is maintain a professional relationship at all times. This does not mean that you must be stiffly formal or distant, but that the students should always know that you are the instructor, the one managing the class and directing the learning process. I know that there is a natural tendency for younger instructors to want to establish a positive and friendly relationship with their classes, and there is nothing wrong with creating such an atmosphere: far from it. Unfortunately, some instructors believe that the only way to effect this atmosphere is by presenting themselves as if they were "just another student", "one of the boys (or girls)", etc.
The problem with the above is that there is always going to be someone who misconstrues your attempts to be friendly as an attempt to be a friend; or, who concludes that this gives them the right to approach you with undue and improper familiarity (this is what happened in the case of my student).
One way to remind the class that you do occupy a unique position in the classroom might be to talk a bit, on the opening class, about your academic background, by way of allowing them to get to know you from a professional perspective: let them know what you had to do to get to where you are now, academically. Tell them about your graduate work (MA and/or Ph.D). Believe me, they will be impressed, and the point will have been subtly made that you are a highly-trained professional. This will, I believe, set the proper tone right off the bat. This doesn't mean that you can't share a joke with them, etc. But they will know that you have knowledge and skills that they don't have, and they will respect you for that. So, while you will respect them for their willingness to learn (always important to establish, too), they will respect you for your learning.
That may well get things off on the right note.
Q. 1.4 What is a good way to handle cell-phone disruption in classrooms? Is there a university-wide guideline for dealing with this? R. I'm not aware of a university guideline on cell-phones in class. Personally, I would find such a step to be over-legislative. On the first day, however, I remind students that their classes are an integral part of the process that makes them professionals. They should conduct themselves as professionals, therefore, I say, in effect: "As professionals, you respect certain protocols; there is a commonsense etiquette for this class
- respect all nationalities, genders, political and religious beliefs
- respect opinions that may differ from yours
- arrive on time
- attend regularly
- raise your hand to speak
- tolerate opinions not your own
- submit assignments on time
- do not engage in disruptive activities (mute your cell phone, turn off your iPod)
- [and so on...] Furthermore, I strongly encourage you as teachers to make yourself familiar with some of the agencies on campus which can help you with issues you might not be professionally equipped to diagnose or deal with:
- help for Students with Disabilities
- the International Student Centre
- the Aboriginal Student Centre
- the Academic Honesty office (and/or website)
- Student Health Services
- Division of Media and Technology
Consider this true story. In our team-taught freshman English class, we had a student--I'll call him Brad--who seemed determined to achieve an 'F'. He had no books and took no notes; instead, he shared the books belonging to Britney, who sat next to him at the two-person table. By November, Brad had an average of 30%.
I should have spoken to him earlier, but by November 15th I asked him to see me in my office. Brad said, "I know what you're going to tell me." "What's that?" I said. "Sit at a different desk," Brad said. "How did you know that?" I asked. "Look, Brad," I added, "at your age, I wouldn't be able to concentrate sitting next to Britney either."
In the next class, Brad chose a desk five rows away from Britney. I also made two propositions to Brad. First, I said I'd meet with him three or four times before each essay came due. We would discuss the assignment, his thesis, his opening paragraph, and his outline. Second, I told him that we would agree to give him a clean start in the second term, erasing the 30% average, if he followed through on our propositions.
By February, Brad had earned a 60% average. One day, he burst into my office: "I've just been diagnosed as dyslexic!" he said excitedly. Now, specialists were working with him on his language disabilities. Brad had been an orphan since Grade IX, in a small community. He had struggled through high school, supported himself, and lived on his own with no immediate family. I think he had always been written off as a sullen underachiever.
Last spring, I saw Brad in the hall. "I'm convocating!" he said. Brad now has a degree in Psychology, and he plans to be a therapist.
Q. 1.5 [Can you please talk a bit about the] generation gap from the perspective of a Boomer (age 50+) and relating to a 20-yr old? [How does a faculty member] not come across as the 'parent', but as a 'mentor' 'advisor'? What is our responsibility as a teacher? Just a teacher or a personal model for the student? R. I like the ancient Irish educational concept of "fostering." As a teacher, your responsibility is to foster growth, intellectual development, skills development, maturity. Mentor, advisor, nurturer, coach, guide, etc. are all roles that fold into the fostering model. You are not a parent, of course, even though your duties can overlap those of a parent. So long as you are aware of that fact, you should be all right. Keep your relationship professional. Finally, remember that a university student is an adult. I like what one of the Harvard deans once said: "Always expect more of your students than they expect of themselves."
Engaging students and getting feedback on learning, assessment
Q.2.1 How can I find out whether or not students are following and understanding the course materials? How can I identify soon enough those students who are not prepared or do not come with the skills and background adequate for ensuring their success in my course? And what actions can I take to assist them to succeed in the course?
R.The more often you evaluate, the easier it is to find out if students are on track or not. It's important to have an early evaluation and give timely feedback so you can identify those students coming into the course with sub-par skills and can get them connected with remedial help early, and they either get an early signal they're going to have to do something if they are in trouble or get affirmation and a challenge to explore the subject more deeply the way the best students in a class can (you can use some version of that phrase on feedback to strong students) when they have all the requisite skills in place. In deciding on the number of assignments, you do have to balance what's ideal for students with what's practical for you given your overall responsibilities. Asking questions of students in class can be a form of evaluation too. You might try asking, "Can someone (or a specific student) put into her or his own words the point I've just made?" If you do this frequently, it primes students to be attentive because they might get called on, and it allows you to find out if students did understand what you just said. It also breaks the teaching monologue.
Q.2.2 What are your suggestions for engaging students when the subject matter is very technical and somewhat boring?
R. My first question is to find out whether you find your field of study exciting overall, even though the area you are teaching may be more technical and even "boring" to some extent. We do know that instructor enthusiasm is an important factor associated with student learning. I really delight in my field of study, both at a personal level (helps me make sense of my life) and a professional level (very exciting way of understanding and approaching the world collectively, asking penetrating questions and posing alternative courses of action).
I am assuming that you have a textbook for this course that contains the basic information and technical knowledge of the course/field. Is that right?
Two of the first considerations, then, are to ask (1) what are your aims for the course? and (2) what do you hope for by way of student outcomes? Is this about you presenting material and students memorizing that material to be tested on quizzes and exams? Is this about understanding to be judged from students' ability to show they can apply the material? Or will you be looking for a combination of students' knowing basic information by memory and application of that material to cases or problems? And what skills do you hope to have students develop as a result of your course? Writing, working problems, doing analysis, making applications?
It is critical that you find ways for students to be actively engaged in the course/class material and presentations. Using small groups is one way - discussions, problem solving, case studies. Students making presentations in class is another. Students writing frequent responses in class is a third. Students must be active to learn - and that can happen in lectures, if the lectures are well developed and energetically presented, with good examples and carefully chosen stories, and enough time for questions. Sometimes in science courses, it is useful to present short biographies of scientists--past and contemporary--to show how they made discoveries and what the importance of those discoveries has been.
A book I would strongly recommend for ways of fostering student engagement in the classroom is John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 1996.) I have found what Bean has to say quite helpful. He writes clearly and offers many ideas for engaging students. The book is widely used and frequently cited.
Covering material versus active learning: dilemma, balance, pace
Q. 3.1 There is an emphasis on participation of students which usually means discussions. How do you have participation while maintaining structure of the classroom setting? For example, keep things from getting too off topic, or more typically have the four most opinionated people do 95% of the discussion?
R. You are certainly right about the emphasis you hear on participation of students and that for many that typically means doing discussions. And many students have had the experience you describe both of getting off topic and/or having discussions dominated by several students. We should probably back up a little bit to come at your question.
The key point here is that considerable research shows that we learn better when we are actively engaged. That's what's behind the emphasis on participation of students. However, we have to explore this a little bit more so we don't simply equate such active participation with free ranging or lengthy discussions. Keep in mind that doing discussion groups well is very difficult, though the perception is that they are disorganized, don't accomplish much, waste time, and even that "the blind lead the blind."
The point is that anything we do as instructors in the classroom that is effective requires careful organization, based on what our (i) overall aims are for the course and (ii) what outcomes we have for students - (i) what we expect them to know and understand and (ii) what skills we expect them to develop - communication (written, oral), doing analysis and critical thinking, presenting in class, engaging in cooperative problem solving, writing essays, raising questions, doing critical reading.
How we achieve our aims and encourage and assess student outcomes of student learning means using various pedagogical strategies from lectures to discussion groups (pairs to full class), from problem solving to service learning, from essays to oral presentations. In all of these, instructors attempt to ensure that students are actively engaged in the course material. But all of these require a great deal of planning and organization if they are to achieve the course aims and student outcomes. Without such careful planning and organization these various strategies degrade easily, from wasting time to confusion. Without careful planning, too easily (as you suggest) students can get off topic and a few students can take the floor, dominating the discussions.
One strategy that I used to good effect was to assign a reading with discussion questions or provide questions to be discussed after a video. Students were to come to class prepared to discuss the article/questions or be ready to discuss questions after viewing a video in their pre-assigned small groups. They did this for short periods from several minutes to five minutes at a time for each of the questions. We alternated back and forth from the small groups to the whole class. Based on students' responses, I would push the discussion. I asked for examples. Raise related questions. I had students respond to each other. While I did not force answers, I did control the discussion so that one or two persons could not dominate the discussion of the whole class. I would then summarize the discussion at the end. Sometimes I would have students summarize a key question on the back of the two-minute memo. These discussions did not take more than 20 minutes total. I used them to increase students' understanding of readings. The readings were integral to the courses. Exams included essay questions on the readings and the videos. I stressed understanding - the argument of the reading, the thesis of the video.
There are many ways to use active learning involving student participation that facilitate and deepen student initiative and deepen learning beyond memorizing. However, such approaches are typically more work than doing a lecture, though students have to be shown that discussions (as well as other forms different from lecturing) are integral to the course and not just the day that the instructor did not want to lecture. But the test of such discussions or various active learning strategies is how effective they are in deepening student learning beyond simply memorizing course material to give back in rote form on exams.
Here is an excellent article by Kelly McGonigal PhD in the Stanford University Newsletter from the Center for Teaching and Learning, "Getting more 'teaching' out of 'testing' and 'grading.'" (Spring, 2006). You may find McGonigal's article helpful as part of dealing with the issues raised in your question - how testing and grading can actually be integral to active student learning and not just for assigning grades.
Q. 3.2 How do you balance discussion and achieving completion of the course material? How do you provide a balance between class participation and engaging students and getting through the course material? How do you assess student participation?
R. Your first question is a commonly asked question, both by beginning and experienced teachers. There is a tension between these two objectives, though sometime the tension is the result of misconceptions both about what completing of or "covering" course material means as well as what the purposes and processes of discussion/engaging students really are about.
Let's begin with a basic: teaching is effective only when students learn and the degree of effectiveness is judged by how well they learn - "deep learning". A common distinction in the pedagogical literature is between surface learning and deep learning. An overview of these concepts is worth reading. It is also worth reading the entire site and thinking about what you are trying to achieve.
One professor here on campus (now retired) used to say it was not about how much you "covered," but about how much you "uncovered." By that he meant how much you actually engaged students in understanding as opposed to your getting through the material without close attention to how much and how well the students understood the material and remembered it. He used to say he was more interested in what they recall with understanding in September than what they could give back by memory on an exam in April but had forgotten by the end of the summer.
Your question then brings us back to what we are trying to achieve: (1) our aims and (2) student outcomes. First, what are we trying to do by the course we design and by the ways that we teacher our courses? Second, what and how do we want students to learn and understand the material? What do we want them to be able to do with the material? Memorize it for exams? Know it to be able to apply it? Be able to draw on it in writing an essay? What basic skills do we want students to develop? Memorizing, understanding, making application, increasing communication abilities both oral and written, doing analysis, asking questions, making presentations? Our answers to these questions will shape how we approach both "covering" the material and the extent and kind of student interaction we build into the course and engage as part of our teaching.
Third, remember that learning involves students and faculty being actively engaged, interactive with themselves and with others. We have to make the material our own for learning to be effective. I had a student two years ago who told me last year that when she could not figure something out, she memorized it so she could write it down on the exam. Telling comment. I wonder how common such a strategy is. The students' success of such a strategy - rote learning - depends, of course, on the kinds of assessment we do in our courses. What student outcomes are we looking for and encouraging by how we assess student performance?
I suggest that you consider reading two items. The first is an article. The second is a book.
In "Persistence of the unicorn: The trade-off between content and critical thinking" (Pp. 168-184 in The Social Worlds of Higher Education: Handbook for Teaching in a New Century. Bernice A. Pescosolido and Ronald Aminzide (eds). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press. 1999), Craig Nelson addresses the question you asked on the yellow card. The article is not easy reading, but what Nelson has to say goes to the heart of student learning and what we are trying to achieve as teachers.
The book I strongly recommend for fostering student engagement in the classroom is: John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 1996. Jossey-Bass.
The key point is that what you do in class participation/engaging students must be integrally related to and connected to the objectives, content, and student outcomes of your course. Doing such class participation/interaction is a better way of "covering" or "uncovering" the material since it engages students deeply. It is important, however, they we not confuse our lecturing on some topic or issue in class with our actually "covering," or better, "uncovering" it so that students learn it well. Our objective is deep learning and outcomes we seek must in some ways allow students to demonstrate to us and to themselves that they understand and can apply what has been "covered." If we have "covered" the material - that is formally presented it in class or had students read it in the text - and students have not learned it in the sense of understanding it and being able to apply it, we bear more than a little of the responsibility for their not learning the material. As Bain argues in What The Best College Teachers Do, if no one learns, no one has taught. Or we might paraphrase Bain with a question, if material has been 'covered' in class but students have not learn it, was the material actually covered?
Now let me briefly address your second question: "How do you assess student participation? This is a most important and tough question. I would suggest two resources. "Getting more 'teaching' out of 'testing' and 'grading.'" is an excellent article by Kelly McGonigal PhD published in the Stanford University Newsletter from the Center for Teaching and Learning, (Spring, 2006). The second is an important book: Barbara E. Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson. Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 1998).
Enthusiasm, excitement in teaching, motivating students
Q.4.1 I care about teaching but I find it is difficult for me to be excited in class about what I teach. I do not know how to show this to students. How can I resolve this problem?
R. I am sure the panel presentations and the panelists made your concern even more acute, since most of us exude excitement and enthusiasm about our teaching - both the content of our fields and teaching itself. Please keep in mind that all ten of us have been teaching for many years - the shortest length of time teaching is 14 years and the longest is 40 and the total number of years of teaching by panelists is more than 225. A lot of experience and time to learn how to do teaching better. And none of us began where we are today when you meet us and hear us talk. Like any new teacher, we had deep misgivings, uneasiness, nervousness, fears, and even difficulties in talking. Most of us were afraid to show any excitement or enthusiasm, or any emotions for that matter because our fears were so close to the surface and felt as though that was obvious to all our students. But with time, who we are and our love for our fields emerged in our interaction with students. And that's what you see in us after many years. All of us love teaching and interaction with students. We have defined who we are - our identities - in terms of teaching and care for students.
Let me suggest some ways of thinking about excitement and enthusiasm in the classroom. First, we know from many studies that enthusiasm is a characteristic that students single out as important for them among outstanding teachers. But this does not mean "rah rah" enthusiasm or jumping up and down. In his book, The Joy of Teaching: A practical guide for new college instructors, Peter Filene says this about enthusiasm. "Enthusiasm ranks first on the list. Good teachers care about their subject with zest and passion, and they enjoy communicating it to others." (p. 7)
With Filene's description, we may have a better way of thinking about "enthusiasm," or as you have called it "excitement." He begins by identifying the teachers' care about their subject, and their showing it with "zest" and "passion." So let me ask: How do you feel about your field of study? Do you remember why you chose it? I remember to this day why I chose my field, and I would say quite simply and without exaggeration that it saved my life. Do you consider your field important? Do you consider it worthwhile for students to know? Why? What about your field is important, worth knowing? How does it help you and others make sense of things?
Second, can you convey your convictions about the importance of your field of study? Do you enjoy talking about it with other, including students? Have you developed examples that you think work for your students in understanding aspects of your field? Do you have stories about your field that you can share with students?
I ask these questions because if your field is important to you, as mine is to me, you have convictions about its importance, not just for you but also for others. Can you remember instances where you shared something about your field with someone and found you were excited about sharing the ideas? Do you remember instances where the other person got excited about what you shared? Looking for such occasions, even if few, is a way for you to tap into your own inner enthusiasm about your field.
Remember, enthusiasm comes from within. It is not surface or superficial. Enthusiasm means that you have strong conviction about why your field, its insights, its benefits for society, its discoveries, its applications are significant. The field means a lot to you. Students can feel and hear your convictions.
Finally, have you thought about becoming familiar with outstanding contributors in your field? Their lives, how they made their discoveries, their excitement, and what resulted from it. Are there other members in your department/college in whom you experience this 'excitement,' this 'enthusiasm?' If so, ask the person if you can attend a class to see how the person conveys excitement and enthusiasm to students. And also, think back to outstanding teachers you had. Did you experience their enthusiasm? How did it affect you?
Good teachers are ultimately themselves. So in all of this, you have to find your way. Rather than focus on excitement or enthusiasm as such, focus on your convictions about your field and the research. Ultimately, excitement and enthusiasm, if worth anything, have value because they are anchored in convictions. Otherwise it is hype, manipulating students. And they quickly see through it. Students are, in my judgment, looking for persons who have convictions about their fields and their importance, since they are seeking such commitments themselves. As Sharon Parks says, in the title of her book on development of young adults, they are involved in asking Big Questions and seeking Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2000).
Q.4.2 How would you handle the fact that as a new faculty you usually get the lecture topics that nobody wants ("boring stuff") and on the other hand you have to engage and entertain the students during the lecture. This is combined with you being an inexperienced faculty.
R. Let me begin by downplaying the importance of entertaining students. It is important to put students at ease for them to learn well. But that also means a place that is safe, where they experience care, and where they are challenged and can take the risk of making mistakes and learning from them. I am not an entertaining person. Many of us are not. A number on the master teacher panel are, but more importantly they are enthusiastic about their subjects and their teaching. We know from a lot of research that enthusiasm is a key factor facilitating student learning.
I mentioned enthusiasm because, although you may have some boring topics - the ones that are, as it were, left over by other more senior faculty - you are enthusiastic about your field overall. That came through to me in our brief conversation before the panel presentation.
Because our subject area tends to engage us, your enthusiasm for your subject can overcome students' penchant for becoming bored in apparently less interesting material.
First, I would ask myself why these topics are not desired by faculty. What is it about them that faculty would prefer someone else be teaching them?
Second, are these topics really uninteresting? And can they be made to interest students? If they are topics in the curriculum and still considered necessary and relevant to the field of vet medicine, why are they there? What is there relevance? To theory? To practice? How can you show students the relevance of these topics?
Third, I found that when I did not find a topic particularly interesting, if I set myself the challenge of finding a way to show students how the topic was relevant - how we first came across this topic in the field (what's the question or questions behind the topic - what's it an answer to) and its history and importance, why it is still in the curriculum, lots of examples but posed in the form of problems or questions, stories related to the topic, even odd bits of detail that are curious - I could be personally challenged by that goal and found myself becoming engaged in the topic.
Fourth, I tried to find ways to get students engaged through discussions, problem-solving, writing, and even class presentations.
Fifth, I would try to locate an expert in the topic(s) who would be willing to do a class presentation or an interview. Having a group of students interview several experts can also be very helpful to creating student engagement.
Finally, it is not your job to entertain students. It is your job to find ways to get them engaged so they learn the material in depth - really have an understanding that they can apply. Creating an effective learning environment - a welcoming, caring, challenging and demands class setting - is central to that learning and one of our largest challenges as a faculty member. Students learn when other students are learning and when we are learning. It's contagious.
A book I would strongly recommend for fostering student engagement in the classroom is the following: John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 1996. Jossey-Bass.
Q.4.3 What can faculty do to keep up enthusiasm for teaching (and learning) throughout their professional careers? What tips do panelists have for faculty to continue to "light the fire" as they gain experience in teaching and not become jaded?
R.This question is the most challenging one I was given to answer, and I hope my fellow panelists might offer responses, too. I can only say that my enthusiasm is fed mostly by my students' responses to my teaching. They can see that I invest a lot of energy in my teaching and a number of them send me e-mail or cards once a course is over to say thank you for the class and for making them feel like I cared. For me it's been important to have contact with students at every level. I still enjoy teaching first-year students because they're not jaded, and most are excited about entering on a new stage of their academic and personal lives. At the same time it's wonderful to have the opportunity to be in seminar with graduate students, to share current research, get their feedback and hear ideas. So contact with students at a variety of levels has been animating. I have also had the luxury of never teaching a jumbo course (more than 50 students) and I will continue to avoid one if I can. I want to know my students as individuals and respond to their individual learning needs, so relatively small class sizes are key to my satisfaction in the classroom.
I have to admit that I also am encouraged when recognition comes from my department head or colleagues who pass on compliments they've heard about courses I teach and the way I relate to students. Anything the university can do to give professors more affirmation for their teaching efforts and successes would be important. One thing I think would really help would be making evidence that department heads and deans have done something material to recognize the good teachers in their units a criterion by which the administrators' performance will be evaluated. Have they ensured good teachers are nominated for awards? Have they set up or helped set up awards, say for teacher of the year in the department or unit or college where such an award has not previously existed? Have they struck a committee in their unit, department or college to encourage good teaching? Many units/departments/colleges have research committees to foster that activity; how many have teaching committees?
As to how to keep enthusiasm for learning alive-to me wanting to learn is like breathing. To live is to learn. If I ever lost my curiosity about new books, new methods, new students, I'd be done. That's not to say my fires never get dampened. The grind of marking wears me down, and by May, I am really ready for a break. Not doing too much teaching and having enough time for my research is then also key to my ability to keep my enthusiasm alive.
Q.4.4 I am not an entertaining person by nature, but I realize that it is very important to entertain and motivate students. Is there any guidance you could give how I could approach this?
R. Your question is more common than you might think. Your concern may be confounded by the panel. These faculty are very good at teaching and for the most part are energetic, articulate, funny, and engaging. They did not begin that way. They range from 14 years of teaching to 40 years. That's a lot of time to get better at teaching - including feeling more at home in front of a class, developing ways to present ideas, thinking up examples and learning to tell stories, feeling at ease in answering questions, working up little routines for saying things, and coming up with ways for incorporating humorous elements. They developed these ways of teaching that fit who they are and how students learn. We are all still learning to do this better.
It is less important to entertain and more important to motivate students to learn. Not everybody who is a good teacher is entertaining. And being entertaining is only a way of making students feel more at ease in the classroom. Some instructors are too entertaining - funny - that is actually distracting to students. In my judgment, being enthusiastic is far more important to students' learning than being entertaining. I was not entertaining, though I did develop a subtle sense of humour along the way that came out in the form of wry comments, almost asides and in self-deprecating comments about myself. But I am not entertaining and I know that, so I don't even try. But I am deeply enthusiastic about my field - personally and professionally. I love this stuff and find it very easy to experience and convey that to students because it is true for me. In a profound way, my field of study saved my sanity in a world I found increasingly confusing and troubling. It allowed me to begin to make sense of both my everyday world and the larger world. Was I entertaining about that? Definitely not! In fact I did not want to be entertaining about something that I found so important personally. But I did develop lots of ways of talking about, giving examples of, creating writing exercise, telling stories for teaching my field. Why? Because my field continues to touch my life and I wanted it to touch students' lives. Could I use humour in presenting my field? Yes, but subtle humour, showing, for example how "unrealistic" and naive our overemphasis on individualism can be - as many of us wear "jeans" or some latest style of something, suggesting that this "uniform" is, of course, emphasizing my individualism and not actually a sign of my conformity.
So I would go to your feelings and convictions about your field of study. Why did you choose it? What does it mean to you? Why do you want to teach it? What does it offer you both personally and professionally? What do you think your field offers students? Why is that an interesting, even exciting, way of knowing and seeing the world?
Go for enthusiasm - I don't mean the crazy ranting and raving kind. Go for quiet enthusiasm based on conviction, importance, and personal meaning. Students can hear that in you and it can be attractive - encouraging them to want to learn, to take this material seriously, and even occasionally deciding they would like to spend the rest of their lives pursuing this field. That's what happened to me when I took my first course at UCLA years ago. I had math and philosophy majors/undergraduate degree and had been thinking of going on in math. While taking that first course, I decided to do an MA and PhD in the field. . . right on the spot. Four years later I began an MA/PhD program. I did not look back. But I think my students can still hear my enthusiasm for my field as a way of knowing the world that can make a difference because it has made a difference for me.
Being entertaining. Some of us are good at that; most of us are not. I am not. But being entertaining is only effective when it allows students to be at ease for learning in the classroom. It is a tool - but only one tool - for creating a learning environment that is safe, caring, and challenging. Being enthusiastic is part of doing that too, and more important and effective than being entertaining, because it is anchored in the subject matter and conviction about its importance.
Class notes: function, availability online, Powerpoint slides
Q. 5.1 What is your approach to class notes that are given to students? How much detail do you give? How much are the students evaluated on material that is only presented in class?
R. I've never thought about this question before, but my considered response is that the students deserve as much detail as is necessary to allow the distributed notes to be useful. I have given handouts with fewer than half a dozen sentences, and I have also prepared handouts of more than 30 highly technical pages to supplement the textbook. In evaluations (essays and exams), I don't focus specifically on the handouts, but they DO become part of the course content and therefore part of the overall evaluation.
Q. 5.2 How do you maintain the appropriate pace within the class, not too fast or slow, especially when using PowerPoint? I find that with PowerPoint I have a tendency to go too fast, but with overheads and writing on the board I tend to lose the students' attention. What is the "happy" balance with technology?
R. It is something we all struggle with, and given that students have different tolerances for pace, it is an elusive balance you are looking to find. I have a couple of quick ideas for you to try, and a couple of things to think about. But the important thing is that you've already noticed the problem. Many teachers never do, so you're already well along the way to a solution.
My guess from what you've said is that you use PowerPoint to display notes for the class. Each slide can hold a lot of information, so your students can't write notes as quickly as you can fly through the slides. Correct? If this is the case, there are a couple of things you can try. You can start by typing much less information on each screen. In fact, use only single words or phrases as talking notes for you, and as outline points for the students. If there are several points on a slide, use progressive disclosure (one point popping up at a time) to keep the students on topic; otherwise they will spend more time trying to scribble down everything on the slide as you talk, and miss most of your wisdom until they are able to finish.
If you have a really substantial printing budget (something that is rare on our campus, I think) you can print out handouts of all of your slides for the students. I like to use the three-per-page setting for handouts because the slides are large enough to see and there is room on the side of the page for students to write additional notes.
Better yet, use no words at all whenever you can. Use a photo or an illustration that can serve as a backdrop to the story you're telling the students. That can help with attention, and I even like to use pictures that oppose what I'm saying from time to time, just to keep them on their toes. Also insert black slides for those times when you want to focus their attention completely on you.
I guess my strongest advice would be to avoid using PowerPoint to provide students with a comprehensive set of notes. If they need a set of notes from you then provide them on a separate handout, something better accomplished with a word processor than with PowerPoint. One of our panelists, Mel Hosain, developed a technique he calls semi-notes for just this purpose. Semi-notes are handouts of notes for a class with some of the information strategically omitted. This gives students the structure you might want them to have, but also requires that they pay attention to fill in the missing bits. I'll leave it to Mel to expand this idea-he's written a great deal about the technique, and I'm sure he would be happy to share his thoughts with you.
By the way, if the issue of pacing continues to concern you, I have an idea that you might try, but it depends on your tolerance for disruption in your own classroom presentations. Don't try this unless you have a pretty mature group, and you feel confident and comfortable in front of them. Hand out two 3x5 cards to your students, one yellow and one green. Tell them that you'd like to have their help in setting the pace for the class. If any students feel you are going too fast, they should catch your eye with the yellow card; if they want you to go faster, they should hold up the green card. If nothing else, you will probably have a few good laughs with them.
Q. 5.3 Do you think it is advisable to provide class notes to students as handouts? I will be teaching a science related course that often tries to pass on numerous facts.
R. On the matter of providing notes to students as handouts, it depends on whether you are talking about lecture notes in great detail (possibly even a transcription of your lectures notes) or whether you are talking about Powerpoint slides/notes.
In some courses, professor provide their printed lectures to students - sometimes to be purchased at the bookstore, sometimes as handouts at class, and sometimes to be downloaded from the Internet (see below). Professor Mel Hosain developed something called "semi-notes" - in which parts of the class notes are deliberately left blank to be completed by students during the lecture. This can be an effective way to combine class notes with student attendance and attention during lectures.
In the case of Powerpoint slides used in lectures, it is common for professors who use Powerpoint to make the slides available on the Internet before class for students to print out - typically 6/page in black and white or 3/page on the left with lines for notes on the right -- and bring to class. I did this for my last four years of teaching. In this case, students would write their own notes directly on the printed Powerpoint slides. Powerpoint and other notes can be posted online through PAWS. You can find information about using PAWS and your courses/classes at the PAWS website for FAQs. There you will find a section answering the following questions with links: Is PAWS the right tool for me to deliver my course?
Is this a good idea to do, which I think was your question? That all depends, which is a typical answer for an academic, and I mean it seriously in this case because you have to ask some basic questions about what you are trying to achieve in your course. It all depends on what your aims are as the instructor for the course. It all depends on what kind of student outcome you want students to achieve. If you are after "recall" and "recognition" primarily, notes can be very helpful to students for memorizing the material. However, a good text should provide students with such material, and is likely better written and organized than you and I could do. Don't just duplicate the text with your notes. But you could help students in learning how to read the text effectively and by referring to the text in your class presentations. In my teaching, however, I wanted students to develop understanding and to be able to apply the course material. Hence even my Powerpoint slides were less about information exchange, and more about provide ways of framing, posing, and understanding questions, about examples and stories (which students can both remember and learn from, provided your examples and stories are carefully chosen). I also carefully referenced items in my Powerpoint slides to the page numbers where such topics were covered in the text. I sometimes put graphs and tables from the text in my Powerpoint slides, with the page number where the graphs and tables were in the text so we could talk about the graphs and tables in class and work our way through them careful to be sure that the students understood the graphs and tables and what they meant.
Sometimes I would leave out some data to be filled in during class. In any such presentations, it is important that students be active, so I tried to get students to talk about the graphs and tables in pairs and then in the whole group.
It is important that you distinguish between "facts" and "understanding." Too often students memorized the "facts," but have little understanding of the meaning of the "facts." "Facts" don't interpret themselves. They require context, understanding, and questions and that is where we as teachers come in - showing students the meaning and significance, asking questions about the importance and relevance of "facts."
I hope this is of some help. Yours is a large question, though on the surface it may not seem so.
Back to Master Teacher Session QR
Importance of reading
Q. 6.1 I'm teaching a class condensed into a 5-week period. Students in this group do very little, if any, reading outside the class. Suggestions? Or ideas for in-class activities to incorporate the readings?
R. Reading - especially the reading of complex, difficult, rich texts - is a habit or aptitude nurtured over many years. It is hard work. Some students come from homes where adult role models do not read, nor do they appear to value reading. Some students are struggling with English as a second language. Some students have learning disabilities. Some students have not been required to read much in high school - sadly. Some students are lazy. Some students substitute a highlight marker for deep understanding (I've seen textbooks where virtually every line has been highlighted!).
- Be sure the students' responsibility for those outside readings forms a significant percentage of the examinations.
- Expect students to participate in classroom discussions of the readings.
- Read to them; show them how valuable reading is to you.
- Using examples, demonstrate ways to approach and understand readings in your discipline - model critical thinking and reading, in other words.
- Recommend readings that are not required.
- Name-drop authors and titles like crazy! Show them how much books have meant to you. Recommend that they read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 - or even watch the movie.
Teaching large classes: engaging students, active participation, group discussions
Q. 7.1 How can I engage a large class in interactive discussion?
R.Your question is an excellent one, and must have been on the minds of many people at this session, because I received, in a random distribution of cards, three versions of the same question.
It is indeed a legitimate concern. As I mentioned in the panel session, my experience with large sections (100 students) of freshman English was that in such a group, as would be expected, approximately 15 - 20% of the students were "A" or "B+" students who were very interested in the course, and were either sitting in the front of the lecture hall on the first day, or soon moved into the front rows. I could always count on these people to answer questions and make interesting comments. I soon noticed that the large group of so-called "middle-range" ("C") students was positively affected by the interchange between instructor and students that they couldn't help witnessing. Soon, after a few weeks, they began to respond with questions and comments of their own.
So in many ways, the problem, for the most part, takes care of itself. There were, of course, students who showed minimal or nonexistent interest in the course, and no attempts on my part to draw them into class discussion seemed to work very well, if at all. Although some of my colleagues may disagree, I do think that there is a small minority of students who cannot be reached, and it is very important for new teachers not to draw the conclusion that this is somehow their fault, or the result of some deficiency within them.
On a practical note, it is important in a large class to speak with sufficient clarity and force that all students can hear you, especially if you do not have a microphone at hand. I found that repeating a question asked by a student in the front rows--slowly, clearly, and fairly loudly-did work to catch the attention of the entire group, and frequently elicited responses from otherwise silent students. I would also, from time to time, remind the class that all the work should not be done by a few students, and ask for comments from the "upper decks." Occasionally this did result in involving people who did not normally speak in class.
Student questions; Teachable moments
Q. 8.1 What do I do if students ask a question that I don't know the answer to?
R. This is a good question, and can be answered quite quickly. If you don't know the answer to a question, my advice is, don't fake it. Students can tell if a teacher is dodging a question in this way, and they won't respect you for it. I used to say, when stumped by a question, "You know, I'm not sure of how to reply to that; let me get back to you by next class". Then I'd make a joke about not having total recall, or remark that, as it must be to their immense surprise, I really don't know everything.
I think they appreciated the fact that I could acknowledge that there were things I did not know, and I hope they learned that my going off and finding-or trying to find-the answer was an essential part of the lifelong learning process.
Secondly, do not spoon-feed them. It doesn't hurt to have periodical quizzes, etc., but they are adults with their own responsibilities, and should be treated as such. I always tell students that they are responsible for the material; that I am not there to give another lecture verbatim of a class they have missed (although I will briefly summarize what they have missed, in my office).
My guess is that providing notes of every lecture on PAWS might encourage some students to miss a lot of classes, but I know many of my colleagues do this, so it might be wise to get another opinion. I do not myself provide lecture notes on PAWS, for the above reason.
Q. 8.2 I'm not sure myself exactly what the question is, but it is about: How to recognize and then create teachable moments? My teaching area/goal of teaching deals with social change and helping/ facilitating the creation of good global citizens, [by] consciousness raising. How do I do this? Where do I start? I've learned, but how to teach others?
R. Thanks so much for your excellent question about creating memorable and teachable moments. Interestingly, most of the literature around "teachable moments" talks about recognizing them and exploiting them, not about creating them, so your angle on this is quite refreshing and useful.
Where do I start? How about starting with your passion for creating good global citizens? It is apparent from your question that this is something you care deeply about, and it seems to me (as an outsider who would like to be a good global citizen) that this area is filled with dramatic examples of people who have been exemplary global citizens, and littered with examples of people who have been horrible global citizens (or stories around their influence). I wonder if that might be a good launching point for your classes. You could ask your students to find an example, either glorious or atrocious, and be ready to tell a story about their example. You could start each class with one ("Okay George, tell us about your global citizen of the day.") Then let that kick off a 5-10 minute discussion of the example, how it hooks into the content of your class, what it teaches the students about their own contributions to the global community, etc.). You could also call on people randomly during class, whenever you feel them start to fade on you, and ask someone to offer up their story.
How about collecting several good and bad examples of your own and inserting one into each class meeting? The more dramatic you can make the examples and the stories, the better, I think.
When I teach my media literacy class, I often start the class with the question, "What's happening in the media?" I make it a class routine - something we do every day. We seem to get into everything from copyright, to government and corporate intrusion in our lives, to why Hollywood stars name their kids what they do. It ranges from the profound to the infuriating to the silly, but it almost always gets the juices flowing in the class. Many teachable moments and hooks seem to appear in those little stories, and my students often remind me of one of those stories years later. Stories seem to capture imaginations more effectively than simply delivering content, and they seem to be excellent vessels for conveying ideas.
Research versus teaching: dilemmas, balance, life priorities
Q. 9.1 I've been advised that, at some point I will be faced with the decision of how to spend that last hour before lecture . . . research? teaching prep? And, the answer, for tenure-track positions is (apparently) research, hands-down! Because the tenure decision does not reward teaching excellence. How do you reconcile this conflict? How as a new tenure-track faculty member, do you balance the desire to and importance of being a good teacher with the demands of publishing research? (Although I hear lip service being paid to the importance of teaching, the reality, as far as I can tell, is that research is more important to getting tenure.)
R.Your question is a question on the minds of a number of those present for the panel.
First, let me indicate that the advice you heard and your perception are not only common but also, in my judgment, good advice for ensuring tenure and promotion. The academic culture of our university specifically, and of universities generally, is tipped strongly toward research. In his June presidential address to the Canadian Political Science Association, Richard Kim Nossal called this orientation "the cult of research intensivity". Nossal has not, in my opinion, misjudged the values and priorities of Canadian academic culture.
Second, I am not sure this conflicting set of demands can be resolved and new faculty like you are the ones who experience that tension most acutely and daily because of the many demands you face and the need to prioritize those demands to achieve tenure and promotion and still have a life.
Third, most of us on the panel have pursued good teaching as a goal in our academic careers and have combined that goal and activity with extensive research. We knew, however, that our efforts not only to teach well and but also to give significant time and attention to undergraduate students and their learning and lives would not count very much in our academic careers as such. While those of us on the panel have each been named master teacher along the way and we have experienced both pride and delight in such a public award at convocation, the award did not motivate us to make good teaching and student learning a high priority. We received a one-time $1,000 stipend. And such an award, if counted in the annual review, counts only once for merit. Ultimately in the reward and promotion system, most who make teaching a priority do so out of personal conviction, not out of hope of promotion, at least not to full professor. I am not sure that most of us feel the matter of devoting great time and attention to teaching well as a choice. Trying to do good teaching over an extended period of our lives is who we are - our identities - and so we do it and experience significant intrinsic reward. To put the matter simply, but I hope not self- righteously, for us doing our best at teaching and students' learning is the right thing to do. We love doing it. And if we get an award, that is a bonus.
Fourth, most of us feel considerable concern about the importance of undergraduates and the quality of undergraduate education. Undergraduates are the future of our society - as citizens and leaders, as members of the work force, particularly professionals, and members of families. For us, in so far as good teaching and student learning are related to that future, we feel its great importance and the privilege of supporting undergraduate students and their futures. We also think that such attention to undergraduates and education is a large mandate of our university. Few experiences are as powerful and gratifying for us as the success of our students not only academically but also as persons who contribute to society. Such persons are both our hope and our future. I know this sounds idealistic and somewhat unrealistic - and likely a long way from your question - but it's what motivates us, though seldom do we talk about it, except with each other. Ultimately we are facing and trying to live out value questions.
Fifth, I would suggest that you read Peter Filene's, The Joy of Teaching: A Practical Guide for New College Instructors. I think you will find that Filene addresses some of your concerns in chapter 10, "Teaching and not perishing," in a practical and honest way. His book offers new faculty helpful advice for teaching during their first three years. You can read about Filene's excellent book, including a delightful interview with the author online at The University of North Carolina Press website.
Q. 9.2 How do you balance good teaching with other responsibilities and passions in your life? (e.g. schedule teaching with research, family, and sleep!)
R.Your question raises the really hard question, and one that we heard, in various forms, from a number of participants. I'd paraphrase it the way students have sometime put it to me in terms of the many demands from taking 5 classes. 'We ought to be able to have a life besides classes, readings, papers, and exams.' So should new faculty, but I hear that complaint frequently from new faculty.
Besides agreeing with your question, that such a situation is commonly voiced, and that such a quagmire should be changed, I am not sure how to respond to your question. So let me explore my thoughts through writing to you.
First, I like the energy and scope of the interest, concern, and responsibility behind your question. We need faculty members who are fully alive and involved, with wide interests. Too many, in my judgment, live in restricted niches. As faculty, we are not only teachers, researchers, members of an academic community, we are also members of families, of the community, and of the society. We are citizens and friends, with interest in the arts, concern for environment, racial and economic justice, with concerns for personal health, physical activity, hobbies - responsibilities to each other and the quality of life at many levels.
Second, the word "balance" itself is an interesting word. It can be a kind of static, holding things each in its place or compartment, with stress as a kind of danger or enemy threatening to overwhelm us and intruding into the separations of the various segments. Or it can be dynamic, living with tensions, with stress as a goad that results in problem-solving, dealing with challenges, becoming creativity, and stretching us to go beyond ourselves. The academics I have come to admire experience 'eu-stress' [good or constructive stress] of the second type -- energetic, creative, thoughtful, involved--alive.
Third, I did not achieve much of a balance because "balance" in the second sense drove my thinking, practices, and research. For me, teaching and students' learning were a passion that grew, enlarged, and demanded innovation. I also spent 10 years as president of St. Thomas More College, a job I found completely occupying and preoccupying of my time and energy. And I greatly missed teaching. The longer I taught, however, the more I wanted to do in teaching and students' learning--it felt like a spiral moving upward and widening. I found that each year I taught opened up for me how much more I needed to do - in reading the pedagogical research literature, in designing courses, in developing changed approaches to teaching/student learning, and being involved in workshops and college/university committees related to teaching/learning. I decided to do a course by TV with a WebTV website with all assignments and writing submitted, marked, and returned on-line. I set up a research project on the careers of graduates from my field/department (500 surveyed).
Fourth, I found having the strong support of my wife and family as well as friendships with other faculty on campus, with whom I shared basic values, critical to doing my work well, especially in times of great pressure such as start and end of classes and finals, and during times of intense research demands. My wife has been most understanding of my work and even my passion and involvement with teaching and students' learning. I'd also suggest that you get to know persons at the Gwenna Moss Centre and some of the workshop offered through the Centre. Here you will also meet like minded faculty.
Finally, I would suggest that you read Peter Filene's book, The Joy of Teaching: A Practical Guide for New College Instructors. Chapter 10, "Teaching and not perishing," may address some of the concerns you raise in your question. You can read about Filene's excellent book, including an inviting interview with the author, at the University of North Carolina website. Filene's book offers new faculty helpful advice for teaching during the first three years.
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