Students into teachers

A two-day workshop helps grad students shift to the other side of the desk.

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It’s a week before fall quarter begins. More than 1,500 first-years are already on campus, being oriented, disoriented, or both. About 300 grad students are here too, getting a two-day crash course on College teaching.

On the first morning of the intensive workshop organized by the Center for Teaching and Learning, the graduate instructors learned a bit about College students (“You might give them their first B,” vice president for enrollment and student advancement James Nondorf advised. “Be gentle.”) and discussed authority and ethics in the classroom. Over boxed lunches, they attended one of 23 discussion groups led by a faculty member in their particular discipline. In the afternoon, they could choose from sessions on the role of the teaching assistant, teaching in the American classroom, and academic dishonesty, among others.

Now, at 9 a.m. on day two, pedagogy expert Jean-luc Doumont is questioning whether universities have any idea how to teach at all.

Doumont has a PhD in applied physics from Stanford and earned his undergraduate degree in engineering at Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, which was founded in 1425—before the invention of the printing press. Six centuries later, Doumont says, universities are still engaged in “pre-Gutenberg teaching.” The professor writes on the blackboard, the students write in their notebooks, “without the material really crossing the brain of either of them,” Doumont says. “Just monks, copying what’s been said. It’s got to be the least effective photocopy machine in the world.”

Laughter spreads through Kent 107, a large lecture hall; several students look up self-consciously from their notes. “It’s just tradition,” Doumont says. “We tend to do with our students what our professors did with us.”

Doumont flips on a slide showing a straight line, with the word “instructor” on the left, “students” on the right, and “material” in the middle.

“Instructors tend to focus on the left part of the model,” he says. Most instructors will say a lecture was a success if they covered the material, which means “saying everything out loud, once. That’s their measure of success.” But the students assimilate just ten percent of what is said—in engineering terms, a yield of ten percent.

So imagine if you covered only half of the material. “Whenever I mention this to a group of faculty, I have to stop talking, because there is an uproar in the room,” Doumont says, as the students laugh. “I have to calm them down. It’s a thought experiment. Let’s pretend.” With half the material, you have twice the time, which could be used “to do more interesting things—if only checking that the students have understood.” As a result, the yield goes up to 25 percent: “You have become two and a half times more efficient by dropping half of the material.”

It’s a simple idea, but “people just say ‘impossible,’” he says. If it were a financial investment, not teaching—if you could invest half of your money more cleverly, and get back 2.5 times as much—everyone would agree. “But somehow, for teaching, that is just not going to happen.”

Doumont’s point is that teachers should focus on their students rather than obsessing over content—and whenever possible, let students learn by doing it themselves. Young children, for example, plead to be allowed to vacuum: “‘Dad, Dad, can I do it? Please? And let me do it myself.’ That’s kids,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be a dream if your students would be like that? They would come into class and push you aside and say, ‘Please please, don’t say the answer, I’ll do it myself!’” With the right sort of teaching, he says, that potential is still there: “I strongly believe it’s still in us.”

 

That afternoon, a smaller group of students cram into Stuart 101 for the session “Pedagogical Self-Assessment: How Do You Know Your Students Are Learning?” taught by Britni Ratliff, SM’07, PhD’11 (chemistry), Martin Baeumel (Germanic studies), and Jessica Robinson, AM’05 (anthropology). Experienced instructors, they also work as teaching consultants at the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Ratliff is about to explain the rationale behind the session when she interrupts herself: “Why are you here?” she wants to know. “Why are you interested in being able to self-assess your courses?”

“The last time I taught—at another institution—was really frustrating for me,” someone admits. “I felt like I lost communication with the class. It was a really huge class, 100 students. Before I teach again, I want to have a better idea of how I’m doing before the end of the course.”

Baeumel nods sympathetically. “When you start teaching, if you notice a class isn’t going well, you might tend to prepare more content,” he says. “And 99 percent of the time, this particular class will go even worse, because you’re so focused on the content you lose touch with what students need.”

“The question of fear is pretty significant,” adds Robinson. “The first time you’re teaching on your own, you’re afraid they’re going to find you out—that you’re not really a teacher. One of the benefits of being able to assess as you go along is that it empowers you. It helps you feel in control.”

The session’s leaders have a few self-assessment methods to recommend. One is keeping a teaching log—detailed notes about classes that went particularly well or badly. Another is to assign “minute papers.” Students are given literally one minute at the end of class to answer simple questions, such as “What contributed most to your learning today? What detracted the most?” or “What’s the biggest unresolved question of today?”

Yet another tool is the midcourse review, which, despite the name, should be done by third week at the latest, Baeumel  recommends, so you have time to change the syllabus if necessary. Instructors can ask the center to do a midcourse review for them, Ratliff explains: “Sometimes students aren’t as willing to be as open and honest with the instructor. ... But they’ll talk to us.”

Graduate instructors can also request an individual teaching consultation: someone from the center will observe the class, videotape it, and then offer suggestions. “We’re not testing you,” Robinson reassures. “We’re not there to boost your ego or destroy it. It’s just a very useful tool to help you improve.”

A hand is up in the back. “Some of us were told at lunch” (during that day’s set of lunch sessions with faculty) “that a lot of schools are now asking for a DVD of your teaching as part of your application,” he says. The teaching consultants nod.

“The videos also give you an idea of your teaching from the students’ perspective,” Ratliff says. “You might think a camera would change the students’ behavior, but no. You may have thought a certain part of your lecture was amazing, but on the video you can see the students checking Facebook.”

 

Syllabus

The Workshop on Teaching in the College, sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning, has been held at the University since 1995. Originally supported by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the annual workshop is now supported by the College.

The center also offers numerous workshops and seminars for graduate instructors throughout the year, covering topics such as teaching portfolios, philosophy of teaching statements, course design, assignment design, and collaborative learning. Graduate instructors who have completed a curriculum on teaching, received an individual teaching consultation, submitted a teaching portfolio, and fulfilled additional requirements earn the center’s Certificate in University Teaching—a useful qualification for the academic job market, says director Elizabeth Chandler, AM’72.

The center presents an annual Excellence in Course Design Award to graduate instructors. The 2012 award went to Brandon Cline, MDV’03, AM’10, graduate student in New Testament and Early Christian Literature, for his course Being Christian in the Roman Empire.

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