Teaching Tuesday: talking about teaching


When I did a survey of ecology teachers earlier this year*, I left a space for further comments on teaching in ecology. Here, I got perhaps some of the most interesting opinions. One respondent took the time to practically write a post themselves, which I have pondered quite a bit. Instead of commenting on bits and pieces, I decided to post it in full:

There is a big difference between large lecture hall sophomore courses (Introductory) and upper division courses.  My approach to these is almost totally in opposition.  In the upper division course I do many of the new fangled things you mention above including- think-pair-share, multiple drafts of written work, in class presentations, etc.  In the lower division course, though, this kind of activity is nearly impossible to execute- and the students, many of whom are uninterested, don’t WANT any of that.  So it becomes a pure waste of time.  I have tried many of these techniques in the large lecture hall setting and it becomes mayhem and nothing is accomplished.  So I settled back into pretty straight lecturing, which seems to work just fine- students are happy, they seem to get it, and my time is not wasted.

My Upper division courses are the opposite end of the spectrum.  Sometimes students enroll in my upper division course because they LIKED my large lecture hall technique, and they end up displeased with all the group interactions, presentations, class participation, etc. that happens in the upper division course.  I actually have a little trouble in my reviews from students RESISTING those techniques (that we all think are student friendly).

I approach upper division courses like a “workshop” and I tell them that before we begin at the start of the semester.  Interestingly, some of my smartest students have told me personally, and also in evaluations- ” YOU are the expert in this field- I don’t want my time wasted by listening to the novice opinions of other students.” I think that is an interesting perspective, although most of the students like a more participatory setting.

Finally, I have been involved in a number of teaching workshops and I think it is important to point out that those kinds of settings can become akin to moralizing.  Preachy, in fact.  And, I have excellent data to support the notion that sometimes the strongest advocates of new, “modern,” student friendly, engaging, technologically innovative, etc. are also people who have terrible natural rapport with students!  I have had advisees come into my office and complain bitterly about how terrible faculty member X is, and how everyone tries to avoid their sections of the class, when I know for a fact that faculty member X is the leading advocate on campus for all of these supposedly student – friendly techniques.  In contrast, I know faculty members who have been around for a long time who just us chalk and a chalk board- that is it- 100% lecture, no AV at ALL, who the students love and get a ton from.

E.g., I went to a session once all about how students these days are “Millennials” and they expect to have information delivered in small packages etc.  Have you ever spelled out that tripe to actual students?  I did in my class a couple of times and the students themselves think this is absolutely ridiculous.  They are not a simple “they” and “they” don’t fit into pigeonholes easily, and they don’t want you stereotyping them this way.

There is a high-horse mentality, and even taking this survey I could feel it a little bit… I expect to see some report from this survey bemoaning how ecology teaching is “behind the times” or missing opportunities for real “student engagement.”

I urge extreme caution before making any kind of statements of this sort.  What is missing from any of this discussion is actual OUTCOMES for students!  Has there been content delivery?  We watched some Youtube clips, had a scientific debate on twitter, used clickers, paired and shared, etc—-so what?  Did they get more than would have been accomplished through use of chalk?  Data on this are VERY scanty in my view- and, unfortunately, a lot of our critique of teaching has absolutely no rigor when it comes to measuring OUTCOMES.

As outlined above, I use many of these techniques, and appreciate them- and I will vocally support anyone who choses to use them.   But, I think they are mostly irrelevant to success in teaching.  In my experience, teaching is pretty simple:

(1) Bring good material to the classroom
(2) Be organized, have a plan for the semester- explain the plan- and stick to it.
(3) Demonstrate that you care about the students- you are not there to battle them or prove them stupid, that you really do want them to “get it”
(4) Be transparently fair in grading and other forms of evaluation.
(5) Demonstrate passion for the topic.

There are things I agree with and many I don’t in this commentary, but I want to be careful to not simply argue with what is written here. Instead, the comments have got me thinking about many of the assumptions, biases and difficulties around talking about teaching. Some of those are highlighted above, some not. Mainly I want to use the comments as a springboard. What follows are the somewhat random thoughts that this reading inspired…

First, should we be concerned with whether techniques are “student-friendly” or not? Or what the students want? I keep coming back to this one. Ultimately, as the commenter suggests, it is the outcomes that are important. So regardless of what the students think they want or are comfortable with, I believe we should be doing what helps them to learn.

That leads me to the purpose of teaching in the first place. What are our goals? Do we want students to pass our tests or to take the fundamentals learned in our courses with them for life? Are we exposing students to ideas or do we want them to understand them? Is the main thing to get students to be passionate or at least respect the natural world around them? None of these are mutually exclusive, of course but the goals we have as teachers will determine the kind of teaching we do. And for some, teaching is just the price for working at a university, the goal is get by doing as little as possible. But in general, it seems to me that we as teachers should mindful of our goals and do what is best able to achieve those. It seems to me that there is a fair amount of evidence that straight lecturing isn’t the best way to achieve learning. However, there are many different ways to engage students.

Another assumption is that technology = engagement. Students can be just as engaged with chalk as with clickers. A YouTube video is just as passive as a lecture. What I find interesting is that using some forms of technology such as clickers can force you as a teacher to be more purposeful with engagement. Maybe it doesn’t come naturally to you to get students engaged, so directly incorporating activities aimed at engagement will make that happen. But one of the things I’ve taken from my teaching is that for anything to be successful, you need to think through what you’re trying to achieve.

Are the data truly scant? It seems to me that there is a lot of research on teaching and learning. I’ve only dipped my toe in the literature but it is its own discipline.  I don’t think I’m really qualified to assess whether there is enough data on particular techniques, etc. I’d have to read much more. But it seems to me that we as teachers could benefit a lot from knowing more about what has been studied. Some of the best exams I ever took as an undergraduate were in a psychology class called simply “Memory”. Now that prof knew how to cut through our crap and ask a multiple choice question that actually tested our understanding. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, that course impressed upon me that understanding how our minds work could lead to better teaching and testing materials.

But one of the big questions I am left with is: Why can teaching be so difficult to talk about? I worked hard to ask questions in the survey in a very neutral tone. I was curious, but not coming from a place of judgement. I wanted to know what people were doing but am a far cry from knowing what the best practises are/should be.  But despite that, even asking about teaching leads some to think that the results will lead to critical conclusions about the field, without even knowing the outcome of the questions. But what are we so protective of? If the data exists that we’re doing it ‘wrong’, shouldn’t we change? And what if we’re doing it ‘right’? How can we know without investigating, both the teaching practice and the learning outcomes? And does discussing teach techniques always come off as moral/preachy? I’ve certainly had different experiences. But I wonder about where the preachy overtones come from—is it the presenters or perceptions of the receivers of the information? I’m sure it varies from situation to situation. But why is it there at all?

Honestly, I was a bit nervous to send out the survey broadly in the first place. I wasn’t sure how people would respond and it was a new kind of data collection for me. Overall, I got a lot of very positive responses to my doing the survey and sharing it on this blog. But I still wonder why resistance to discussing teaching exists. Are we so sure that we know what it takes to be a good teacher? I know I’m not. I certainly look for feedback on my research from experts in the field—why should teaching be any different?

What are your thoughts? Do you think teaching seminars/workshops are too preachy? Are we paying enough attention to the outcomes or getting caught up with flashy new technologies? Should there be more data on what works? Do we pay enough attention to the data that exists?

*for those interested there are some other posts on the results of the survey to be found: here (and links within)

3 thoughts on “Teaching Tuesday: talking about teaching

  1. Great post!

    I think that at this point, chalk board lectures are probably on the more interactive end of the biology/ecology teaching methods spectrum. I know a great many professors who utilize clickers, think-pair-share, and discussions in their classrooms, but they use those techniques to supplement their typical teaching method: powerpoint lectures. The powerpoints are typically available online, so the students don’t need to take notes or even pay attention to the lecture. With chalk board lectures, the students are usually more engaged because they need to write down what the professor is writing down. I personally find it much more stimulating to be actively taking notes than to be passively watching a screen for 75 minutes.

  2. Disclaimer: I’m a chemist and not an ecologist so I can’t comment directly on the literature on biology education. I’m also just in my 3rd year of teaching and am technically in the “Millennial” generation so I don’t have a long-term perspective.

    When I look at chemistry education research I do see that the “new-fangled” ways of teaching do tend increase test scores and course grades. That’s great, but I do have a couple of concerns. One is that the benefit often seems pretty minimal (statistically significant, but just). Second, it doesn’t seem to matter what new-fangled thing you do, you get a bump, which makes me wonder if we’re actually doing something better or students just start paying more attention when we introduce something “new”.

    I, like the commenter, generally run my freshman level course more traditionally and do more student-centered teaching in the upper-division course. But I caution putting too much emphasis on what students, “like”. Students will often be upset by anything that’s not as they expect, and when it comes to university classrooms they often expect to be passive, do the minimal amount of work, and get above average grades. So I do tend to emphasis outcomes over student “happiness” when assessing the effectiveness of my courses.

  3. Based on my undergrad experience (at one of the famous “Institute of Technology” schools), what a decent subset of students wanted was a well-chosen textbook, good assignments, lectures in which students sit passively in the audience, and participation/attendance counting for 0% of the grade, so that they could just learn through reading the materials and working through the assignments, and not have to go to class at all if they were doing well and didn’t feel like going. They figured that if, through the materials and assignments developed by the professor, they could learn the course content and perform well on the assignments/projects/exams, they were doing what was expected of them and it was nobody’s business whether they went to this thing called “class” unless their performance was inadequate. Accordingly, they resented attempts to make classes more participatory as ways to rope them into attending.

    That doesn’t make such a system pedagogically good practice, even for very bright students of the sort that these students tended to be, let alone more typical students. I think I would have learned more – and bothered to show up more – for certain classes if they had been more conducive to actual learning than someone talking at me for an hour. As a teacher, I’d rather gear the pedagogical approach toward the struggling students and the students who actually need some sort of guidance from a teacher in order to grasp the material.

    From the student side of things, I really liked my advisor’s seminar class this semester. We had three substantial homework projects, each of which counted for 15% of the grade. We had a paper to read for each class period, and could turn in notecards with intelligent questions about the paper, and getting full credit for at least 10 notecards got you full participation/readings credit, which was 10%. Each class session a different pair of people were presenting the paper (you presented twice and each time was worth 15%) and a different person wrote a written review of the paper (which you did once, for the remaining 15%), and we all – including the prof and TA – discussed the day’s paper over the course of the semester.

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