Category Archives: Reflections on my own teaching

Use of class time in PHIL 102

I’m teaching PHIL 102, Introduction to Philosophy, Jan-April 2018. I have taught this course many times before (and have blogged about it; see here for posts about the course), and I keep revisiting it and renewing it because I’m never fully satisfied. This year I’m focusing my changes in large part on the question of how best to use class time. See the previous post for some general reflections on that.

Below are some problems I am seeing in PHIL 102 that lead me to wonder about my use of class time and whether I should change it.

Continue reading

How best to use class time? (11 years later)

photo of a classroom with empty desks and chairs

Classroom by Victor Björkund, licensed CC BY 2.0 on Flickr.

Eleven years ago, during the summer I first started this blog (2006), I wrote a couple of posts about the use of class time: What is class time for? Part 1 and Part 2.

I don’t know whether the fact that I’m still dealing with a version of the same question this many years later means I’m just failing or that it’s a hard problem. I believe the latter, though!

In those posts I wondered what is the best use of the limited time that we have to have students together in a room (if we teach face-to-face courses, that is). What I was used to from my own courses, and what I did when I first started teaching, was to use that time to: (1) do a lecture in which I explain the assigned readings, clarifying complicated points, heading off potential misunderstandings, and then also either offering a critique or inviting students to offer critiques; and also (2) often I would find ways to engage students in a discussion of some philosophical question. This latter would be either the whole class together (depending on the size of the class), or small groups.

Even in 2006, my third year at UBC (my sixth year of teaching after the PhD), I was wondering about (1). Not that I think that is a bad thing to do, but I was wondering how much time I should spend on that, because:

  • Why should students spend time reading (let’s face it, often difficult) texts when they can come to class and get it explained by the prof?
  • My conception of philosophy, especially for students who may take one or two philosophy classes but won’t be majors, is that it could go beyond reading writings by others and discussing them. I think philosophy is valuable and useful beyond the academy, and doing courses in which all students do is read what others have said and critique it can give a narrow view of what philosophy and philosophical activity are and could be. That’s what professional philosophers do, but most students in my 100 level courses won’t become professional philosophers.
  • Does it really help students learn how to understand and critique complicated arguments if the instructor usually does it for them? Some modeling is necessary, of course, but more practice than I used to give (and frankly, more than I currently give) could be pedagogically useful.

Revisiting the question

Now, here I am in 2017, still addressing a variant of the same question: what is the best use of that limited face-to-face time? What do we need to be in the same room together to do, and what can be done without being in the same room together? (The success of many online courses says there may be a great deal that can be done separately, asynchronously, online).

Continue reading

What needs improvement in Intro to Philosophy

bust of Socrates with the words "PHIL 102: Introduction to Philosophy with Christina Hendricks, University of British Columbia-Vancouver" off to the right of it

Image from front page of my PHIL 102 course site from Spring 2017. Image of Socrates is Bust of Socrates from the Louvre, by CherryX, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0 on Wikimedia Commons.

 

I am working on my Introduction to Philosophy course (PHIL 102) again; I’m teaching it next starting in January 2018. But I’ve just been appointed as the Deputy Academic Director of the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology at UBC (starting July 1, 2017) and so I’m trying to get as much planning done on this course before the Fall as I can).

I have taught this course many times already and every year I am not fully happy with it and try to make it better. This year was no exception (I taught it from Jan-April 2017). Some of my previous blog posts about this course are here. The post I did in Summer of 2016 on this course I thought was pretty good on overall learning goal planning and reflection, so I’m going to reuse those ideas.

But this post here will be a bit different; I’m going to approach it from the perspective of what I thought didn’t work so well, and see if I can’t come up with new ideas from there.

Continue reading

More course planning with Dee Fink

 

I am back to planning a course using the Integrated Course Design model by Dee Fink, outlined in this document & set of worksheets. I worked with this model and the same course about a year ago, and blogged about it briefly here.

Now I am preparing for a presentation on using Fink’s ideas for developing course goals and assessments, as well as using David Wiley’s suggestion of practicing open pedagogy through using renewable assignments (which I discuss in this article). I’m presenting on this at the upcoming American Association of Philosophy Teachers’ conference, which is held every two years and is easily one of my favourite conferences–it’s filled with people who love teaching philosophy!

Here in this post, I’ll focus on drafting learning goals with Dee Fink’s Integrated Course Design. I’m also presenting on Wiley’s idea of “Renewable Assignments,” and I’ve already reflected on some ideas for those in a previous post.

I’ve been working on my Philosophy 102 course again, because even though I’ve taught it many times, I’m still not entirely happy with it. I feel like it could be more engaging for students, and since there really are few restrictions on what I can teach in that course (it’s an intro course focused on value theory…anything within that is fair game) then there’s a lot of freedom to consider how to make it more engaging.

Like last year, I’m using Workflowy to do the planning. Here’s a link to the part of my Workflowy list about this course that focuses on the learning objectives. While I find Workflowy excellent for planning in list format, it’s not so great for long-form reflecting, so I’m moving over here to my blog for that.

Draft Learning goals for PHIL 102

One of the things I love about Fink’s model for course design is the expanded kinds of learning goals he asks one to consider. He suggests setting goals in the following areas:

  • Foundational Knowledge: what key information or ideas, perspectives are important for students to learn?
  • Application: what kinds of thinking are needed, such as critical, creative, practical? What sorts of skills do they need to learn?
  • Integration: what connections should students make between parts of the course? Between what’s in the course and other courses? Or between the course and their own lives?
  • Human Dimension: what should students learn about themselves? About interacting with others in the future?
  • Caring: what changes would you like to see in what students care about? What changes like to see in their interests, values, feelings?
  • Learning How to Learn: What would you like students to learn about how to learn well in this course (and beyond)? About how to become self-directed learners, engage in inquiry and knowledge construction?

On my Workflowy list I went through each of these areas and answered the questions (see here for my answers), and then came up with a draft list of Learning Objectives for the course as a whole. Here they are in their current form, but if you go to the link in the last sentence, you can see any updates I make later.

  1. Explain the basic structure of a philosophical argument–premises and conclusion—and correctly outline an argument in a philosophical text
  2. Assess the strength of arguments in assigned texts, in oral or written work by other students, and their own arguments (oral or written)
  3. Read a complex philosophical text and produce notes that distinguish the main points of the arguments therein.
  4. Make a claim about a philosophical issue and defend it with sound reasoning, orally and in writing
  5. Participate in a respectful discussion with others on a philosophical question: clarify positions and arguments from themselves or others, criticize flawed arguments, present their own arguments, and do all this in manner that respects the other people in the discussion
  6. Based on what we’ve studied in the class, give one (of many!) possible answers to the questions: What is philosophical activity and where do we see it in the world outside this course? How do you engage in philosophical activity beyond this course?

What’s missing

Now, one of the great things about Workflowy is that I can go through and tag items in my list so as to just view them on a page and clear everything else out. I found a number of things in the 6 areas of learning goals (Foundational Knowledge, Caring, Learning how to Learn, etc.) that were not reflected in my draft set of learning objectives. I tagged them with #attn (for attention) and was able to just focus on them. Here is what I don’t have in my learning objectives or ideas for course activities yet:

  • Human dimension: what should students learn about themselves? about interacting with others in the future?
    • It would be good if they learned the degree to which they tend to rely on unexamined beliefs and values in their thoughts about the questions we’re discussing, and why it might be good to examine those #attn
    • Learn the value of respectful, philosophical (or other) dialogue with peers–how can we engage in dialogue that respects everyone and yet moves forward rather than sitting with everyone’s differing opinions and not going anywhere out of fear of offending anyone? #attn
    • At the same time, don’t want them to just rely on relativism–your view is okay and so is mine, there isn’t an answer. Need to find a way to both recognize that you might be wrong, and yet hold steady to what you have good reason to believe in b/c of evidence, good arguments behind it, etc. Still open to questioning and challenge from others. #attn
  • Caring: what changes would you like to see in what students care about? What changes like to see in their interests, values, feelings?
    This is a hard one–how can one work to change what people care about? #attn

    • I would like them to care about careful, philosophical inquiry, argument and dialogue, about how such activity can be helpful in addressing disagreements, if done well #attn
    • Care about whether their own views and values have been examined, whether they can provide adequate arguments for them, and what to do if they think they can’t #attn
    • Care about whether their own arguments about the content of the course are sound #attn
    • Care about treating with respect those whose views differ from theirs, but not thinking that this must mean we have to be relativists, that there are no objective truths about value #attn
    • Care about working together with others to solve problems/try to answer complex questions #attn
  • Learning how to learn: what would you like students to learn about how to learn well in this course (and beyond)? how to become self-directed learners, engage in inquiry and knowledge construction?
    • learn the value of working together with peers to learn; that sometimes learning on one’s own works well, and sometimes it’s also valuable to learn with peers #attn
      how to get them to see this?

      • learning with and from peers is not a waste of time compared to getting info from the prof as expert
      • recognize that even when they feel they know more than others, “teaching” others is a very useful way to better understand something; we learn by helping others to learn, not just by getting information from them
    • learn what to do if something isn’t making sense; what options do they have for getting help? How can they avoid just being confused and not doing much to solve the problem? #attn
    • understand that philosophical texts may require more than one read to understand them well, and have the patience to do work hard to understand something that is challenging. Of course, time pressure is also an issue, so want to make sure not overwhelming them. #attn
      how to help them see this?

Okay, so how?

Here is where I start reflecting on the things I’ve marked “attn,” above. It’s interesting to me that the ones I’m having the most difficulty with are the ones I hadn’t really thought of much before reading Fink’s work–goals about caring, the human dimension, and learning how to learn. My course goals were more content-focused before that.

Caring goals

I’m going to start with the hardest one, in my view. How do I get them to care about certain things, if they don’t already? I feel the need to tread carefully here, as there are ethical concerns with trying to change people’s values when you’re in a position of significant power in comparison to them. I don’t think I should require students to care about certain things so much as show evidence of doing certain things (whether doing so has entered into their emotional or value structure deeply is their own concern).

So while I’d like them to care if their arguments are sound or if they are relying on assumptions that they can’t defend, I can’t require them to show that they care about such things–only that they do unpack their assumptions and that the arguments they produce are sound. And while I would like them to care about working together with others to solve problems and treating them with respect in discussions, all I can require is that they do so.

One thing I could do is to model my own enthusiasm in striving to unpack my own assumptions and produce sound arguments, model respect in discussions, and show how I think of myself as working with them to address the problems we are discussion (which I do think, and I can model that). I can also explain why I believe those things are important, as a way of explaining why I require them, and then these reasons may resonate with others as well.

So while I don’t think the Caring goals will show up in my learning objectives, they will operate in how I teach, and how I explain why I’m teaching that way.

Human Dimension

  • Learning about how they might rely on unexamined beliefs: could help them see this by asking them to reflect on their views about certain issues and come up with arguments to support them, examining those premises as deeply as possible.
    • I’ve done this in the past when I’ve asked students to pick a current issue in the news and write blog posts about views one might have about that and arguments they can come up with to support them. I have always said it doesn’t have to actually be their own views, but the views someone could have (because some students are wary of blogging in front of their classmates about their own views).
    • I have run into issues where students have gotten upset by what others have written (one student was upset by a blog post about how abortion is wrong, because, this student said (in anonymous feedback), other students in the class may have had abortions. So this is not without dangers. One option is to just have all of them submit these posts privately to me, which has always been an option and students sometimes take it, but other students don’t mind blogging publicly and that’s how this student got upset.
    • Still, isn’t there a teaching moment there, or something valuable in determining how to deal with the fact that there are different views in our class just as in the world, and we need to learn how to engage with others who disagree? Probably, but I’m not sure I’ve yet figured out how best to handle this. So I’m still undecided on whether to require all such writing to be private to me or to let them post just to the class, or publicly, as they choose (which has been my practice so far).
  • Learning the value of respectful dialogue with others, but not falling back into relativism: mostly I think I just hope this happens when I require them to talk in small groups about the issues we’re discussing. I and the TA’s try to monitor the tone of such discussions, but we can’t be in all groups at the same time. Here are some things I could do:
    • Have us come up with ground rules for discussion, collaboratively. I have tried something like this with large classes before. It worked pretty well; the large class was split up into groups of 25 for one hour a week, and I had a google doc for each of those small groups. Then I compiled all the results into one doc.
      • I think in future I need to not just collate what students said, but use those as a basis for a concise set of simple guidelines that we can easily refer to throughout the class. So I’ve started this process by gathering what students have said, but just need to finish it by making the resulting set of guidelines easier to read and refer to.
    • How to avoid falling into relativism? How to get them to recognize that while each view could be debated and needs to be justified by reasons that others could question, this doesn’t mean all views are equal?
      • I do talk about the difficulties that ethical relativism puts us into, so that’s one thing.
      • I could also try to require each group to come up with one thing they or most of them think is justifiable, rather than just letting them discuss and not requiring them to come to some kind of conclusion (which is what I sometimes do).
      • I have in the past used Google docs for this, again–I have had a section on a google doc for each small group in the Friday discussion meetings (about 5 or 6 per discussion meeting) where they have to record something concrete, some kind of answer or argument. Possibly this could help with the relativism issue?

Learning How to Learn

  • Learning the value of learning with peers: This is a tough one. Many of us think, and there is research to back this up (geez…I need to have that at my fingertips, but I don’t!), that learning with and from peers is valuable, but there are still a number of students who resist it. So many times I’ve heard from others that students complain about the professors not doing their jobs when they focus part of class time on peer learning, or that they have paid tuition and fees and what are they getting out of it? I haven’t heard that myself (yet?), but it’s an important problem. How to address it?
    • I suppose one way is to point to the research on the value of learning with peers. I need to write something up on my course websites about such research so that students can understand it quickly but also dig more deeply into the articles if they wish.
    • I might also stress that I ask them to engage in peer learning because I firmly believe that each one of us has valuable things to contribute to philosophical discussion. I don’t believe that philosophy can only be done by experts (thus I would like to see more philosophy in schools, in earlier grades than university, even when kids are just starting school). We experts do have significant roles to play, but since my focus in this intro course is less on content and more on skills development regarding reading, writing and discussing, peer learning makes sense: I can model those skills, but so can other students. I am there to help refine the skills that many people already possess to some degree. And I can answer questions about the philosophers we’re studying with my disciplinary expertise. But other than that, you don’t need to be a philosophical expert to engage in philosophical discussion and help each other do it better.
    • I wonder if I could give an example or two where I learned just as much, if not more, from peers than from the expert? I wonder, not because I can’t think of any, but because I am not sure it would resonate with them. My “peers” are already “experts” to some degree. But we are not always experts in what we’re trying to learn, so maybe this sort of personal story would help?
  • Learning how to recognize when you need help and how to get it: I’ve found that too often, when students are struggling, they don’t reach out for help…perhaps because they don’t know how, or are intimidated. And that can be when things like plagiarism happen. Here are some thoughts on what I might do.
    • How many first-year students don’t really understand “office hours”? I say I have them, I talk about rescheduling them when I can’t make them one week, etc., but do I really explain what office hours are for? Do I make sure to continually invite students to come when they would like help? Do I say that I’m available even if students just want to better understand something but aren’t really having significant difficulty? Do I emphasize that they can talk to TA’s if they prefer (sometimes students find TA’s more approachable)? I think I could do better in these areas.
    • Of course, being approachable in class is important–having a demeanour that shows you really care and want to talk to students. I try to do this all the time, and student evaluations do show that many think I am open and kind and approachable. Not sure I need to do anything more in that regard.
    • I could do more to emphasize the various support services for students on campus. Sometimes they don’t want to talk to their professors about things that are going on with them, and there are wonderful supports for them that are available but they may not know them. I could put a line or two in the syllabus, but also have a section on the course website devoted to that. And talk it up in class, particularly during midterms and towards finals time.
  • Learning how to read philosophy… carefully and more than once: introductory students often struggle with primary texts. Sometimes people don’t assign them for that reason. I still do, and I think there can be value in learning how to read challenging things. But I also need to better support students in doing so.
    • Assign less reading: one common issue that comes up in student evaluations is that students often find it difficult to keep up with the amount of reading I assign. I keep cutting, but perhaps I still have to do more cutting next time. If what I care about is less the content than the skills, then students need time to practice the skills. And if there is less, then I could in all seriousness and practicality ask them to do the readings more than once.
    • I already have in the draft learning objectives above (#3) that they will be asked to write notes on texts that distinguish one or more of the main arguments in the text. That should help with this concern as well–they’ll have to read carefully to do this, and probably more than once!. I won’t ask them to do it on every single reading (I have over 100 students…I couldn’t possibly grade all those!), but on at least a few. And they’ll be practicing this in small groups first.
      • I suppose I wouldn’t have to grade them all…I could ask them to do peer comments on each others’ rather than grading all of them. I could grade one or two and then have one or two just have peer comments after that. A possibility….
    • I wonder if I could create a more “fun” way to ask students to summarize the main points in a reading? So far I’ve just been thinking of them doing an outline of one of the main arguments in a text in standard from (premises and conclusion). That’s important to learn, and I’ll keep doing that, but are there other, more engaging ways to summarize an argument in a text? Just some brainstorming below…might not use any of these…
      • write a summary in a “tweet” form (140 characters)
      • do a drawing that summarizes an argument somehow; or a comic strip
      • write a short dialogue between two or more people that summarizes the argument in your own words–maybe one person asking questions or bringing up objections
      • write a newspaper headline that summarizes the argument; or a short newspaper column
      • write about the reading in the style of a Wikipedia “lead” section–that part of a Wikipedia article before the table of contents, that is supposed to give a summary of the main points so you could get a good sense of it even w/o reading the whole article
        • of course, they could just go to the Wikipedia page of that reading, but not all of them are very good, actually, so perhaps the students could improve them!
      • Do a slide presentation with a few slides that explains the reading (with images so more visually interesting; will have to be sure they understand open licenses!)
      • Will keep thinking for more…

 

Conclusion

This was a very useful reflective exercise for me, even though it’s probably too long for others to read! And one thing I learned is that without realizing it, I’m already doing a few things that are helping to support the learning goals I thought at first I wasn’t addressing!

 

Closing the feedback loop

I attended the biannual meeting of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers July 30-Aug 2, 2014, and got some fantastic suggestions/ideas for future teaching, as I did the last time I attended this conference. The AAPT workshop/conference is easily one of my top favourite conferences: it is so friendly, inviting, supportive, and there are great people to talk to about teaching philosophy as well as about life in general. I haven’t laughed this much, for so many days in succession, for a long time. It’s too bad this meeting is only held every two years, as these are people I’d sure like to see more often!

I’m going to take a few of blog posts to write down some of the (many) things that inspired me at this conference, that I’d like to try in my own teaching one way or another. There were many more things than I’m going to write about here—I have pages and pages of notes that I typed out during the conference. But in this and a couple of future posts, I’ll focus on just a few.

Broken feedback loop: when did you not respond well to feedback?

Rebecca Scott from Loyola University Chicago facilitated a session on closing the feedback loop, which started off in a really helpful way: she asked us to consider (among other things) times when we received feedback from someone (whether in the context of our academic lives or other aspects of our lives) and didn’t respond in the way that we now think would be most helpful.

Kawazu Loop Bridge, Flickr photo shared by Tanaka Juuyoh, licensed CCBY 2.0

Kawazu Loop Bridge, Flickr photo shared by Tanaka Juuyoh, licensed CCBY 2.0

I won’t give details on either situation, but one of them had to do with feedback I received at the end of a course that utterly shocked and floored me. More than one student said that I did something that was so very far from who I think I am that I just couldn’t believe it was true. All I could think of was: “How could someone think I was doing that? There’s no way I did that! They must be wrong.” I didn’t entertain (at first) the idea that the feedback could be right in some way. It just didn’t fit with who I thought I was.

Remembering this situation helped put me into the mindset of students receiving critical feedback (or, at least, helped move me closer to that I hope), and not believe it, getting angry, indignant, even lashing out. When that happens you are not even allowing yourself to think that the feedback might be true; since it doesn’t fit with who you think you are, your own evaluation of the quality of your work, the truth must be that whoever said that is simply wrong. I’m reminded of Socrates who, at least in Plato’s texts, would show his interlocutors that they didn’t know what they thought they knew, and for some the reaction was to just assume that Socrates must be wrong and to get angry with him.

Why might feedback not be incorporated into future work?

We came up with numerous reasons during the session, which I wrote down:

  • Getting emotional; taking things too personally; losing sight of the goal of feedback
  • Not caring about the work, just trying to get credit
  • Too motivated by grade, not enough by learning
  • Not believing that the feedback is true; e.g., coming into class with mindset that one is an A student b/c have gotten A’s so far, so don’t believe the instructor who gives a lower mark
  • Distrust of the instructor, institution, due to larger social issues/context
  • Not thinking that you could do any better, that you’re capable of improving even with feedback; including: getting discouraged at how much they have to change and thinking they can’t
  • Not seeing work as formative process; thinking that when the assignment is done you are done and don’t need to revisit it, to learn from it
  • Professor and students seeing diff goals of feedback; students might think that feedback is there to explain why they got the grade they did, but for the prof it might be there to show ways to improve
  • Not understanding the feedback
  • Not connecting feedback from past to future situations
  • Thinking that just reading the comments is enough to improve for later
  • Not having a clear idea of what good work looks like to aim for
  • Too much feedback; overwhelmed; don’t know what to do with it

The one that I find hardest to deal with (though many are quite challenging) is the first: the emotional reaction. It kept me from addressing my situation as well as I could have, and I can see how student emotional reactions could lead them to not want to even look at the feedback again or think about it at all.

A reflective assignment to close the feedback loop

Rebecca shared with us an assignment she gives to students that asks them to reflect on their feedback, that forces them to read it and consider it and reflect on what they want to change for the future based on it. And the first item on that assignment is a question, asking them what their immediate reaction was on receiving the feedback. The idea is that maybe if they have an outlet to write it down, to let you know their emotional reaction, this might help them move past it.

But I think the rest of the assignment might help with that too. Because it goes on to ask students to

  • write down how many comments they got in each of several categories (to help them see which areas they need to work on, and to ensure that they read the comments or at least skim them),
  • what grade they expected, what grade they got and what do they think explains the difference between these
  • how much of the feedback do they feel they understand
  • what two things do they want to work on for the next assignment, and
  • whether they have any questions or comments about the feedback they received

How might all of this help with the emotional reaction issue? Besides making them continue to think about the feedback even if they get angry instead of just ignoring it, it also gives them a chance to give feedback on the feedback, to try to figure out what could explain the difference between the grade they expected and the grade they got, which could include thinking about the feedback and how it might suggest that the grade makes at least some sense. Or, if they disagree with the feedback, it gives them an outlet to do so, and the instructor can follow up with them later to discuss the issue.

How I’d like to adapt this assignment, and also address a couple of the other problems above

I like this idea of a reflection on the feedback that you submit to the instructor, but I also want them to have a kind of running record of the feedback they’ve received, the 2-3 things they want to work on for the next time, what they did well and want to keep doing, etc. In addition, I want to make sure that they have to look back at this feedback for the next paper they write.

So, here’s an idea.

1. For the Arts One course I teach, in which students write a paper every 2 weeks (12 over the course of a year), I think I’ll ask them to include on each new essay:

  • a list of at least two things they tried to do better on this one, based on feedback from the last one
  • at least one thing they themselves noticed from their previous essay that either they think was good or that they would like to improve on, that no one else pointed out
    • this is so that they don’t just look back at the feedback but also back at their previous essay and see what they themselves think, in order to do some self-assessment

2. I would also like to institute a policy in terms of my own feedback: that I will point out one or two instances of a certain type of mistake, and ask them to look for more instances (if I saw more in the essay, that is). Then, also on the next essay:

  • Point out at least one other place in the previous essay where one of the comments I made applies elsewhere too.
    • This is again so that they need to go do some self assessment of their work, and so I don’t need to go through and point out every single mistake. I think this could help with the issue of being overwhelmed by too much feedback

3. Finally, I think it would be great if they could keep a learning log, digitally, where they keep track of, for each essay: the comments they’ve gotten from peers, at least two things from me that they want to work on, the things they’re doing well and want to keep doing. That way they have a running record and periodically I can ask them to reflect on whether there are any patterns/repeated comments, or whether they are getting better because certain sorts of comments aren’t being said anymore.

These things could hopefully all help with the issue of not connecting feedback on previous work to later work. But I have to figure out how much of this is adding too much work for the students, or whether it is all so pedagogically valuable as to be worth it.

Back to when I didn’t respond well

At first, I just shut down. So I can understand when students do that. I didn’t want to think about it and just wanted to move past it. But I did eventually do something: I emailed all my students and asked them to fill in another feedback form, anonymously, that would just go to me. I asked them to be as specific as possible, because I didn’t get quite enough details on the first one. I got a few more details on this second round, which helped me understand some of the concerns expressed and how students may have come to the conclusion they did (and even that I might have been unconsciously doing some of what they thought, even though I’m still reluctant to believe that). But not entirely fully. I think there was some miscommunication somewhere that I just can’t rectify now.

All the more reason to give students more of a chance to give feedback during the course so problems can be solved earlier! (I just did it once, during the first term, and not at all during the second: lesson learned!)

 

The flipped classroom in philosophy–need to change lectures too

Somehow I missed all the hype about the “flipped” or “inverted” or “reversed” or “backwards” classroom over the past year or two. Just saw an excellent post on some Twitter feed or other (can’t remember which) that brought the whole idea to my attention–discussed below. At first I thought it meant inverting the classroom in the sense of the teacher no longer being the main expert, or the content-deliverer, but the students taking a more active role. Ummm…no. It’s more than that.

There is a truly excellent discussion of this model over at the User Generated Education blog, called “The Flipped Classroom Model: A Full Picture” (http://usergeneratededucation.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/the-flipped-classroom-model-a-full-picture/). I’m glad this was the first exposure I had to the whole idea, because it really helped me see the “full picture,” or at least the bigger picture, surrounding this new way of handling class time.

Continue reading

Seven Principles of Effective Feedback Practice

I recently read an article by David J. Nicol and Debra Macfarlane-Dick that I found quite thought-provoking:

David J. Nicol & Debra Macfarlane-Dick (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice, Studies in Higher Education, 31:2, 199-218.   http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075070600572090

The basic belief guiding their argument is that formative assessment (which they define, referring to Sadler 1998, as “assessment that is specifically intended to generate feedback on performance to improve and accelerate learning” (199)) should be aimed at helping students become more self-regulated. What does it mean for students to be self-regulated? The authors state that it manifests in behaviours such as monitoring and regulating processes such as “the setting of, and orientation towards, learning goals; the strategies used to achieve goals; the management of resources; the effort exerted; reactions to external feedback; the products produced” (199). They also cite later in the article (p. 202) a definition from Pintrich and Zusho, 2002:

Self-regulated learning is an active constructive process whereby learners set goals for their learning and monitor, regulate, and control their cognition, motivation, and behaviour, guided and constrained by their goals and the contextual features of the environment. (Pintrich and Zusho (2002), 64)

Students who are self-regulated learners, Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick explain on p. 200, set goals for themselves (usually affected by external goals in the educational setting) against which they can measure their performance. They generate internal feedback about the degree to which they are reaching these goals, what they need to do to improve progress towards them, etc. They incorporate external feedback (e.g., from instructors and peers) into their own sense of how well they are doing in relation towards their goals. The better they are at self-regulation, the better they are able to use their own and external feedback to progress towards their goals (here they cite Butler and Winne, 1995). The authors point to research providing evidence that “learners who are more self-regulated are more effective learners: they are more persistent, resourceful, confident and higher achievers (Pintrich, 1995; Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001)” (205).

Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick note, however, that current literature shows little work on arguing for how formative feedback can improve student self-regulation. That’s what they do here.

Continue reading

On time and teaching

My hiatus from posting this Spring

I had every intention of keeping up with this blog this year. Things started off pretty well, but during this Spring term (Jan-April) I found I had zero extra time to devote to blogging. There were numerous things going on in my professional and personal life, most of them due to my own choosing–such as a year-long workshop on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning that has been fantastic but a significant amount of work. I copy here a post that I did for my blog for that workshop. I decided that the points I was making are important enough to share more widely.

Taking a toll on teaching

All of the things I needed to do this term led to my having to work seven days a week, plus nights after putting my son to bed (I took Friday and Saturday evenings off, to keep my sanity, but that was it). Perhaps this is normal for many academics, but I found it utterly and completely exhausting and unsustainable. And more than the physical and emotional toll it took, I realized it took another toll that I found intolerable: my teaching suffered.

I was not only that I did not have enough time to prepare as I wanted to, as I felt I needed to, in order to be as effective as possible. It was also that I was so exhausted and spent that I could not think as well on my feet as I usually do. And that was the worst part–I have found that sometimes having less of a “planned” class meeting can actually be beneficial for the sort of teaching I do, but then this must be balanced by the professor being able to work spontaneously and think in the moment during the class. Many of the classes I teach involve quite a lot of student discussion, and I try to find ways to encourage the students themselves to take the lead in what to discuss and what to say about those topics they themselves choose. This doesn’t, can’t, and shouldn’t happen all the time, of course, but one of the things I hope to promote in my classes in Arts One and Philosophy is practice in independent and original thinking, and thus standing back sometimes and letting students think about and discuss what they want to makes sense. It can be chaotic at times, and some students find it too confusing therefore; I am sure I need to refine my techniques. But I still firmly believe in the value of the potential results of that sort of student-driven learning.

So my usual way of planning class meetings is to take notes on the main arguments in a text (or themes, images, etc. in a literary work), and present some of those things in class to make sure we are all on more or less the same page with the text before either providing questions to discuss or asking students to raise questions to discuss. Then the class moves from there into a discussion mode that I try, with more or less success, to steer such that we at least remain on track with a question for enough time to exhaust students’ comments on that question before moving on to a different one. We may not resolve any of the issues, but that’s not the point–the point is to raise questions, consider possible answers, and leave things open enough for students to explore these (or other) issues further in their own written work.

Well, that’s the ideal, anyway. I found that when I’m too worn out from various responsibilities I cannot run classes this way well. I cannot think well enough in the moment to keep the discussion on track, to come up with potential objections during the discussions, to evaluate well the arguments people are giving. As a result, the discussions are not as effective as they should be. In a formative assessment I asked my students to do of one of my courses this term, a student asked for more “leadership” from me during the discussions. I tried, but was unable to do so because I was simply too exhausted this term. I find this entirely unacceptable.

A bigger issue for universities

This personal problem has links to a wider one. Though I myself chose to take on too many things this term, what I found through this experience is an important issue to consider for academia in general. The more work we expect of teachers, whether it be through greater class sizes, greater numbers of classes, or new course preparations, the less effective they are going to be at doing much more than lecturing from prepared notes. That can be done pretty well even when one is tired and overworked (though I got to the point where I had trouble even doing that well), but the more spontaneous, in-the-moment, on-your-feet work that active learning strategies require cannot be done very effectively when people are overworked.

I think this is a useful issue to consider for universities like UBC that are developing a “teaching” career track as well as a “research” career track. Universities have already been thinking of ways to try to ensure that researchers have enough time for their research (though arguably that isn’t happening for a lot of people), such as buyouts for courses through the use of grant money, reducing teaching loads in departments from (3-3 to 3-2 to 2-2, to even 2-1 in some departments), allowing some people to double up their teaching in one term so as to have another one off entirely from teaching, allowing people to sometimes teach two or more sections of one class to reduce course preps, etc. But I’m not sure we’ve thought in similar ways about people on the teaching track. I’m not sure that those who don’t focus extensively on teaching, who don’t read scholarly research on teaching or reflect significantly on their own teaching practice, have really thought seriously about just how much time it takes to do it well. At least, I have not heard these issues discussed in very many conversations (outside of those between those on the teaching track themselves).

Some examples

I have in the past heard an argument that it might be best for a department to allocate TA hours on the basis of giving priority to research faculty members (Assistant, Associate, Full Professors) over teaching faculty members (Instructor I, Sr. Instructor) and sessional faculty members (not sure where faculty on non-permanent appointments or teaching postdoctoral fellows were to be placed in the priority list). The rationale seems to be that research faculty needed more time to do research and thus need the TA assistance more than teaching faculty. This doesn’t make good sense to me, for a number of reasons (including that making sessionals work even harder for their meagre pay seems to make an unjust situation even worse). Consider that one could make the same argument for teaching faculty as for research faculty: just as research faculty need time for research, teaching faculty need time for teaching. Good teaching is not something one can do in a rush, as I have amply demonstrated to myself this term. The point is that while the argument of research faculty needing time to do their research is common and easily recognized, the structurally similar argument for teaching is not as common and has to be made specifically.

Another issue I have come across at UBC is Instructors being hired a few years after others, being asked to teach more courses than those hired earlier–there may be a push in some Faculties to get Instructors to teach more courses. Alternatively, I have heard of Instructors being asked as the years go by to teach larger and larger classes, without enough TA support to make this teaching work well. I can understand the impetus to try to get Instructors to teach more courses or more students, in part to free up more time for research faculty, and in part to get faculty who love and are good at teaching into more classrooms. Nevertheless, the argument must be made (and was made by the person I am thinking about) that if the university would like to have people in the Instructor track who not only can but do teach well, then there is good reason to limit the number of courses per term one must teach in order to do this teaching as effectively as possible. And we all know that putting more and more students into a course does not always lead to the best results. One can only be so creative in trying to teach effectively to a very large group, especially when one does not have enough TA hours to help with marking.

Instead of extra teaching or extra students, I have heard of a couple of cases of departments or Faculties trying to get Instructors to do a significant amount of service work on top of the teaching they are asked to do. The problem here is the same–such things take time away from teaching as much as they take time away from research. And if we’re serious about having good teaching at the university, we need to consider seriously the conditions under which good teaching is and is not possible.

Conclusions

I have gone on a bit of a rant here, but it actually does not apply specifically to my own situation. My own position is very good in terms of teaching and service. No one has asked me to do an inordinate amount of either, and I am very happy with my place in the University, the Faculty, and my Department. The concerns I raise are not ones that led to my own problems this term; those occurred because I took on too many things, voluntarily. I have learned my lesson in that regard.

But in the process I have had another lesson brought home to me in more than a theoretical respect: the crucial importance for universities of ensuring that teachers have adequate time to teach. Especially for a place (like UBC) that is developing a teaching track with three levels that mirror (somewhat) the levels of research faculty–Instructor I, Sr. Instructor, Professor of Teaching. To reach the highest level one must not only be an excellent teacher, but show leadership in areas such as curriculum development, professional development re: teaching for others (e.g., leading workshops for other faculty and TAs), or research in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. If Instructors are to head towards Professor of Teaching, they simply must be treated like research professors in terms of valuing their time. Otherwise, the rhetoric that research and teaching are equally important rings hollow.

Potential problems with comments on students’ essays

[The following is from my monthly reflections journal for the UBC Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Leadership program I’m attending this year (a year-long workshop focused in part on general improvements in pedagogy, but also in large part on learning about SoTL and developing a SoTL project). Warning–a long post!]

I recently read an article by Ursula Wingate of the Department of Education and Professional Studies at King’s College London, entitled The impact of formative feedback on the development of academic writing,” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education Vol. 35, No. 5 (August 2010): 519-533. I am very interested in this article b/c it deals with a question I myself have wondered, in relation to my teaching in Arts One: why do some students improve so much in their writing over the course of the year, and why do some fail to do so? I was thinking this might be a future SoTL project for me, and I’m glad to see that there is literature on this…so I’ve got some work in the future, looking through that literature!

In this article Wingate reports on a study focused on two research questions:

(1) Can improvements in student writing be linked to the use of the formative feedback?
(2) What are the reasons for engaging or not engaging with the assessment feedback? (p. 523)

The sample was a set of essays by 62 students in a first year course focused in part on writing (the course was part of a program in applied linguistics). Comments on essays were coded according to which category they belong to in terms of assessment criteria, and the researchers compared the comments in each category from an early essay to those on a later essay from each student. They separated students into three main categories: those whose essays showed equally high achievement over the two assignments, those whose marks improved by at least 10% between the two essays, and those whose marks didn’t show much of a difference between the two essay (+ or – 5%).  After this separation they ended up with 39 essays. They list a few reasons why they didn’t include other students in the study, but those aren’t crucial to what I want to comment on here (I think). Mostly they were looking to find why some students improve a lot and some don’t, so the second two groups make sense, but the first group (those who were consistently high achievers) were included to see if they could find out in interviews some useful information about how/why they are academically engaged.

Continue reading

Leaving the room

I have long had a bit of a pet peeve that I think I’m finally coming to terms with: students getting up and leaving in the middle of the class meeting, whether to just leave for good for the day, or to leave for a little while and then come back (presumably to go to the washroom or make a call or something).

This happens quite often, every year, every class, and it’s happening more and more. For a long time I wondered if it was happening more in my classes than in those of my colleagues, which might explain why no one else complained about it. My partner teaches statistics in the Psychology department, and it rarely happens to him; but that’s easily explained by the fact that his students are often terrified of the class and don’t want to miss anything he says in case it could help them on the assignments and exams.

Continue reading