Ken Bain has given me some good food-for-thought. He first did this in a book published in 2004, and then more recently, in a tweet. Oddly enough, this began with a gift bag.
A few months back, I wrote a post about changes I’ve made in my teaching practice to be more empathetic and compassionate to my students. I was pleased and surprised by how well-received these thoughts were by other educators. Now that the semester is over, I’ve had some time to reflect on how these changes worked out in the classroom.
Okay. That might be an overly optimistic goal, but I’m going to give it a shot.
I’m bad with names. Depending on how much sleep I’ve gotten, I periodically call one of my children by the other’s name. Last semester I had 225 students between two classes. These were new classes for me, so I was mostly concerned with keeping the ship afloat. I knew there was no chance I would learn 225 names, so I made no concerted effort. (I picked up a few names, but only students I had frequent interaction with).
Frankly, it was a bit embarrassing. I could recognize many of my students, but I didn’t know their names. I recently attended UBC’s graduation. I recognized many students (and they recognized me), but few names came to mind.
I need to do better.
I’m stubborn. If I’m shown to be wrong, I’ll freely admit it, but I require a high standard of evidence. I teach a class of 175 in a large lecture hall. I don’t use a microphone. I don’t want to use a microphone. I have a strong speaking voice. I can project. I don’t need a microphone. Speaking unamplified feels more natural to me. It’s like I’m having a conversation with my students. When I use a microphone, it feels artificial. It feels too formal. I feel like a megachurch preacher or a TED Talk speaker (not in a good way) lecturing at my students.
I am wrong.
Twice a year, I travel to China to teach intensive 2-week forestry courses (in English) to Chinese undergraduates. Students face several challenges in this learning environment, but English-language ability is the biggest. (I’m not criticizing the students’ abilities. It is simply a key component of the learning environment. I have utmost respect for students taking a course taught in a foreign language.) Students in my courses have a wide range of English abilities. For students with decent English skills, learning in a foreign language introduces extraneous cognitive load (translation efforts use some cognitive bandwidth, leaving less available for learning). Unfortunately, students with marginal English skills simply miss or misunderstand much of what I say when I teach.
I gave my first two-stage exam a few weeks ago. It wasn’t an approach I had considered until very recently. I had previously heard of exams with a group portion, but at that time the benefits weren’t clear to me, and frankly, it sounded odd so I didn’t give it much thought. A few months ago, I was reintroduced to the idea by Judy Chan at a UBC Course Design Intensive workshop. After hearing the process described in detail, the value was immediately clear. This concept aligns with my interest in facilitating effective learning strategies for students, in this case, retrieval practice.
The exam I just gave was a radical departure from anything I’ve done before. During the group portion, I could see through the students’ animated discussions that they were more engaged with the material than ever before. Two-stage exams will be my main approach from this point forward.
Two years ago, I reactivated my long-dormant twitter account. It consumes more of my time than it should, but the thoughts of other faculty and students have fueled a re-evaluation of my teaching practices and my role as an educator. Most significantly, I have changed my thinking and teaching practice with regard to compassion and empathy for my students.
Compassion and Empathy
I had a relatively easy time as an undergraduate. My parents and siblings were all college graduates, so I had sources for advice. I never had any personal crises or traumatic experiences, significant physical or mental illness, nor did I face food insecurity or anxiety over how to pay rent or tuition. I was also confident in speaking to my professors and asking for assistance when I needed it. Because of this, I was initially ignorant of many challenges students might be facing outside of class. Though I was conscious that my experience was not representative, this first really struck me several years ago when listening to the episode ‘Three Miles’ of This American Life, which focused on the experiences of first-generation minority university students. I was really affected by the story of Jonathan, an African American man from the Bronx who was attending Wheaton College on scholarship. Jonathan was unable to afford his textbooks, so he did not buy them, and did not tell anyone he could not afford them. In the episode, Jonathan recounted his experience:
I didn’t do the homework… And I’m the only black kid in some of these classes…So now I’m embarrassed to be the only black guy that doesn’t do the work and fulfill that stereotype. So I’m not going to class. It’s a catch-22 because now I’m still the black kid now that just doesn’t come to class and doesn’t do the work on top of that, you know? But for me, it was– I mean, what am I going to say to these teachers?
When I was a young graduate student, I took “The College Classroom”, a semester-long course that was a mix of learning theory and teaching techniques. I had vaguely heard of Learning Styles before, but this was the first time I was formally taught about it. If I remember correctly, we even gave mini-lessons attempting to teach to different styles. I more or less accepted this as fact and I even had a sentence or two in my teaching statement about how I recognize students have different learning styles and try, when possible, to present important concepts in multiple ways.
Learning Styles are a myth, and there is a large body of research confirming this.
My Academic Integrity Baseline
My first academic teaching position was at Middlebury College, a small, prestigious liberal arts college in Vermont. During freshman orientation, students pledge to follow the school’s honor code. Faculty are expected to provide clear instructions and expectations regarding citation practices, collaboration, etc., and students are expected to follow these policies without faculty policing. When a Middlebury student submits an assignment or exam, they write and sign the honor pledge on that work.
“I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this assignment.”
This made part of my job as a faculty member quite easy, as it was the students’ responsibility to follow and enforce academic integrity. If fact, faculty are not even allowed to proctor an exam without special permission of the Dean of the College.
As an undergraduate, my study regimen mostly consisted of:
- Reading and highlighting assigned material (usually)
- Doing assigned homework / problem sets
- Taking notes during class
- A week or so prior to exam…
- Rereading the portions of the text that I highlighted
- Reading chapter summaries
- Rereading my notes
These are typical learning strategies, and they seemed adequate at the time. (However, grad student Patrick really wished undergrad Patrick had retained some more calculus and linear algebra.) Now, in my perpetual quest to become a better teacher, I’ve been dabbling in the cognitive sciences literature. The research around effective learning strategies (AKA studying techniques) has been especially interesting. I now realize I could have been studying much more effectively and efficiently. This literature has been wonderfully summarized by Dunlosky et al. (2013) in a comprehensive review of 10 common learning techniques used by students. Here is a small part of what they found: