Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Teaching struggles

Well, we're now at the end of a semester and, as usual, I feel like I've done a less that great job in all of my classes.  I wonder if I'm in the minority by spending the last 3 weeks or so of classes berating myself for all the things I didn't do, should have done or did poorly.

In an attempt to not merely berate myself, I am also trying to figure out ways to improve things.  And I think I have a moderately good handle, at least, on what the problems are.  Yes, it's taken me this long to become just moderately comfortable with having identified the problems that have to be solved.

Here they are:

(a) Because I use primary texts, the reading is very difficult
(b) Students are a different levels in the class in terms of both where they start and how quickly they move in their learning
(c) Students aren't always clear on what I want them to be learning (part of this goes back to the reading being difficult)

Okay, so those are at least some of the problems.

What happens with the difficulty of the text is that either they do the reading and understand none of it, leading them to believe that they simply can't do it or they give up and just don't do the reading.  And, of course, the latter frequently is a consequence of the former.

In an ideal world, we'd be able to spend time poring over the text and they'd learn how to read these texts.  But, the ideal world is not a semester long increment of time.   So, the ideal world is unlikely to come into existence.

One possibility is to simply not have them read the primary texts (which is basically what's happening now insofar as they are not really understanding the text so they might as well not be reading it).  But, teaching students how to read difficult material is something that's important to me.  Possibly I just need to get over this and focus on something else.

So, one thing I decided to do is write a supplement to the reading.  A text which is basically the written version of what I typically end up saying in class (if nothing else, this would free up class time since they'll be able to read this).  Yes, this means I'm writing a book over winter break.

But, the question is how to get them to read the actual primary texts if I'm giving them a supplement that walks them through it?

I suppose the question for me to focus on, for myself, is (i) whether reading primary texts is important and then (ii) why it's important.  If it is important and I can figure out why, this may help me to make it important to the students.

I suppose I could do things like, in the supplement, as them to find where and how particular arguments are being made.  So, I'd give them the framework and the conclusions, but then they'd need to find some of the pieces.  Ah, a nice metaphor.  I put most of the puzzle together but they still have to put some of the pieces in.  Maybe this could work.

Then there's (b), the fact that different students are at different places in terms of learning, abilities to read, understand, etc.  This is not a new problem but I started, a bit late in last semester, to gear assignments in a 'Bloom's taxonomy' kind of way.  The new task is to make sure that students are working on assignments that are geared to where they are.  This may mean that I have to do some sort of quiz or something to figure out where they are and then give them assignments based on what the quiz tells me.

This brings up another point.  The final exam for my intro class this semester was fabulous.  For the first time I feel like I really put together an exam that will tell me what they've learned.  I gave them a case ahead of time and told them that they were going to have to recommend a particular action along with a rationale for the action.  In addition, however, I gave them a 'bonus' question that was something they hadn't studied for.  I'm particularly interested in how they did on this bonus question because it pushed them to make use of material in a way that I think they ought to be able to use it from the discussions that we've had in class.  But, since they didn't know it was going to be on the exam, they didn't study for it.  I figure that how they did on this bonus question will give me a very accurate reading of what they know about the information involved in that question.

Now, whether the exam will tell me that things are going well or not, that's entirely up in the air.  But I'm feeling pretty good about having an exam that is more authentic and will give me information that is more useful than knowing whether they successfully crammed or not.

Anyway, back to problems....students aren't clear about what I want them to learn.  Or, maybe how I want them to learn?  Maybe they don't know what to do.

You'd think this would be easy enough.   Just tell them what I want them to learn.  But then they'll just write it down and memorize it.  But this isn't learning.  So, how do I get them to learn.

Here are my current thoughts: work with Bloom's taxonomy.

 I can give them 'the answers' on the first day.  But to get them from being able to mimic the answers all the way up Bloom's taxonomy to being able to create something new with the answers, that's something completely different.

This then brings me back to the reading.  Is it important to have students read primary texts in an intro level class?  What is it that I really want them to be learning?  I suppose that the ability to read the primary texts is important only insofar as it's related to other things in the class that I want them to be learning.

Okay, enough stream of consciousness writing for today.

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