As a final assignment for my paper in the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice, we were asked to write a 3,000 word essay on a course or teaching module redesign.
I knew this assignment would come up, and started thinking about it early in the year. This allowed me to explore a few things during my first semester teaching, gather student feedback, and give my redesign a test during second semester. I also took advantage of the peer-review assignment to get some nice feedback from one of my course-mates.
One of the questions I asked myself was ‘what would my lecture look like if it was invented today?”. That is, what if I had no access to powerpoints I used in prior years. Would I use powerpoint or Prezi, or just the document camera? Would I give students printed notes or just make everything available online?
It was a great mental exercise (albeit exhausting!) so I thought a reflection on the process was worthwhile and I am happy to share here (with some corrections!).
As tertiary teachers we rarely come across the chance to redesign from scratch a course or a teaching module within a course. More often, we are assigned lectures for which we are to replace a departing faculty member, and in the process we usually inherit their class notes, their slide collection and sometimes even their exam questions. Different iterations of the course most often involve addition and subtraction of material, updates to recent discoveries, changes of images in the slides, but rarely a thoughtful process of reflection on our pedagogy, the values that we hold true, or careful thinking about ‘why’ it is we do what we do and how we go about doing it.
“These tacit beliefs about education are not purely an individual matter. They surface in the language that is used to describe educational goals, in the choice of what it is to be taught, in the design of teaching spaces, in the allocation of time within the course, in decisions about assessment.’ S Toohey, 1999
There are, in my opinion, two fundamental problems with the way in which we approach our roles as educators.
Firstly, at least in the sciences, too much emphasis is currently placed on content. Increases in student enrolment leading to larger class sizes, the increased use of of norm-referenced assessment, and the exponential increase in factual knowledge that is derived from scientific research have slowly shifted the focus of our classes to covering the ever increasing content, sometimes to the detriment of what are probably considered fundamental skills in science, that is, critical thinking, independence, collaboration, and healthy scepticism.
As a result focus in the process of learning is incrementally lost. In a recent conversation with a group of second year students they expressed how they increasingly feel that any learning outside of the boundaries of the material provided in class is both unnecessary, discouraged and detrimental. Their focus slowly becomes shifted from ‘keenly learning’ to ‘passing the exam’. This is in contrast with the views often expressed by colleagues who voice their frustration at finding it difficult to engage students in independent enquiry, and at hearing the old and dreaded question: ‘Will this be in the exam?’.
This mutual dissatisfaction cannot be blamed either on the students nor on the teachers, since they both seem to agree that learning could be a lot more fun if it was focused on, well, on learning! But despite both groups having (at least at the onset) the same objectives, somehow this becomes lost in the process of trying to get an academic degree (or pass a course). The only explanation then is, that it is the ‘way’ in which we go about teaching and learning no longer ‘works’.
The way we teach sends a clear message about that which we value about our teaching (and about our students’ learning). For the most part we lecture in rooms designed for top down instruction, we primarily use summative assessment to determine whether a student passes or fails, and we find it increasingly difficult to meet the demands of outside of the classroom activities that could provide students with formative assessment. A colleague of mine (Pete Hall) argues that the increased use of norm-reference assessment may also create unrealistic expectations in our students: 90% will fail at being in the top 10%, and inevitably 10% of the students will be in the bottom 10%, no matter how well or badly a group may have met given learning criteria.
It is therefore not surprising that students would equate achievement with exam passes.
Secondly, we seem to have lost sight that teaching and learning is a form of communication, and we as teachers do not seem to be able to overcome the barriers of communication that result from the ever increasing student enrolment.
Teachers, especially those of an older generation, are accustomed to communication that requires face-to-face or at least one-to-one engagement. Students on the other hand, have embraced technology, using SMS text and on-line social network platforms to communicate with a large number of peers.
I would suggest that the barriers of communication that result from large student numbers could be overcome if teachers took advantage of the students’ ready engagement with digital communication. Discussions in the on-line student management systems, the use of social network groups, or collaborative note taking on wikis by a larger proportion of teachers could contribute to the increased communication that is needed to engage students in critical thinking and self directed learning.
Most of these problems can be traced back to the inheritance of pre-existing design. If there was value in this exercise, it primarily came from throwing away everything that I had done before and asking myself: What would this course look like if it was invented today?
And today means teaching students that spend a lot of time on-line, that are invisible in the classroom setting because of the class sizes, that want to know how well they are learning while they are learning and that want to ask questions without hearing responses like ‘You do not need to know that’.
It will be certainly interesting to reflect a year from now on those things that worked and those which didn’t.
The full essay lives here.