Teaching Reflections

Teaching Reflection: Assessment as Language

My new role as Associate Provost of Advising and Assessment has opened up some new avenues of reflection for me. I have been quite surprised to realize that for me learning about assessment is a lot like learning a new language. I see the standard assessment procedures as not much different from what we have done in the past. But now we are called to supply evidence of student learning through a different means, using a different language. In trying to “walk the talk,” I’m applying some of what I have learned on this subject to my own teaching.

For example, I have begun to use AAC&U VALUE Rubrics as a component in evaluating students’ learning. I have found that students understand the words as they appear on the rubrics more clearly than they understand my words of critique. The rubrics connect the lessons in my class with the standards that I use to evaluate their work in a language that students understand. A recent example comes from my French 301 class, where for the first time ever students gave oral presentations that were really oral presentations: memorized and flowing, including eye contact with the audience and an ease of engagement that I had never seen before. This was the first time in my teaching French 301 that students didn’t read a written text or rely on note cards.  The only difference with my past guidance for students as they prepared for this presentation was that we went over the rubric for oral communication in class beforehand. I was astounded.

Since the AAC&U VALUE Rubrics are used on the majority of other campuses in the United States, they also now represent a common discourse throughout higher education. They have become the common language of accreditation, program review, curricular revisions, and strategic plans. We will have to see how such practices as the VALUE Rubrics play out and inform our own discourse at Albion College and how we communicate evidence of student learning to our own constituents and accrediting agencies. This will be the work of the Committee on Student Learning Outcomes, C&RC, and the administration.

But frankly, the most surprising lesson for me in this new position is seeing how much this administrative job has opened up new avenues in my own teaching and in how I relate to my own students.

— Dianne Guenin-Lelle, Modern Languages and Cultures
October 18, 2016

Teaching Reflections: Music Lessons

As educators we discuss teaching and learning frequently. These discussions are often framed by our teaching and student learning. What I struggle with is that my teaching often builds from my learning and understanding, and all of my students are not like me. When it comes to chemistry some of my students have difficulties with math and basic chemical concepts that I never had. I worry this creates a disconnect between my teaching and my students’ learning. If I cannot begin to imagine their frustrations how can I teach through them? To further complicate matters, it has been a long time since I was a student learning new materials, so I am probably recalling my learning difficulties inaccurately.

In full honesty, for years I did not worry about this. I used different teaching techniques and styles to try to engage different types of learners, and things seemed OK. Not perfect, but maybe good enough. Recently I decided that if I truly want to improve my teaching, then I need to better understand my students’ struggles. To do so, I needed to become a student again. More specifically, I needed to become a student who struggles while learning.

About a year ago, at the beginning of my sabbatical, I decided to become a student again by learning to play the xylophone. I first learned mallet percussion when I was in grade 5. I was horrible. For various reasons, I stopped playing mallets by high school.  Ready to learn again, I purchased an inexpensive pair of mallets, a primary methods book, and I was given access to the percussion studio in the music department. I am still horrible. Learning the xylophone, like chemistry, requires learning a new symbolic language and a lot of jargon. It also requires practice. A lot of practice. Learning the xylophone has been a frustrating learning experience for me.

By becoming a student I experienced learning again. More specifically, I experienced a few general lessons I believe I can use to improve my teaching. I know that practice is important; I learned how difficult it can be to do consistently, especially with a busy schedule. While I had previous experience in percussion; I learned that a foundation does not make an expert, and experts have a comfort level with the material unattainable by beginners. I was motivated to do well; I learned that frustration can destroy motivation.

I believe these music lessons can translate into my chemistry classroom, helping me better understand and teach my students. I can help my students learn how to practice chemistry in consistent and meaningful ways. I can work to make sure their previous experiences created a solid foundation before building upon what I thought they knew. I can have candid conversations about struggling and how to get through it.

Most importantly, by becoming a student, I can better empathize with my students. And, as the blog below points out, empathy is a top skill of the effective educator.

Jackie Gerstein, “Empathy: A Top Skill of the Effective (and Loving) Educator”

— Kevin Metz, Chemistry
March 8, 2016

Teaching Reflections: On Making Mistakes and Failing (to Make Mistakes)

How do we reconcile our desire for students to feel comfortable making mistakes, when we are not comfortable with making mistakes ourselves?

Before getting my masters degree, my department asked me to teach a cognitive psychology course to 120 students in a large lecture hall. I made LOTS of mistakes that first semester, and because of those mistakes, I learned LOTS. I learned how much material I could cover in 50 minutes. I learned to bring batteries for the microphone, which only worked intermittently. While I learned a lot about dealing with the unexpected, I continued to struggle with seemingly small, daily mistakes – like not knowing an answer to a question or accidentally giving a poor explanation. During that first semester of teaching, when I sought out advice on what to do when I didn’t know the answer to a student question, here are the answers I received:

“You will look incompetent if they notice any mistakes, so quickly move forward and don’t let them see any weakness.”

“If I am not sure of the answer, I just make something up and act confident. The students don’t know the difference. Sometimes I even make up a citation!”

Students do pay attention to teacher errors. I was dinged on student evaluations when the technology did not work. I was dinged if there is a question I could not answer right away with confidence . . . and a citation. Here is part of a recent conversation that I had with a student here at Albion.

“Remember when you made a mistake on the board and we had to correct you? I totally remember that.” The student did not remember any material from the day – just the mistake.

Why do students focus so much on mistakes, no matter how trivial? I think part of the reason for this focus is because the students are desperately trying to avoid failing themselves – they want a good grade. I recently heard teachers say the following about their students:

“Students need to understand that failure is part of the learning process.”

“I wish my students would stop focusing so much on the grade and more on the learning.”

How do we reconcile our desire for students to feel comfortable making mistakes, when we are not comfortable with making mistakes ourselves? Rather than focusing on avoiding and ignoring mistakes, we should figure out how to model responding to mistakes. I still struggle with how deal with those little daily mistakes, but thought the following responses from fellow teachers were useful.

“I laugh when I make a mistake, and say, ‘I just wanted to see if you were paying attention.’”

“My job is not simply to provide students with facts; it is to provide them with ways to find the facts. I tell them to go find the answer.”

I wish teachers could feel safe enough to stop focusing on avoiding mistakes and more on learning from mistakes and modeling the process, not just the product, of learning.

 — Andrea Francis, Psychological Science
February 24, 2016

Teaching Reflections: Chaotic College

Not that kind of chaos. There’s a reflection in that, I’m sure–but it’ll have to wait, perhaps until my in-progress teaching autobiography is inflicted on the world.

We talk a lot, in this line of work, about deliberate matters like “outcomes,” “assessment,” “learning goals,” and the like. I’m more interested here in the unexpected classroom incidents that, much of the time, matter more than achieving this or that outcome in making this job interesting.

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Chad Orzel, a physicist at Union College, recently wrote on his blog, Uncertain Principles, about the mathematical definition of chaos and how it plays itself out in our lives and our students’ lives. That definition is “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” and refers to the possibility that a small change in a system’s starting state can lead to very big differences in the later state of the system. The classic, and first, example of this is the weather, but there’s ample evidence in our classrooms that small changes can lead to memorable and lasting effects–most of which it would have been impossible to anticipate.

Since the current Core at Albion continues to encourage students not to challenge themselves in mathematics courses, I find that the best source for this kind of inspiration is when I’m teaching Honors classes. One of my favorite incidents occurred in 8 Big Ideas That Shaped Science, early in the semester. A first-year anthropology major commented, almost offhandedly, that she never would have thought that Mendeleev on the Periodic Law–a pretty dense chemistry book–would be the first book that she would read cover to cover in college.

That, to me, was a breakthrough, a change of expectations worth celebrating. Along the same lines was a successful day in Perspectives On Gambling, when a single line from the Koran inspired 18 minutes of student-led discussion. You obviously can’t get that ratio of output to input every time, but it’s great when it happens. It didn’t happen the same way the next time I taught that class; we’ll see what happens this semester.

The challenge is that it’s impossible to predict that kind of event–that’s where chaos comes in.  With that in mind, is there any way to encourage these rare but delightful events?

I don’t know. Probably no one does. It seems to me that it’s a matter of providing as many opportunities as possible for these kinds of unexpected connections to develop, and then sitting back and waiting for something to happen.

Of course, the chaos isn’t always as gratifying as these examples.  Back to 8 Big Ideas: last semester, we were discussing Richard Feynman’s question: “In the event of a global cataclysm, what one piece of information would be the most valuable to any survivors looking to re-create all of human knowledge?” This detoured into an examination of the value of fire in rebuilding society, with one medically-inclined student coming down to “Give ’em a box of matches and a copy of Gray’s Anatomy.”

The book. Not the TV show. Hence Gray’s rather than Grey’s–but that, of course, wasn’t immediately clear in conversation. About half the class thought she was talking about some matches and some DVD’s of the show; they had no idea that the book existed. On some level, this surprised me–but I could at least chalk it up as tangible proof that my students learned something that day.

One student then asked if the book had a character named “Meredith.”

Two steps forward, one step back. Usually it’s the other way around.

— Mark Bollman, Mathematics and Computer Science
February 9, 2016

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