Teaching Memo 3: Remaining Teachable

One of the most important characteristics of a good teacher is a commitment to remain teachable. This is not, as it sounds, mere proverb. It must be demonstrated. Every semester, I engage in an ongoing evaluation of my teaching habits and the structure of my classes.  What I mean by “ongoing evaluation” is not only that I adjust the course between semesters, but also that I evaluate the successes and failures of my various teaching strategies while a class progresses through a semester.

Setting aside those elements of a course I may change from term to term, there are two major parts to the in-semester evaluation (the second one is the interesting one, I think, because it seems not to be a standard approach to teaching evaluation and to teaching strategy revision):

(1) First, I observe the students’ successes in the assessment methods I use during the term.

If there’s ever a class-wide extra-high or extra-low result in terms of grades on a given quiz, I take that as a sign that something has gone wrong – and it’s not necessarily that the students are all lazy or can’t understand… It’s much more likely (read: near 100% liklihood) that either:
i.     The quiz was too difficult or too easy; or
ii.     If the average score was unusually low, and I’m fairly confident that the quiz was written to test exactly what I wanted to communicate, I did a poor job of communicating that material.

I do my best not to hold the students accountable for my failures in communication or for overly-difficult quizzes. I curve the results of these quizzes. More to the point for this post, I use those quizzes as a gauge – I ask myself a series of questions. Were the trouble spots mostly in multiple-choice questions, or in the short answer questions? How did they do in explaining difficult concepts? Did they do well with general ideas but badly with remembering specifics? Was this quiz unusually long? Did we cover more material this unit than we usually do? And so on. I keep the answers to these questions in mind as I write other quizzes during the term. I use the same method of investigation with other classroom assignments, which all serve as assessment techniques for my own teaching strategies.

(2) Second, I engage the students in a meta-dialogue about the course as the term moves along. This can be tricky, because they don’t know why, for instance, mastery of a particular skill is critical before we move on to a different skill. They don’t know what the value of reading a particular author compared with another, given the whole of the assigned readings. They often don’t know much about teaching strategies in general. There are a lot of factors about which the students do not or cannot know.

Rather than conclude from this fact that the students are bad judges of how things ought to operate, I ask for feedback on how they think the course ought to operate and take into consideration their lack of knowledge about one or another learning environment factor in evaluating their feedback. (They do, for instance, know their own habits and learning abilities better than I – though, of course, they can be mistaken about these factors as well.)

Often, I open a class meeting with a short question, which I write on the board, and I give them two or three minutes to think about and respond to that question in writing. A few times during the semester, I’ll write one of the following questions/prompts on the board: Make one criticism of how the class operates and suggest a solution to that problem. What reading so far has been most interesting/valuable to your practicing the skills we are developing in the course and why? Do you feel comfortable speaking up in class when you have a question? Do you think there’s not enough/too much/just the right amount of reading assigned in this course?

Given that the results of these informal surveys are self-reported, I have to assess with care the answers that I receive. I don’t just accept what a student says as the final word on any of these matters, of course. But what they say does matter – especially when there’s a trend in the responses the students give.

Often, I take their answers as a kind of vague diagnosis of a problem they can’t quite identify, and then the corrective action I take may be only tangentially related to the direct advice they offer.

I don’t think this is an element just any instructor could drop into his or her course and find the results to be useful. An important aspect of making this approach actually work as an evaluative tool is creating a safe environment for the students to speak up and say what they think. That is, it must be safe for me, for each individual student, and for all the students as a group. This is only conveyed through repeated classroom interaction during the course.

Some students are hesitant to offer their opinion. What surprises me is how many students have been trained into this way of dealing with authority figures. I get around this by asking such students direct questions that invite them to give their opinion – and I follow that up by not rejecting their views or devaluing them as a student or person. They learn that it’s okay to say what they think. I may not do as they recommend, but I want to hear their view.

That said, it’s not very difficult to get most young people, many of whom have what my parents’ generation called ‘problems with authority,’ to speak their mind. There must be an explicit expectation of respect – in two directions: I must respect them as learners (including giving them the opportunity to fail), and they must respect me as an instructor. I explain on the first day (and repeat it thereafter) that what they say can shape the path of the course they’re taking this semester and help students in future versions of the course. They are empowered to improve their own environment, so long as they do so respectfully. I encourage their feedback in that context.

I always tell my students that I am happy to offer pedagogical reasons for policies and decisions I endorse and employ, and that if I discover, after questioning, that I have no pedagogical reason for a particular policy or habit, I am open to changing that aspect of the course. I warn them, that, because a classroom demands an instructor who is in charge, if I offer an explanation of a policy and they don’t like the explanation, they press their luck if they continue in that line of questioning.

I should qualify here that I’m not talking in this post about radical revisions of a course midstream. The kinds of changes I’ve adopted as a product of student suggestions during a semester include: starting a Twitter feed for course announcements and for relaying information (e.g. optional reading, guest lecturer announcements, etc.), posting study guides for quizzes on our course website a few days before each quiz, giving students the opportunity to present material during the term and gain experience with a form of public speaking, and so on.

I feel as though there are a lot more elements to this method of in-semester evaluation, but this “memo” is too long already. The point here is that it’s my job as an instructor to relay difficult concepts in a fashion that students can follow, to provide them with a specific skill set, and to adopt my teaching to the ways in which the students actually can/will learn. This requires that I remain teachable.

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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1 Response to Teaching Memo 3: Remaining Teachable

  1. Pingback: Teach in Style − Clothing, False Perceptions, and Talking

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