Designing and delivering your first university course can be a daunting task when many of us have had little formal training before being required to teach our first course. For your first course, keep it simple - a lucid, well-organized lecture course can be both be well received and enjoyable to give (although might do little for enduring student understanding). Borrow someone’s notes, use last year’s syllabus, teach in a way that is consistent with your colleagues – students will appreciate that your course is “like” their other courses. As you become more familiar with teaching, your focus will likely shift away from what you are teaching, to what your students are learning and you may then want to explore a variety of different teaching approaches. At this time it is a good to revisit course design and perhaps consider using other instructional methods.
Many instructors start in lecture mode, progress to punctuated lectures where activities might help emphasize an important point, mark important transitions, or change pace to regain students’ attention. Teaching approaches are on a continuum, with no ideal place to be: you balance your comfort, needs and responsibilities with your students’ needs. The goal is to find a mode of instruction that is most effective for both you and your students. Donald Finkel in his book Teaching with your Mouth Shut reminds us “good teaching is not telling” but “creating those circumstances that lead to significant learning in others.”
Regardless of the instructional mode we may choose, we should always make sure to develop and communicate clear objectives for the course to our students. The course objectives or learning outcomes should specify the knowledge, skills, or attitudes that students will gain through the course. These objectives—or what we expect our students to be able to do by the end of our course—should also help inform how we design lesson plans and effective assessment strategies.
- Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press, April 2004. Permalink
- Brookfield, Stephen D. The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass Inc.,1990. Permalink
The lecture has long been a mainstay of university teaching since we often teach the way we were taught. Although, the lecture can be effective, it has limitations. Arons (1998) captures the limitations of solely lectured based instruction: “lucid lectures and demonstrations were depositing virtually nothing in the minds of the students”.
Bligh (2000) contends that after 10-12 minutes in a typical lecture student’s attention decreases and their ability to remember and retrieve recently presented material declines.
To avoid this pattern, other teaching activities need to be integrated with lectures to create effective instruction. The take away message is that lecturing alone is not often enough – lectures need to be integrated with other teaching activities to generate truly effective instruction. This does not mean that one should not lecture; rather one should choose to lecture when it is the most effective form of instruction in a given circumstance.
- Bligh, Donald A. What’s The Use of Lectures? Jossey-Bass,February 2000. Permalink
Tips for Lecturing Effectively
1) Graphic Organizers
- organize lectures around the big picture. Giving students a graphic organizer or essential questions can help them to organize their learning into more meaningful structures that allow for better recall, more effective problem-solving, and an improvement in long-term retention. A common difficulty for novice learners has to do with the process of organizing the details presented into a coherent whole. This idea, with the importance of the ‘big picture,” is being used in the whole-part-whole curriculum. First, explain the big picture, then explain the parts, and then re-integrate the parts, and then re-integrate the parts into the original big picture. The integration of knowledge into a larger organizing structure is an essential step for students to develop expertise and become effective problem solvers.
2) Lesson Planning
- organizing your lectures using lesson plans can benefit both you and your students. Creating a lesson plan can help you clarify what the students will be able to do by the end of the lecture or module. The shift of focus from content coverage to student understanding is an important one. The lesson plan also helps you to clarify the relative importance of particular course concepts. Novice learners tend to perceive all concepts to be of equal importance – since they will be on the final exam - but certain key concepts might need to be stressed to aid student understanding of the organization of the subject matter. See the Additional Resources section of this book for more specific information on lesson planning.
3) Less is more
- limit the amount of content in any given lecture. There is always concern that if we don’t “cover the content” this will leave gaps in students knowledge, but lectures containing too much content for students to process and understand will likely lead to gaps in their knowledge - even if you “cover the content”. Choose the most important concepts students need to understand, engage them in authentic problem solving, and periodically highlight the importance and contextual relationship of the concepts to the “big picture”.
4) Punctuate the lecture with activities
- Since there is evidence for the decrease in lecture effectiveness after 10-12 minutes, this can be a good time to take the opportunity to regain student attention by utilizing note-taking/processing breaks, using classroom assessment activities (Angelo and Cross, 1993), incorporating questioning or other techniques.
- One of the simplest methods of punctuating a lecture is a note-taking break – you simple ask the students to review their notes so far, maybe compare and discuss and revise their notes with a neighbour. This can give students important time to process the presented material.
- The attention cliff at 10-12 minutes can also be a good time to engage in some Socratic questioning. A word of advice on the use of questions: practice your “dwell” time. Many of us ask a question, quickly become uncomfortable in the subsequent silence, and then answer our own question. If students recognize that the instructor will do this, they may be less likely to participate. The way you ask the very first question in a course may set this norm – if you ask and answer your own first question, the students may feel less inclined to participate later. It can also be helpful to allow students a short period of time to think about the question before answering. This can have a number of positive effects – introverted students who like to “think then talk” will be more likely to participate, and tasking ALL students to think about the question may get ALL students actually thinking about the question - not just the quick-to-answer extroverts.
- Additionally, many instructors now use clickers when asking questions and have students answer in pairs or larger groups. Using clickers in an effective manner can be an easy way for the instructor to get a better understanding of the students’ current thinking, help cue them to spend more time on areas where they are having difficulties, and give students immediate feedback.
- Another method for punctuating lectures is to incorporate activities. A well-planned activity can allow students to apply, integrate, and truly learn the information that you are presenting in your lecture segments. Activities can range from a few minutes in length to a whole class period. Angelo and Cross’s Classroom Assessment Techniques provides many “recipes” for these kinds of activities. They vary in focus and duration, from short activities like think-pair-share and the muddiest point to longer activities like pro and con grid, memory matrix, role-plays and invented dialogues. These activities can give you the opportunity to assess the students’ current understanding, as well as give the students time to work with the content to develop a more enduring understanding.
5) Ending lectures effectively
- When you start your lecture you should let the students know the main three to five points you will be discussing; during the lecture you will discuss those points and then as you are closing your lecture, make sure to remind them what you told them. This is a good organizing metaphor for lectures and presentations.
- At the beginning of a lecture, you need to set the stage for what you will cover, why things are important, how they fit with the big picture, and what students should concentrate on. To close a lecture effectively you need to revisit the big picture and how the presented information integrates with that big picture. Effective closure is a simple, yet often overlooked method for improving your lecturing.
- Angelo, Thomas A. and Patricia K. Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. Jossey-Bass, February 1993. Permalink
The use of discussion has long been perceived as the way to get students to “really understand” the material. Socratic questioning and discussion has long been a mainstay of small group instruction, but in the larger classroom setting it is often replaced with lecturing and simple content transmission. With careful planning you can successfully use discussion in both large and small group settings. Careful planning can dramatically increase the instructional value of using discussions.
There are 4 major considerations for planning and facilitating a successful discussion; how to get students to prepare, how to ensure equality of participation, how to ensure overall discussion quality, and how to effectively close the discussion. As class size increases, planning becomes increasingly important, since in a small group discussion an instructor can more easily assess individual student preparation and ensure equality of participation. An often-overlooked part of effective discussion facilitation is the effective closing. We can miss the opportunity to refocus student attention on the most important concepts, highlight their relationship to the “big picture,” and reinforce what we have learned along the way.
There are many useful models for planning discussions, including:
- Socratic questioning
- What, So What, Now What
- SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, threat)
- ORID (objective, reflective, interpretive, decisional)
- Brookfield, Stephen D. and Stephen Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching : Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms (Jossey Bass Higher and Adult Education Series). Jossey-Bass, August 2005. Permalink
- Stanfield, Brian. R. ed, The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace. New Society Publishers, January 2000.
Student-Centred Instruction (SCI) has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance in recent years as the solution to our students “who just don’t seem to get it.” Many student–centred methodologies are currently used in the academy; problem-based learning (popularized by McMaster and Maastricht), team-based learning (developed at the University of Oklahoma Business School) and various forms of guided inquiry (that have been widely adopted in the Sciences as well as in other disciplines).
Mary Ellen Weimer (2002) in her book Learner-Centered Teaching eloquently explains both the opportunities and challenges in a student centered classroom. The shift to learner-centred instruction is often preceded by the instructor’s shift from a teaching focus to a learning focus, and from an instructor focus to a student focus. In a learner-centred classroom the instructor’s role shifts from teacher/expert to designer and facilitator of instructional events. This transition can be uncomfortable for both student and instructor. The instructor sheds the role of sole expert and gives control and responsibility to students to mediate their own learning. Students do not always willingly embrace these new methods after years of teachers telling them what to know and when to know it. Student resistance can arise from a number of factors; the perception that student-centered instruction is more work for them, a lack of confidence in their own abilities as autonomous learners, and instructors and students adapting to new roles, dealing with mis-steps, and fine-tuning instruction on the fly. This flux in the classroom experience can be uncomfortable for everyone. Felder and Brent captured this well with “while the promised benefits are real, they are neither immediate nor automatic. The students, whose teachers have been telling them everything they need to know from the first grade on, don’t necessarily appreciate having this support suddenly withdrawn.” (Felder and Brent, 2005) Student resistance can be effectively mitigated if the instructor takes the time to explain to the students why they are teaching the way they are teaching (e.g. that cognitive psychology studies show that people learn more with this type of instruction). This explanation needs to happen early (first day of class) and should be repeated several times during the course.
If you are interested in learning more about these and other learner centred methods, you are encouraged to contact CTLT for resources, books, training opportunities, and connecting with local practitioners.
- Weimer, Maryellen. Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. Jossey-Bass, July 2002. Permalink
- Michaelsen, Larry. K., Arletta Bauman Knight, L. Dee Fink. Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Stylus Publishing, 2004. Permalink
Exams, Assignments and Effective Grading
In every course we need to develop assessment practices to both measure what our students have learned and to help them with their future learning. The measurement of student learning has long been the cornerstone of grading, but measuring student learning can also be used in a more formative way by student and instructor to focus a student’s efforts, help assess ones progress towards a goal, and determine material, practices and skills that might need to be practiced or reviewed. Fink has developed a useful metaphor that describes assessment as forward or backward looking. Backward looking assessment corresponds to traditional testing and grading that typically quantitatively measures student mastery. In contrast, forward looking assessment focuses on measuring progress, identifying knowledge gaps, and preparing students for future performance. When students are provided with timely feedback on their progress toward a course goal, it is hoped that they will incorporate that feedback, and to be able to improve future performances. An effective assessment practice has three major characteristics and one major workload consideration; an effective assessment should be transparent, valid, and reliable and require reasonable effort (workload) for both instructor and student.
An assessment is considered transparent when students can easily understand both the task required and the criteria by which the assignment will be judged.
An assessment is considered valid when it measures important characteristics of student learning. There can be a tendency to measure things because they are easy to measure, not because they are important indicators of student learning.
An assessment is considered reliable when different assessors come to similar conclusions about the quality of a particular student’s performance.
Different assessments have different marking workload implications; we are constantly balancing instructor effort with the quality of feedback to students. Clearly, some very effective assessment practices that are used in small group settings cannot be scaled to large classroom settings, while keeping instructor workloads reasonable.
When developing assignments one needs to consider what is to be assessed and how the students will respond and incorporate any marker feedback. If students are not required to reflect on feedback and incorporate it into future work, then there is less value in the instructor spending the time necessary to write detailed feedback. Assessment should be an integral part of the course with a combination of forward and backward looking assessment, timely feedback and the opportunity to incorporate the feedback into future performance. The traditional approach to assessment is to develop exams and assignments after designing your course. We recommend a backwards approach to course design that has instructors develop assessment material before developing instructional materials. This approach leads to better integration of the course goals, assessment materials and instruction experience (remember where you want your students to get to, how you will know when they get there, and what you need to do to help them get there).
- Fenwick, Tara and Parsons, Jim. The Art of Evaluation: Handbook for Educators and Trainers. Thompson Educational Publishing,2000.
- Huba, Mary E. and Jann E. Freed. Learner-Centered Assessment on College Campuses: Shifting the Focus from Teaching to Learning. Allyn & Bacon, December 1999.
- Walvoord, Barbara E. and Virginia J. Anderson. Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment. Jossey Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. Jossey-Bass, February 1998. Permalink