Quick IDEAs for Better Teaching
A collection of our ongoing IDEAs for faculty
Fitting Some Course Improvement Into the Summer Break
Let’s be honest. It’s hard to think about fall classes and the new year ahead after just ending the last. It’s important, however, to continually review your instruction to see if and where tweaks need to be made to improve student learning. While doing that right now might not be very appealing, the good news is that you don’t have to completely rework a course from the bottom up to make a difference. Now maybe, one of your courses really needs a complete overhaul, but this Quick Tip is about suggestions for making a difference with as little summer energy as you can muster. Here are a few ideas to spur your thinking.
Apply a little Backward Design thinking. Look at the outcomes for your courses and identify the single most important one for each--the one that would greatly disappoint you if most students failed to achieve it. If necessary, break that outcome down into a smaller outcome so that you are thinking about one important but manageable outcome. Now think through how you assess that goal. Do you truly have a clear idea of how well students have achieved that outcome and have they done so to your satisfaction? If you are satisfied with your assessment and student performance, then move to another outcome for consideration. When you find one for which you are dissatisfied, consider first if the way you are assessing students is meaningfully and appropriately measuring their achievement of the outcome. Sometimes, what faculty say they want students to achieve is not what they are actually assessing. So the first place to consider improvement in your important outcome is to consider how you are assessing it. If you are satisfied that your assessments are appropriate, then consider if students are achieving the outcome in sufficiently. That is, are most students demonstrating that they understand or can perform the outcome in a convincing way through your assessments? Mostly likely you will find room for improvement for at least a portion of students. So the question is, what can you do about it? Consider all the learning experiences you provide to help students learn this outcome. Can you provide more opportunities to apply or practice the outcome? Can you provide alternative ways of learning the basic concepts such as additional video or graphical explanations?
Dip your toe into new pedagogical waters. You’ve heard of flipping your classroom, problem-based learning, case study approaches and a thousand active learning strategies. It can be overwhelming, and scary, to think about trying one of them out for the first time. But in most cases, you don’t have to apply a new strategy throughout a course in an all-or-nothing manner. You can simply take a small chunk of a course--a unit, a week, a single class, or even just one part of a single class, and give a new strategy a try. If it works well, great. You can build from there. If it’s a disaster, you can figure out what went wrong and try it again in a small way or drop it without having tanked an entire course.
So consider a strategy that has piqued your interest in the past and consider where and when it would potentially be the most useful. Or if no strategy of prime interest comes to mind, consider a weak point in one of your courses, and from there, determine what strategy might help make learning more effective. Start now to learn about the teaching method and how best to use it with a small, discrete, chunk of a course. With the summer to plan, you have time to think through this short learning experience in a pretty thorough way. And don’t forget you likely have a Center for Teaching and Learning on campus to help you brainstorm and develop an approach.
Where was the boredom or disinterest? When were students, and perhaps you yourself, most bored or unmotivated with what was happening in a class? In an online class, you might determine this by lackluster participation in a particular discussion or other drop-offs in participation around a particular topic. You may immediately know where that was in a course, or it might take a little thought. Try to identify a part of one course where students were not fully engaged.
A quick way of categorizing that issue is to decide if the problem was primarily the content--sometimes learning the foundational content in any discipline can feel like drudgery--or what you were doing with it. Disinterest in content sometimes comes from students not seeing the value of it. So perhaps finding ways of making content more relevant to your students could help. IDEA’s Notes on the Teaching Method, Related course material to real-life situations, is a good resource for digging deeper into making content relevant. And of course, if you are primarily just delivering the content in a traditional way, through lecture for instance, consider many of the active learning strategies available.
What did students say? Looking at your student feedback from courses in the last year, what were the things they seemed to like and those they did not care for? While student opinions about what works and doesn’t in a course is not always right, when a significant number of students are saying similar things about a course, then it is something to consider. Even if you disagree with students about something--complaining about group work for instance--you should nevertheless think about their perspective. Why do they think the group work is not successful even though you think it is? Perhaps you need to frame the work differently, clarify your processes, or adjust your assessments. Whatever the reason, there is something to learn from what students have to say.
So there you go. A few ideas to help you think about improving your courses a little at a time. Slap on some sunscreen and have a great summer.