Thanks for attending our “Why we fail our students” faculty workshop, 10-11-12

Our speakers today were Drs. Casey Due-Hackney (MCL), Donna Pattison (BIO), and Andrew Hamilton, our new Executive Director for Academic Innovation. The panel was moderated by Prof. Jim Garson (PHIL), who led off discussion with his own comments.

Garson noted that when he arrived here some time ago, he was surprised by the atmosphere surrounding instruction, which was dominated by cheap credits ($30/course) and “shopping for courses.”  And he suggested that the student culture has not moved sufficiently beyond that attitude.  He also noted that faculty attitudes then and now focused on aspects like students’ lack of preparation, which were essentially out of faculty control, rather than aspects of instruction that were in our power.  And he concluded with a call for faculty and students to change the prevailing culture of low expectations, and build together a culture of high expectations and success.  This cultural shift, however, would demand that both faculty and students embrace the risks and uncertainties of genuine learning.

***

Hamilton’s presentation, “Rethinking the Large Lecture” was organized into two parts: Problem and Solution.  The large lecture has been in use ever since medieval lecturers found it the cheapest way to disseminate information from big, expensive, hand-produced books, as we can see below with the variously distracted and sleeping medieval students might suggest.

According to Hamilton, the large lecture represents a problem because it demands a level of engagement and private study time that contemporary students are simply unable or unwilling to provide.  This, along with grade inflation and state and federal disinvestment in education, means that students will continue to fail in these important introductory courses in ever-growing numbers.

Hamilton did not propose any single “solution” to this mismatch of teaching approach to students, but instead offered a few design principles that would make success likelier than in teaching with conventional lecture models.

  • restructuring time on task, so that students must do practice work and receive feedback while still in class, instead of passively listening to content-materials
  • teaching intellectual skills, so that students can learn not just a particular content, but intellectual and critical skills (active reading, better writing, critical thinking, etc.) that could be developed further and used in other classes and contexts
  • teach students how to collaborate and work together better, so they can accelerate the pace of their own learning
  • support innovation structurally, so that systemic issues can be addressed in a similarly comprehensive way (this would include enhanced TA training, multi-use classroom space, new faculty orientation, and targeted faculty development)

Due-Hackney spoke from her 11 years’ experience in Classical Studies, and noted that her students had a very different schedule than she had when she was an undergraduate: they often work full-time, have family commitments, face significant commutes, and sometimes have responsibility for aging parents.  They are also much less prepared than she was in school, particularly in their writing.

Due-Hackney made her own recommendations about “what works for her”:

  • her enthusiasm for the material: this might seem obvious, but her evaluations have consistently shown that students enjoyed her classes because they could recognize her love of the material, and learned more because of her engagement with poems like the Iliad
  • keep your class on students’ radar, by regularly assigning weekly, engagement-oriented assignments like brief, informal writing responses to their assigned readings, and providing equally regular, timely feedback to their writing, which could be done online or in-class
  • student confidence grows with consistent encouragement and feedback, and with confidence comes better, more accomplished writing
  • stand up and be willing to be seen as a human being who makes mistakes, sometimes needs to look up answers, or can learn things from your students
  • acknowledge that the material is challenging, and that it should be hard for them to learn, and let them know that some of this material was difficult for you to learn, too
  • Finally, even in the largest classes, try to model the kind of approachability, compassion, and flexibility you have periodically needed in your own life, career, and education.  This can make an enormous difference for someone struggling with an issue in- or outside your course.

The third and final speaker, Dr. Pattison of Biology, outlined the comprehensive approach to student success that Biology Chair Dan Wells (a CTE board member) has directed in conjunction with a THECB grant, with the assistance of Pattison, Dr. Larry Williams, and Dr. Medrano, among others.  The Biology student success program, which Pattison described as “tackling every problem all at once,” included the following features:

  • tracking attendance through clicker questions
  • increasing engagement through strategic use of clicker questions followed by think/pair/share activities for questions that caused confusion
  • live demonstrations, with physical props, if necessary, to help students remember key concepts like meiosis/mitosis
  • having undergrad TAs patrol the back of the lecture hall, and make sure students are not texting, on facebook, etc.
  • arranging a dual syllabus, so that students scoring below 70% on a diagnostic must take a recitation-section version of the course with required attendance for recitations
  • field trips and other activities, including a Biology talk/dinner that allows undergrads to hear current research topics discussed
  • faculty workshops on pedagogy

Afterwards, the group discussed the problems of “disappearing students,” and the sometimes puzzling fact that students in difficulty will be able to finish classes they are engaged in, but fail the large lecture courses that are not motivating them.  We also discussed the possibility of mandatory prerequisite checks, which are being instituted in a number of courses and departments, but which are complicated by our very large transfer population, whose courses sometimes require significant time to process. Finally, the group agreed that all of these changes would require structural changes that would encourage faculty development and continual reflection upon, and improvement of, one’s teaching and courses.

DM

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