Category Archives: Classroom Management

And When She Was Bad

Scott Jaschik reported an incident of a biology instructor being removed from teaching a class because of students not meeting her standards.

Dominique Homberger was deemed a bad instructor by Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge’s Dean of the College of Basic Sciences Kevin Carman because too many students were not getting high grades in her class. The students complained and Dean Carman felt that “there was an issue with this particular class that we felt needed to be addressed”. The issue was addressed by removing Professor Homberger as the instructor of the course in the middle of the semester.

In this case, the administrator’s definition of a good instructor was equated with high grades. I wish I could be shocked by this, but that has been my experience of how administrator’s define good teaching as well. I’ve also faced similar consequences as Prof. Homberger. In their commentary after the report, Maiuri and Leon mention that “professors feel compelled to ensure that every student receives passing grades because of fears of sanctions and penalties, risk of losing their course, having to address students complaints, and having fewer students chose to take their course”.  Oh absolutely.

But are instructors with the students that achieve the highest grades really the best teachers despite their popularity with administrators and students? When I read this case, I would say no. The administrator at LSU taught students that complaining instead of hard work is the best way to reach your academic goals and taught the faculty that measuring what students have learned isn’t a priority. The goals of the academic institution is no longer about learning but about customer satisfaction.

In all fairness, given the financial pressures administrations face, I really can’t blame them for wanting to focus on student retention. After all, students pay the bills and the administrator will long be retired when a poor reputation damages the institution’s ability to attract future students. While I can sympathize with the predicament faced by the administrators, I don’t condone this behaviour. It is too easy to blame the instructor instead of supporting the instructor to obtain high standards of academic excellence and student satisfaction.

Here is what I would do if I was Prof. Homberger and could turn back time to the beginning of  her course. First, I would make my expectations clear from day 1 of the course. The “quizzes at the beginning of every class to assure attendance and to make sure students are doing the reading” are an excellent way to motivate students and let them know what my expectations are like. I could also use the results of these quizzes to direct my teaching to concepts students have learned poorly from the required reading.  A program like Socrative, would be excellent for constructing and giving the tests. These quizzes could form part of the calculation for grades or just part of classroom assessment. As part of the grade, I think it would be wise to give students one or two “free passes” where the lowest grade is dropped. This would account for students that have to miss the odd class due to illness or family obligations and allow time to adjust to an unusual test format. The immediate feedback provided by Socrative would allow adaptation of the day’s lessons to concepts that students were weak on. If students did not do their homework and there are more concepts to cover than time available, the students could note what areas they need to go back and learn better.

For tests, I would offer a practice test before the real test. I have done this for my courses and have the practice test represent a typical test. From student feedback, students would prefer a practice test that is harder than the typical test. An acceptable score on the practice test gave them a false sense of achievement. They would also like the practice test to be more comprehensive than a typical test so that they can use the test as an indicator of where they need to study more.

Prof. Homberger scheduled 4 tests for her non-majors introductory biology course. If this was my course, I would consider introducing some other forms of assessment that might appeal more to non-majors than the recitation of tidbits of information. The article mentioned that Prof. Homberger was criticized by her colleagues for including “too many facts” on her tests. Prof. Homberger included more learner-centered questions on her second test when she asked students to describe “the biggest ‘AHA’ reaction” they had had during the course” as a bonus question. The inclusion of this question suggests that the validity of her evaluation needs to be examined as this question seems out of place compared to her other assessments. I suspect that Prof. Homberger may have realized this and thus used the question as a bonus rather than part of the test.

I hope to go back through the references cited in the commentary that accompanies this report to dig for more articles about student evaluations of teaching.

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Meaning-Centered Education

The evolution of teaching philosophy intrigues me. I started with the traditional “sage on the stage” philosophy where the professor shares his/her great knowledge and the student is left to make sense of this knowledge outside the classroom. As a student, I found this authoritative approach frustrating because of the lack of direction. As instructor, I improved how I was taught by adding more direction, but I still predominantly use this approach to teaching.

Learning-centered teaching puts the teaching onto the students. The instructor acts more as coach or guide, rather than dictating the subject matter to students. The goal is one of engagement and active learning activities form the basis of classroom activity. This is a handy chart to compare teacher-centered vs. learner-centered teaching. Learner-centered teaching is considered more advanced that the traditional method. Maryellen Weimer describes 5 characteristics of learner-centered instruction. I have been trying to be more learner-centered in my classroom, but found that a very careful balance needs to be maintained. Students resent being thrown into the deep-end and expect some level of instruction. At the same time, students acknowledge that they learn more if they are the responsible for their learning.

Meaning-centered education and meaning-centered learning appears to be a recent progression beyond learner-centered instruction. In this educational philosophy the goal is to have students place the new knowledge in a context that means something to them. This approach appeals to me as the motivation for student-learning is built into this philosophy. Integration of new ideas into our current knowledge is how the brain deals with new knowledge, thus meaning-centered learning will be intuitive to students. Finally, the approach emphasizes learning for life. The goal is not just to master course content, but to integrate this learning into who the student is as a person now and who the student wants to be in the future. Since I teach students that want to be nurses, I can see this approach having an impact on their lives long after they leave my classroom. This is important because the course material forms a foundation for their professional practice.

The Institute for Meaning-Centered Education appears to be in its infancy. I’m looking forward to seeing how this educational philosophy develops and how I may incorporate it into my classroom.

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Feedback from Students

The evaluation process not only includes evaluation of the student learning but also evaluation of instructor teaching. My institution has a form that is given towards the end of the course called “Student Report on Teaching” (SRT). SRTs are given to students during the probationary period and then periodically after that. I haven’t seen an SRT since my probationary period over a decade ago. The infrequency of evaluation on the institutional level has left me interested in doing my own SRT.

My experience with the SRTs during my probationary period has left me with some concerns which suggests changes to the current form. My major concern involves what to ask on the SRT in order to gain useful feedback. Our institutional questions include questions like “Were tests and assignments graded and returned promptly”, which lead me to stay up all night grading exams so that I could return them during the next lecture. I was shocked to be rated negatively in response to this question! How could I possibly get exam results back any quicker than the very next class which was sometimes less than 24 hours after they wrote the test? Another question asks about whether course objectives were clear. I included the course objectives in the course outline and at the beginning of each lecture. I specifically asked at the end of the lecture if the course objectives were clear. Again, I was shocked to be rated negatively in response to this question on the SRT. If the course objectives were not clear, why didn’t students speak up during the course? I did not get the results until after the course was over and without student names so I could not follow-up on the concerns raised by the SRT. What is the point of doing evaluations if the information is untimely and of such poor quality, improvements cannot be made?

I found unsolicited student evaluations on a site called “Rate My Professor”.  While it was nice to receive positive feedback in such a public place, I found the negative feedback frustrating. Students leaving negative feedback often had the course number wrong which made it hard to take their comments about the course seriously. The students would also express dissatisfaction with my personal attributes without explanation as to why they felt I was rude or mean or evil or whatever else they didn’t like about me. One student even accused me of being a racist which I consider to be quite a serious charge and absolutely something I do not want to be. However, the student never said anything to me or filed a formal complaint. I have no idea what I did to deserve such a comment, and thus, I have no idea how to rectify the situation or even verify if a situation actually exists to rectify.

Despite this bad taste in my mouth, I still believe there is a need to gather student feedback. Thus I was interested in the Faculty Focus newsletter in my email this morning. In her article, “How to Get Better Feedback from Students“, Maryellen Weimer offers some tips:

  • Ask questions “about the impact of a policy, practice, behavior, technique, assignment, or instructional approach on students’ efforts to learn” rather than what students liked/disliked about the course and/or instructor.
  • Ask these questions immediately after the activity was experienced by the student during the course rather than a global survey at the end of the course when it is too late to do anything.
  • Teach students how to give constructive feedback. This instruction would include what is relevant and appropriate feedback by explaining what can be changed and what can’t as well as modeling the desired behaviour when giving feedback to students.
  • Show students that you take their feedback seriously by discussing the feedback with them. If feedback cannot be incorporated, explain why and invite other solutions to identified problems. I would even go farther and suggest not asking for feedback on anything you have no desire to change.

The most difficult tip to incorporate is asking the right questions and this needs to be explored further in future blog posts. I have several tabs open, so stay tuned.

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Cell Phones in the Classroom

cellphoneFaculty Focus published an article by Sydney Fullbright asking “Cell Phones in the Classroom: What’s your Policy?”. My initial reaction is “no”, but in reality, I found this policy difficult to enforce.

The rational for saying no was that cell phones are disruptive to learning and Sydney confirms this in her article, but what about the benefits of cell phone use?

I approve of students using the cell phone for family responsibilities, making notes and study aids, and looking up information relevant to learning. I’m also interested in using mobile technology to engage students in learning with apps like Socrative.

With both advantages and disadvantages, a simple policy on cell phone use in the classroom is not as easy as it sounds. The comments on the article are as useful as the article itself and I enjoyed reading solutions offered by other faculty. I most agree with the approach of making the policy a collaborative effort. I would present to students the advantages and disadvantages and ask them how we should enforce any policy we decide on.

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Reading the Riot Act

A course syllabus often includes information on expected behaviours for students including policy on academic integrity. I’ve always regretted the negative connotations of including this information in the course syllabus. To me, it implies to the student, “I wish you wouldn’t, but I know you are going to do it, so here is what happens to you when you do”. The students are treated like criminals on the first day of class as I read them the riot act. Furthermore, it doesn’t stop them from committing academic misconduct. In my experience, these indiscretions are more often due to ignorance rather than willful intent. The student just didn’t understand what academic integrity was.

There has to be a more positive way to talk about academic integrity. What about a video? This is an example from Sheridan College in Ontario.  I like how this video describes what constitutes  misconduct, explains the temptations of why students do it, and gives resources to help prevent students making the wrong choice. This video could serve as a discussion focus or be inspiration to make a similar video for your institution.

This booklet from the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) also talks about academic integrity in a more positive light by focusing on the values that go into academic integrity. This could also be the basis of a classroom discussion as the booklet includes questions for reflection.

The International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) defines academic integrity as a commitment, even in the face of adversity, to five fundamental values: honesty, trust, fairness, respect, and responsibility. From these values flow principles of behavior that enable academic communities to translate ideals to action.

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The Purposes of the Syllabus

What do you use your syllabus for?

In their article, “The Purposes of a Syllabus”, Parkes and Harris describe three purposes of a syllabus: contract, permanent record and learning tool. A sidebar containing what elements would be included for each purpose is a highlight of this paper.

I have always thought of the syllabus or course outline as a contract that “serves to set forth what is expected during the term and to guide the behaviours of both parties”. The syllabus is a classroom management tool that describes policies on late assignments, attendance, missed exams, academic dishonesty, and accommodation of disabilities.

I viewed the contract elements as primary, but I was also aware of the syllabus as a permanent record since I teach at a sending institution. The British Columbia Council on Admissions & Transfers (BCCAT) has a defined template for the purpose of assessing equivalency of courses between institutions. Given the purpose of BCCAT, it is not surprising that the suggested template clearly views the syllabus as a permanent record. Indeed, Parkes and Harris description matches BCCAT’s purpose exactly.

As a permanent record, a syllabus can serve to document what was covered in a course; at what level, scope and depth; and for what kinds of credit. When students wish to transfer credits from one institution to another institution or to substitute one course for another, the course syllabus may be used to help determine whether or not the request is appropriate. Since many students are now attending a number of institutions of higher learning in the course of obtaining a degree, as well as requesting credit for professional experiences or on-line courses, a detailed syllabus can play an important role in documenting what a particular course included and how it might fit into a cohesive course of study.

The purpose of the syllabus as a learning tool had never occurred to me, probably because of the limitations of the templates provided to me when I was a rookie instructor. I have consider the elements of this purpose as a separate document, though. Parkes and Harris suggest these elements to have the syllabus serve as a facilitator of student learning.

  • Planning and self-management skills
  • Time to spend outside of class
  • Tips on how to do well on assessments
  • Common misconceptions or mistakes
  • Specific study strategies
  • Availability of instructor(s) and teacher assistants
  • Campus resources for assistance
  • Offices that aid students with disabilities
  • Relevance and importance of the course to students
  • A model of high-quality work

While I think Parkes and Harris’ article is an excellent place to start, individual institutions may also have their own policies for course outlines. My institution is currently reviewing this policy. I’m looking forward to see how the institution’s policy matches the descriptions provided by Parkes and Harris. My hands may be tied by the “official course outline”, but I still have the flexibility to include other elements as a separate document. I’m especially interested in viewing the syllabus as learning tool. This interest is partly because the concept is new to me, but also because I think this information would be extremely valuable to students.

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Countering Student Opposition to Active Learning

Richard Felder uses active learning techniques when teaching chemical engineering students at North Carolina State University.

I’m always open to advice from the trenches so I really appreciated his “Sermons for Grumpy Campers” about how to counter student opposition to active learning. He presents his advice as “mini-sermons”. The first two are about group work, which really interested me. As a student, I hated group work. As a instructor, I’m contemplating how to incorporate group work into the classroom. Felder addressed both of my concerns by stating that group work is the way the world works and it is best for the student to learn how to cope now. Good point.

When you use a proven teaching method that makes students uncomfortable, it’s important to let them know why you’re doing it. If you can convince them that it’s not for your own selfish or lazy purposes but to try to improve their learning and grades, they tend to ramp down their resistance long enough to see the benefits for themselves.

It would be much easier for me to stand up at the front of the room and talk about a subject I know really well. I’m finding incorporating active learning strategies into class time much more challenging. I have to find the right balance between lecture and active learning, I have to select a strategy that I think will be effective, and I have to motivate students to venture outside of the their comfort zone. So why would I want to make more work for myself? Simply, what is the point of teaching if you are using ineffective techniques? Doing the job well means I have to step outside my comfort zone too.

Photo courtesy: http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/

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