Category Archives: Teaching

The syllabus: window into the professor’s psyche, contract, or vision for the future?

The NYTimes published an interesting opinion piece today called “My Syllabus, My Self.” In it, the author appears to be inspired by debates on trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc., enough so that she muses upon the nature of the syllabus as an historical document, as a physical object, as a contract, and as a window onto the professor’s expectations and even personality.

Like the author, I too have long thought of syllabuses as a lens through which to glimpse both the explicit and the implicit expectations of the professor. However, I would add to the author’s list of facets the fact that a carefully-crafted syllabus is also a vision of the students’ future and the professor’s plan of action to achieve it.

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We’re all cyborgs when we learn.

It’s been a long time since the last blog entry, because I finished and defended my dissertation on June 15. Despite the time commitment involved in finishing the dissertation, I’ve still been active in the Chicago Center for Teaching, helping to train new teaching consultations, helping to develop the details of our new Teaching Fellows program, assisting with a workshop, etc. But one of the most interesting pedagogical projects that I’ve been exposed to in the last year or so is the online journal, Hybrid Pedagogy. I met Chris Friend, managing editor, at a networking event for new Ph.Ds, and besides the fact that it’s just plain fun to geek out about pedagogy with an expert in the field, it was a great learning experience for me.

As the website points out, “all learning is necessarily hybrid” – whether we’re talking wax tablets, rote memorization, or the newest technology, learning has always involved something outside the learner. I have sympathy for instructors who prohibit laptops and tech, but I also think that to do so is not only untenable in the long-term, but also potentially neglecting a valuable learning tool. Technology is here to stay, so why not make it into something useful? Hybrid Pedagogy wants to help with that project. So this is just a brief note between edits to plug a project that strikes me as very important for the future.

Reflections on a teaching conference

This week, the Chicago Center for Teaching held its annual two-day teaching conference designed to help graduate students learn to be effective teachers and TAs. Today’s plenary lecture was on “Teaching is not learning,” given by Jean-Luc Doumont, who works for a company that specializes in effective communication. The talk was a dynamic introduction to how to think as an instructor and how to create a learner-centered classroom, and I hope the new instructors found it helpful. I found that Jean-Luc provided some bon mots that are useful and/or thought-provoking, so I thought I would share them.

  •  “You can take care of the students, or you can take care of the material.”

facilitating vs lecturingWhat Jean-Luc meant by this is explained by a diagram he had in his slideshow. In it, he dichotomizes (perhaps too starkly) facilitating vs. lecturing, where lecturing is supposed to be the mode of transmission used when the content is most important – “I have to get through all this content!” The other side of the diagram is “facilitation,” or how you create an atmosphere and construct a course to facilitate student learning – “I have to get these students to learn!” A new instructor might not see the difference between those states – isn’t getting through all the content going to cause the students to learn it?? The answer is, well, probably not.  Not if you don’t think about the mode of transmission, and it’s very easy in your first class to focus almost exclusively on the material, rather than considering its reception (and absorption). Lecturing has its place as a pedagogical tool, Continue reading

More on Eric Mazur and peer instruction

This is an interesting article about a visit Eric Mazur (he of “peer instruction,” which I discuss here) paid to Vanderbilt University, where the faculty had a chance to experience the “flipped classroom” themselves.  One of his key points is that when we consider how we instructors learned to teach, we almost never say that we acquired our knowledge of teaching by passively sitting through lectures, so why do we teach that way?  The article also links to a couple videos of Mazur in action.

Discussion leading: an art, regardless of whether you use it for science

Last spring, I did a short presentation (on Mazur’s peer instruction) for an event at the University of Chicago’s Center for Teaching and Learning, and afterward, I was recruited to become a Teaching Consultant.  As a Teaching Consultant (TC), I am one of a handful of graduate students from across the university who have the opportunity to get together and read and talk about pedagogy.  We take the knowledge we glean to help other graduate students in their classrooms through workshops and individual consultations.  Yesterday, we met to have a discussion about discussions.

Put that way, the topic of conversation is somewhat amusing (especially when you consider that we tried out the technique of leaderless discussion, during which I had to stop the leaderless discussion to discuss how we were discussing – I think we almost drowned in the recursion).  Still, it was an interesting meeting, particularly the input from our TCs in the STEM fields.  At first blush, you might think that there is no opportunity for students to discuss in a discipline like computer science.  The TC described his class, and described the “discussions” as an opportunity for students to respond to questions and also ask for clarification.  In other words, the “discussions” were primarily led only at a level that might help the students to remember and understand their readings, but not achieve the higher levels on Bloom’s taxonomy of learning domains (i.e., application, analysis, evaluation, creation).   Continue reading

A treasure hunt, of sorts

I have not had much time to update the blog lately, but I was asked by the Social Sciences Division at the University of Chicago to contribute to their blog.  You can find the entry here:

More on pedagogy later this month!  I’ll be part of a panel on flexibility and adjustments in the classroom for the UChicago Workshop on Teaching in the College.  Details here:

Taking comfort in discomfort

Hegel’s a problem.  Seriously—what kind of person writes like that??  So, when you’re about to help a roomful of kids work through the Philosophy of World History, what do you do?  It’s tempting to walk them through the arguments and concepts: philosophical history, Idea, world-spirit, reason… (Of course, it’s also tempting to tell them to look at the index, already.)  It’s tempting to feed them concepts and arguments, to draw the connections for them, because, come on—Hegel is hard.  The students don’t necessarily have the tools to cope with his arguments, to grasp the synthesis of ideal and real, subject and object, particular and universal. So what do you do? Continue reading

The Socratic Method, or, How to Avoid Drinking Hemlock

Reading my October book on pedagogy, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, has taught me a couple of important lessons:

1) Studies show the efficacy of some of the techniques I use while teaching, for example, breaking the students into smaller groups to teach each other the material.

2) Also, reading books about pedagogy doesn’t take as much time as I thought it would, since you can skip to the techniques you’re trying to work on and skip any you’ve got down.

I find it rather interesting that I can pick up a teaching book and, instead of reading it for an overarching argument, cherry-pick directly to the elements that speak to me.  (For example, I don’t really need the chapters on lecturing effectively—yet.)  So I did just that: I went through the book and cherry-picked to the material that’s important to the discussion-based classes I teach at the University of Chicago.

Since I’m trying to use this forum as a way to explore and improve my own teaching, this discussion will obviously be focused on my particular situation.  But I’m putting McKeachie’s 7 “biases or hypotheses” inset over here for general purposes, before I go on to discuss what I found most interesting.

The Socratic Method

I was looking for semi-concrete tips about leading discussion, but I ended up thinking mostly about discussion in general, and in particular, the Socratic method.  I quote McKeachie about the Socratic method:

In television, novels, and anecdotes about the first year of law school [Socratic teaching] is usually portrayed as a sadistic, anxiety-producing method of eliciting student stupidity, and even when I place myself in the role of the slave boy taught by Socrates in the Meno, I feel more like a pawn than an active learner. (2011:43)

Ouch.  McKeachie goes on to say that the questioning methods advocated by a student of the Socratic method, Allen Collins, “may be generally useful in leading discussions,” but it seems as though McKeachie is rather lukewarm on the method. Continue reading

Knowledge, learning, and cognition, oh my: techniques for achieving better comprehension

It’s been a very long time since I wrote, but my experiments in teaching last year were pretty successful—my students took apart their texts pretty well, they definitely learned how to write better papers over the course of a couple quarters with me, and they really seemed to enjoy class.  My ego also survived multiple questionnaires, which were extremely helpful for understanding what techniques (the students thought) worked and what techniques did not.  More about what worked will come below.

But not only do I enjoy teaching, I enjoy learning about teaching.  This year, I didn’t get a job offer for autumn until it was too late to fit it in my schedule, and so to fill the pedagogical gap, I think I’ll start a new endeavor: I’ll read a book on pedagogy each month, and think about how to apply it to future classes.   (I may teach in winter or spring, so the application could be almost immediate!)

Today, I went to a seminar on course design, offered by the University of Chicago’s Center for Teaching and Learning.  One of the most interesting things that came out of the seminar for me was unexpected and only tangentially related to the seminar’s focus on course design.  Last year, I read a book called Peer Instruction, by Eric Mazur, a physicist who discovered that, although his students tested well in his large intro courses, their retention and deep understanding of the material wasn’t strong.  He came up with a method whereby the students worked together in small groups to learn the material more comprehensively than by rote.  He found that this system was especially successful at getting them to understand the abstract concepts behind the particular examples and experiments he’d been showing them, which was key to their retention and ability to more generally apply principles of physics. Continue reading

Scientific methods

I basically stopped writing this blog last quarter, because I wanted to write about teaching, but I fell into an ethical conundrum: is it fair to write about experiences involving other people in real-time, if they don’t know that they are being written about—even if you leave names out of it?  I’m not even sure that the timing matters; it seems a strange thing to write about other people regardless of whether it’s real time or not, although relating stories about “Funny things that happened to me in the past” already lends distance to the stories, right?  Somehow, writing about past events seems less like nosily intruding on everyone else.

And with teaching, of course, there’s always the possibility that my students (hi, guys!) will find the blog entries and learn more about what I think of the class, or what I’m planning to do with it, than I might normally tell them.  I have to admit, I’m still experimenting on my students, finding what works and what doesn’t, but I’m not necessarily sharing all of the details of the experiments with the subjects—doesn’t that change the results? Continue reading