How I got excited about teaching again
Last semester I, and a hundred and fifty other people who teach at my university, heard Dee Fink talk about how to be a better teacher. The thing I remember the best is that he told us that if we improve our teaching just a little, we will enjoy ourselves so much more. I have fun teaching when I’m engaged in it. But if I just do it because I have to, I end up hating my job. So this semester, I plan to have fun by being a better teacher.
Fink had lots of specific good ideas, like helping students find their own motivation for learning, but his advice that I particularly want to focus on is designing integrated courses, meaning courses where the learning outcomes, the learning activities and the assessment work together.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve usually started planning the next semester’s teaching when the emails come from the bookshop asking for a reading list. For the spring semester, book lists are supposed to be sent to the bookshop by 1 November. By 1 December we’re supposed to have a complete reading list up on the web so students can begin to plan.
That means that I generally start planning a course by thinking about what students should be reading. Looking at the syllabi my colleagues around the world write, that seems to be the main focus of most course design.
Really, though, we should be starting with what we want our students to learn. At UiB all our courses have learning outcomes, but reading through the stated learning outcomes for the course I’m teaching, they are much too general. It was really useful thinking through different kinds of learning goals, using one of Fink’s handouts (well, downloads), A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning.
I don’t just want students to learn the content in the readings I give them. I want them to become better self-directed learners. And as this is the last semester before they start writing their MA thesis, it’s especially important that they spend this semester really learning all they need to research and write independently. I realised that one of my main goals for the seminar is to help foster a robust writing community that the students can continue to develop themselves next year.
Fink talked a lot about the broader learning goals we should be thinking about. We don’t just want to educate students who can reel off facts. We want students who work together, who care about the world and each other, who are confident in themselves.
A concept that really appealed to me was that of forward-looking assessement. In two or three years, how and in what kind of situation would you hope that students would make use of what they learned in the course?
We know these students future employers want to hire people who can work together with others, know how to learn, can think independently and critically, can communicate orally and in writing, can use their knowledge in new areas, and can network and build relationships. Knowledge about a specific topic comes after all those things.
How can they learn the things I want them to learn? Not just by reading, that’s for sure. Here are some of Fink’s ideas, with my early notes for the course:
The bread and butter of the approach is figuring out what you want students to learn, how to best help them learn it, and how to assess that they really learnt it. After spending an hour or so on the workbook, I was ready to plan the course as a whole:
We have one major limitation when it comes to assessment that matches the learning activities: it’s very difficult to set up a course that uses continuous or formative assessment. Assessment generally happens at the end, in Norway. In this course, there are two obligatory assignments during the semester, and both must be approved for students to be allowed to submit the final paper. But students’ grade for the course is entirely determined by their grade on that final paper, the semesteroppgave in my notes above. So I can’t do very much with the graded assessments.
However, I can make sure that my assignments support the learning goals. I decided to change the two obligatory assignments from the typical “write a short essay” and instead choose something that would help support my ultimate goal, that students go out and build a better society! So to show that they know something about the history of visual technologies, they will be making infographics. And to show they understand not just the history but also the theory and practice of visual technologies, they will create a pitch for an imagined product that somehow critiques the standard way of seeing through technology.
At this point, I was ready to start outlining the semester, and beginning to slot in readings and assignments. I decided to divide the semester into three sections: history, theory/analysis, and a writing workshop period.
I outlined each class, including hands-on activities as well as readings and reflective writing to do before each class and assignments to do after each class.
We only have ten sessions, three hours each, so I had to drop some of the practical activities I wanted to do, like building camera obscuras, but we will get to do things like visiting the Maritime Museum (which is right next door actually) and having a demonstration of how to use a sextant.
Canvas also allows you to explicitly connect learning outcomes to assignments, so I did this, to help both me and the students remember why we are doing what we do.I’ll give them points according to this matrix so students can have an idea of how they’re doing, although the points won’t count towards the final grade.
I wrote out the readings for each class as assignments too, which may well turn out to be overkill, but it will mean that each week, students will get reminders to complete their readings and reflection notes by a particular time. Here is an example.
Feel free to look around the course website – everything except student discussions and their work is open to the public, and CC-licenced, so you can reuse it if it’s useful. If you click the “TYPE” tab on the assignments you’ll see them all nicely sorted, and the modules page shows an overview of the whole semester.
I may have gone a little overboard on planning this semester. I certainly don’t usually have this level of detail, and maybe it won’t work well to have such detailed assignments for graduate students. If so, we can always tweak it. But it has been very satisfying to think about designing this course by starting with the learning goals, and building from there, and I’m looking forwards to this semester so much more than I tend to look forwards to teaching.
Of course, it does take time. And Canvas keeps perfect track of how much time I spend. Nearly 16 hours, just in Canvas. See the time there, second from the bottom?
I spent 2 hours before that, with the workbook. I’m sure I’ve spent more time than that thinking about it and reading and looking for books and so on, but probably not a lot more. And I spent about 90 minutes writing this blog post, which I’m hoping will help me next time I design a course and have forgotten how excited I was about this one. I’m fortunate enough to have chosen the topic for the semester, and it’s a topic I’m passionate about and reading and writing about anyway, so it’s fine to be spending time on it. The preloaded time use might be more difficult to manage if it were a big course where I was less knowledgeable about the topic.
And although I’m really not sure I like being able to see how much time everyone, including me, spends in Canvas on the course webpages, it’s interesting that the students have already started spending time on it as well. The first class isn’t until January 21, so they’re early – which is great, because they have a reading assignment due for that first class.
How do you plan your courses? Have you found any good techniques? Do you have any suggestions?