Teaching for Learning

I’m at the University of Calgary’s “Design for Learning” conference on university learning and teaching this week (#ticonf2015 on Twitter). Later this morning, my RAs and I will deliver a workshop on digital badges in an introductory Shakespeare class.

Even the conference’s name inverts the usual order of those words (“learning and teaching”), and is emblematic of a shift in the usual prioritizing of teaching (delivery) over learning (impact). This isn’t mere semantics. Like others, my remit as Associate Dean is for “Teaching and Learning” in the Faculty of Arts, so by habit I focus on teaching first and learning second. That can impact on my practices, like when I think about how to support faculty-development initiatives first, and fostering their learning second – not as an afterthought, but not as a first thought either.

Dee Fink’s keynote address initiatied the discussion this morning, with a focus on high-impact practices — or the conventional standards of what really effective teaching and learning communities give to their undergraduates: first-year seminars; cohort experiences; service learning opportunities; involvement in faculty research; and capstone projects or courses.

That’s the conventional list. Fink has his own list, which he elaborated on this morning with exercises, videos, and examples. Here it is:

I’m live-blogging my notes, here, so forgive my typos and omissions.

Change Students’ View of Learning

Helping students to be better learners depends on encouraging them to see their intelligence as fluid and flexible. Too many of our students are discouraged and debilitated by bad grades early their programs or courses, but we can help them recover by changing the way they learn and study. Students need the enabling power of confidence – that is, the confidence to determine their own learning. We need to break the myth-of-ability thinking that debilitates students, to change the way they learn and study – to help students become self-directed learners. This can be as simple as inducing students to introduce themselves to each other – who are you? why are you here? where are you going? what do you want? – in a way that’s memorable and induces reflection afterward.

Learning-Centered Course Design

This practice pertains to course design, and is based on Fink’s own published research. There are three sequential parts. If you begin with your learning goals and build them into your course, first you need to define their significance – that is, not merely memorizing world capitals but understanding their individual significance. You also need to provide what Fink calls “educative assessments” that help students to learn from your feedback. Finally, you need to design learning activities that arise from those assessment activities. Then you slot them all into a weekly schedule. Here’s an illustration:

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Team-Based Learning

The standard complaint that students raise about team projects is that the high-achievers have to carry too much of the weight for the slackers. Why do so many students have negative reactions to small-group teaching? Because too many educators define our work as transmitting knowledge, which is untrue: our work is to transmit information, and what people do with that information is up to them. If students have a dialogue about the information and what it means, many more of them will convert it to knowledge.

Careful design begins with a preparation phase: the students have to do all the reading in advance, and then do an individual test to determine their understanding. Then they convene and do a group test on the same material. Then after some corrective instruction (to fix wide-scale misunderstandings), you assign some homework to prepare the way for the next phase.

Next is the application phase, when students apply their knowledge and practice it, with feedback. They do group work that rises in complexity.

Finally, after a review the third phase is peer assessment, which really cements the value of this learning. It culminates in a final project. Here’s a visual timeline:

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Service Learning with Reflection

This means you have students working with community groups or organizations, to apply their knowledge and skills in the world of real problems and vexing questions. The key part is returning to the classroom and reflecting on the impacts of this applied learning. This could be as simple as a learning journal or a series of one-minute papers; or more elaborate, like a learning portfolio. Students will ask themselves what they learned; how they learned it; what its significance is; and their plan for future learning.

Being a Leader with your Students

The best teachers lead their students: they motivate, and enable students to do important things well. They make students care about the material, because they know that the instructor cares about their success in the course. They don’t just act like they care; they actually do care! They also interact with students in a way that motivates them: praising them not just for being smart, for instance, but for the good habits that produced the good work. They interact differently with different students, just as the best sports coaches do. They have to communicate with students that encourages the best habits.

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