• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Responsive Teaching

On building flexibility into your course preparation.

May 7, 2019

Brady Krien is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature and an MLIS student at the University of Iowa where he works in the Grad Success Center. You can find him on Twitter at @BradyKrien and at his website.

It’s been 10 semesters since I took over as the instructor of record in my first college class. During that time, I’ve made quite a few changes to my teaching, rethinking how I approach assessment and responses to student work, integrating “humanities lab” elements in my courses, and streamlining my grading. The biggest change over these last five years, however, has been an evolution in the way that I approach the classroom and preparation. Where I started that first class with a two-page lesson plan and a 15-slide PowerPoint (I even went back to take a look at it), I’ve come to approach teaching (at least on most days) with a general sketch of what I need to do: two or three learning objectives that I want to accomplish, a couple of points to remind students of, a few discussion questions, and maybe a few slides if there’s really something for which I need visuals.

This shift has meant that I’m much less prepared to walk into class and deliver static content, but it has also meant that I can be much more flexible and responsive to student needs. I’ve found that it’s a lot more productive (not to mention more fun and less stressful) to build each class session with students rather than for students. This does not mean that there are never class sessions that require careful planned delivery of content – there is always a need for that on occassion – but rather that the class sessions I have with students look a lot more like a dialogue than a monologue. It means that my teaching gets to be responsive to the group of students in front of me, that the class can follow the course set by their needs and interests rather than by the dictates of the PowerPoint presentation that I put together the day before.

To this end, I have a couple of suggestions for how to make your own teaching a bit more responsive and to take advantage of the greater flexibility that it brings.

Create Goals instead of Guardrails
Though it may seem like a minor distinction, the difference in pursuing a goal rather than adhering to a specific agenda is a pretty major one. This does not mean that you should not plan out at least a rough agenda for each class, but instead that you should let your daily learning objectives guide the class. Create activities, plan discussions, prepare small lectures, but be ready to modify or subordinate them to the things that you want students to take away from class that day. I’ve certainly had the experience of showing up to class with a plan teaching something only to find that my students already had a solid grasp of the content and had to improvise. Be prepared to speed up, slow down, or move on to other content in response to where your students are at and what they need in the moment.

Train your Students
Being more responsive to your students means giving them greater control and, by extension, greater responsibility for the shape of each class session. This can be a little intimidating at first. We’ve all had those days where students seem to show up tired, unprepared, or unenthused. To help avoid this pitfall, it’s a good idea to gradually give your students more and more responsibility for what happens in class over the course of the semester. You can do this by giving students discussion questions to prepare for in advance of class, by asking students to jot down their thoughts at the start of class, and by building more structure into activities and discussions early in the semester. The task is essentially to get students in the habit of making thoughtful and sustained contributions. Some of the best discussions my classes ever had happened in the last few weeks of the semester when I would show up and have students say “We want to talk about X today.”

Ask for Input
One of the best strategies for making your teaching more responsive is seeking regular input from students. This can include major points of feedback like mid-semester check-ins or brief classroom assessment techniques. The only way to make your teaching responsive to students’ needs is to check in with students about what those needs are often. Not only will this give students a greater hand in shaping the class, it also takes some of the burden off of you. And best of all, students will likely reward you for taking their thoughts into consideration in your teaching evaluations.

How do you make your teaching responsive to students needs? Share with us in the comments or on Twitter - @bradykrien and @GradHacker.

[Image by Unsplash user Artem Kovalev and used under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.]


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