The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching (Harvard University Press) is about what many professors don't know because they haven't been taught. David Gooblar, who has taught writing and rhetoric at the University of Iowa, and is now associate director of Temple University's Center for the Advancement of Teaching, offers tips and ideas in a conversational tone. He responded via email to questions about his book.
Q: In your book, you talk a lot about getting students to talk. What are some good ways to do this, and why is it so important?
A: Learning does not happen if students aren’t engaged. Talking is simply one of the most common ways that students engage with our courses and their classmates. Does that mean that any time a student talks she’s actively revising her prior knowledge and learning something new? No, of course not. But it does mean that she’s present, that she’s engaged and that you can work with her. For almost every kind of college course, students feeling comfortable enough to talk in class is a necessary precondition to their learning. A course that values student voices is one that honors students’ autonomy; signals to students that their lives, experiences and wisdom all matter; and creates a space they can make meaningful for themselves.
The best way to get students to talk is to plan on it. If your conception of teaching is to talk at students for a half an hour and then ask, “Any questions?” students will understand that their talking -- or not talking -- matters little to the class. If, however, you structure your class in a way that depends on what students say, you’ll have much better luck at getting them to talk. Design activities in which students need to talk to each other and to you. Begin discussion of a topic by asking students what they already know about it. Encourage students to illustrate important concepts with examples from their own lives. We don’t teach English or physics or anthropology; we teach students. Center students and what they know -- and don’t know! -- in your pedagogy, and you’ll find that they’ll do lots of talking.
Q: What about science courses? Does this approach work there?
A: Definitely, although I know it can be a hard sell to some instructors. The lecture is so embedded in college science instruction -- especially when we think about large introductory lecture classes -- that it may seem impossible to adopt an approach that centers students. But there has been a small but dedicated cadre of scholars who have been promoting new approaches to science education, particularly since the 1990s, after a number of studies showed a marked decline in science majors. I’m thinking of Kimberly Tanner, Eric Mazur and Carl Wieman, but there are many others.
Mazur’s peer instruction approach (which began in his physics classroom at Harvard) has been very influential, as has, to some extent, the 5E instructional model. I’m a big fan of what’s known as inductive (as opposed to deductive) teaching. Instead of teaching theories or general principles and then introducing applications of those big concepts, inductive teaching begins by giving students problems to solve, through which they make hypotheses and begin to construct general theories. That’s when teaching the underlying principle can really be effective, after students have figured out for themselves why it needs to exist.
Q: When a professor has to teach certain material in a class, how does he/she let students “own the course”?
A: We know that if students feel that the course is their own, they are much more likely to be motivated to learn. One way to encourage that sense of ownership is to cede control over elements of the course, wherever possible, to students. Let them decide. We need to look for ways to give students control of their learning.
This process begins by thinking carefully about your goals for the course and for your students. By first establishing a handful of significant learning goals for your students, you’ll be able to figure out the elements of your course you absolutely have to control. What you don’t need to control, you can put students in charge of. You may need to cover certain material, but do you need to assess students’ knowledge in a specified way? Maybe you can give students some choice about their assignments. Or about what kinds of secondary sources they consult. Or even about the structure of individual class periods. Student buy-in is just about the most important factor I can think of for a successful course. If you want to encourage student buy-in, give students choices.
Q: What is a two-stage exam, and how can it improve teaching?
A: The two-stage exam is a technique I learned about from the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative. Essentially, students take the same exam twice: first individually and then immediately afterwards in small groups. In their groups, they can compare where their answers differed from each other, discuss how they arrived at those answers and come to a consensus on which answers are ultimately best. Most instructors weigh the individual exam far more than the group attempt -- so students still have to study hard. Students receive immediate feedback on their answers while at the same time gaining exposure to alternative approaches to difficult problems. It’s a great technique.
But more important than the technique -- or any technique, for that matter -- is the change of mind-set the technique suggests. What I try to do in the book is move away from seeing good teaching as the accumulation of a series of discrete teaching tips in favor of encouraging instructors to adopt a mind-set that prioritizes what we know about how students learn best.
So while I love the idea of two-stage exams, even better is the shift they seem to reflect, from seeing exams as merely a method of assessing student performance to seeing them as a further opportunity to promote learning. We should be looking for those opportunities everywhere.
Q: What about student evaluations of professors? How can they be improved?
A: There is ample evidence that student evaluations reflect pernicious biases, and we should be suspicious of how well they can measure learning or teaching effectiveness. I personally think that departments and institutions should move away from using evaluations to assess faculty performance for employment decisions. But for the college instructors who I hope will read my book -- whether they are graduate students teaching for the first time or tenured professors looking to reinvigorate their practice -- the more salient question is whether or not evaluations can be useful in helping us to improve our teaching.
The book’s final chapter offers a whole host of ways to revise your teaching, including ways to use evaluations constructively. One way is to give students opportunities to evaluate the course informally well before the end of the semester. This signals to them that you care about their experience of the course, that you want to know what they think in time to do something about it. I think such a practice encourages students to take evaluations seriously, which can pay off when they fill out the more formal surveys at the end of the semester. Student self-assessments, as well, can help students consider their role in creating the course -- a valuable counterweight to the usual model of them evaluating you. Finally, the book provides advice on how to draw clearer conclusions by reading student evaluations calmly, which is a tall order for academics who care about their teaching.