Occasional Posts

I’ll be blogging here periodically. The posts might be related to great instructional practices, specific dilemmas faced by me or my colleagues, useful resources, or interesting discussions in history, teaching, or higher education. I see this as an opportunity to think through some ideas and to do so while writing in a less formal way than I usually do.

What is good teaching?

While preparing a workshop about ways to do observations of teaching, my co-facilitator and I were thinking about how to adapt the traditional ways at our institution (i.e., sit in on a face-to-face class) for the many varied online and hybrid ways faculty are teaching during these pandemic days.

That got us thinking about the various benefits and limitations of any one way of evaluating a faculty member’s teaching (e.g., student ratings forms, observations, materials like syllabi and assignments, actual student work, communication and interactions in a learning management system, etc.).

We historians are used to thinking about the limitations of all types of sources, of course.

Just as we wouldn’t decide not to try to learn what we can about the past, we shouldn’t just throw up our hands and say, “It’s impossible to evaluate teaching” because it’s too subjective and the evidence is too problematic. Instead, we can try to triangulate what we can from closely analyzing all the sources available.

To get ideas for the types of evidence one might use in different modalities (especially online), check out the Peer Review Guide for Online Teaching at Penn State. In a clear table, it maps examples and places to look for them onto Chickering and Gamson’s classic work on seven practices for good practice in undergraduate education.

There’s been a lot written about a three-stage process that increases the likelihood that a peer observation (or chair observation) will be helpful and productive. (Check out the Elon CATL website for a summary). But what should a peer observer (or chair or dean) look for? Doesn’t everyone have different ideas of what constitutes good teaching?

The Penn State guide got me thinking about how I’d tweak Chickering and Gamson’s practices now that we’ve got three more decades of SOTL.

I decided to try to articulate what I think are reliable principles for effective teaching. Here goes:

  • Good instruction is rooted in learning goals that are intellectually challenging and appropriate for the discipline/field, specific course, and the students.
  • The methods chosen for class meetings or remote/online instruction should support those sensible learning goals. One’s methods should be intentional and aligned.
  • Materials and assessments should support those learning goals, and assessment should be done fairly and consistently.
  • Instructors should be transparent about their (daily and course) goals, major points, and the standards with which they will assess students’ work. 
  • Instructors should create an inviting and inclusive course environment. This can include matters like explaining and modeling positive class participation, fostering effective interactions between students, and showing respect for students as individuals and members of cultural/identity groups. 
  • Instructors should be attentive to student understanding and confusion and offer regular and welcoming opportunities for students to seek guidance/ask questions.  
  • Because student engagement matters, students should engage productively with their instructor, one another, and the materials.
  • Effectively facilitated active learning can help students deepen their understanding. Active learning strategies look different in different fields, but whatever the circumstances, they do need to be effectively facilitated.
  • All communication forms and materials should be clear and well-organized. (Note: we communicate in many ways, through our lectures and demonstrations, facilitating of active learning, announcements and emails, and learning management system.) 
  • The pace of instruction should be reasonable, and students should be given the opportunity to practice challenging concepts and skills. Everyone needs practice in order to deeply understand challenging content.
  • Students need clear and helpful feedback (both formative and summative) on their work.

What do you think? Are these a good basis for discussion with colleagues about “good teaching?” Is there anything controversial here? What’s missing?

Building a learning community during tough times

I was over-the-top excited when I received my first responses from students to my pre-course survey. After spending the summer reading, adapting, pondering contingencies, and attending course design institutes and digital learning days, I’m tired of being anxious about the semester and just want it to start.

I’m also ready to interact with real students rather than the imaginary ones I’ve been thinking and worrying about all summer.

Some of the students are eager for the semester to get started too. I sent out the survey much earlier than I usually would (11 days before the first day of class), and a couple of students filled it out right away! Responses have been trickling in since then; over 90% had completed it a couple days before class begins.

Continue reading Building a learning community during tough times

Who We Teach

Musing 3 on Teaching about Race

Framework of the book

As I’ve been reflecting on teaching about race in the U.S., I returned to the framework I first encountered in a webinar taught by some great pioneers in multicultural education, Christine A. Stanley and Mathew Ouellett. (I adapted their framework in the image to the right.) For inclusive teaching, they advised we think carefully about who it is we are teaching.

Continue reading Who We Teach

What we Teach about Race

Assuming we accept the idea that we need to teach more and/or better about race, before we start, we need to consider the fundamental question, WHAT do we want to teach?

I think sometimes busy faculty don’t take enough time considering this question. But as I wrote in chapter one of my book, choosing significant and meaningful goals is a crucial step in the process of designing an effective, well-integrated course in which students learn deeply and retain what they learn.

Continue reading What we Teach about Race

Let’s Teach More, and/or Better, about Race

White police killed an unarmed Black man. Again. The murder of George Floyd – captured on video by 17-year-old Darnella Frazer for all the world to witness in its senseless and brazen cruelty – resulted in persistent protests around the nation. Again. By now everyone knows Floyd’s name, just as we learned the names Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. (Yet too rarely do we know the names of or facts about police brutality towards Black women, as pointed out in the powerful exposé Say Her Name by the African American Policy Forum.) In 1991, everyone knew the name of Rodney King, and in the mid and late 1960s we watched frequent clashes with police as they resulted in burning cities. 

Continue reading Let’s Teach More, and/or Better, about Race

Emotions in Teaching

Have you ever before heard faculty talk so much about emotions?

Cathy Davidson, author of The New Education, asserted on the HASTAC blog that “our summer of planning for better online learning this Fall will be wasted if we do not begin from the premise that our students are learning from a place of dislocation, anxiety, and trauma. So are we.”

“Precarity, uncertainty, grief and feeling overwhelmed abound,” observed Becca Pope-Ruark in Inside Higher Education. She cautioned faculty to pay attention to signs of debilitating burnout.

Continue reading Emotions in Teaching

Online Teaching: “Small” but Powerful

Review: Flower Darby with James M. Lang, Small Teaching Online (Jossey-Bass, 2019)

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been desperate to read advice on how to teach well online. Since we may well be teaching remotely again sooner or later, I decided to read and review Flower Darby’s Small Teaching Online.

Bottom line: Yes, I think it’s well worth a read.……..

But before you read:  Clear your mind. Give yourself a treat for having survived the spring. Take a vacation.

Continue reading Online Teaching: “Small” but Powerful