3 strategies to improve your teaching in the New Year

Julie Dodd interviews Rafat Ali in class

My guest speaker was Ali Rafat, CEO of Skift. I interviewed him in class, with the students live tweeting and taking notes for a writing assignment. The learning results were good, but there was quite a bit of time involved in working out the logistics, planning for the interview, and preparing the class.

The time between semesters gives us as teachers the opportunity to evaluate how well we think our classes went last term and consider what changes we can make to improve our teaching for the upcoming term.

Here are three strategies as you make adjustments to your classes as a new term begins.

#1 – If a teaching approach that you tried didn’t work well, review the teaching approach and determine steps for revision before you decide to reject the approach.

“I’m giving up on group projects” reads a tweet from a college instructor I follow on Twitter.

Certainly group projects can be a challenge, but group projects can be very rewarding and helpful for students. Group projects give students the opportunity to develop the skills needed to work in teams – skills needed in many jobs. Group projects often give students professional-level work to include in their portfolios. So it is worth the effort to evaluate the group project assignment rather than just deleting it from the course.

What were the problems with the group project? Techniques can help improve the design of the assignment or the dynamics of the groups.

Problem: The projects were weak because the students waited until the last minute to create the project.

Possible solution: Divide the project assignment (and the grading) into steps. Have the students turn in evidence of their progress and you provide feedback. That way you can see what problems they may be having and can offer guidance. Also, those deadlines will keep the groups from waiting to start work on the project until right before the final project is due.

Problem: Some of the groups didn’t work well together and took a lot of your time outside of class to address.

Possible solution: Consider how you decided who was in each group. Letting students choose their own groups can work for an activity in class, but you want to be more systematic in assigning the students into groups for a major project. One strategy is to have students apply for particular roles within a group. Based on those applications, you create the groups.

#2 – Listen to the feedback of your previous students.

Read the evaluations of the course from your students. At most colleges and universities, course/instructor evaluations are conducted at the end of each semester. Sometimes we have to brace ourselves to read the evaluations, as some students aren’t fair, diplomatic or helpful in their comments. But if most students complete the course evaluation, then you get the majority consensus with positive comments about the course and you.

student panel in JOU3109

Every semester, I invite upper division students who were students in class with me to be on a panel. The former students help the current students see how class assignments connect with upcoming courses and needed internship skills. Photo by Raina Barnett

What did students say they appreciated about you as an instructor? Did they comment on your ability to provide helpful examples, your organization, the feedback you provided on assignments, etc. As Tom Rath, author of StrengthsFinder 2.0, would encourage you to do, identify your teaching strengths and develop classes and assignments that play to your strengths.

Look for the constructive feedback that many students do provide in their evaluations.

Knowing what students find to be weaknesses in the course design or you teaching can enable you to address those issues in a way that can lead to improved student performance in the course and to improved student evaluations for you.

For example: “Doing the group project was a good idea to help us get ready for the work world, but we never could find a time to meet so we didn’t work together.”

In that case, you could allocate class time for the students to work in groups and you could provide training on using online tools – such as Google Hangout – for students to use to work in their groups remotely. That may require you to do research on online group tools and time in class for the groups to work together. But the result can be better group projects, which is the big goal you are pursuing as the instructor.

“I hate group projects. We should be able to do our own individual project.” If you receive that kind of criticism, you can consider how you can do a better job of selling the value of group projects and spending time in class having students share their experiences prior to your course with group projects so that you can address the concerns they’ve had with group projects.

The student feedback also comes from the comments students made to you (in class, in office visits, through email and social media) about the course. You’ll hear about issues that may not be reported in the end-of-semester evaluations. For example, the student who tells you, “I really enjoyed last week’s guest speaker who shared tips for applying for internships.”

And student feedback comes from your former students who are now in the last semester before graduation or who have graduated and are working in the field (or not). Students often recognize, after the course is over, some of the value of the course that they didn’t realize at the time they were in class. I’ve found it helpful to share some of their insights in class or even to have those former students as guest speakers (in person or via Skype) with the current students.

Those student comments also can help you as you write your annual evaluation or, if you are untenured or are on a renewable contract, work with your administration on your teaching assignment. Issues like class size, time of day the class is held, and classroom layout and technology all contribute to the overall response of the students to the course, and some of those issues can be addressed by the administration.

#3 – Don’t try too many new approaches to your course – unless you have the time and energy needed.

In the interest of improving our teaching, sometimes we can make too many changes – assigning new readings, incorporating more video clips during class, including a team project or inviting more guest speakers to class.

Each of those changes can improve the students’ learning experience if done well. However, each change requires time on your part. You have to identify the new readings and then determine how to incorporate them into you class with homework assignments, in-class discussions, and quiz questions. You have to find the relevant video clips and make sure the classroom technology setup is adequate for showing video. You have to develop the structure for the team project and the grading rubric. You have to identify potential guest speakers, invite them and adequately prepare them to speak in class.

Do you have the time to make all of those changes and be prepared for your other other responsibilities? You may be conducting research, serving on committees, taking classes if you are a teaching assistant, or working another job if you are an adjunct.

Rather than making massive changes, James Lang encourages instructors to take “small teaching” steps. In his book “Small Changes: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning” and in a series of articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lang discusses how instructors can make small adjustments to their teaching and attain improvement in student learning.

One of his columns on “The First 5 Minutes of Class” provides a very doable change instructors can make. Instructors can engage students at the start of class by asking a question or two, asking students to recap what were the key concepts learned from the previous class, or asking students to talk about what they learned in previous classes and how that connects to the course.

Evaluating your teaching and taking steps to make strategic changes – even small changes – requires time and planning. But the results can make for a more engaged class, which is helpful for both the students and for you.

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