October 2008 Archives

Creating Course Flow

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When we conceive of assignments and activities for courses, we often think in terms of what students will produce — the essay, the lab report, the presentation, the finished problem set.  Research suggests, however, that giving some thought to students’ experiences while they work through their assignments can increase student performance and enjoyment.

Ideally, students find their assignments both challenging and engaging.  Psychologist Mihaly  Csíkszentmihályi calls this optimal experience of positive engagement “flow.”  A student experiencing flow is intrinsically motivated, finding enjoyment and reward in the performance of the task itself.  Accordingly, people experiencing flow — whether artists, athletes, or students — want to do what they’re doing when they’re doing it, which means they tend to sustain intense concentration longer, reach higher levels of accomplishment, and perform better overall.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow results from a proper balance between a person’s skills and a particular challenge.  Assigning tasks that challenge students beyond their current skill levels leads to anxiety; providing challenges that require relatively low skills to complete leads to boredom.  Instructors — and students themselves — should strive for the “flow channel” where skills properly meet challenges.

Read on after the jump for some ways that you can encourage flow both inside and beyond your classroom:

Writing a Teaching Statement

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We recently held a workshop for graduate students and post-docs on preparing to write a teaching statement, or teaching philosophy. These statements are generally 1-2 page single-spaced narratives based in one's own experience in teaching; they are being requested for up to 75% of new faculty positions at research universities. In recent research from the U. of Michigan Center for Reasearch on Teaching & Learning, 356 of search committee chairs indicated a number of elements that make a successful statement (in order):

  • They show evidence of practice;
  • They are student-centered and attuned to differences in learning styles and abilities; 
  • They demonstrate reflectiveness about one's own role as a teacher
  • They convey the value of teaching
  • They are well-written, clear and jargon-free 

In our workshop, participants began to develop core elements of their statements by writing their own learning goals for their students and by sharing strategies they use to enable students to reach those goals.  Here are some questions to consider while drafting your own statement:

  • What are the learning goals for my students? What kinds of specific intellectual work (research, reasoning, interpretation) from my discipline do I want to teach them to be able to do? Are there specific intellectual challenges or preconceptions about the course material that I can build on or have to unsettle?
  • How do I believe students learn this course material best? Do students accumulate facts by memorization and understand arguments through repetition? How do my students work with these ideas by reasoning about them, making connections and integrating them into broader fields of knowledge?
  • How do I organize class time to enable students to be actively involved in reaching those goals? What kinds of student interaction and written work are entailed? • How does the work I assign to be done out of class help students make progress toward those goals? • How do I know if students are making progress toward the learning goals? What evidence do I have of their learning in assessment and course evaluations? How do I provide feedback to students and offer individual meetings?
  • How do I address the range of learning styles among students in my classes? How do I make the course engaging and interesting throughout the semester?
  • How does my discipline and class contribute to my students’ liberal arts education? How do I help students understand the implications or significance of what they're learning in my classes?
  • What have I learned about teaching in my discipline? What teaching formats have I not had the opportunity to practice (e.g. lecturing) and how would I undertake them? Are there styles of teaching activities that I would like to try out as my career advances?

We are holding a follow-up workshop on Nov. 5 in which we will look at sample statements and workshop drafts brought in by participants.  Information is on our web site.

Laptops in Class

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More and more Princeton students are using laptops in the classroom, and more and more faculty are concerned about what those students are doing with their computers.  Over the past year, a number of professors have asked for our thoughts about dealing with laptops in class.  

In a recent edition of our Scholar As Teacher tip sheets we suggested these questions to think about as you confront this issue in your classroom.
  • Share with students your understanding of the importance of engaging with the ideas presented and discussed in lecture for their understanding. Is it important to you that they interact with you and their fellow students as a community of learners? How may their use of laptops enhance or constrain that experience?
  • Are students aware that certain uses of technology in the classroom are inappropriate from your point of view? Students live in a high-tech, multitasking universe, and they are used to being constantly on-line or connected. They may need instructors to distinguish between what they as students perceive as “normal” from what we might consider “rude.” Consider outlining your policy about technology in the classroom at the beginning of the course and include it on the syllabus.
  • Some instructors feel uncomfortable asking students not to use computers, believing that the student must decide on how to take notes and whether to pay attention. If a student is distracting others, however, then the issue goes beyond personal freedom. Being silent about indiscriminate laptop use can be perceived as tacit permission, so more and more students may use laptops inappropriately as the semester goes on unless instructors give them  boundaries. You do have the right to ask students not to use their laptops. If you make that choice, sharing with them your reasons for doing so can help them understand your goals and expectations for their learning.
  • Periodically asking students to close their computers and answer questions or dialogue with their neighbors can break the hypnotic spell that computers exert and bring back student attention  at least momentarily.
  • Student laptop use may require us as teachers to ask ourselves a hard question: does our teaching style need to be updated given the easy access to information available to students now? If lectures are mainly reiterations of information that students have in hand, e.g., lecture notes, PowerPoint slides, textbook or readings, is it surprising that they are tempted to disengage from class? The more interactive the class, the less likely it is that students will seek a distraction—and the more they are apt  to retain from the class.
  • Are there ways to turn the use of computers to advantage in your course? Occasionally asking students to look up something on the web to add to class discussion can help students re-engage with the task at hand. 
What are your own thoughts about students using their laptops in class? How have you responded? 


Teaching Large Classes

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We recently hosted a panel on teaching large classes led by four Princeton faculty: Beth Bogan, Senior Lecturer in Economics, Michael Hecht, Professor of Chemistry, Lee Silver, Professor of Molecular Biology and Public Policy, and Michael Smith, Professor of Philosophy. In a recent edition of our Scholar As Teacher tip sheet series, we shared some of the ideas that arose from that discussion, both from panelists and audience members:

 Planning and Organizing

  • Structure assignments to help promote the kind of work that your discipline requires (e.g., writing, problem solving) and weight assignments to allow those who improve during the semester to benefit from doing so.
  • Meet with preceptors before the class begins to set policies on the conduct of precepts, and meet with them regularly to follow the progress of the precepts, to design grading rubrics for assignments, and to hold sample grading sessions to moderate grades. During such sessions you can have several preceptors grade the same student paper or problem set and share with the group the rationale they used for assigning the grade. Helping preceptors think through grading issues in this way can help promote consistency across sections.

 Preparing Lectures

  • Compose each lecture as a chapter of the unfolding story of the course. Include a manageable number of points in each lecture—three to five are common.
  • Provide students with a lecture outline online just before class either as a document file or via PowerPoint. But avoid using PowerPoint as a complete record of your notes. Instead use it primarily for images, graphs, and other visuals, and as a lecture outline. In this way you provide students some needed support for their notes, but still give them reason to attend lecture.

 During Lectures

  • Make yourself accessible. Announce your office hours regularly, come to class early, and stay after class to talk with students and answer questions. These moments provide great opportunities for you to get feedback about the course as well as to show your interest in your students’ progress. Take opportunities to gather more structured feedback from your students via anonymous midterm feedback forms or one-minute papers (short questions at the end of class) to find out how they’re experiencing the course. This tactic helps prevent surprises at the end of the semester on course evaluations.
  • Shape students’ expectations. Be transparent about what you want students to learn in the course, what aspects may be difficult, or why some topics may seem uninteresting. Pointing out how their interest and hard work will pay off in the course can help students understand and appreciate your approach. Provide regular assignments for students to apply what they’re learning and give them feedback on their progress.
  • Recognize the performance aspects of a large lecture and keep your audience engaged by using your stage presence: make eye contact, move away from the podium and into the audience, and avoid the appearance of reading lectures, either from notes or PowerPoint. Ask students questions periodically to keep them engaged and change the pace of the class. Show your enthusiasm for the topic—it’s infectious.
  • Connect to students’ lives, interests and concerns whenever possible by using current events or students’ own experience to illustrate course concepts. Show pictures or give some interesting biographic details of the people whose works are being discussed to make their ideas more interesting and accessible to students.  
  • Teach at multiple levels. In a large class there will be students with widely varying abilities and backgrounds. Present topics in such a way that the take-home is clear to everyone, but add in advanced ideas from time to time to capture the interest of those who have the background to understand them. Make it clear to the class when ideas go beyond what all students might be able to appreciate.

 For more tips and ideas about teaching large classes, visit our Scholar As Teacher tip sheet library 

Welcome to the McGraw Center Blog

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At The McGraw Center, we're always looking for new ways to share the insights we gain at our events and from new research in the field of teaching and learning in higher education. We also are looking for new ways of interacting with faculty, graduate students and undergraduates on our campus.  We originally thought of sending occasional brief postcards from McGraw, but we expanded our idea to a blog where we could register summaries of and reactions to programs and activities we offer as well as issues as they come up in our ongoing work with faculty, graduate instructors and undergraduate students. This blog will also allow us to extend beyond Princeton and better incorporate ideas on wide-ranging topics from new research on how students learn best to considering the possibilities of digital media as intellectual practice.  Finally, through a blog we want to be able to interact with readers who we hope will try out and apply the ideas here and comment on them too. 

This blog takes its name from our series of teaching tips for instructors, "The Scholar As Teacher." This expresses our view that teaching and learning are related processes of inquiry. For teachers, that inquiry entails reflecting on what they want students to learn and deciding how to advance and assess that learning. For students, that inquiry involves the self-conscious questioning and awareness of their approaches to learning. Thus effective teaching and successful learning depend on an understanding of the research on learning as a social and intellectual practice. In our consultations with instructors, programs, and publications, we translate that research into meaningful ideas for practice for both teachers and students.  In our "Scholar As Teacher" series of tip sheets (and in this new blog) we address perennial teaching concerns, such as how to engage large lecture classes and what to do when class discussion stalls.  

Click here for a complete listing and access to the Scholar As Teacher Tip Sheet Index 


Click here for The McGraw Center web site



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This page is an archive of entries from October 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

February 2009 is the next archive.

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