teaching

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Read: Learner-Centered Teaching

Weimer’s Learner-Centered Teaching is a bit of a disappointment. Praised as a “comprehensive introduction to the topic” with “up-to-date examples” I was expecting a more hands-on practical book: A book that may describe the author’s (and others’) experiences in as much detail necessary to learn from her success and, most importantly, failures. Yet, this detail is lacking.

The book can only serve as an appetizer to learner centered teaching, not a reference. Although, it really draws (the reader’s / my) interest to more progressive teaching methods, It offers too little detail to implement them right away. There is an extensive, rich list of references (that needs to be consulted for the hands-on advice), so Weimer’s book is not just representing her own opinion but is a summary of many others’ research and experience.

Maybe, if the appendices would have been (considerably) longer and detailed, the book could have been acting as a reference text. In its current form (and it’s already the second, revised edition) it is not more than a leaflet, an advertising brochure for progressive teaching methods.

Read: Make it Stick

I guess I will put Make it Stick on my students’ recommended reading list. It is rather brief (though it may even be shorter), includes extensive literature references, and illustrates the sometimes abstract research on effective learning strategies with real life examples.

The authors mention several times that they do not want to be prescriptive. Nevertheless, they are. And this is a good thing. Students, instructors, self-directed learners need concrete advice – even if not all of it will apply.

Of course, there is some wisdom that we all know all along, e. g., that the successful student is characterized by:

  • Always does the reading prior to a lecture
  • Anticipates test questions and their answers as he reads
  • Answers rhetorical questions in his head during lectures to test his retention of the reading
  • Reviews study guides, finds terms he can’t recall or doesn’t know, and relearns those terms
  • Copies bolded terms and their definitions into a reading notebook, making sure that he understands them
  • Takes the practice test that is provided online by his professor; from this he discovers which concepts he doesn’t know and makes a point to learn them
  • Reorganizes the course information into a study guide of his design
  • Writes out concepts that are detailed or important, posts them above his bed, and tests himself on them from time to time
  • Spaces out his review and practice over the duration of the course

Unfortunately, few (of my) students seem to ‘get’ this — even if they are told. Hence, I cannot point out these simple learning strategies often enough. On the other hand, there are institutional constraints, too, that we need to overcome in order to provide a better learning environment. Shorter, more frequent class sessions may be substantially better for the long term learning outcome than few long and exhausting sessions.

Read: How Learning Works

“Research based principles for smart teaching”: sounds great. The authors even start with a quote from Herbert Simon. And yes, the authors’ advice is research based.

The “bridge” between learning research and practice, however, is a rather superficial one. The research is mostly discussed in a way I would do it if the referee asks to add an additional reference. It’s mentioned without assessing its merits, its contribution, what was done well, and what was not. X found that in context Y, full stop.

Nevertheless, the advice seems sound, at least reasonable. Only one chapter seems a bit lopsided. “Student Development and Course Climate” is a bit too much “cuddle pedagogy”, advocating for a soft, making everyone feel comfortable approach. I, and I guess others too, think a little discomfort goes hand in hand with a necessary challenge. Without a little challenge students would not see that they can still improve, that there is more to learn.

The most helpful part of the book is, however, the appendix. Here are examples of rubrics, peer review question templates, learnings objectives, self-assessment tests, and an exam wrapper. Nothing original, yet, all apt to give inspiration for applying this and that in one’s own course.

Read: What the best College Teachers do

Based on a sample of effective college / university teachers in the late 1990 Ken Bain tried to identify the specific approach to teaching and characteristics of successful teachers (hence there is no systematic control group). This is not necessarily the professors with the best teaching evaluations but rather those teachers with students who learn, understand, and succeed.

The bad news is: There is no secret trick. It’s not the flipped / inverted class room, it’s not the use of fully animated power points, it’s not the extensive use of videos in class, it’s not overly generous grading practices, and it’s not paying students for their participation in class and doing their assignments.

Still, there was a common trait. It’s their approach to teaching that rather focusses on the who and not on the what. In brief, it’s student centered teaching and the teachers’ attitude towards their students.

I believe smaller classes (and a lower teaching load) facilitate developing this trait, though it is obviously true that also large classes benefit from such an attitude and the resulting approach. I am not quite there yet.

Read: Leading Dynamic Seminars

Always on the look for ideas for improving my teaching I stumbled upon Anderson and Bellenkes’ Practical Handbook for University Educators.

It is only practical in the sense that it does not fall in the Pure Theory category. It is, however, rather generic and in an attempt to avoid describing specific tools that may not be available in the future it avoids describing any practical implementations at all. No, that is wrong. It is offering some specific phrases the seminar leader should avoid or use for obtaining the best results, taking care of the potential diversity of his seminar participants. I do not think anyone should learn these specific phrases in order to repeat them in the seminar room.

Bottom line is the little handbook was a bit of a downer. The authors define their audience in the beginning of their text rather broad, from the novice teacher to the seasoned department chair and university administrator. That definition is too broad. The generic directions are of use mainly for the novice. After only a few years of teaching all the mentioned points should be obvious and intuitively part of the seminar leader’s repertoire.

Read: The Economics Anti-Textbook

Teaching evaluations are just in and it does not look bad. The changes I implemented during the last fall term had some positive impact. Though there is still room for improvements, and I already have a few ideas… I am a bit surprised though that there are some students demanding “more math (it is ultimately economics)” – these were principles courses. Given the huge heterogeneity in math skills this is not going to happen! And I also don’t think there is much to be gained by applying math to the over-simplified models of a first year principles course in economics. For grad school they should rather take dedicated math courses.

Indeed, I rather want to strengthen the discussion part of the course, the critical reflection of the theory.

Enter the Economics Anti-Textbook: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Microeconomics by Rod Hill and Tony Myatt. The Anti-textbook is a great source for inspiration for such in-class-discussions. It provides a nice anti-thesis to the standard neoclassical textbook treatment, it makes the underlying value judgments explicit, and it provides an antipole to the doctrine of fundamentalist free-market theory (see Jim Stanford in Labour/Le Travail for a review that mirrors my own sentiment of the book quite well).

Much of their critique is not new. However, they provide a very accessible juxtaposition of orthodox and heterodox views, and a set of very thought provoking questions that should get the discussion started after students were treated with the standard view in class. Hence, this is where some of the ideas for next fall will come from.

I like this anti-textbook much more than Steve Keen’s Debunking Economics (that I also mentioned to the more curious students this fall). The anti-textbook is accessible and perfectly suited as a companion for a microeconomics principles course (a macroeconomics equivalent is still in planning). Thus it will be included in my recommended readings list in the future.

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