by Bryan Webber, Teaching Faculty Member, Faculty of Management, VIU
I have come to believe that living in the ongoing tension between the “what” and the “how” is of critical importance to me as an educator. I always need to accompany anything I wish students to learn with the question of how such learning can best be achieved.
Since there is that other omnipresent tension of too much to do and not enough time, I can slip, without clear intention, into going the easier route. I will rely too much on the texts, publisher support materials, or previous semester’s outlines and processes, without applying a critical evaluation to know what is appropriate and will be effective in the latest instance of a course. And in this, I tend to privilege the “what” – that dutiful obedience to the content – and attend less to the learning experience I am crafting for students, the “how.”
Ultimately, I think my job is to support the student to change, in what they know, how they think and/or what they can do. As I have gained comfort as a teacher, and appreciate the integrated “what”/“how” reality of teaching, I turn more and more to that responsibility. So, every year I commit to making some kind of significant change in the courses I teach, both to find ways to make the class a more meaningful student experience, and to continue my own development as an instructor by provoking instructor learning experiences.
Sometimes it’s an experiment to see what sticks, as when I first introduced start-of-class quizzes to support a read-ahead approach to student engagement with content. After some success with this method, I now have it as a tool in my repertoire that I am comfortable implementing for a course as I see fit.
For example, although not a pure cohort structure, I teach many of the same students from semester to semester in a stream of required 3rd/4th year courses for a major. I try to check in with them during the semester to get their evaluation about what’s working for them in a course, or what could be different. Last semester, knowing that many of the students I had in a class were going to be with me again this semester, I engaged them in a further conversation about what an effective class would look like.
I received some strong messages about the way workload was distributed, how they could use their written sources more effectively, and opportunities to reinforce declarative knowledge. When I started describing some options, the read-ahead & quiz method jumped out for them and I have indeed implemented that for their course this semester. What I noticed is that in their desire for things to be different, they were not looking for less work or it to be less challenging; they were looking for a more effective learning process. They wanted to increase the value of their learning and to feel like their own efforts were maximized.
I attempt to do this with each course, each semester – find what I’m attached to, challenge that attachment, and see what I could do that would enhance the “how”. I have let go of reliance on certain types of assessments, I have abandoned familiar texts, I have done major shifts in timing. In one instance, it gave me the courage to redesign the whole delivery process for a course that I believed was failing to achieve the required learning outcomes.
Course objectives, familiarity with the material, my own ability and capacity are some factors, among others, in choosing what I can and will change. I know there is more that I could consider and I suspect I’m not really questioning some of the things that I may be most attached to. And that’s okay, I don’t need this to be perfect, I just need to stay open to my own development as a teacher.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this is that it keeps me conscious of that ongoing opportunity to pay attention to the “how,” to put myself in the place of the students so that I can appreciate their learning experience. The feedback I get from students tells me they notice the effort and consideration and they are more willing to reciprocate.