As a professor in the Rossier School at USC, I occasionally get a question from a student that goes something like this:
“I enrolled in this program so that I could learn from the top-notch USC faculty. So why am I spending most of my time talking to my classmates instead of listening to YOU tell us what is important for us to learn?”
I appreciate it when a student asks this question, because I think it takes guts to speak up when you think a learning experience isn’t working for you, or isn’t being productive. I think it is an important question to ask. WHY, when I have a very expensive and hard-earned set of letters after my name, would I sit back and let my students teach each other? Why am I not bestowing this wisdom upon them? How are they getting their money’s worth out of a prestigious program from USC, when the professor isn’t the center of attention? Shouldn’t I be lecturing about Bandura and Piaget as so many of my academic predecessors have done? Lecturing is a time-honored tradition in academia, so why am I not honoring it?
Here’s why. I am not honoring it precisely because this is a prestigious USC program. I am not honoring it because I have a great deal of knowledge about effective teaching and learning. I am instead choosing to honor something different. I choose instead to honor the idea that intelligent, hard-working students, with the facilitation of a learned professor, can achieve greater understanding of the content than if I were to lecture at them for 2 hours. I choose to honor the research-supported idea that my expertise is better used in designing high-quality activities and coaching from the sidelines as my students struggle through (and eventually master) the concepts than reading from a PowerPoint.
Sure, I do a bit of lecture here or there. I occasionally spend 5 or 10 minutes explaining a particularly difficult concept, or sharing an anecdote about my own experience (my game show failure – below – as an example of the critical difference between “identify” and “recall” in terms of cognition is a favorite of mine).
The focus of each class session, however, is my students. To that extent, here is my process for designing a class session.
1. Look at my notes from the previous year/term. If I’ve taught a class previously, I most likely have a solid set of notes that tell me what concepts students struggled with, and which were easy to grasp. I draw this information from class sessions, but also from out-of-class assignments. For example, in the behaviorism unit of my Learning Theories course, students tend to struggle with the concept of negative reinforcement, so I always make sure to put that on the list of things to highlight during class.
2. Review the objectives for that unit. I’ve either done the advance work myself, or another professor has, of making sure that the learning objectives for a given unit are well written and focused around real-world applicability of skills and concepts. So all I need to do is look over these learning objectives and refresh my memory about what I want these students to be able to accomplish by the end of the unit. I drop these objectives into a PowerPoint.
3. I spend a few minutes jotting down the main points from the unit immediately preceding this one, so that at the beginning of the course I can reference this previous content for my students, thus activating their prior knowledge and preparing them to make connections between units instead of seeing each unit as isolated. I drop these points into the PowerPoint.
4. I come up with 3-4 small group or whole group activities that directly address the learning objectives. These activities run the gamut from watching and responding to a TED talk (one of my favorites here), to planning a lesson, to responding to discussion questions in a modified jigsaw format, and more. I put all of these activities into the PowerPoint, and I may use all or only a couple of them during the actual class session, depending on how the session goes.
5. I think through what information students will need to be readily available during these activities. I then, generally, put that information into easily accessible slides or documents that they can refer to during the activities. For example, in my unit on Social Cognitive Theory, I make sure to include a slide with the triadic reciprocity model. Prior to the activity, I briefly explain the slide and encourage students to use it as a reference during their small group work.
6. I think through what students will need to be aware of in terms of assignments for the next unit or even the next few units, and I put some reminders for them into the PowerPoint. I try to always comment on how this week’s content relates to what is ahead, to further reinforce that connection between the units.
During the class session, I follow a few rules based on both my own research and 5 years of teaching in this online setting.
- Wait as long as necessary for students to respond to questions, and provide clarification if needed.
- Anything I plan on saying that I feel is important should be written somewhere in the classroom – either in the PowerPoint, the chat pod, or the notes pod.
- Directions for small group work should be explicit and written, so that groups don’t veer off task.
- Spend small group time jumping from group to group to observe and facilitate. Take notes during this time on what is working and what isn’t.
- BUT, don’t intervene unless it’s absolutely necessary. Let them struggle, and only step in if they haven’t realized something isn’t working, or if they ask for help.
- EXCEPT to provide positive reinforcement when students are doing something really well.
- When students are in small groups, communicate via chat pod first. When the professor starts talking, the students stop, so the professor jumping into a room, camera and sound on, can easily derail a group.
- In the whole group, a student’s response ALWAYS comes before my response to a video, task, question, etc.
- Do what you need to do to meet the learning objectives. If that means spending 40 minutes on an activity that was supposed to take 20, then do that. If that means adding or scrapping an activity, do that. If that means making a whole group activity into a small group activity, or vice versa, do that.
- As the professor, my role is to guide the students in reaching their own understanding of the content, not to tell them what my understanding of the content is. As long as they leave the classroom with a conceptually accurate understanding of the content, then the class session has been successful.
This whole approach can make some students (and some professors) uncomfortable. Most of us have been indoctrinated into the idea that the professor is a font of knowledge from which we should fill our cups. My perspective, instead, is that professors merely show us how to turn on the faucet, and make sure our cup gets filled. I’m certainly not a perfect professor, and I have a running list of things that I am trying to improve upon in my teaching. However, I strongly believe, based on both my own experience and on the body of sociocultural, constructivist, and social cognitive research that supports collaborative and student-centered learning, that this is the approach most likely to result in deep, meaningful learning experiences for my students. In a setting like the one in the MAT@USC, this collaborative, student-centered approach is even more valuable. It isn’t at all out of the ordinary in our program to have a small group made up of a twenty-something teaching English in South Korea, a mid-fifties retired former LAPD sergeant beginning a second career in the suburbs, a mid-thirties teacher’s aide in the United Arab Emirates, and a mid-forties veteran classroom teacher in an American high needs school. All bring unique and valuable perspectives to what is happening in the classroom, and if the class session focused around my experiences and education, those critically valuable voices would be lost. Taking a student-centered approach makes every single class session unique, and catered to the needs of the students in that session.
Fellow professors of education, what approach do you take to teaching your preservice teachers? Preservice teachers, what approaches to teaching and learning do you find to be the most effective?