A turning point in teaching

A turning point in teaching

A recent article in the Chronicle featured several university professors sharing their responses to the prompt: "Describe an experience that changed the way you teach, and what you do differently now as a result." There was a link in the article for readers to share their own turning points and experiences. I wrote the following. Who knows if it will ever appear in print, but I thought it might be worth sharing.

I was teaching a Calculus class, giving what I considered to be a very clear, informative and well organized lecture. The lecture was clearly going well: Students were attentive, nodding along to my points, even smiling. As I ended one part of my lecture, I said, "So as you can see, it all makes perfect sense." Every student smiled and nodded and continued to take notes.

About 10 seconds into the next topic of the lecture, a student raised his hand and asked: "Professor, could you repeat again why what you just said makes perfect sense?"

I was speechless for three long seconds, thinking: If I have to explain why it makes sense, then it doesn't make sense. But I wasn't dumbstruck merely by the audacity of the question. I was struck by its truth. What I was doing in the class -- mostly lecturing, and doing it well by my peers' estimation -- was not leading to real learning. It was just playing school.

Since then, I've come to realize that I, as a professor, cannot cause sense to be made inside the minds of my students. Sense-making is something only the students can do. And indeed, it happens by doing, not listening alone. I've realized that human beings make sense out of ideas by actively engaging with those ideas, constructing and instantiating and testing them, bringing them to life by active work that is done and shared with other humans doing the same thing. And the more students do, the more sense gets made.

So here's what I do differently now:

  1. When building a course or a class session, I give active learning a privileged position. Lecture if it's appropriate, but realize that sense-making only happens through active work, in a social setting involving other learners. Put as much of this in every class as possible.
  2. Give frequent, ungraded formative assessment on key ideas several times per class session. This is much better than relying on body language, vague prompts for questions, or outright faith that students are "understanding". Don't ask if students understand; have them do something that will demonstrate what they understand and what they don't.
  3. Then, look at the formative assessment data and act on it -- make changes, plan a review, contact individuals -- whatever the data suggest. I try to teach like a scholar, in other words, instead of a performer.
Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.