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January 9, 2014

Teaching at Pitt: Debunking common assumptions about teaching


“Students have said they want more interaction in class, but there is just too much content to be covered!”

“Many of my students come to class unprepared; they haven’t done all of the readings I assigned.”

“Students complain that they don’t understand how I evaluate their papers.”

“I invite students to participate in class discussion, but it’s the same three students who volunteer in each class!”

If you are a faculty member, you probably have experienced some of these classroom frustrations. While you’re well-qualified as an expert in your field of study, chances are you have had little formal preparation for teaching, and you may discover that your knowledge of teaching often doesn’t correlate with student learning.

The teaching consultants at the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE) find that many faculty members share the same incorrect assumptions about teaching.  This first University Times column about teaching debunks several of these assumptions and suggests ways for enhancing the teaching and learning experiences in your classes.

Assumption  No. 1:  I need to cover all of the content or students will not learn it.

You love your field and want to share as much information with students as you can fit into a semester. However, when you try to cover too much content, there is no guarantee that lasting learning will occur. Covering a lot of content can result in students missing the main ideas, trying to memorize everything and recalling little after the test.

Instead of trying to cover a wide breadth of information, begin planning a lesson by asking, “What three or four main concepts do I want students to remember?”

Then identify the specific skills associated with those concepts. Examples of skills could be “explain this concept in your own words” or “produce examples of the concept.” With this strategy, the breadth of information is sacrificed for deeper learning and better recall.

Assumption No. 2: Students should do all of the readings that I assign.

You want to expose your students to as many ideas as possible and regularly assign sections from the textbooks as well as supplementary articles. When deciding what readings to assign, first decide how the materials will contribute to learning.

  • Explain to students how the readings will add to their understanding.
  • Provide study questions that ask students to summarize the content or explain ideas in their own words.
  • Ask students to suggest discussion questions for class.
  • Assign only readings that will support the skills you are focusing on that day.  Other readings should be added as optional.
  • Ask students to complete “difficulty statements” about the readings and to post them in CourseWeb and respond to one another before class.
  • Have students write a brief summary and personal response for the assignment.

Assumption No. 3: Students should know what I expect in an assignment.

As faculty, we tend to overlook the fact that undergraduates take courses in different disciplines, and each course has different expectations. Students cannot anticipate what is required for each course. For example, one instructor may stress technical writing. Another instructor expects students to prepare an argument and provide evidence to support their theses. Style manuals also vary between disciplines; you need to tell students which style you expect.

When developing an assignment, begin by explaining the purpose for the assignment and how it fits into the overall course.

  • Be specific. Tell students the skills that you want them to demonstrate.

—Evaluate the merits of ….

—Compare and contrast the events of ….

—Identify a research question and prepare a literature review.

—Select a topic from the news and explain the issue using the ________ model.

—Identify the implications of ….

—Identify the forces leading up to ________. Explain your reasoning.

  • Identify the style and specifications for the assignments by providing examples. Ideally, students should receive feedback and have the opportunity to revise prior to submitting for a grade.
  • Clearly communicate your expectations for punctuation and grammar.

Assumption No. 4:  If I invite students to ask and answer questions, everyone in the class should respond.

Many students feel threatened by the idea of speaking in class, especially when “cold-called.”   But some simple strategies can promote participation by most of your students.

  • Establish a non-threatening, collaborative, interactive environment from the first class. Begin by asking questions at a general level of knowledge that would tap reserves of each student’s knowledge and experience.
  • Every 10-15 minutes, pause to have students reflect on the information that has been covered. When students take 30 seconds to jot down an answer, they will be more prepared to participate. Or take this a step further — Think-Write-Pair-Share activities encourage reflection and collaborative knowledge building:

—Ask each student to jot down a response to a question related to the learning objectives then share their responses with a classmate.  If appropriate, ask them to try to reach a consensus on the best response.

—Then have two pairs of students share their responses.

—Once all students have practiced discussing the material, each student should be prepared to summarize their group’s response aloud.

  • Pose a question with multiple possible answers or perspectives, then ask students to raise hands to agree or disagree with a particular approach.  When you follow up by asking “Why?” students are likely to be prepared with an answer because they already have taken a stand on the question.

Carol Washburn is a senior instructional designer and manager of teaching and learning for CIDDE.

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