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1) How do I ensure I actually teach what I measure in this assignment? 2) How can I distribute the responsibility for learning among instructor and students? 3) How do I give students a chance to improve or scaffold certain skills over the course of the term? 4) What Meta-Skills Do I Need to Teach Students in Order for Them to be Successful in my Course? Following directly from the previous point, to me, teaching never just includes content. For instance, if I want to assess students on writing, it is my responsibility to teach them something about writing. If I want to assess students on reading, I have to step up and teach them how to read an academic article. If I want to assess presentation skills, it’s up to me to teach them how to present. These will be secondarily related to the particular content in my course, but primarily present a set of skills that I hope students will be able to use going forward in whichever direction they choose. Phrasing these points like this may make many of you nod in obvious agreement, but for me, it required taking a step back and reevaluating my own assumptions about students and my own assessment strategies. 5. Where? Those of you who know me likely know that I have been involved in the evaluation of learning environments to various degrees over the past six years. To me, planning where to teach a course has consequences on how I will be able to teach. I know that as a first-time teacher, I can’t do it all at once. I can’t implement all the group-work strategies, think up all the out-of-class projects, or apply all the digital technologies that I would like to in the same (first) term. So for me the question of where to teach affects how much or how little of anything I can do. For instance: Can I ask students to bring a digital device if there are no accessible plugins in the room? Can I ask students to get into groups quickly for the last 15 minutes of class when there are static rows of desks? Can I ask students to share their ideas easily in class on whiteboards? Can I circulate among groups easily? Will everyone be able to read my slides? You can see how my questions about the whereabouts may easily determine the structure of my course and my assignments.

Sheila’s List – Experienced in Teaching 1. What Level is the Class? First-, second-, third-, and fourth-year courses are each so different for me, and it’s not just the size. First-year classes are big and full of energy and enthusiasm, while third-year courses can sometimes feel like the awkward teenager I just don’t understand. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about this first question anymore, but it is the starting point for everything else, because


it sets the broad parameters for who most of my students will be, and the skills and experiences they bring to the class.

the course. I never teach a course the same way twice, and this is the stage where I am tweaking all of the different components.

2. What Do I Want Them to Learn?

5. What Room am I Stuck in This Time?

History courses have titles and descriptions that parcel out the past in chronological and geographical pieces, and students who register for my courses make the reasonable assumption that those titles and descriptions will have some correlation to the content they will learn if they take that course. And while I need to keep that assumption in mind, from my perspective, that little package of content is more of a starting point than a destination. What each course lets me do is figure out what else I want my students to learn, what skills I can develop through the vehicle of the course content. There is no hidden curriculum in my classes – I try to spell out as clearly as I can what students will learn in my class and why, but each unique course is suited to a different set of activities and objectives.

There’s no getting around it – most of the classrooms I teach in are designed for more traditional pedagogical approaches, so I have to be ready to plead early and often for a different classroom and make the best of whatever poorquality room I am stuck with. For example, my students can move even when the furniture doesn’t, and I use every excuse to get them out of those lousy little seats and fixed rows. I use the boards a lot and multiple whiteboards are fantastic, but in a short, wide room the boards on either end aren’t readable by students on the other side, so I have to use the space carefully. One tiny screen at the front of a 90-student room means I can’t project highly-detailed images, so I know I will have to find less-detailed images and have the link ready for students to use their own devices. One ancient chalkboard and no whiteboards mean a dramatic decline in how I can use the space at all, so I have to come up with other ways to record my students’ thoughts and arguments. It would be nice to teach in a good room just for once, but in the meantime, I see all the lousy rooms as a personal challenge.

3. What Do I Want to Try This Time? There are lots of great reasons for keeping up with the latest research in teaching and learning, and one of the best reasons is that I always have a running list of fantastic, research-supported strategies I want to try in my classes. Every decision I have made about my teaching in the last few years – from substituting unique written assignments for exams; eliminating lectures in my second- to fourth-year courses, but keeping them at the first year; turning my second-year methodology course into an entirely workshopand discussion-driven ‘lab;’ building a website so my second-year students can post their work publicly; flipping my third-year courses; ensuring my pedagogical choices support students’ mental health, like providing multi-day windows for handing assignments in rather than hard-andfast deadlines; and so on – is backed by solid evidence about better teaching and learning. That research gives me the ideas and the confidence to try new strategies that will help my students learn what I want them to learn. 4. Which Teaching Strategies Will I Use? The decisions I make for questions #2 and #3 determine the choices I make at this stage about everything from how my students and I will spend our time in class to the readings I choose and the assessments I design. Eliminating exams means designing the right written assignments to achieve my learning goals for each unique class. Keeping a blend of lectures and in-class workshops and discussions in my first-year World History class means I make different choices every year about what stories I can tell best in a lecture and which resources are available for 90 students to use in class. Flipping my US West course meant thinking through how a crowdsourced lecture assignment could work, and trusting my awesome teaching assistant Brendan Cummins to dig up hundreds of primary-source documents for the discussion days that were now going to take up two thirds of

Conclusion As we both set out to come up with our lists, we were surprised to see a substantial degree of overlap between them when we came back together. Victoria’s questions bring up further questions: She is figuring out what might work in a particular first-time context on a necessarily more abstract level. Sheila’s questions clearly draw on experience: She has learned from her teaching career about what works and what doesn’t. Questions about the level, learning outcomes, and teaching, as well as assessment strategies have surfaced in both our discussions. This suggest that these questions will persist throughout entire teaching careers: It can be important to refocus and regroup before every course, even if it’s a familiar one that you’ve taught many times. Reflection here is key: What worked for you and your students? What didn’t work? What are you going to retire, what will you introduce? Of course, these lists are not exhaustive, nor meant to be read as standards. These are merely two sets of questions about the decision-making process in teaching. What are yours?

Profile for Teaching Centre

A Light on Teaching Magazine 2018-19  

Feature Article: Why Do We Make the Teaching Choices We Do? Also in this issue: Fake News in the Classroom and Writing as Problem Solving

A Light on Teaching Magazine 2018-19  

Feature Article: Why Do We Make the Teaching Choices We Do? Also in this issue: Fake News in the Classroom and Writing as Problem Solving