This post is directed primarily at teachers but I think students and parents alike can benefit from reading it in order to understand what goes on behind the curtain. I’m going to focus on course design rather than teaching technique, although the two overlap. Designing a course is perhaps one of the most complex and challenging tasks under the sun because it requires balancing a large number of competing objectives. Let me explain.
1. Depth vs Breadth: Every class period you spend going deeper into a sub-topic is one class you take away from the breadth of the course content. And vice versa.
2. Reinforcement vs New Content: Every class you spend reinforcing previous content is a class you don’t spend on new content. And vice versa.
3. Predictability vs Flexibility: For some reason, students panic or perceive instructors as disorganized whenever the original syllabus changes. However, different cohorts will find different units interesting (and uninteresting). Ideally, we want to tailor a syllabus to a cohort; that is, if a cohort finds a unit particularly interesting there are good pedagogical reasons to extend the unit. Similarly, if a cohort finds a unit boring, you want to be able to cut it short sometimes. The trade off, however, is that every time you change the syllabus, students panic or perceive you as disorganized . On the flip side, you maintain rigidity at the cost of students not getting additional time on what they enjoy or shortening units they don’t enjoy.
4. Assessment and Incentive vs Time Grading: This is a big one. Here’s the reality: For a variety of reasons I won’t get into–because I’ll start ranting like a lunatic–most students have been conditioned to see little if any intrinsic value in doing any school work. This includes doing the readings before class, any kind of written activity, or self-assessment activity. In other words, if it doesn’t count towards their grade, most students either won’t do it or will do a crappy job of it. However, here’s the thing about learning a new skill or new content: It ain’t happening without practice and repetition. To quote Aristotle, “We are what we do repeatedly. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” So, how do we get students to get the practice and repetition they need for learin’ to happen?
Easy fix, you say. Just make them do lots of assignments.
Problem: students hate what they call “busy work.” Students must perceive assignments to be both relevant and worthwhile for them. Instructors must give careful forethought to the content of assignments, how they fit in to course objectives, how they relate to other course material, and how much weight they should be accorded as a percentage of the course grade. When weighting an assignment or task you must consider the direct relationship between weight and student motivation. You must also constantly refer back to your course objectives: What do you want your students to be able to know and do by the end of the semester? This should inform your weighting.
The major trade off with assessments involves grading time. It’s all fine and dandy to assign regular homework or assignments but someone has to grade those. And that someone also has to prep classes and probably wants a faction of a life outside of their job. And if that someone is a grad student, they also need to do coursework, work on their dissertation, submit to journals, submit to conferences, attend colloquium talks, attend various committee meetings, etc… You get the point.
Anyhow, in my method described below, I’ll explain how to juggle these competing ends in a way that delivers better learning outcomes but with less prep-work and grading than you’re probably doing.