Perhaps it’s not a question of what we teach, but rather what we learn from our teaching. Teaching has taught me great lessons, not only about my students, but about myself. I’m always amazed what occurs in the classroom, for it’s the students who allow me to think in ways that sometimes even surprise myself, like taking a journey and having some idea as to what direction I may be travelling, but really unsure of the final destination. This has become the excitement for me, the sharing of the journey and the discovery of the destination. So, I have become a traveler with a book bag slung over my shoulder and the knowledge that when that journey comes to an end and class is over, I will have discovered a new land that challenges what I thought I knew but also begs me to know more. Do we teach what we need to learn? I hope so. If we stop learning, what’s left? So to my students; may our journeys together bring us closer in our understanding of ourselves and our fellow travelers.
How do we know that the online student is really grasping the subject matter, I mean really grasping it? We can assess and grade the assignments submitted in Blackboard, or monitor the quiz results. This gives us a sense of their understanding of the material, but how about that investment in the learning or that enthusiasm in participating in the class. At the end of each semester, I send out class evaluations to my online students. I’m curious about their online class experience and ask questions that focus more on their sense of connection to the class. I ask students to rate their answers from 1 (very poor) to 5 (Excellent).
A few examples are;
How would you rate your feeling of being connected to the class?
Did you feel safe in expressing your views in the discussion board?
Did you feel the subject material presented was relevant and interesting?
Rate your overall online class experience.
At the end of the survey, I ask students to make any comments they would like to make regarding their personal online experience. Comments have varied; a few comments seem common with students such as;
Discussions that are relevant to the student in their everyday lives are really appreciated by the students.
Keeping the discussions open ended so students can keep discussions ongoing an allow students to not only explore the topic, but learn other opinions and attitudes of others students.
Making students feel safe in the online environment. Maintaining an open honest environment.
So I have maintained a format for all my online classes. All discussion board post as well as any written assignments should relate more to the personal experiences and attitudes of the student. Discussions are not based on the textbook, but rather personal life experiences related to the questions that are up for discussion. This does require monitoring and setting the tone from the beginning of the class. This can be done by setting the example of how we respond and perhaps challenge our students in the way we ask additional questions. The quickest way to shut down a discussion is to make a student fell put down our feel attacked. Students need to feel safe in any online discussion.
All questions should be presented in such a way that each student should be able to relate to each question and how it may relate to their current lives or how they would see it relating to their future lives. What makes a question interesting is relevancy. If I can relate to it, then I have something to say about it. Personalizing the online experience in the discussion board seems to allow the students investment in the class and brings the students closer to each other. I tell students from the beginning of class that there is no right or wrong answer in these online discussions, but students always need to explain their thinking in justifying their opinions and comments.
So what have I learned about online discussions, especially in keeping the online class energized and engaged?
- Create a safe environment
- Make your topic relevant to the student
- Keep the questions open-ended to encourage a more open dialogue
- Make expectations clear to students from the beginning
- Make you presence known to students by posting announcements, reminders, and providing feedback to comments and assignments.
The best way in learning what is working in your class and what’s not working is to ask your students for feedback. I sometimes ask students questions about the questions I present in the discussion board. Did they feel it helped in their understanding of the chapter that is being reviewed that week? Asking students for feedback could be the best possible way of better understanding the question we always ask ourselves; are my students understanding the information as well as having a positive online experience?
A student shares this information with me which I thought it was fascinating. It deals with information overload.
The internet is almost 25 years old and already every 60 seconds:
160 million emails are sent.
1500 Blog entries are made.
98,000 tweets are shared on Twitter.
694,445 Google searches are completed.
695,000 Facebook status updates are posted.
6,600 photos are uploaded to Flickr.
600 videos are uploaded to You Tube.
The sheer volume of information which is available to us is truly amazing, but perhaps our technology has surpassed our ability to effectively consume so much information. Researchers tend to agree that it’s not the volume of information that is the problem; it’s our inability to organize and process it all without experiencing “information overload, or what neuroscientists like to call “cognitive overload. In recent years, technology strategists have even compared information overload to physical obesity, dubbing it “infobesity. Just as our eyes are sometimes larger than our stomachs, our interest can be significantly greater than our brain capacity.
I teach both online and FTF classes and utilize Blackboard for all my classes. Students submit all their work on Blackboard and receive responses from me on Blackboard as well. We have students who chose sometimes not to attended regular FTF lectures, but continue to turn in assignments or submit any other work required in Blackboard. Levels of understanding of the subject matter will obviously will vary and logic should show the FTF students benefit from having a fuller educational experience.
So how can we help prevent students from becoming victims of this notion of infobesity? How do we help students remained focused without getting through college learning the art of “skimming”, you know, that’s when you just learn enough of what your instructor wants you to know. We skim the textbook, skim the information found on the internet, like the proverbial husband who always is being accused of not reading the instructions on a home project, he’ll just “skim it”, because he doesn’t need all that other stuff, until he realizes he missed something.
We are so easily districted these days with Facebook, Twitter, You Tube videos, and the last goes on and on. Based on research pertaining to distraction and learning, it was stated that today’s students have shorter attention spans than previous years. This recent PEW study found that a majority of teachers (87%) agree with assertion that “today’s digital technologies are creating a generation of short attention spans.”
So the dilemma continues because we as educators rely on those digital technologies. We contribute to this notion of information overload. Presentations become better, more visually interesting. Students stay more interested if there are visuals, especially incorporated in your lecture presentations. It’s about keeping your audience interested and engaging and technology allows for this to happen, but let’s not forget the role of the instructor, the captain of the ship, the headliner of the show, where the buck really stops in regards to teaching. Spending an entire class and having the opportunity to look into your students eyes and speak to them face to face is the ultimate kind of technology, the human kind.
I find that breaking up my class with one lecture using PowerPoint presentations and then alternating the next class, talking about the subject matter in a much less formal approach with no use of any technology, just an old fashion “chat and share” about the subject matter. This usually turns into more of a forum for questions, because as we all know, no “proper” student would interrupt the professor in the middle of a visual/technological presentation, now would they? Obviously, I’m kidding about the proper student thing, but does shed more truth than not.
The above model works for me and I think for the students as well. There is no getting around technology, but how we affectively use it to enhance learning is the real challenge and perhaps provides the solution as well.
At the beginning of a lecture on the effects of stress, I told this story to my class:
One day a farmer’s donkey fell down into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided the animal was old, and the well needed to be covered up anyway; it just wasn’t worth it to retrieve the donkey.
He invited all his neighbors to come over and help him. They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly. Then, to everyone’s amazement he quieted down.
A few shovel loads later, the farmer finally looked down the well. He was astonished at what he saw. With each shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing. He would shake it off and take a step up.
As the farmer’s neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and happily trotted off!
So what’s the moral of the story?
Life is going to shovel dirt on you, all kinds of dirt. The trick to getting out of the well is to shake it off and take a step up. Each of our troubles is a steppingstone. We can get out of the deepest wells just by not stopping, never giving up! Shake it off and take a step up.
One student raised his hand and said, “That was great story professor, but being a student in college today has its own set of stressors.”
Ahh, the perfect opportunity for a discussion that relates to the topic and has meaning to the class. Dare I take the challenge and meet this potentially hot topic head on?
OK, I’ll bite, I asked the student if he would share with us the stressors he was referring to.
“Well to start, feeling intense pressure to obtain high grades, especially if you’re in a program that may connect with career opportunities, taking final exams, trying to establish some kind of social life and dealing with the costs of college.”
More hands rose to the occasion, single parents balancing work, school and family, how layoffs forced career changes and with those changes meant going back to school, and what about after graduation, will I be able to find a job in my field of interest?, and don’t even start me on the topic of student loans. The class was beginning to sound more like an AA meeting, with individuals sharing their fears and concerns about the stressors of being a student.
It was stress in action and needless to say the discussion became how these stressors affected the students personally.
Following up on our discussion in class, I came up with some interesting facts about stress and college students.
- Associated Press conducted a survey in 2008 on college student stress at many colleges throughout the United States. The survey found that four out of ten college students report they feel stressed often. One out of five say they feel stressed most of the time. One out of four students report experiencing daily stress and one in ten report thoughts of suicide.
- The American Freshman Norms report from the Fall 2010 was revealing in terms of trends in college student attitudes, health, and stressors. Looking at the trends in the last two and a half decades, students’ perception of their own mental health has been on a steady decline. In 2010, males and females’ perception of their own emotional health hit the lowest marks in twenty five years, decreasing approximately 13% for both males and females from 2009 to 2010.
- The Spring 2013 edition of theNational College Health Assessment, where the average age of those survey was 21 years, reported that almost half (46.3%) of all undergraduate students surveyed felt trauma or overwhelmed in regard to their academic responsibilities. Almost half of students surveyed reported they have more than average or extreme stress.
We live in interesting times, the rapid acceleration of technology and social change. The emergence of the internet, smart phones, Facebook, Twitter and other social media technologies have fundamentally altered the social fabric and the ways we relate. Our students live in a hyper-connected world which gives them ever more access to an endless array of choices and information that can be overwhelming and confusing. Psychological research on choices shows that in many cases, more choices lead to more anxiety. In addition, we now have endless access to information that might be psychologically disturbing, via constant news of troubling stories.
Yes, college can be extremely stressful. It is, in many ways, a rite of passage, but with that comes much adjustment difficulty.
This student’s response given in a Blackboard assignment seemed to really encompass the fears and the concerns that many of our students have.
“There is an enormous pressure to know what you are going to do with the rest of your life when you leave school. People say that it is okay to not know what you want to do, but there is this unspoken expectation. You are expected to have university lined up, or an internship, or a job. I just can’t imagine what I want to do with the rest of my life. That in itself makes me feel unsure and helpless.”
When I was a practicing therapist, I would often get asked “what’s your theoretical orientation?” I always felt awkward answering that question since I feel one approach could never apply to everyone. Now as an educator, I’m sometimes asked about my philosophy on education. Are you more teacher-centered or student-centered? Do I favor more being the “guide on the side” or “sage on the stage?” I guess it depends. I learned to do both, use what I need based on the needs of the class. I teach eclectically, I never did like prescribing to a particular group, be it political, religious, or anything too trendy,(OK, I own an I Phone).
Eclectic, as the name implies is an approach that incorporates a variety of principles and philosophies in order to create a program to meet the needs of our students. Instead of insisting a strict adherence to one particular approach of school of thought, being electric allows us to employ elements from a range of techniques with the goal of establishing a course that is personally tailored to the needs of the class. The primary benefit is not only allowing the classroom experience to become more personalized, but it encourages the instructor to be more creative is class design and delivery.
At one time, most therapists rigidly adhered to a single style, but eclectic therapy today is the most common style used by practicing therapists. It is a more flexible approach that allows the therapist to adapt to each client’s individual needs. Perhaps I adopted my personal teaching style from my experiences being a therapist, but there seems to be a common tie to this approach.
What is best for the student? And how to we as educators not only identify what is best for our students, but how do we approach those needs in our instruction? It is so much easier to teach every class the same and put the responsibility on the student to adjust to the needs of the instructor, but I found in my 27 years practicing as a therapist, this approach will surely guarantee a lack of investment in outcomes in the learning process.
I’ve known many therapists who were reluctant to call themselves “eclectic” in fear of sounding too wishy-washy or being insufficiently focused. In the early stages of my training, I was told by my supervisor, “Never say you are electric, for you will lose credibility with your peers.” The truth is that most therapists practiced electric therapy, but never admitted it.
So perhaps the question we should all be asking ourselves is not what our teaching style is, but rather, how do we adapt our teaching to our students? Every class is different. No matter how many PSY 101 classes I have taught, they are never the same. The subject material remains the same, but the students will always be different and so should our approach to how we deliver that subject matter. Perhaps like in therapy, unless we our willing to constantly re-create our teaching and thinking, we set ourselves up for boredom and even burnout.
- There is an old Zen story of a perspective student who approaches a Zen master and asks the question; “How long would it take for me to reach enlightenment?” The master looks up and answers, “Ten years”. But master what if I studied real hard? The master looks up again and responds, “20 years”. The student surprised, asked again: “what if I worked very, very, hard and became your most dedicated student?” Again the master looks up and says, “In that case, 30 years”. The perspective student seemed very confused at this point, “I don’t understand, the harder I work, the longer it will take for me to reach enlightenment? Again the master looks up and says; “As long as you have one eye on how close you are in achieving your goal that leaves only one eye for your task.”
I always think of this story when students seem more concerned about the grade they’re receiving rather than what they’re learning. From early on in our education, grading becomes the focus of learning. I remember back in the 1980’s and 1990’s studies were conducted to determine what affects grading had on students and education. The results were not only interesting, but troubling as well. Students ‘placed more interest on grades rather than what they were learning. Also, grades may directly influence the degree of a students’ thinking. Students may study only what they think they need to know to get a passing grade. Even more interesting, one particular study had two groups of students; one was told they would be graded on how well they learned a lesson in social science and another group of students who were told that no grades would be given, but asked to review the same social studies lesson. The results showed that those students that were told that they would be graded showed less understanding of the lesson with less recall ability. The students that were not being graded had far better understanding of the lesson with much improved recall than the graded group.
OK, I get it, we need some way of assessing our students and grades may never go away, but perhaps we as educators need to put more focus on what is the real intrinsic motivator of learning. What makes a student want to learn more? How do we as educators promote and encourage learning without the need to misplace the focus with a ranking letter grade which is supposed to indicate the degree of the students learning. Jean Piaget described the importance of facilitating learning rather than direct learning, the importance of ongoing assessment and turning the classroom into a setting of exploration and discovery. Perhaps it’s time to challenge our thinking about how we assess our students, but for now, Saturday mornings will be spent drinking strong coffee, as I grade my student’s assignments.
The last nine weeks have been interesting participating in the 9x9x25 Challenge. I, like most of my colleagues who have participated in this writing, share the feeling of regret that it has come to an end, but also feelings of relief that there is one less thing I have to do in the upcoming week. The joy of writing is something I felt years ago when I was an avid journal writer. Every day I would write in my leather bound book thoughts, feelings, joys, disappointments, and dreams. It was easy then because no one but me would be reading it, but now through the magic of technology, everyone has access to my words. I’m not a writer. I struggle at times translating my thoughts to paper. My wife who is a published author can whip out 8 to 10 pages, no sweat. I on the other hand will spend 10 minutes writing out a Thank You card. So this writing challenge these past 9 weeks has been rewarding because I rediscovered the joy of writing.
Writing these weekly submissions for my blog allowed me to not only focus on myself as an instructor, but perhaps more importantly, focus on myself as a learner. I’m always amazed how we teach is how we learn. I think the 9x9x25 Challenge can be a critical component in helping probationary instructors as well as seasoned instructors share, learn and invent or even re-invent themselves. We sometimes spend too much time discussing what’s not working in the classroom. Providing a space to openly share those magical moments we have in the classroom becomes a reminder to all of us why we do what we do. I always knew that I was lucky to work with so many wonderful instructors, but to be able to openly learn from such a talented faculty has made me humble, for these talented individuals are also my friends.
So, I thank all who shared your wisdom, joy, concerns, and ideas making us all better teachers and better students. You all inspire me to be better, to try things out of the ordinary, to take risks, and to believe what we do is so important. Also, my students thank you, for with every post I read, I take a little of you into my classroom and my students benefit from it as well.
Thank you to Charlie for bringing Yoga consciousness into the classroom, and Jason and Erin for their eloquent and witty writing skills, (I’m jealous), and Karly for reminding us the importance of trusting the process of learning as well as trusting ourselves, and Curtis for reminding us of the frustrations of our technology yet keeping our sense of humor, and Mark for writing about the need for more effective seating in classrooms, and everyone else I didn’t mention for sharing your experience and wisdom. Especially a big Thank You to Todd who had the vision of the 9x9x25 Challenge and like a Zen master, recognized the simple act of writing could awaken so many of us.
Is this the last of my weekly posts? I think not.
One of the topics we discuss in my Counseling Skills class is the importance of optimism and how it’s used in developing a therapeutic relationship. In counseling we recognize the importance of how a person thinks is directly related to how they act. Now we know that before any real change takes place in counseling, the person needs to be willing to change. In applying this concept to teaching, it brings to mind some possibilities of how to teach with optimism. The word itself, optimism, comes from the Latin word “optimum” which translates to “best.” The Greek origin of the word optimism comes from the word “optim”, which translates to “power.” Bringing the “best power” in the classroom.
Some of the things we know about the effects of optimism are the following:
Optimistic people are more physically healthy. They get sick less, have stronger immune systems and are more likely to achieve because they don’t give up too easily. Also, they tend to have a higher state of emotional health and have better coping skills in dealing with life’s setbacks. So how do we apply the notion of optimism in the classroom?
We are all aware of the importance of getting students involved in the classroom. Sitting in classroom and being a passive observer, a non-participant, not only takes the power away from the student, but as an instructor, it takes my energy away as well. Lecturing to a room full of students who show about as much enthusiasm as an eraser is not very empowering to me, so I decided a long time ago that part of teaching is promoting energy in the learning process. The way of doing this is not only involving students in their own learning, but getting them to feel more optimistic about their ability to learn. ‘If I feel I am capable of learning, I will learn.” As in counseling, empowering our students should be the foundation by which everything else is built on. Learning should be a process that not only makes us feel more confident in ourselves, but promotes a better understanding and mutual respect for other learners.
Some of you may be asking, “Can optimism really be taught in the classroom?” I believe it can. Keep in mind one of the real differences in an optimistic person and a pessimistic person is how they view failure. Pessimists see failure as being personal and permanent, where as an optimist sees failure as temporary, non-personal and specific. All students experience early in their learning a sense of failure. It may be answering a question wrong, writing a paper that didn’t quite meet the expectations of the instructor, or perhaps due to a learning disability, every lesson becomes a bit of a struggle to completed. A student should never see a single failure as a permanent indication of their ability to learn. As in counseling, reframing a student’s perception of a failed learning event can be a reinforcing moment, providing some kind of understanding that the answers will come.
Another interesting fact is that using humor in the classroom actually can promote higher levels of activity in the brain. Brain scans have measured considerable high level activity when humor is used in listening and learning. Also, memory seems to get a boost when learning and humor are combined. Perhaps a simple technique can be to just bringing a smile to the class. Making students feel more comfortable can make a considerable impact on a student’s willingness to learn. We all had teachers we can remember that we didn’t particularly like because they were so dry and boring. Most likely they had a dry affect and delivered their lecture without any emotion or enthusiasm, and probably never smiled. It wasn’t the material being taught that was problematic, but having to spend an hour or more in a classroom where the flat affect of the instructor’s delivery made learning uneventful and sometimes painful. Someone once said, “Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theater.”
Bringing optimism in the classroom benefits not only students, but the instructors as well. In creating a supportive learning environment, we support students in developing not only stronger cognitive skills, but we also meet the emotional needs as well. We should be including in our lectures, stories of optimism that have made a difference in the human condition. This in itself can change a student’s perception of themselves and their own ability in promoting change in their world.
“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”