Tuesday, April 10, 2007

You Don't Teach the Driven Ones!

This past semester, Za has been teaching a course at my college. We have been on parallel tracks with how we designed assigments in his Bio class and my Phil of Mind class. We both agree, pedagogically, that it is best to help empower students to learn the material you are teaching rather than devise crafty ways for punishing them for not yet being sophisticated readers and synthesizers of complicated information. Both of us have given the students very clear directions about what we expect them to know for the examinations, e.g. what material they are responsible for, what type of questions are likely to appear, and how to best answer these questions. To put it bluntly, it is as if both Za and I have "broken into our offices, stolen the test, and circulated it to the students before the exam." If students take our study sheets seriously, they are asssured a good grade on the exam. The key here is taking our study sheets seriously.

It has been great fun learning how pedagogically sympatico Za and I are. So many of our colleagues design exams and paper topics that give students very little direction about how to succeed and then when, guess what, students bomb them, and the predictable whining about how lame our students are ensues. Of course, the problem lies in assuming that your students are as sophisticated learners as you are. They aren't. Part of what it means to be a great teacher is to not only teach the content of your courses, but design assignments that show them how to analyze information, write clear arguments, and amply prepare for exams.

I thought I was good at this stuff until Za showed me up. We both gave our first exams and our students did horribly in both classes despite all of the guidance we gave them about what was on the exam and how to do well. I scratched my head on this one, gave my students a good kick in the ass (i.e. told them to spend more than one night reviewing for the exam, form study groups, reread essays and visit my office hours). Overall, I was pretty hands off. I just told them how to succeed better, but basically left it up to them to figure out how to do so.

Za, on the other hand, was far more proactive. He sent emails to specific students struggling and asked them to make appointments with him. He met for several weeks with students before his second exam going over material, teaching them how to study and work together, showing the tricks for memorizing lots of material and showing them how to find ways to make sense of the material in terms or images that make sense to them. In a word: he taught.

So, his students really shined on the second examination (though it was no different in format from the first). The students walked away from this experience learning a lot more than the actual content (which they did!), but they learned what it takes to succeed in your classes, particularly in very difficult classes. The emails he got from students really speak to this.

And, I have been humbly reminded that teaching is work and requires more of me than giving some directions and sitting back and watching many of my students flail. I think what Za intuitively gets and I forgot is that you don't worry about the smart, hard working students. They are going to do well. You worry about the mediocre or failing students who are too terrified to figure out how to get help and therefore do better. Those are the students you teach.