As the new semester here has started (we start late because we fit in a semester in January) I have been frantically getting everything settled with my three classes. For one of them, I am trying something new, so I thought I would share it with you and ask for any thoughts or feedback. It has been occupying my thoughts for most of the past three weeks, keeping me away from blogging. Given that I don’t share all that much of how I teach and what I teach, I thought this might be of interest to my new readers and subscribers (welcome!).
NEW EDIT: Thanks for the interest, in case you want more details, here is the syllabus
General Psychology can be a daunting class to teach. There is seemingly no limit to the amount of content one could teach, and unlike other sciences, there is not exactly a natural order, or a hierarchy of knowledge. One could start with the brain and neuroscience and work your way up to basic processes like perception, ending with the always crowd-pleasing studies in social psychology. Or one could grab them early on with clinical psychology and mental illness, and shape the course around that. Any way you cut it, there is always way more content to cover than any beginning undergraduate could possibly remember. In the past few times I have taught it, I try to organize the content and make it accessible, but I have still ended up feeling like Stanley from UHF: “You get to drink from the FIREHOSE!”
There are a few things that I did to try to ease students into one of their first college-level courses. I had regular quizzes, and allowed students to use a notecard to lower their test anxiety. I gave three short writing assignments that progressively led up in rigor and difficulty, from a TED talk, to a popular science article, to an accessible journal article. But I still felt that it wasn’t really meeting my goals, and that some students were limping through with as little as they could. So this time I decided to make some big changes in how the course is structured and evaluated. Now, it better reflects my fundamental values concerning learning and education. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’ll work in this particular classroom.
What has changed and why does it reflect my values? I’ll start with the values and then with how I incorporated them into the course.
I want to encourage mastery goals, practice, offer choice, do less lecturing and more active learning/peer instruction.
First, I wanted to do more in my courses to encourage mastery goals, as opposed to performance goals. Here is a good description of the difference from Dr. Heinke Roebken:
When pursuing mastery goals, the student wants to develop competence by acquiring new skills and knowledge. They value and are willing to
undertake activities that allow them to improve their knowledge, and they perceive effort as a positive, effective way to achieve their goals. Mistakes are considered a normal step in the learning process (Bouffard and Couture, 2003, p. 21). In contrast, students pursuing performance goals are more concerned with demonstrating their abilities relative to other students. Here, efforts are perceived negatively. Students with a performance goal see intelligence as fixed, avoid challenging tasks in an effort to avoid negative evaluations, are less likely to be intrinsically motivated, and consider errors as indicative of a lack of ability (Gonzalez et al., 2001, p. 182). Besides mastery and performance orientation, some authors also distinguish a work-avoidance orientation (Meece et al., 1988; Meece and Holt, 1993). Students with a work-avoidance orientation try to avoid failure even without hard work, so achievement is represented as completing a task with as little effort as possible.
The second part of this is a line from one of Randy Pausch’s talks (not the Last Lecture on How to Achieve Your Childhood Dreams, the Time Management one, also great) which still rings in my head: “Don’t do things right, do the right things adequately.” I got to know Randy a little bit as an advisor/collaborator and some of his advice has taken a while to seep in. Most of life is pass/fail. What might seem an instance of evaluation of performance is often the end result of someone having done many many things adequately, thousands of times in a row.
How have I done this? I have made most of the assignments for the course pass/fail with clear criteria. There are many choices of writing assignments, presentations, or group projects, and each is worth a set amount of points. If a student completes it satisfactorily, they get the full points. If they do not, they get some feedback, and can hand it back in for full credit. This is a system specifically designed to reward effort, not performance. Granted, as in every pursuit, some will be able to come by their points with less effort than others, but I hope that this makes it clear that steady persistence from any student will be rewarded.
Second, practice practice practice. These pass/fail assignments? They are partly inspired by a story about a pottery class I remember reading:
A pottery teacher told half his class that their grade will depend on one single piece that they’ll produce at the end of the term.
He told the other half that their grade will be based on the volume of all the pieces they create.
Which half do you think produced better work by the end?
As the story goes, the group that was evaluated by sheer mass actually produced far better pottery by the end.
For me the moral is that just focusing on Art (with one miraculously inspired piece of pottery) distracts us from the real work, which is craft (honing a skill over many hours of practice). I want my students to become better writers, and rather than having them write one term paper, or even two or three over the course of the semester, I am now asking them to turn in many many adequate ones. Put in the time, crank out the words, hone your craft. I have set the points for each assignment to be relatively low, so that even though they are pass/fail, they will need to turn in many pages to get the grade they want. I have noticed that some students don’t know how to do APA style even in their senior year. I have guessed that this is because they just figure they will lose those few points on every assignment, no big deal, and they have never taken the trouble to give that level of polish to their papers. Now I am going to hand the papers back ungraded (digitally) and say, no, get these items checked off, or no points at all.
Within these pass/fail assignments, I have offered an unprecedented amount of choice. They can write summaries of Radiolab episodes, TED talks, scientific articles, or pre-selected popular psychology books. They can do a 5-10 minute individual presentation of one of the 50 Great Myths of popular psychology. They can do a group presentation of re-enacting a famous psychology experiment. And they can do this on their own time, there are no due dates besides a maximum number of points per week (to keep me from being deluged at the end). I am hoping the students use this choice to realize their own interests. Sometimes I find students entering college are so accustomed to regarding their own curiosity as irrelevant that they forget it exists. When I ask them what topics they are interested in, they shrug and act as if I have asked them what color chair they would like to sit in. Further, when given choice in this way, I hope that students are forced to own their choices (similar to the classic cognitive dissonance studies “I have this, so I must like it”).
Finally, less lecture and more peer instruction. I must admit to being bothered by most of the popular news accounts of Eric Mazur’s quest to end the college lecture as we know it. Far too often, the lecture is presented as being unavoidably, monolithically bad, and peer instruction as a miraculous shining technological beacon of the future. Too many reporters are amazed by these newfangled clickers, and ignore the fact that what really matters is not the technology used (I’ll always remember my friend Dave Donahue saying that his favorite educational technology was the 3×5 index card), but the particular questions asked, how much knowledge the students bring to their discussions and how wrong answers are treated. I have seen some terribly active learning sessions, where students feel active and engaged, but don’t learn a thing. That being said, I know that he has a point, and that my classes are not nearly as effective at provoking student thought as they could be. I still think lecturing has a role, but I think it should be minimized, especially in my classroom. So I am beginning every class with questions and peer discussion. I am also trying to integrate more activities and active learning into the rest of the class. I always do this with perception, but sometimes have had trouble with other topics.
Ok, so I began the semester with high hopes, but of course a small voice in the back of my head saying “You know, this could totally flop.” I am sticking with it because I know this approach has great potential, but I am starting to see how difficult it is to change students’ expectations. Students aren’t used to having this amount of choice and independence, and maybe this is too much too early. Students are used to being able to turn in crappy papers, get a C- and scrape by. Part of what this system is supposed to do is to challenge the students working for an A (“look, turn in three more papers and you can get an A+”) but also challenge the C/B- students by showing them that turning in a C- paper clearly written without being read over is simply not acceptable and will get them a zero. In the active learning sessions, it is often like pulling teeth, students are so scared of being wrong, but also sometimes scared to show that they haven’t done the reading. They take a few tentative steps and stop, look up as if to ask “you are going to tell me the answer now?” Further, getting them to demonstrate real curiosity and questions is a Sisyphean task that I have no doubt will continue for the rest of my career. While learning comes from questions asked not answers given, they have learned that grades come from the answers they provide and approach school that way. To some degree I think this is unavoidable (I am no Peter Gray or John Taylor Gatto), but I am doing my best to slowly reawaken the interest and curiosity that I know all my students had as kindergardeners.
Anyways, thanks for reading, I’d love to hear impressions of what other people do, and if you think this approach is worthwhile.