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Author: Amy B. Mulnix

College professor with students.
students at blackboard

How did you learn how to teach? By trying to teach like those who taught you? Through trial and error? By looking for feedback on course evaluations? As an experienced educator, what methods do you now rely to continue your growth as a teacher? Do you read articles and blogs? Talk to colleagues? Attend workshops?

Let’s get specific about some of these approaches to developing ourselves as teachers. Say you’re attending a workshop on some new pedagogical approach. The presenter moves through the slides quickly and you don’t quite see how the examples could work in your field or large intro course. Some concepts are familiar; others aren’t. Some of the central ideas—metacognition or pedagogical content knowledge—are new and it’s not clear how they relate to each other. A group activity is announced but what you really want is time to think on your own. You were looking back through your notes and not listening to the instructions, so you aren’t exactly sure what the group is supposed to do. Someone in your group tells a long story. The discussion wanders around. The presenter’s debrief doesn’t really clear up your confusion. In the end, you learned a thing or two but you leave the session disappointed.

Or perhaps you’re not big on workshops and prefer to stay current and learn new approaches by reading. An article with an intriguing idea captures your attention. Maybe it’s on using clickers to check conceptual understanding, cold calling to increase student participation in discussion, or some other teaching technique that the author swears is nearly foolproof. You skim the piece during a lunch break. It gives you the germ of an idea, which grows into an outline of an activity. You spend some extra time to prep the details. You’re enthused about what you’ve put together but worry about how much content won’t get covered. You think about asking a colleague, but you’ve left the prep to the eleventh hour and there’s no time to bounce ideas off someone. Besides, sharing a new strategy before you use it feels rather risky, so you test it out in class. The activity goes pretty well. Students don’t jump in with great enthusiasm but by the end they’re engaged, even your most quiet ones. You tell yourself to remember to give clearer instructions in the future and persuade yourself the other rough spots will smooth out the second time around.

Or here’s one of my learning experiences. I was working with two younger colleagues who suggested modifying a course the three of us teach. We all thought we could be more intentional in teaching students how to use primary literature. My colleagues were eager to try something they’d read about; I was eager to support them. However, committee assignments kept me from participating as fully as I would have liked. After several meetings, one of which I missed, my colleagues presented a model for the project. I didn’t entirely understand it, but since I missed a meeting I simply went along. I expected that with my long-time experience I could make it work. I couldn’t. My students were confused; I was confused. Conversations with my colleagues helped me figure it out, but I still wasn’t happy with the quality of my students’ work. In the end, I wished I’d understood the proposed model more deeply before launching the assignment.

Finally, as we think about how we develop as teachers, let’s consider those ongoing efforts to improve some aspect of our teaching that’s never quite worked. For me, it’s having students do peer review. For you, it might be something else. Perhaps there’s a colleague that excels at what you’d like to do better and you decide to take him for coffee. He’s terribly excited about peer review (or whatever) and offers all sorts of suggestions. They sound like good ideas to you and later he generously sends you his rubric. You decide to use that and also borrow heavily from his assignment description. But the rubric turns out not to quite fit your assignment and the students still struggle. Their papers aren’t much, if any, better, and a number of students make negative comments on course evaluations. You’re back where you started: peer review isn’t something you can get students doing well.

Are these scenarios familiar? Have you experienced any of these successes and frustrations? Is there anything in them that reminds you of your students?

Bingo! If your students are anything like mine, they react to lectures much like we sometimes respond to workshops. Students complain about pacing and not seeing the relevance of the material. They focus on details and miss the bigger picture. They find group work is distinctly unsatisfying. Or if they’ve been assigned a reading, they arrive in class having given it cursory attention but believing they understand the material—and they do, sort of. But when they have to create a product based on that material, it lacks the coherence that comes from a deep understanding of fundamental principles. My students also regularly bump up against a kind of cognitive dissonance—an awareness they don’t understand—that should signal they need to continue working but they tend to ignore it. This later affects their performance on an exam or in a paper. And, of course, whose students don’t attempt to copy what somebody else does and then wonder why it doesn’t work?

Can we push the faculty learning comparison to students even further? I think so. What would have made the faculty learning experiences better? What if the workshop facilitator had covered less content and provided more time for reflection and application? What if the group had been tasked to create something and then given feedback on what they created? In the second example, what if you’d done of a deep dive into the article rather than quickly skimming it? Would talking with a colleague have been valuable? What if you’d taken time to reflect on the rough spots? For example, what would have made my experience with my younger colleagues more useful? Could I have sought out some references? Could I have visited one of their courses to see the idea in action? What if the colleague with expertise in peer review had guided you through creation of a rubric that met your needs rather than giving you his?

Once I stumbled into the realization that how I approached learning about teaching looked an awful lot like that of my students, I started seeing similarities all over the place. It was a bit overwhelming and I teetered for a bit on the brink of a mini-existential crisis (what had I been doing for 25 years of my career?). But it was also exciting; I had a whole new set of information that could help my teaching and my learning. Here are a couple of examples.

First, when I thought about how much time I need to play with new ideas to deeply understand them, the decision to cover less content got easier. I also became much more intentional about asking students to synthesize, apply, and evaluate as part of class when I was there to guide them and provide feedback. Class prep became less onerous and time with students more fun. My students were more successful at learning the skills they most needed to learn. Furthermore, by using some of the content I didn’t cover directly to create the opportunities for deeper thinking, the loss of coverage wasn’t nearly at the level I feared. For instance, now I cover the main ideas about a topic using one case and then ask students to apply what they’ve learned to a related case, knowing they’ll discover some of the exceptions and extensions in the process.

Second, I realized that small changes (a moment to reflect or a chance to summarize in writing) make a big difference in my own learning success. By extension, I gave up the idea that to teach better I had to overhaul everything. I started to tinker—e.g., using examples more relevant to the students and taking a moment to point out how the details fit into that larger concept. This fit into my schedule better than a complete redesign and it built my confidence. Funny how scaffolding works for me as well as my students.

Third, I started seeing student complaints and difficulties through my own lens as a learner. When students ask me to repeat directions, I don’t first assume they weren’t listening. When they struggle applying what happens in class to their homework, I remember that transferring knowledge to a new context is difficult and takes practice. When they complain about group work, I think about how I can structure that work differently or address the skill they need to work together productively. I take their failure when they copy a process as a chance to help them evaluate why it didn’t work.

And here’s another set of observations. Imagine treating yourself like you treat your students—being patient through multiple attempts and taking time for reflection; being generous of spirit when you recognize you’ve got the details but not the organizing principles; encouraging yourself to persevere when it gets frustrating. Don’t you encourage students to use the resources available to them: office hours, tutors, learning centers? Who are the pedagogically knowledgeable peers or development specialists you can partner with to accelerate your learning? Remarkably, giving myself permission to be a learner has kept me from sliding into that pit of existential questions and has made the process of change one of discovery—a fun journey rather than a tiresome grind. This mindset makes teaching truly collaborative and iterative.

Shifting into that growth mindset has been transformative for me. Take for example the most recent new workshop I did for faculty. Even with a deep understanding of the major points I’ve made above, the evaluations identified many of the difficulties I’ve just enumerated. My participants told me I should have presented fewer concepts. They wanted more examples relevant to them. They wanted more time for thinking both individually and in a group. They wished I’d given them problems that required applying the new information to mock scenarios and then provided feedback on their answers. In the past, I would have interpreted their complaints negatively and started playing the blame game, blaming them for not being good participants or, more likely, myself for not being a good teacher.

But they were right! All of the things they identified would have made the workshop experience better for them. I recognized that I’d misjudged the amount and level of difficulty of my material given the audience’s experience level and the fact this was the first time doing this particular workshop. There was no blame to be assigned, no failure to apologize for, just my own learning to be done. From this perspective, I was able to discover a great deal from my faculty about what was intellectually hard to grasp and what kind of support they needed. Their frustration signaled I needed to do something differently. Their complaints and anxieties became problems to solve. I can’t wait to do the workshop again to see how my planned modifications go.

Amy B. Mulnix is the director of the Faculty Center at Franklin and Marshall College.