When making classroom decisions, too often our main focus is the standards, learning objectives, and/or discipline competencies that must be addressed by the end of the course. Instead, we should focus on the students who sit in our classrooms and how we can best help them learn the material. Here's a set of reflective questions that you might find helpful in setting priorities for students and for yourself. Honest answers will enable us to make more conscious decisions about classroom practices.
What do I believe it means to learn?
Is it only necessary to hear something in order to have learned it? Are learning and memorizing synonymous? How long does information have to be retained in order for it to be learned? Are application, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of material necessary for learning?
These questions raise issues about the delivery of content and what those ways of delivery say about instructional priorities. Do you utilize only lectures? Are students asked only to respond to closed questions? Students reflect on their learning, apply their learning to real-life situations, and use higher-order thinking skills when they are given opportunities to do so. This valuable student reflection may be achieved through quick writes or quick draws, exit slips, cooperative learning activities, problem-based learning, and/or project-based learning.
What motivates my students to learn?
What motivates students to attend class? Are they interested in the content? Do they enjoy listening to you speak? Is your course a prerequisite or an elective?
In required courses, many students appear disinterested, but the situation is not hopeless if you build on what motivates them. How can you make the content attractive and relevant? What about highlighting an unsolved mystery, the interdisciplinary significance of your field, current events related to your field, and, perhaps most important, personal tales of how you got interested in the field?
What goals do I have for my students, what goals do they have for themselves, and how will I help them achieve those goals?
Do you want students to be able to recall dates, facts, and figures? Do you want students to remember the tiny details or see the big picture? What do you most want students to take from your courses?
Answering these questions allows you to work backward when designing the course. Assign those readings, activities, and assessments that are deep or controversial or have personal significance and they will make lasting impressions on students. Involve students in goal-setting activities. Ask students what they hope to learn in the course. Discuss any discrepancies between the goals you have set and those your students listed. Can you adjust the course to incorporate some of their goals?
How will I know when students have met course goals? How will students know when they have met those goals?
Do you discuss course learning objectives with students? Can your students articulate the purpose behind their assignments? Can students provide evidence that they have met the goals set forth?
Learning objectives should be used to frame your course. Include these objectives in your syllabi and refer to them often throughout the course. You can ask students to describe their progress on achieving the objectives through written activities, brief oral presentations, or blogs. They should also discuss those areas where they don't feel competent and identify what further support they need. An emphasis on learning objectives helps keep students focused on what they should be learning.
As a teacher, what do I believe my role is in the learning process?
Are you proud when you deliver a lecture from beginning to end without making a mistake? Do you feel a sense of satisfaction when students have engaged in passionate discussion about a specific topic? Is your goal to let students know how knowledgeable you are? Do you seek to share as much of your knowledge as possible with your students? Do you seek to learn from your students?
Responses to these questions speak to your motivation as a teacher. They also speak to how you set the tone for learning in your classroom. If you intend to share your knowledge, have students apply that knowledge, and learn from your students, then students must be actively involved in the learning process. Teachers need to be the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage. The role is a facilitative one with teachers asking questions that help students discover what they understand clearly and what is still confusing. Students need opportunities to practice what they have learned.
Although sometimes courses come with objectives already in place, teachers usually have some flexibility. Goals can be added. The content and activities students used to accomplish the objectives are almost always under teacher control. I'm recommending that before you sit down to make technical decisions about the content, you take time to make some human decisions regarding your teaching philosophy and how you can implement it for the benefit of students.
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