In last week’s column I highlighted work that proposes ways of increasing the impact of the feedback teachers provide students. Doing so requires more feedback opportunities and activities—bottom line: more work for teachers. That got me thinking about how much of what I write in the column advocates approaches that involve more work for teachers—for example, using exams to promote learning as well as to generate grades; explicitly working with students on study skills; and incorporating more carefully designed group activities. In fact, it’s a long list and not balanced with columns containing ideas and information with the potential to decrease faculty workload.
There is regular advice to lecture less and let go of that iron grip on content coverage. But in some ways lecturing is one of the less labor-intensive teaching activities. It does take time to prepare a good lecture, and there’s an ongoing investment in keeping it current, but lecture content, especially in introductory courses, can be recycled without a lot of effort. So, cutting back on lecture, as desirable as that may be, isn’t going to provide the time necessary to support students’ learning needs.
Trying to do all that helps students learn is a recipe for burnout, exhaustion, or both, and it’s caring teachers, ones likely to be reading this column, who need to make wise decisions about how much they can do. I’m feeling some responsibility to offer advice that might help with those decisions.
Remove guilt from the equation. If you aren’t doing everything you could, even some of what you should be doing, feeling guilty is not usually a good response. It may provide motivation, but not the sort that rests on relevant reasons. Better than guilt is a clear-eyed analysis of your instructional situation. How many courses and students are you teaching, and how prepared are you with the content? What’s happening in the rest of your professional and personal lives? How much are you already doing that helps students? How much learning skills development are you already doing? We’re after an objective analysis here. Think data and rule out emotions.
No one teacher can do it all. You can’t tell yourself that too often. Most of us are teaching students who could use help in lots of different areas. It makes sense to review their needs and then prioritize that list. What do your students most need help with in light of the course content (its quantity and characteristics) and their career objectives? It’s a question best answered from a developmental perspective, and I’m not sure we’ve spent much time considering how learning skills line up on a developmental trajectory. Do beginning students need feedback skills more than they need to learn how to work with others? Do they need know how to study for an exam or how to manage a project timeline?
When we consider different instructional approaches and activities, we still tend to opt for approaches that “resonate.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but often they’re strategies we “like”: we gravitate toward them for emotional reasons rather than strategic ones. Decisions about supporting student learning efforts need to be arrived at thoughtfully, after reflective, purposeful thinking about the various factors involved.
Understand the cumulative effects of educational experiences. Courses are too often stand-alone events; our thinking starts and stops with what we teach. But students take multiple courses, and the experiences in those courses can and should be unique yet connected. Different teachers can do different things for students at different times in their college experience. We do plan curricula—we organize and sequence the content. Much less often do we collaborate with colleagues to plan and order the activities that develop learning skills. And it may be that an individual faculty member isn’t in a position to make decisions about learning activities for a major or program, but teachers can collaborate over sequential courses or courses where students use similar or related skills. Good attempts were made to connect courses via learning communities (linked and clustered courses, for example), but we aren’t hearing much about those anymore. Caring teachers don’t have to do what students need all by themselves. There are others who care, and given how many courses our majors and programs require, we have lots of opportunities to develop students as learners.
I don’t want to stop writing about activities, approaches, and research that describe ways to help students learn more and learn it better. Please keep reading but without holding yourself responsible for doing all that your students may need.
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