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How to prepare students for class: A teaching and learning reflection

By Liz Kaletski

Teaching challenge

Ensuring that students are prepared for class is not a novel concept, yet it continues to plague many of our classrooms. As someone who is still fairly new to teaching, I quickly realized that my current “traditional” strategy of telling students to do the reading was not effective. I was continuously finding myself reverting back to lecturing on basic material that I felt students should have already been exposed to through the reading assignments. This then left even less time in class for engaging the reading material on a deeper level through problem sets, activities, real world examples, and discussion.

Situational factors

Each of us face unique contextual or environmental factors that influence the teaching and learning in our classrooms. I find student preparation for my Principles of Economics course to be particularly difficult for a wide variety of reasons:

  • Student negative/biased perception of the subject
  • Catering to wide range of majors/experience with material
  • Difficult content
  • Student frustration and fatigue

Contemplating change

Could I create small tweaks in the course design that place a larger responsibility on students to keep up with reading ?

Course changes

 At the outset, the main goal was to give students first-pass knowledge prior to coming into class, so that class time could be spent engaging them in a more meaningful way with the material.

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The main idea behind the course redesign has been to give students three different ways of being exposed to the material. I wanted to give students graduated experiences, building on comprehension and moving toward situations where they had to apply their new knowledge, in order to maximize their exposure and make it easy as possible to keep up with the course work.

As an example of how the process works, much of the course material was centered on the ongoing presidential election last semester. When we covered the concept of price floors (a basic concept in Principles of Economics), I used the opportunity to emphasize an ongoing policy example in minimum wage legislation. The entire process placed more responsibility on students themselves, while also making class time more engaging.

Stage 1:

  • Students read a brief chapter from the textbook and completed a homework assignment via Sakai, which asked them basic definitions.
  • This was all done prior to discussing the material in class, so the questions were low stakes and easy to answer using the reading material.
  • These homework assignments were around 10 questions and included multiple choice and fill in the blank. As an example, students were given the following multiple choice questions as part of their homework assignment.

Stage 2:

  • Outside newspaper articles were introduced that outlined arguments in support of and against increasing the current federal minimum wage.
  • Students spent class time working in groups and creating a “pros” and “cons” list around the legislation.
  • We outlined the basic platforms of each presidential candidate and students were required to use their lists to identify a candidate that fit their personal point of view.

Stage 3:

  • Students were then tested on the general concepts in a low stakes in-class problem set.
  • These problem sets were designed to have students apply and integrate knowledge.

Results and Challenges

First and foremost, as part of my own evaluation of success, I can say that I enjoyed teaching the course more this semester than ever in the past. I found students to be much more engaged and open to asking questions and forming their own opinions.

However, the scarcity of class time challenge remains, so much content, too little time. We were able to cover many interesting and relevant topics throughout the semester, but I still feel the scramble in the last few weeks. Although there is no way to formally solve this problem, the course redesign has allowed to more formally evaluate and prioritize the course content. I discovered material that I feel comfortable cutting in the upcoming semesters.

I was generally pleased with the way in-class activities went throughout the semester, but as the days wore on I found that small group discussions were being increasingly plagued with non-productive conversation. This has required me to rethink some of the assignments and the way that groups are formed in the classroom. It’s increasingly clear that changing one aspect of the course requires revising many other aspects as well.

Ongoing, formative, assessment of student understanding has proved essential. I can gain knowledge based on their overall performance in the class, but it’s more important for me to know what specifically they find useful, and of course, what they don’t, and why.

Student performance on exams did not change as much as I would have hoped and there are still several students who struggled throughout the semester. I’m continuing to think about how to change the format assignments to hold students more accountable at each stage of the process.

In the bigger picture, one of the major lessons I’ve learned from this process is that reflection is key. I’ve never been particularly prone to taking the time to reflect on my teaching experiences as they occur. All of our schedules are packed and once a class is over it is sometimes necessary to just check the box and move on to the next thing on our to-do list. However, without proper reflection, evaluation is impossible. I’ve found that taking two minutes after class to jot down some brief thoughts on a sticky note and placing it directly on my outline for the class that day is useful. I can remind myself that I need an extra example for that section, or to skip a specific discussion question that didn’t prove fruitful, the next time around. The process of tweaking the course over time is a continuous one, not surprisingly, since teaching is a learning process in itself.

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