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Attackpoint - performance and training tools for orienteering athletes

Discussion: silver bullets

in: AliC; AliC > 2016-03-18

Mar 20, 2016 10:54 PM # 
Do you have a group that focuses on teaching methods? Sometimes struggling students need a different approach to the material. Not always an easy thing to do, though.

One of the most interesting courses I taught was a repeat of Western Civ to the cadets who had failed during first semester. Before the semester started, the faculty from the Center for Enhanced Performance tracked me down and suggested I come by for some suggestions about techniques that work with struggling students. It was worthwhile- they showed me how to pitch a lesson to students intimidated by a lot of reading (hmmm...every single homework assignment), writing (every graded requirement), and oral discussion (every class).

So I went into that semester with ideas on how to ground a wide-ranging oral discussion by building a visual, spatial, and temporal organizer on the board as we talked. We approached essay writing backwards - details, then topic sentences, then thesis statement. And we used a lot of maps. Oh wait, I did that anyway...

It worked surprisingly well. I think it made me a better teacher. And I learned that while I love reading and writing, I am a visual learner, myself! Now, working with Anna and Peter, I have better ideas how to think around the stuff that doesn't make sense.
Mar 23, 2016 4:14 PM # 
I agree that struggling students might need a different approach. There's a center for teaching and learning at Reed, I've gone to a bunch of their talks and workshops. And I'm sure I can improve my teaching, I've been at this only two years.

But I am grappling with the idea that somehow I need to do *more* when I feel like I'm giving 110% to this job already. I can try to make my lectures and classes better and potentially more visual would help a wider base. But I can't design and give a whole second lecture to give to the struggling students that might be what they need to succeed.

And at some point, it needs to be ok for students to fail - they are adults, I'm a professor, not a babysitter. (And sometimes it's clear that it is in fact more babysitting that's required- they aren't taking care of themselves, getting enough sleep, starting their work early enough.)

This feels more rant-y than I really mean. I like the suggestion to try to make sure my teaching is up to snuff and isn't only teaching to the top 25% of the class. Doing so with more visual stuff I think is spot-on!
Mar 23, 2016 8:08 PM # 
I work with 4th and 5th graders but I understand what you are saying completely. Granted, my students are very much not adults, but it's hard when you're giving 110% and just have no more to give. I love my job and I love my students but at a certain point I have to leave work and go home. However, as you both say there are always more ways to be efficient with the teaching time you have and learn to reach more students. It of course doesn't mean giving up and I think (hope?) that the longer I do it and the more I learn the better I become.
Mar 24, 2016 1:50 PM # 
I guess the question is who do you teach for? In Sam's position (or any other K-12 teacher), because this is fundamental stuff that you need for life, you need to aim for the lowest common denominator, but then the top 25% of the class is probably bored and starts to act out. Different problem.

In Ali's case, these are students who have chosen to pursue higher education in a demanding field, and the onus really should be on the student, rather than the teacher, to learn the material. That doesn't mean Ali should ignore the how-to-teach-better seminars, but rather underlines her point that at this level, it has to be ok for students to fail. Not an easy concept in this society.

I feel like the understanding should be that if you do the reading, pay attention at the lectures, and do the homework, the material should make sense. And if it still doesn't make sense, that's on you the student to decide if you want to give up on the topic and drop out, or seek help through alternative measures. I remember spending a LOT of time in the math student help center my freshman year, something about limits. But that extra time shouldn't be entirely the professor's time.

Good luck. You're in a tough position; hopefully it does get easier over time. It's hard being brilliant and trying to teach those of us who aren't! :)
Mar 24, 2016 9:17 PM # 
I sympathize. One of things I found so difficult about teaching was the fact that I never felt like I was done. There was always more prepwork to do, always more student help to give, always better problems to design. And I was only worried about teaching, I didn't have professor duties and research to worry about. What's expected of university professors is intense.

Are flipped lectures (like this kind) popular at Reed? I never fully committed to the approach but I did start using clicker questions and peer instruction, both of which I think can really help the best stay challenged and motivated while also helping the struggling students to get it. Maybe you are already doing these things?
Mar 25, 2016 2:47 PM # 
It's good to hear the idea of a teaching center and a different approach wasn't the revelation to all of you that it was to me. Sure, we had more experienced faculty observe us and provide feedback throughout the first year, and we had plenty of professional development seminars, but it was always the humanities faculty talking to ourselves. I don't think that's terribly effective if you're talking to a room full of STEM students who just want to check their humanities block off and move on, and I guess that's why I found the teaching center's advice so useful. But in a way, perhaps discussing learning style sets you up to have this discussion with struggling students, especially those who are making choices about their fields of study?

I hear you on the "doing more" part - with the exception of doing analytical work in a war zone, I think teaching was the thinnest I've been stretched in nearly 20 years in uniform, although grad school was pretty rough, too. (Yes, I think I just compared teaching to war, yikes). Ultimately, there's probably a balance in what you can do vs. what is too much, and one that probably changes as experience gives you some more breathing room. Anyone got a silver bullet for that? ;-)
Mar 26, 2016 10:57 PM # 
As someone getting ready to retire in the next year or two, I've struggled for a long time with how to reach students who are not doing well and deciding how much of my time am I really willing to give to my job. I love teaching and I love math, but I also need time for other things (like orienteering!).

One thing that I've learned though, is that many students these days are unprepared for college and not from a content point of view. Many don't understand that if homework is assigned but not collected and graded that they still need to do it if they want to succeed. They have not had to read a textbook for most of their math classes and so they have no inkling how to do that or even that they are expected to read it. Spending time in class talking about expectations for work outside of class has been something that I never used to do but now find I have to do. This is the "babysitting" part that I am increasingly finding necessary. I have students in my current Calc I class who have failed both of the first two exams and have a failing quiz average but who are surprised to learn they are currently failing the course. How is that possible? They tell me that because they are coming to every class and taking notes and trying that they think that should be enough. I am rearranging my office hours for the rest of this semester so that I can meet with the students who need some extra help on a regular basis.

Good luck. It's not easy.
Mar 28, 2016 7:03 PM # 
Ali, you have the world's best job- teaching physics and doing resaerch. I was always surprized that they paid me to do it.
I found that the biggest problem with helping students that were having trouble was actually identifying what they didn't understand. I found that when they asked about how to solve a particular problem, it paid to ask them a few questions to try to gauge what it was causing the hang up. Usually I found that there was something rather basic that needed further instruction. Then most would then happily go off to try the problem that had brought them to me.
I also found that it was possible to clear up lots of small difficulties in the few minutes before the class as the room was filling. I let it be known that this was a good time to ask. If it appeared that there several students with the same difficulty, I could just spend a few minutes at the beginning of the class.

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