Thursday, April 02, 2009

Teachable Module

Early in my teaching career, I contemplated the fact that there is a particular concept that is rather central to my Science but that is extremely difficult to explain. I experimented with various approaches:

- explaining a little bit about it so that students would at least have a general idea of what was involved, or

- spending a lot of time explaining in depth how the concept worked and why it was important and how it could be applied.

I wasn't happy with either one. One was too shallow and unsatisfactory and the other took up too much time in a team-taught course. Over the years, I tried various intermediate strategies, supplemented the course material with assignments, and tried to determine what worked and what didn't.

It took years, but eventually I figured out The Absolute Best Way to teach this concept (at least for me). I spent a few more years tinkering with it, and then I started talking to colleagues about it. I got invited to demonstrate it at some conferences and workshops devoted to teaching, and I gave the module some science ed people to distribute and make available to others.

It's not perfect (yet). Every year I adjust it a bit depending on the specific group of students, I replace old examples with new examples, and so on. I don't want this teaching module to be something static that I teach over and over and over for the rest of my life. But at the same time, I am pleased with it. I feel like I have solved a challenging puzzle and I like the fact that this module has been exported to other universities and can benefit other professors and students.

So this week was The Week in which I taught this particular part of the course. I always look forward to this. It's kind of like performing a favorite old song or acting a favorite role. No matter how many times I've performed The Module, though, I always 'practice' before class, at least in terms of looking over some notes and thinking about the examples I want to use.

I sometimes wonder whether I should tell the students about the history of this teaching module. Would they think it was interesting or would they think it was strange and irrelevant? I don't want to impress them (and I don't think this would), but maybe they would think it was kind of cool that this module, developed here in their department, was being used at other schools. Or maybe they would think I need to get out more, maybe get some hobbies.

When we teach, many of us present the material as if we just happen to know this stuff and are now telling some students about it. It's hard to know how much work goes into preparing a class until you've done it yourself, but, although it would be nice if students appreciated the great amount of effort involved in teaching, in a way it's also good if the students see our teaching as 'effortless'.

I think I'll keep the back-story of this teaching module in the background for now and just focus on trying it out on a new group of students. I am always curious to see how they respond to the questions I ask during class and how they do on the assignment after. If I ever make Teaching Module : The Movie on a DVD, I can put the back-story and the out-takes there.

16 comments:

Niket said...

As a student, I liked hearing such stories. They make professors more human and show how much thinking and effort goes into things that students have come to take for granted.

"History" can make science alive. I am still too young to have such anecdotes about "The Module," but if I have something cool, I share with my students.

Here in India, we do not run the risk of being labeled "too geeky".

geomom said...

you definitely need to get out more :-)

Anonymous said...

This is where a really good grad student TA can play a constructive role. You tell the TA, then the TA tells the class members (when you're not around of course).

Kris said...

Of course, now you've tantalised those of us who still don't know who you are to wonder about this cool module and how we could implement some of the things you've learned ...

volcanista said...

For what it's worth, I find that students like to know some backstory for the lessons I'm giving. Telling them that the last time around it was taught one way, and that didn't work that well, so this year we're doing it in such-and-such a way, seems to go over well. I think it communicates and reminds them of the fact that they are here to learn a particular objective, so it reinforces their ownership of their own education (and their role in taking an active part in that). Though I could understand not wanting to get into it if it would sound like you're bragging. :)

Anonymous said...

The Chronicle of Higher Ed has an article this week on using your classroom as a laboratory to develop more effective teaching strategies. Sounds like this is a great example!

dr. dave said...

This is always a tricky issue for me, since I don't really think students should get too clear a view of the "Man Behind the Curtain" as it were. I actually feel more compelled to let the students know when there are things that I HAVEN'T figured out how to teach yet. A couple times a semester I'll just start class by saying - "This is a really tough topic, and one that I haven't figured out the best way to present to a class like this, so... I'm going to take it slow and we;ll see how it goes..." and sometimes I'll tell them Feynman's theory that if you can't explain something to a room full of undergrads, you don't really understand it. But I've never been tempted to lay out the backstory to the lessons that WORK. (I have a few of those, too!)

Curt F. said...

The module is central to your field? And you don't usually mention anything about developing your lectures or curriculum to your class?

Sounds like telling your students about the time you've spent working on this module could reinforce how important and central to your science it actually is.

Cynthia said...

Interesting. I'm not a professor but I'm married to one, and I never realized how much work went into course prep until I saw it from behind the scenes. I don't think you could convey the work of developing this module to undergrads, but it would probably be interesting for grad students, esp. TAs, to know how much experimentation & thought it required to develop this method of teaching the concept.

bsci said...

This makes me think of one of my favorite undergrad teachers. He won a fairly prestigious award and gave a lecture on campus about teaching. He said that one of his methods is to have history of science vignettes that relate to the science lectures at head. Whenever he sees eyes start to glaze over, he switches to history, which both education, changes the pace, and wakes people up.
My immediate thought was of all the times I was falling asleep before we starting a history vignette and how he was completely able to manipulate the class' attention. It might be unpleasant to see the facade pulled back, but you bet it's a skill I'll try to use if I end up teaching at any level.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a contradiction here. when you teach a particular course, you want to show to your students that you have authority on the subject. Its not only important for you inside the class but also important for students in order to learn. When you show students how much effort you have put for a particular piece of course, its kind of showing humane side of your profession, that is perfectly ok as long as you want to give that impression to your students. Ultimately only few percentage of students will be able to appreciate it, whereas for vast majority either it will mean nothing (all they care about their grades and how to get it without too much effort).

sarcozona said...

I really like when professors share a little bit about how they decided to teach a particular concept. I had a math teacher who talked about how he decided to teach certain concepts and why, and even methods that failed. This always made me feel better when I didn't get things the first time around - if it's hard to explain, it's hard to understand!

Anonymous said...

Once the TA of my calculus class said (to the class) "I spent a lot of hours studying for this, and making all these examples. Please pay attention". And I did pay attention, nothing like a teacher who knows her stuff! :)

I think it would attract more interest from the students. Some will at least wonder what the big deal is about, and pay attention.

And now I am wondering... What is this module? How are you teaching it? Can it be used in engineering courses?

Anonymous said...

I love hearing how lectures are developed, but then I've always wanted to be a teacher. From talking to other students as an undergrad, I think about 70% would be interested. But I think Curt F. hit the nail on the head when he said noting the use of your module would reinforce the importance of the concept. And I always think it's good to toot your horn when it comes to successful teaching, since everyone benefits from that anyways.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking at the Chronicle of Higher Ed and somehow can't find the article referred to in the comment above... can you give a more detailed reference?

I'm referring to:
"The Chronicle of Higher Ed has an article this week on using your classroom as a laboratory to develop more effective teaching strategies. Sounds like this is a great example!"

Minos said...

Share, share, share. It's approximately ten times more important that the students learn "how to be a scientist" (and part of that is "how to teach-to convey what you have discovered to others") than learning the content of the module itself. Any single piece of content in a course has limited marginal value, but the one time they get a window on the process is a valuable moment for many of them.