14 May 2011

Looking Back at a Year of Teaching

Just at the time I was getting back into a habit of writing for this blog, I was invited to take on some additional "emergency" teaching at the university where I work (TRU). The students were quite fun to work with, and the courses were mostly concerned with writing and presenting material, so what I presented in these new courses were things I had already prepared to give to my other classes. The grading of work involved time that I would have spent reflecting and writing. However, that work is now in the past, and I can return to this blog.

For me, writing is a good opportunity to reflect upon my practice and to think clearly and carefully about how to be a better writer, teacher, and person. I hope to have time to write regularly this summer (and I hope you can put up with my need to ramble a bit while I think). There are many experiences that I had coaching students this past year, and I want to come to understand these experience more clearly.

On the whole, students seem to expect:
  • to learn whatever teachers decide to present in class, 
  • to work as little as possible to get the grades students feel they're entitled to, and 
  • to be given a detailed recipe that guarantees the highest possible grade for any work they submit. 

I began each semester of the year by telling students that I expected them to work as independent learners. This approach runs entirely counter to the expectation students arrive at class with. Rather than to tell students what to learn, I presented them the opportunity to control their own learning. This, they mostly rejected.

I have some carefully considered and stated standards for written work. These standards relate to such things as research, reflection, organization, clarity, reasoning, style, and mechanics. When students this year submitted assignments that were poorly researched and organized, unclear, and poorly edited, they were surprised to get grades that reflected the quality of their work.

Some of the more dedicated independent learners took up the challenge after their first few assignments were marked, greatly increasing their efforts and the quality of their work; others merely complained. Though "I've paid for an A" was never actually stated in so many words, the very clear impression was given me that students did not consider the standards I was using to evaluate their work to be expected or fair in the university context. Apparently in other courses, the ability to write (vaguely) about a chosen topic (sometimes not the one assigned) for the requisite number of pages/words, constitutes grounds to award some very high marks indeed.

I understand the need for assignment rubrics; I agree that students need enough direction to be able to generally succeed in fulfilling the assignment. What I don't agree with is the notion of rubrics that fully specify assignment expectations such that merely following the rubrics in the most mechanical way possible guarantees the highest possible score on the assignment.

The first problem that arises with fully-specified rubrics is that they inhibit creativity in student performance. It is not possible to set up an assignment that requires students to create something from the topics they have studied and to specify the product fully. Students who want simply to follow a plan are not going to be creative in their work.

Secondly, writing is not like certain sorts of more elementary education where there is always only one right answer. Writing must involve flexibility, and the sort of rubric that would provide exhaustive direction to one student would stifle another who used a different approach or had different talents.

Finally, the notion of the fully-specified rubric implies that I teach writing because I 'have arrived' as a writer. This is contrary to my personal learning path; I teach what I am most passionate about learning. If I could fully list the sorts of writing that would completely and thoroughly fulfill an assignment, what would be left for me to learn? My students teach me better writing, and they do this by exceeding the expectations I have set for their work.

My strategy for this first year of full-time teaching at a new post was to use the existing curriculum with as little change as possible, given my commitment to collectivist, constructivist learning, social media, and a shift from paper to more recently-developed technologies in coursework. Should I be given the opportunity to continue instruction in writing in the coming year, I think I will focus my course learning objectives more firmly around my commitments in these areas and less around the former 'accepted core' of the courses.

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