Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Active Pedagogy and University English

Posted: Aug 17, 2010 16:08;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


For the last four or five years, I’ve been investigating ways of changing my teaching.

Like most faculty of my generation, I learned to teach largely by imitation and guesswork. I mimicked the teachers and classes I enjoyed as a student and otherwise experimented with techniques and ideas grabbed magpie-like from various sources.

Early on as a teaching assistant at Yale, for example, I learned that it was wrong to approach a discussion section with too much worked out in advance. I’d begun there by approaching sections much like an essay, with a developed thesis and arguments; even after dropping the thesis, I still found planning too much tended to squelch discussion. I soon ended up more-or-less self-consciously modelling my discussion sections on the panel discussion on the old McNeil-Lehrer Newshour (Now PBS Newshour): like the reporters who hosted those discussions, I saw my role as being largely facilitating the discussion by summarising points made by one person in the discussion and handing them off to others for comment.

This worked well at Yale, and, as I was recently reminded during a PhD seminar in Digital Anglo-Saxon studies at Memorial, is probably generally a good approach with highly motivated students who already have a sense of how literary scholarship works.

It works less well with students who don’t have a natural sense for what is interesting and appropriate in critical discussions or who have yet to develop experience in that kind of debate. While the “guided reflection” style does still work well for me in some situations, I’ve been really disturbed in recent years by how many students seem to have a difficult time understanding what the point of a literary discussion is or why discussion should be central to a literary class. Unfortunately, since most of my instructors seemed to assume we did have this innate knowledge or experience, the models I’d copied until now were of little use in overcoming this problem: as much as I loved and benefited from these approaches as a student, it is clear that for a lot of the students I now teach, the method is more of a help than a hindrance.

Addressing the problem is something that has occupied my thought (or at least the time I devote to thinking about teaching) for quite some time. An initial improvement came when I discovered constructivist pedagogical theory. While what I was doing was broadly (and naively) speaking constructivist in intent, reading formally constructivist guides to theory and practice allowed me to think about what I was doing meta-pedagogically and caused me to introduce some new ideas to my practice that I hadn’t seen in my own instructors’ practice. The most significant of these was realising the difference between formative and summative evaluation. I quickly introduced assignments and exercises into my classes that were intended to function in a primarily formative way—often with grading that allowed students to include only their best or favourite pieces of work in their final grades. I started allowing students access to their (on-line) exams to eliminate question bias and anxiety. I tried very hard to introduce opportunities for self-testing and self-directed exercises and practice material. And I worked very hard at explaining the purpose behind various assignments.

While some of these changes introduced improvements in the class, I still did not feel I was getting the results I wanted. In particular, I still found a pervasive lack of comprehension concerning the importance of class discussion, class presentations, and essays in a literary class. And I still got complaints on student evaluations asking me to lecture more.

In the last year, I’ve been reading more about “Active” learning and teaching—really a kind of approach to constructive teaching as far as I can see. This is a type of pedagogy that focusses on methods for getting students to engage in “deep” learning, or learning that involves the students’ own curiosity and active participation in developing an understanding of the material they are studying. This involves attempting to keep the class focus on formative evaluation rather than summative. Focus too much on summative evaluation and you find that students begin to engage in “Surface” learning—engaging in strategies designed to maximise their grades rather than their knowledge. But it also goes beyond that and attempts to find ways of encouraging students to learn by internalising the lessons—bringing their previous knowledge and experience to bear on the subject or problem and learning by modifying, supplementing, or replacing their previous knowledge of the subject. Active learning involves students wanting to learn and seeing their learning as something internal to their development as human beings rather than participants in a course.

This is of course what I hoped (largely unsuccessfully) that my students were doing in the methods that I imitated from my professors. The new things for me in reading about explicit approaches to actually carrying this off successfully with my own students were the range of techniques and exercises that have been explicitly developed for encouraging this kind of learning in students and, in more practical works, the understanding of what (many) students do and don’t know when they come into the University classroom (as the child of Physicist and a faculty member myself as an adult, I’ve lived my entire life in and around universities and at least viscerally as a participant in scholarly discussion and debate—the result is that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the kind of uncertainty how academia works many Active Learning researchers suggest is endemic in the first year classroom).

Two sites and one book in particular have been extremely helpful to me over the course of the last year in developing new teaching techniques:

The two websites in particular have a wealth of “recipe-like” proposals for exercises one can use in the classroom in order to promote the kind of reflexive and deep learning all faculty ultimately want to produce. They can seem a little “teachery” to somebody like myself who, I am realising, is very much a pedagogical conservative. And I’m not 100% sure I would have liked having them in classes taught by the professors who taught me, since one of the things I loved about University was that it involved getting away from “worksheets” and starting to learn directly at (what I at least thought was) the academic coal face itself. But since most students nowadays seem to want to be “taught by” rather than “study with” their professors, perhaps the problem thus far has been worrying too much about what I’d have liked if I were still a student ;)


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