Microlearning in F2F Classes
Recently, I read this post by Peggy Semingson. In it, she discusses the concept of microlearning in online education. She defines microlearning as:
Microlearning consists of microcontent that is delivered via an electronic device, including but not limited to a mobile device, app, learning management system, computer, and/or laptop. The goal is to “chunk” learning into smaller bits of content so as not to overwhelm the learner.
While you can apply microlearning to your online courses, you can apply them in F2F situations as well. When I read Peggy’s article, I realized I had been utilizing a broader version of the concept in my F2F classes and would now be thinking about how to apply it in my online ones.
So, what does microlearning look like in F2F? Well, think about it in terms of chunking. When I taught F2F, my classes met once a week for two hours and fifty minutes. What was I going to do with that time? Well, obviously, the first thing to consider was what I wanted students to focus on and (hopefully) learn during a single session. Then, I needed to consider how I would use the time to get us there. This is where chunking came in.
I would chunk learning segments into experiences that ranged from 15 minutes all the way up to 45 minutes. Fifteen minutes might represent a video followed by a 10 minute discussion. Then, we would shift into our next chunk of class time. A 45 minutes stretch might seem too long to be a chunk, but within that 45 minutes I would break it down into smaller bits. For example, while the entire 45 minutes might be focused on learning one or two concepts, The first 10 minutes might be a lecture, the next 20 might be small group or independent work, and then the last 10-15 minutes could be a debriefing. So even with a 45 minute spread we are shifting and doing different things. Nothing is the same for a straight 45 minutes.
I had all of this written out on a sheet of paper in a notebook that I used for the given class. Actually, I had it written out in two places. First, it was documented on our class website in the overview section where I described what students could expect to happen on a given day. They could see the chunks of class and what we would do within it. However, I didn’t write down how much time would be devoted to each chunk. I had that sketched out in my notebook (I’ll talk more about my teaching notebook next week).
I have never directly solicited student feedback on my approach to how I structure class. However, comments have inadvertently made their way to me. These include:
I was worried about what we would be doing for nearly three hours! I thought I would be bored, but we’re always doing different things in class. We never did the same thing for too long.
Class always goes by fast because we always do a number of things. I appreciate how things were switched up and how we got to do a variety of activities in a single session.
This class is engaging! I love all the different things we get to do.
Honestly, I like it too. I like that we change things up and move around and engage with concepts in different ways over the course of a class. So while chunking, and microlearning, is certainly important in online classes, it’s a useful concept in F2F ones too.
How do you use chunking and microlearning in your classes? How would you like to? Tell me in the comments or tag it on twitter at #teachingacademia
The Syllabus as Verb
Recently, I wrote a post where I talked about how I structured my syllabus around the terms Read, Watch, Do, & Play. I used these terms because I thought they better captured the spirit of the work I was asking students to do in my upcoming online course.
I received some feedback on twitter:
Now, I don’t have all the answer here. I don’t really have any answers actually. I only have thoughts and idea. This whole read, watch, do, play thing as a way to structure my syllabus is new, and I have not enacted it yet. However, I do think it would work well in any context – F2F, hybrid, or online – for a few reasons:
It Makes Things Manageable
As a student, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with everything you have to do in and for class. This structure – a class playlist – has the potential to calm everyone down. For my class, in Week 1, there are 11 things for students to do that week. Not all of them need to be completed within the first week, but most do (around 90%). Put that into one long list, and of course that seems daunting.
Break it up under the appropriate verb and suddenly, psychologically, it’s so much easier. The Read category has only one thing in it. You can do one thing! And you can do it right now and be done with that category for the week! You have immediately accomplished something. Play has two things and the other two columns have four.
Additionally, what do you, as a student, feel like doing today? Do you want to watch something? Play? Do both? Pick and choose your way through the week. While I often recommend an order for how to progress, that is never set in stone.
This works just as well in a F2F class, and it works well in two different ways:
- Just like in an online class, it keeps students structured and focused on what to do in-between sessions. The list is divided up in ways to make it easy to get through
- In class you can do the same thing. You don’t have to present it to your students this way, but you would think of your in class gathering as a series of verbs – and maybe even different ones. For example, watch, do, play work. So does Challenge, Solve, Question, Examine, Analyze, etc…You can change the verbs week to week for your in class session.
Riffing a bit more on #2, I always like to do a written overview of what we will be doing in a F2F class. I publish it a week in advance for students to see. It includes any links to things we will need during the session. While I might not break up the session based on verbs (though you could try it; i think it’s worth a go), I might bold the verbs or put them in all caps – something to draw attention to what they will be doing.
Breathe Life Into Your Syllabus
What I like about using verbs to organize and frame my syllabus – and even F2F sessions – is that it puts life back into them. These are not dead documents or boring sit and get lectures. I want my students to be active and engaged. Therefore, I need to create documents and experiences that reflect that.
Additionally, we can use the verbs as a way to from discussions. We talk about what we read, what we played, what we analyzed. The emphasis is always on doing something and what we learned from the experience. You can connect content back to the verb (remember when we analyzed this, played that, watched this, etc..).
It’s a small change, and it’s probably language you already use. The important aspect is reorganizing our syllabus/class around verbs and putting greater emphasis on them. When we do that, in any context, I think it has potential for not just getting students to be more active but connecting their activity to what they have learned. Hopefully it will help things stick.
Issues of Time in Teaching Online: Part 2
Last week I started talking about how I think about time as it relates to teaching online. I noted I had to think through two areas: (a) how much time students should spend engaged in the course during a week and (b) how much time I will be spending. Last week, I discussed how I thought about time as it relates to students’ engagement with the course. In this post I want to think about how I will use my time in teaching it.
The biggest thing that is throwing me is this lack of F2F meetings. Even when I taught hybrid courses, I still had a F2F session typically every other week. Those sessions, I think, grounded me in some way. They probably kept the students grounded too. I see those F2F sessions now as anchors. They gave us all a set time and place to check in. In an asynchronous class, how do we create these anchors? Because I do think they are important for both myself and the students.
One obvious way to create an anchor is too clearly define the schedule. I decided that the first day of class was the day the university said classes started (a Wednesday). I then defined a week as Wednesday-Tuesday. This is something that happens in a standard F2F class, and in hybrids, but is super critical in an online class where we have to move through at a set pace.
I want to make a quick distinction here: I think that if this class were competency based, more self-paced, and not grounded in having to meet university semester requirements, I would not be setting up a week system like I did. But, under the current structure and rules, I think it’s necessary. In a competency, self-paced system you probably still need anchors, but I would imagine they would look different.
The Feedback Process
The other thing that’s throwing me about not having an in class meeting ever is the time. On the one hand, I suppose it seems very nice. I don’t have to show up at a certain time every day of the week to teach class. On the other hand, that time must be utilized in some way.
I’ve talked about how I will be implementing weekly challenges for my students. I F2F classes, we would do these challenges during class. They wouldn’t take the entire time, but we might have an activity that was 45-60 minutes. The goal was never to produce a finished product within that time, but it was to have an experience around something related to what we were learning in class. Usually I gave extra points if people wanted to continue working on whatever we did and finish it.
But in a F2F class, I am there to answer questions and give feedback as students engage in a challenge. Even if they don’t ask me any questions, I am still there walking around, talking to them about their work, etc…as they do it. This is missing from an online class. I can tell students to confine their time in terms of a challenge (i.e. don’t spend more than an hour on this), but I can’t be wandering around and interacting with them while they do it.
Obviously a chunk of my time will be spent providing feedback on things like these challenges, but how I go about it will be different. I’m not sure what I mean by that yet, but I imagine it will work itself out. I’ll get back to you in a couple of months if something interesting emerges.
My Own Structure
Obviously I need to think about how and when I use my time each week once class launches. When I taught F2F and hybrid, I always made sure that I had time blocked out each week where I planned my classes and took care of feedback/grades. This is still critical. Although I am not accountable for an in-person session, I do need to plan each week what my students will be doing and then interact with them around it. I need to make sure I have time blocked out on my calendar each week to do this. It may be that I need some time most days or it might be that a chunk of time once or twice a week will do it. That’s to be determined, but it has to be worked in there.
There are things around time and structure that are different in a purely online class. I am just getting a handle on it, but I think it’s important to create an awareness of it for yourself if you haven’t already. As I move through the semester, I’ll be making adjustments and sharing my process with you.
Issues of Time in Teaching Online: Part 1
One of the things I have struggled with in going fully online is thinking through issues related to time. Specifically I have had to think through: (a) how much time students should spend engaged in the course during a week and (b) how much time I will be spending. In this post, I want to focus on how I thought through time as it relates to students’ engagement with the course. Next week, we’ll look at how I think about how I will use my time in teaching it.
Previously, when I taught hybrid classes, issues related to time were not terribly difficult. Students typically met face to face every other week with me. We had a defined block of time (two hours and fifty minutes). I knew, from teaching 100% F2F classes, how much work to assign between these sessions. I also knew how to structure class for students.
The weeks in-between, where we didn’t meet in person, might have been a little light if I’m being honest, but I don’t think they were too easy. I’d rather students be able to do something well, even if that means I went a tad light on the workload, than be overloaded and not able to do their best work. These in-between weeks were devoted to things like twitter chats and challenges that were designed to keep them engaged with the overall purpose of the class. It worked fine.
Transitioning to Online
As I planned my first syllabus, I started to realize two things:
- It looked like I had identified way more work for some weeks than was reasonable
- I had no sense of time from the students’ perspective
After thinking through things like readings, videos to watch, and assignments I realized I had forgotten that I would not be meeting students in person at all. Also, because the course is 100% asynchronous, there are never any formal blocks of meeting time. This was helpful to understand. What it allowed me to do was consider what contact hours in a F2F class might look like when moved into an online environment.
If we think about the standard three credit class, with two hours and fifty-minutes of contact time per week, then the first thing we can do is consider how that time can be spent by students in an online class. Next, we can consider what we would normally assign students to do between sessions and how much time that should take. When we combine these understandings together we can start to better understand how to help students spend their time in an online class.
What I Did
I constructed my syllabus based on what students will read, watch, do, and play. For readings, I assigned what I would generally assign students to read each week in a F2F class. I could assign more, but in thinking through how I wanted students to use their time I decided I wanted them to be engaged with things besides reading. This was a personal choice. You could, of course, assign more readings.
Beyond the readings, I assigned students videos to watch every week. The average time spent watching videos is an hour. I think only one video is an hour long documentary. The rest of the time students watch multiple videos that range from 10-20 minutes. Podcasts are also included here although they are not as prevalent.
My Do/Play column is where assignments are. I wanted to use the most time here. This is where we find assignments that might take several weeks or a semester to complete along with weekly challenges (assignments that are meant to extend learning for the concepts that week and have must be done that week).
In short, I thought about what I would do during a F2F class. We would normally have a short lecture (10-15 minutes), class discussions, likely watch some videos (typically no more than 20 minutes), and engage in what I am now calling challenges. I simply took these aspects and moved them online.
Thinking About the Time Frame
One thing I realized as I planned my syllabus is that the flow of the course is going to be different from a F2F class. For example, in a typical hybrid class (for me) I would normally meet with students F2F during the first two weeks. The third week would start the online week.
For our first session, Week 1, there would be no readings. But I would have readings for Week 2. I would expect students to complete the readings by the time they came to class for Week 2. We would then do work in class around those readings.
For a 100% online class, this didn’t feel right for me. This is because I think I am asking students to already do a decent amount of work each week on their own. For example, during Week 1 for my online class students have plenty to do without adding a list of readings and watching videos on top of it. So what I ended up deciding is that what you see on the syllabus is what you should do that week.
What does this mean? It means that when we enter Week 2, students should start doing everything that is listed on the syllabus for that week. They should start the readings when Week 2 begins. Yes, they can do them sooner, but they don’t have to.
Now, throughout this post I’ve been talking about weekly challenges. In a F2F class, I would have students doing activities (challenges) in class that corresponded with the readings. They showed up to class having completed the readings. This is not the case for how I’ve been thinking about the online class. So…what do these challenges look like?
Well, the interesting thing about the challenges is that I now have the opportunity to blend them across weeks. For example, in Week 2, I might have students do some things that relate to the readings, but I will also have them do some things that extend back to Week 1. I’ll be saying more about my challenges in a future post, but think of them as short assignments students do to extend their learning. I see myself using the online space to constantly explore new ideas and go back and revisit old ones. It’s a lot less neater than when I taught F2F and would have had the challenges align squarely with the readings and topic of the week.
Read, Watch, Do, Play
In working to set up my fall online class, I eventually made it to the point where I needed to get serious about getting the schedule organized. Now, a typical syllabus would normally have a table that includes the date, topic, readings, and whatever might be due. It’s perfectly reasonable, and I’m not suggesting not to do it. It keeps both you and your students organized, and it sets boundaries and expectations for the course.
However, as I began to construct my table I found that I had some ideas that didn’t fit neatly into the standard boxes. For example, during the first two weeks of the class I want my students to locate and play a video game. This could fall under assignments, but that seemed to not capture the spirit of what I was asking. I wanted them to play. I wanted them to enjoy what they were doing. And, to me, the act of playing is much different than the act of completing an assignment.
So I stepped back and thought about what I wanted students doing throughout the semester, and I decided to represent my answer on the course calendar as primarily a series of verbs – the things they will do. I still have basic organizational structures on the calendar as you can see here (click on the picture to make it bigger).
From this, you can see I still have commonly listed things (date, week, and topic). I still have assignments and readings but now I have grouped things as verbs – read, watch, do, and play. Grouping experiences as verbs came to me when I realized I didn’t want to assign students to play a video game – I simply wanted them to play a game. Additionally, we’ll be having weekly challenges and I want them to see those as something they play.
The read category is exactly what you think it is. It’s a list of readings. The watch category allows me to set aside videos and group them all in one place under a common heading. The do category could be assignments, but I see it as a to-do list for the most part.
The nice thing about breaking it up like this, I think, is that while there is a list of things I want students to do it doesn’t end up getting presented to them in a single long list for each week. For example, in Week 1 there are nine things students need to engage in. However, split up across four columns it looks manageable (which it is). Seeing a list of nine bullet points would be a lot more overwhelming I think.
Now, I always provide students with an overview for the week. I will do it in both written and video formats. That is intended to give them background knowledge on what we are doing and also help them think about how to approach the material. For example, in Week One I tell them I think it’s best to watch the videos in the order I have listed them in and I go on to explain why. However, they can do what they choose. They can engage with the Read/Watch/Do/Play in any way they want (technically). I tell them what I think is a good approach but ultimately they take it from there.
Finally, I like the use of verbs as column headings because students can decide what they are in the mood for. Want to watch a video? You know how to easily locate one. Need to do a challenge? Find it in the Play column. Students don’t have to sift through a list and guess if something is a reading or a video or whatever. It’s clear.
In the end, I think this is just a very simply structural change to my syllabus that I believe makes it a lot more organized. In an online class, I think this is key. In a F2F class I probably would not have thought to do this. Most videos I have students watch are short (15 minutes or less) and could be watched during a three hour in person session. Any video I would have shown during a F2F class I would have embedded in my weekly overview write up.
Which brings me to my final point – you structure class the way you need to structure class. And you structure your syllabus the way you need to structure your syllabus. And context can change that. Be open. Play with it.
The Messiness of Online Teaching
As you know, I am gearing up to teach my first fully online course this fall (and a second in the spring). Until now, I have taught only hybrid classes. I’m very excited and, if you’ve been following, I’ve been exploring lots of ideas for what I might do (see here, here, and here). It finally reached the point where I had played around enough, and it was time to start making some decisions about what to do for the fall course.
This is when I started running into problems. Not major problems. Nothing that can’t be fixed. But I want to highlight some of the issues today that I ran into as a first timer and share my thinking about them with you.
Welcome to the LMS
While not a fan of the LMS in general, I decided that for my first time out the gate (and in a new position), I should give it a shot. The problem is that I had to fill out a form to get access to the LMS, and I am waiting for that form to process. By the time I learned I had to fill out a form and then wait for someone to approve it I had easily squashed two weeks (and I’m still not approved yet). This means I cannot start learning the LMS or setting anything up. And not only is this frustrating, bit it is causing me to panic.
I’m not a last minute person. At all. I do my best work over time when I can play with ideas and retool things. At the moment I have plenty of time to devote to getting the class in shape, but no space to design it in. I can’t just sit here anymore and wait on people to sign off on things. Given the circumstances, I decided to go back to my default (wikispaces) because I know how to design courses using that format. I decided that when I do get access to the LMS I might use some of the features but most likely now I will be linking out of it. Oh well. I was never bound to the LMS anyways.
Let’s Fancy the Joint Up (Or Not)
I have been reading about lots of great things that I could do in my online courses. Eventually it was time to see if I could put some of those ideas in action. And now I’m back to being seriously overwhelmed. Here I became overwhelmed thinking about:
- design: I have to think through what an appropriate amount of work/interaction looks like in an online space; while I have some experience with this because of my hybrid courses, I found that I still had issues to think through going fully online
- too much new: teaching online is new; I’m willing to give an LMS at least a partial glance which is new; the ideas I found intriguing were new and a lot of work in and of themselves. That’s a lot of new to balance out!
Here is where I decided to cut myself some slack. I just left a position I had been in for 12 years and moved across the country. That in and of itself is a lot of work. I’m teaching fully online for the first time. That is not necessarily a lot of work, but it requires a shift in thinking and planning. Once I processed this I made the following decision which was:
What you are doing is more than enough in and of itself. You do not have to do it all right now. Get the basics under control. Teach in ways that are relatively familiar. That is enough, and there is nothing wrong with it.
I can be particularly hard on myself, but since the move I have learned to tell myself, “You are enough. This is enough. Let it be enough.”
So for now, I will keep reading and exploring. I will continue thinking through the possibilities online teaching has to offer and how we might enact them. But I will also allow myself to simply be and experience this first year of teaching online. And from there, I will forge ahead.
The Importance of Failure
Recently, I came across this article which discusses the importance of normalizing failure as a part of the learning process. Failure, the author argues, is a part of the learning process. However, from the moment we first enter schools failure is treated as something to be avoided at all costs. It is something to be ashamed of as a student. If you are a teacher, you can be seen as a poor one if your students experience failure.
And yet, as both students and teachers, we all experience failure. If handled appropriately, we can always learn from it and grow.
As a professor, I have experienced students at every level simply want to reproduce whatever it is they think I need to see in order to get an A. I understand that. At this point in their lives that’s what they’ve been conditioned to do. Additionally, the higher your GPA the more access you have to other opportunities. A great GPA in high school is needed for college. Another is needed for grad school.
So I get it. And I cannot change this system.
On the flip side, if I take a risk as an instructor, and it doesn’t pan out, then I am at risk for students giving me low evaluations which could have a negative impact on my job (see my posts here and here). In this case, no one (in my experience) is interested in contextualizing the evaluations. No one is going to try to understand what new idea I am working on and how I am, in light of the experiences I just had, attempting to refine it.
And yet, we have to get over this fear of failure, and we have to help our students get over it as well. We have to normalize it, but we also have to set up a system so we don’t penalize it.
Failure in Teaching
Failure in teaching is a pretty strong statement. What I mean is we have to allow for us, as educators, to try out new methods, assignments, and so on. For example, when I decided to apply the concept of gamification to my teaching that was a pretty huge risk. I spent all summer long working on it (and since I am on a 9-month contract this means I did it, technically, without pay). I researched it. I skyped with people about it.
Was it perfect straight out of the gate? Of course not.
Were there things I could have done better? Absolutely.
My teaching evaluations from the first few rounds of this were actually fine, but I was prepared for them not to be given the drastic change in how students experienced my course. There were things I did not like about the course each time I taught it, and I worked to improve those elements either in the moment or the next iteration.
I decided to take on the challenge of gamifing my courses simply because I wanted to. I had read about it, found it interesting, and thought it would help me rethink teaching and learning, and it did. Without our higher education system, we have to give educators lead way to take risks in their teaching – however it is they want to challenge and push themselves to improve. And we cannot penalize them if their evaluations come back low. What we can do is have conversations about the teaching and where it’s headed. If you know your limitations, and have ideas for how to improve, then that makes you a good, if not great, educator. I don’t care what your evaluations say.
If all you do is stay the status quo, never change, and always get fine evaluations, what does that mean? Are you really better than someone who pushed the envelope and maybe had a few falls along the way?
I tend to think the people who push themselves have something to offer us. They can educate us about their approaches – which includes the failures and the struggles. Knowing where another struggled and fell is useful to me. I can look for it in my own teaching. We need to set up systems that reward this kind of risk taking. Or maybe we don’t need a system at all. Maybe what we need is a culture that values us to challenge ourselves as teachers and re-conceptualize what we do now and then.
The Scary Part About Being a Student
It’s summer! I just moved from North Carolina to Wyoming to start a new job. I’m getting settled in. Posts between now and August 21st will be intermittent as I get up to speed. Regular content will resume August 21st.
Recently, I drove about 1800 miles to move from Durham, NC to Laramie, WY. You can do the drive in three days if you’re willing to drive 8-10 hours a day and stop only for necessities. I didn’t want to do that and took 5 1/2 days to get here stopping to see the sights along the way.
One of the places I stopped at was the City Museum in St. Louis. I had no real understanding of what this place was and simply went on the recommendation of a friend who said I had to go there. If you’ve never been, there is no way to explain what this place is like (however this site and this one do a really solid job). One of the things they are known for is an elaborate, man-made cave system that you can explore. However, that’s just one aspect of this place which encompasses 600,000 square feet.
There are, of course, other things you need to know about this place. For example, there are slides everywhere. You can be walking around and suddenly a hole appears next to you. It could be a tunnel that you can climb through OR it could be a slide that leads to who knows where. You have to decide if you want to take the slide or not, and it’s not a simple decision to make. Taking the slide means letting go of exploring where you are at, and you might be interested in seeing what lies ahead. If you go down the slide, you will end up someplace that may or may not appeal to you, and getting back to where you had been before you took the slide isn’t necessarily easy and, in fact, may never happen.
Why? Because there are no maps at the City Museum. You just have to go for it.
And during my experience there I couldn’t help but think about how what I was doing in the museum helped me better understand myself as a teacher and just how scary it could be to be a student in one of my classes.
It’s not that City Museum doesn’t have any directions as far as where things are. When you enter the lobby there’s a sign that tells you the cave system is directly ahead. That’s kinda about it. You have to figure out where things are and, as a result, end up getting annoyed, frustrated, scared, and excited. I experienced at least all of those emotions.
The whole no map thing reminded me of how I recently started exploring the idea of creating customizable paths in my class this fall. The options for students would be to have a map – completely crafted by myself to meet goals I had determined – or to create their own based on a set of choices placed before them (and then they can tailor their experience towards their own goals). What I learned through my experience at City Museum is that this isn’t as straight-forward as having students decide which path they want to take.
Why? Because sometimes you challenge yourself and get completely freaked out.
The first thing I did at the museum was enter the cave system. But I immediately found out I didn’t understand what was going on. Do I just start climbing anywhere? Go through any opening? Is that allowed? I was an adult conditioned to a system where there are rules that I should follow, and I kept looking for someone to tell me what to do.
There was an opening in front of me so I started to enter it when a woman said, “You are brave.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I can’t make myself go down that part,” she answered. “It’s dark and narrow.
Upon closer inspection I thought, well, it does look a bit scary, but I can do this. And in I went.
And she was right. It was dark and narrow. And while I knew, logically, that I was completely safe and that, eventually, I would come out of this dark and narrow place I couldn’t do it. I panicked. I could have pushed forward, but doing so would have required me to make a series of decisions about which way to go (there were usually options and this was rarely a straight path) and put up with my fear and discomfort. But I didn’t do it. I let the fear take over and I backed out the way that I had come in because I knew that would get me out of the tight spot I had gotten myself into.
How This Experience Informs My Teaching
For me, City Museum asked me to take risks. I didn’t know where I was going most of the time. I didn’t know where I would end up. Sometimes things got uncomfortable. I realized I ask my students to do the same. I ask them to do things that are not a big deal to me but that are a big deal to them. I am sure there were plenty of kids running around the museum that day that would not have understand my panic in the caves. For them, it was nothing, you just keep making decisions about which way to go and you end up where you end up. Some of them likely had been enough times that they knew where they were going.
Second, when students take risks I need to give them options if they push themselves too far. I pushed myself too far in this example. But I knew how to get out of it (back out the way I had come in) and doing so had zero consequences. I didn’t fail at the museum or get kicked out. I simply made decisions from there on out that didn’t put me back in the same position. Yes, this limited my experience at the museum but I don’t regret it. I wasn’t ready for all the experiences the museum had to offer. However, I learned a lot just from wandering around within the spaces I was comfortable. Being in the museum was so new that it was overwhelming. I didn’t need to take it all on at once. What I needed was multiple trips. Over time I would likely start pushing my boundaries a bit.
If students take risks, and go farther than they are ready, then I need to consider what that means in the context of class. I want students to take risks, and I like the idea of them deciding how much of a map they want to be provided with. However, I learned it’s easy to get excited about push yourself too far. When that happens, there needs to be a way out that comes without consequences.
If the idea is to learn, but to also push yourself, then I have to recognize that sometimes this will fail. Just like I recognized that I didn’t want to continue on in a particular part of the cave system so too might students realize they have taken on too much or selected a task that ended up being more than they were ready to take on. This isn’t failure, and we shouldn’t treat it as such. This is recognizing one’s one limitations at the moment and adjusting accordingly.
Yes, I could have kept on in the cave system despite the overwhelming fear and panic I felt within the tight space I had wandered into. But what would it have accomplished? Probably nothing but relief when I got myself out – which is exactly what I felt when I backed myself out. What would have been the point of dragging it out? Yes, I would have learned that I was capable of doing it and surviving, but I would have just endured it. I don’t think I would have learned much else.
I don’t want students to endure class. I want them to learn and grow. And giving them that experience might require backing up and re-configuring the path. I need to remember to make space for that.
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Framing the Problem
When I think about writing a syllabus, and how I want to structure a class, I tend to formulate it around questions. For example, I have taught a class where the overarching question was, “What does it mean to be literate?” and another where it was, “What counts as knowledge?” I then use these larger questions to identify smaller, usually weekly, questions that help us explore the overarching one.
This approach is totally fine. I like it a whole lot better than setting specific course objectives. Students come to class on Day One, we explore the overarching question, and I get insight into where they stand with it all. It’s good stuff.
But recently I read something – and I am sorry but I cannot recall what I was reading or where – and it inspired me to think a bit differently about how I frame my courses. Rather than set objectives, or framing it through questions, what if I instead asked my students to consider what problem or problems they wanted to use the course to work on solving.
This approach may not work well for undergraduates, but it could work well in masters and possibly doctoral level courses. In a masters course, particularly those that are designed for working professionals, students come into the class with questions and issues related to their work. They can then use the course as a space to work on those problems.
Of course the dance here is that this is a class and not an independent study. I am not suggesting that we should craft numerous independent studies for each student. Part of the reason (I assume) you take courses is to interact with people who have knowledge and experiences different from your own and who can push and challenge you in different ways. Not everything in a course has to align with a problem a student wishes to address. Rather there should be space inside the course for students to tackle several small issues or one large one.
The goal, as I see it, is not about solving the problem but making progress in understanding and responding to it. If we return to the dual pathways idea, we can see that this kind of design gives us the opportunity to frame a course in this manner. On the one hand, maybe somebody who comes into my course sees their problem as simply not knowing much about the topics we are examining. Maybe they consider themselves a novice. That’s fine. Their goal is to simply gain more information and become better informed. In the dual pathway approach, this person can stick to the agenda I have crafted for them.
But maybe somebody else has some experience and knowledge about the course and has specific questions and issues they want to examine. I still design my course. It still has readings and assignments, and so on…but because I set it up as a dual pathway it can easily allow for students to frame the course around a problem they want to solve.
In the past, I’ve always tried to have at least one assignment where students can frame it around something of interest to them. However, what I am suggesting in this post is a bit different. I’m suggesting that students frame the entire course around a problem they want to address. They then get on the pathway and make decisions about what they want to do based on that problem. Again, the problems would range in complexity.
It’s an interesting approach, and one that can give a lot of power (and hopefully meaning) to students as they experience a course. It’s an idea I’m twirling around in my head right now and thinking about implementing for the upcoming academic year. If it sounds a bit messy right now, that’s because it is messy in my mind.
But I’m ok with that.
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