Editor Q&A with class participant Copelan Gammon
Postbac fellow Copelan Gammon recounts key learning points from the annual “College Teaching for the 21st Century” workshop. This year, Dr. Kate Monzo, an integrated life sciences teaching fellow at the University of Maryland and former postdoctoral fellow from the Weinstein lab, led the workshop.
For fellows who have never heard about this course before, can you give a brief overview on the subject matter and layout of the course?
“College Teaching for the 21st Century,” taught by Dr. Kate Monzo, tells you what you need to know to successfully design and teach a college class that results in learning and isn’t given the nickname “Napping 101.” Dr. Monzo gives a comprehensive introduction to “backward” course design and student-oriented teaching strategies.
Traditional course design typically involves identifying content first, preparing material, and creating an assessment last: a road trip with no clearly identified destination or map to help you get there. In contrast, backward design requires identifying the desired outcome first, developing an appropriate assessment for the learning outcome, and then planning learning experiences and instruction that will directly help students achieve that outcome.
The course is divided into six, two-hour sessions, each focusing on a different topic:
- Backward design
- Learning outcomes
- Active learning
- Designing active learning activities
- Writing a teaching philosophy
Since the title of the course is “College Teaching for the 21st Century,” how do you think teaching differs in the 21st century?
Until recently, lecturing has been the undisputed standard in education. With more research in the field of education, science confirms what many students who don’t respond well to lectures already know; student-oriented, rather than teacher-oriented strategies, produce better learning outcomes. Lecturing, a teacher-oriented method, produces little student engagement and requires less complex cognition than teaching strategies that call for active student participation. Lecturing in a 21st century classroom full of laptops also risks students who are more engaged in social media than cell biology.
In contrast to traditional lecture, research shows that activities requiring complex levels of cognition promote deeper learning and are remembered longer. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a hierarchical model that allows educators to classify learning objectives by level of cognitive complexity. From least to most complex, Bloom identifies the abilities to remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create. For example, rote memorization falls much lower on the hierarchy than writing an original research proposal or identifying the correct formula to apply to solve a problem.
How do you think the workshop’s course material applies to teaching at a smaller liberal arts college versus a large research university?
The principle of building a strong course through backward design is relevant for all schools and courses regardless of size. When discussing learning activities, we identified challenges to implementation based on factors such as class size, time allotted, layout of room, etc. Working with Dr. Monzo, we came up with creative solutions to make these strategies work with any class. For instance, in a large class, effectively utilizing your teaching assistants to turn one large group into several smaller groups can allow for more active student participation.
Part of the course includes reading current research related to college teaching and learning. What were a few of the main findings you covered? Were there any findings in the research that surprised you?
The literature highlighted the success of various teaching strategies—such as active learning—in achieving learning outcomes, and it also covered the importance of fostering student metacognition for academic growth. The finding that surprised me the most focused on the innocuous classroom clicker, which I had previously only used for taking attendance and brief multiple-choice quizzes. The report demonstrated that clickers could be effectively used for deep learning by providing a framework for more thoughtful discussion by using “best answer” questions, or initiating conversation about common misconceptions.
The class description mentions well-designed learning outcomes and effective assessment strategies. What’s the difference between these two concepts, and what’s an example from the course about how to make them well-designed and effective?
Learning outcomes set a clear goal for what the student will know or be able to do after a learning activity. Assessment measures how well the student achieved the learning outcome. Vague outcomes like, “Students will learn about zebrafish,” are not easily assessable and should be avoided. Learning outcomes and assessments are also more effective if they are on the same or similar level of cognitive complexity. If a learning outcome states, “Students will be able to differentiate between live monarch and viceroy butterflies,” an assessment asking the learner to list the key differences between the two varieties would not be an appropriate or effective assessment of that learning outcome. A better assessment might be to give the students specimen samples to sort.
I’ve heard the phrase “active learning” on several occasions. What is active learning, and can you give a few examples of active learning activities?
Active learning, as compared to passive learning, deeply engages the learner with the content, using the teacher as a facilitator to help learners be actively involved in their own learning. Listening to a lecture is a common form of passive learning. Active learning activities come in diverse forms. For example, the “Think, Pair, Share” technique asks learners to first think independently, then come together in pairs to discuss, and finally share their thoughts with the class. One of my personal favorites come from a psychology and law class I taught, where students participated in a mock forensic interview with a “psychopath.” I asked students to familiarize themselves with the criteria, ask relevant and revealing questions, and use the information they discovered to evaluate whether the actor met the criteria for psychopathy.
What is a teaching statement? Any tips on how to write a good one?
Your teaching philosophy statement is a brief document that clearly details your teaching approach, methods, and experience. Make it personal. Teaching philosophies are as diverse as teachers, and your statement should reflect who you are and what your goals are in the classroom.
How did this class change or validate your view on teaching?
As both a learner and occasional teacher, I found myself constantly reflecting on how I could have incorporated information and tools from this class to improve the ones I’ve taken or taught in the past. It clarified some of the frustrations I have previously encountered as a student in a massive lecture hall, and validated my love of active learning activities.
What was the most important take away from the class, for you?
Most students need to be taught how to learn. When I arrived at college I realized I was never taught how to learn or study properly, and was used to succeeding without a lot of hard work. Teaching how to learn at higher cognitive levels, along with self-reflection, would have been a useful tool, and it is a module I would add to the beginning of any course.
For fellows who are interested in taking the course, but aren’t sure if they want to dedicate the time to it, what would you say to them?
The time commitment is small in comparison to what you will gain. Even for those who aren’t planning to teach soon, the content of this course will make you a better learner as well. I highly recommend this course to anyone!