Graduate programs provide very strong training in how to be an effective researcher, but generally provide grad students with little preparation for teaching careers. In this episode, Dr. David Gooblar joins us to discuss what all faculty should know to enable us to create a productive learning environment for all of our students.
David is the Associate Director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Temple University, a regular contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the creator of Pedagogy Unbound. He is also the author of The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You about College Teaching.
- Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Temple University
- The Chronicle of Higher Education
- Pedagogy Unbound
- Gooblar, D. (2019). The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You about College Teaching. Harvard University Press.
- Augustana College
- Finkel, D. L. (2000). Teaching with Your Mouth Shut.
- Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.
- Polly Fassinger, Director of Institutional Research at Macalester College
- Benjamin Hassman, Lecturer and Director of the Conversation Center at the University of Iowa
John: Graduate programs provide very strong training in how to be an effective researcher, but generally provide grad students with little preparation for teaching careers. In this episode, we explore what all faculty should know to enable us to create a productive learning environment for all of our students.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Fiona: My name is Fiona Coll. I teach in the Department of English and Creative Writing here at SUNY Oswego and this is my turn to sit in as a guest host.
John: Our guest today is Dr. David Gooblar. David is the Associate Director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Temple University, a regular contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the creator of Pedagogy Unbound. He is also the author of The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You about College Teaching.
David: Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here.
Fiona: Today’s teas are…
David: I’m drinking green tea.
Fiona: That sounds delicious. I have a cup of wild orange something that’s quite delicious, but not as memorably titled as one might hope.
John: And I have a pumpkin spice Chai today.
David: Wow. Okay.
John: A little out of season but I wanted to try it. We invited you here to talk about The Missing Course. This book is intended for those of us that never received formal training on how to teach, which applies to most college faculty, and maybe we could start with this question of why don’t faculty receive more formal training while they’re in grad school, since most people do end up in teaching careers?
David: It’s a great question. And one that’s not that easy to answer, I think. To me, our graduate programs, almost across the board, almost across all disciplines, still sort of operate with an outdated model of the industry that they’re training students for. And I’m not sure that the model was ever actually something that applied to all graduate students, or even most, but there’s this idea of an academic career as being a tenure-track career where you teach two courses a semester, and the rest of your time is for research, and you are evaluated on your research and scholarship. And so our graduate programs still, for the most part, train students for that career. And what is clearer and clearer to more and more people is that that career is for a very slim minority of people who get PhDs. And as you mentioned, the job for most PhDs if they managed to stay in academia is, for the most part, teacher. And so I do think as well, there’s this notion that teaching is something that content knowledge is enough preparation for, so that if you know something really well, obviously, you’ll be able to teach it, that is not something that needs training in and of itself, that it can be a sort of byproduct of scholarship. And really, anyone who’s had a teacher [LAUGHTER] should be able to see the holes in that logic, that there are better teachers and worse teachers, and that doesn’t depend on how well they know their subject, that depends on how well they know how to teach. So this struck me as a big hole in our education system, and something that I thought would be, at the very least, a good frame for a book about teaching.
Fiona: That hole you describe, the missing part of graduate education, is something that produces a phenomenon you describe early in the book, which is your sense of surprise at discovering a community, a community of people interested in teaching as itself an intellectual and technique oriented discipline, I suppose. And it’s an amazing feeling to happen upon a group of people who are thinking the way you are. And I do wonder if you could maybe expand on what you talk about early in The Missing Course, which is a discussion of how your own view of teaching evolved from that initial focus on content coverage that you’ve just described. Could you tell us about your own transformation in that respect?
David: Sure. I don’t think unlike most people, in that I wasn’t trained to teach at all, I was thrown into the classroom. And to some extent, that’s not the worst way to begin to learn something, is to be thrown into it. But I of course did what most people do, which is that I sort of mimicked what my professors had done. And so my background’s in English, I’m not sure I would have been conscious of this, but my idea of what an English professor does in the classroom is to go and be brilliant about books in front of students… to go talk really smartly about the book in question. And I guess the idea is that you’re modeling interpretation, but you’re not really showing students how you arrived at your interpretation, you’re just showing them the fruits of it. So I would prepare, I was a very devoted teacher as a grad student. All my preparation went to uncovering smart things to say about texts. And what the students would be doing never entered my mind at all, for sure. And so this is kind of how I taught and it seemed to be successful. I don’t know how I was measuring success, but it seemed to go okay. Until I, as an adjunct at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, was given (as adjuncts are often given), a course in which there was no real content to teach. It was a skills-based course, the course was called Rhetoric in the Liberal Arts. And I was meant to teach students how to write academic papers, how to critically read, critical thinking was a big part of it. I was supposed to promote an understanding of the value of the liberal arts sort of broadly. And there were a couple of essays that I was given to teach, but for the most part, there wasn’t really a central text to teach. And so my old method of being brilliant about texts really quickly showed itself to be insufficient. I really scrambled. I had no idea what I was doing. I remember that semester so clearly, because I worked very hard to figure out day to day, there was such panic, “How am I going to fill the class period?” And I guess what I came upon is that it was the students that were my material, rather than material that I needed to explicate for students. Actually, it was these human beings in the room that I was tasked with improving, or helping to develop, or helping them to see things. And that’s just a completely different idea of what teaching is… and it changed my life. It changed how I see the job and the job became increasingly important to me. Because, and you’ll forgive me for rambling, but if the job is saying something interesting about books, well, that’s something that I think can be mastered pretty easily. If the job is help a new set of human beings to reach their potential or grow in ways that they didn’t think were possible, that’s an endlessly fascinating, endlessly challenging, and mostly difficult task. And that, to me, is something worth devoting yourself to. So that really, really sort of turned me on to teaching as a discipline in itself.
John: When you started to change your focus to students, what were some of the first things you did to focus on the students you had, instead of your earlier approach?
David: I think a lot of it comes down to, maybe strangely, trying to find out more about the students themselves. And I often tell faculty now in my role at Temple that the beginning of the semester is really a time to learn about the students in your room and to win their trust. If you’re going to be asking them to do things during the semester, you can’t assume that they’re going to trust that you’re doing it for the right reasons, you’re doing it in their best interest. So, forging that relationship is really the most important thing we can do at the beginning of a semester. So that starts, I think, by turning the tables a little bit. Usually students come into a class and they know the deal, which is that they’re there to find out the professor’s rules. They’re there to read the syllabus, “What’s this class going to be all about?” And the professor sets the course… and the students, if they’re good students, they sort of follow. And so I really like to advise faculty to try to switch that around, and from the very beginning, try to signal at every turn that the course is for the students’ benefit, and this should be their course. And therefore the opening weeks should be about finding out about them, and what they want to get out of it, and why they’re taking this course. And even if the answer to that is “it was required,” that’s good knowledge for you to have too. So, sort of going from there, from trying to find out who these people are, what their goals are, what challenges they foresee, how they want you to help them. That to me is the starting point and signals to them and to you that the point is the students, not the stuff you came up with beforehand.
John: Are you doing that through class discussions, or are there specific activities that you use to try to elicit information from the students?
David: Yes, certainly, I like to do a lot of class discussion and that’s going to depend upon your class size, for sure. A lot of class discussion. I also like to do a sort of initial, no- stakes writing assignment where I ask students for their goals for the course. And this helps me, of course, see more individually, and in a way that doesn’t make them say things out loud, which can be a problem for shy students or for students who maybe need a little more time to formulate an answer. To see what they’re going for, I ask them sort of what things have helped them in the past, you know, what their best teachers have been like, what challenges they foresee. I have to teach writing, it also helps me see their writing level really early on, so I can see where to sort of aim my writing instruction, what kinds of things they might need help with. So, a sort of diagnostic, low- or no-stakes writing assignment can help. But, a lot of it is trying to just be human in the classroom, and be actually curious about these people, and make that a subject of the early class periods in a way that, I hope at least, that the students will get to know each other as well. Is that gonna help as well with motivation down the line?
Fiona: You focus on teaching as this drawing out process from students as opposed to the fill the cup model, which is perhaps the older lecture-based content delivery model… but you do, you focus on this drawing out and you pay some attention to the verb “elicit.”
David: Yes, I do love that verb.
Fiona: It’s a very good verb. But part of the way you use that verb is to turn your attention towards active learning techniques…
Fiona: … in the classroom. And could you give a brief sense of what you feel are the most important evidence based nuggets to know about active learning as a technique?
David: Sure. I’m increasingly convinced that more than any particular strategy or technique, the most important thing for teachers is to have a solid understanding of how people learn. And what we know about how people learn is that it doesn’t work by pouring knowledge into people’s heads. You don’t learn by someone giving you knowledge. We learn by actively revising our preconceptions. And so even just to have that as your starting point, that students aren’t blank slates to be filled up. But students come in with all sorts of ideas, usually wrong ideas, but all sorts of ideas about our subjects. The job is then to help them hold those conceptions up to the light, see that they’re lacking in some way, and revise them. So I try to let that guide whatever strategies I use in the classroom, so active learning strategies is a really vague term to refer to anything you do in the class where students are doing stuff. So, there’s nothing wrong with lecture per se, but lecture that assumes that just telling students information is enough is going to fail. So if we lecture we want to lecture in a way that elicits… there’s that word… that elicits students’ attention, that intrigues them, that sort of draws them in, that can work really great. We’ve all had really good lecturers in the past. And usually they’re the ones that get our attention, that present us with a puzzle that we try to solve. It’s us, as students, who do the learning, we, we can’t do the work of learning for our students, students have to do it. So, if that’s our guide, then that can sort of help us chart class periods. Active learning strategies are often a combination of trying to get students to see what their intuition is, get to see that the intuition is in some way insufficient, and try to solve that problem. If what I initially thought was wrong, how can I be right? That’s often what I’m trying to do with an active learning strategy is help students do that, if that makes sense.
Fiona: Most definitely. And one of my absolute favorite parts of The Missing Course is the sheer number of practical, applicable ideas for this nurturing, motivating, eliciting process you describe. It’s wonderful just as a resource for ideas, the book is fantastic. Do you currently have a strategy you’re trying or that you’re feeling very excited about? Do you have an anecdote from your recent teaching to put something into focus a little?
David: One thing that I really love that I’m kind of endlessly fascinated by is this idea of naive tasks. I do mention that in the book, but it’s something that I often talk with faculty about. It’s particularly helpful if you do need to lecture if you have large classes, or if you teach in a discipline that is very content heavy, and you have a lot that you need to tell students. The idea of a naive task is you give students a puzzle, or a challenge, or a question that they’re not yet equipped to solve. And you give that to them before you give them the information that would equip them to solve it. The example that I always use comes from a guy named Donald Finkel who wrote a great book called Teaching with Your Mouth Shut, and he writes of a physics professor who gives his students before a lecture, this challenge, which is that he wants them to picture a canary in a very large sealed jar. And the jar with the canary inside is on a scale. And the problem is this “if inside the jar, the canary takes flight inside the sealed jar, does the reading on the scale change?” So, I put the challenge to you two, what do you think? Does the reading on the scale change if the canary takes flight?
Fiona: I’m feeling very elicited at the moment.
John: I read that, and I wondered that, because I don’t think you answer the question in your book, do you?
David: Oh, good. I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t remember. You got to make the reader do the work. So, what’s your intuition? Does the weight change when the canary is flying in the air inside a sealed jar?
John: My intuition would be no.
David: The weight stays the same, there’s still a bird in a jar, even if it’s in the air?
JOHN and Fiona: Yeah.
David: And does your intuition change if the jar is open, does that change things?
John: My intuition would change, then, I would say no in that case.
David: That the scale would change?
John: My intuition was that the scale would change if the bird took flight.
David: Okay, that is correct. In a sealed jar, the amount of force pushed down by the bird’s wings is exactly equal to the weight of the bird. That’s how flight works.
Fiona: Of course, right?
David: And so that would keep the reading on the scale the same. If the jar is open, the air can escape.
Fiona: Yeah, right.
David: So, this is a great example of a naive task for students who have not yet learned the laws of weight and mass and force. They have to struggle with this, and it’s kind of an intriguing puzzle. It’s a challenge. And in trying to answer it, and of course, you can sort of prod them along and help them consider the various factors, they’re engaging with the material in a way that they’ll want to know how this works after working on the subject. You’re priming them for your lecture. So I often like to work with faculty and I give them this example. This is always my example, because it’s one I remember. I actually don’t know very much about physics, but I can tell you this. And then I ask them to try to come up with naive tasks for their own discipline. And that’s sort of like “What’s a puzzle? What’s something intriguing that you can give students that they won’t be able to do yet, they won’t be able to solve yet or you think they might not be sure about?” and try to give that to them before you give them the information that would help. So I do like that idea of that the timing of when we give students activities can matter, and can make it more effective when we do tell them things. That’s been something that increasingly I talk to faculty about.
John: And the nice thing about that, too, is not only does it make them curious and want to know the answer, activating that curiosity, it’s also forcing them to activate whatever prior knowledge…
David: That’s right.
John:…whether it’s actually correct knowledge or any misconceptions they may have, but it makes them consciously aware of what they know and what they don’t know. So, they’re not only primed to find out more, but they’re also ready to make more connections and try to integrate the materials.
David: Yeah, ideally, it will leave them in a place of sort of dissatisfaction with their current model of how things work, which is where you want them.
Fiona: You do describe the learning process as a process of revision… revising, exactly as you’ve described, preconceived notions or prior knowledge, updating it, expanding it, refining it. But, as you suggest, this doesn’t feel easy to students. There’s a lot of pushing of comfort zones…
Fiona: …There’s a lot of truly difficult risks sometimes involved for students.
Fiona: And so how do you approach that piece, the effective piece, or the willingness of students to maybe trust your methods or to actually engage in these essentially revising oriented activities? What do you do about student motivation?
David: It’s a very important factor. I mean, what we know about student motivation and a lot of this I take from the great book How Learning Works from a lot of folks at Carnegie Mellon that came out maybe 10,12 years ago. Their chapter on motivation sketched three main factors from the literature that govern motivation in educational context. And the first two are probably maybe the more apparent. One is value. The more students value a goal, the more they’ll be motivated to pursue it. That seems obvious. The second is efficacy. If students feel like they’ll succeed, they’re more likely to be motivated to pursue something. That makes sense to me too. The third one, which is maybe less obvious, is the extent to which students perceive that their environment is supportive. It’s a very important factor. If, as you say, we’re asking students to take risks and significant learning does involve taking risks, they’ll be more motivated to pursue those risks if they feel like they’ll be supported if and when they fail. We want them to be comfortable with failure. We want to give them the sense that they’ll be supported. So, how do we do that? That to me is again, part of this opening weeks of a semester trying to cultivate trust. And part of that is through signaling to them at every turn that your intentions are for their benefit to help them, not because of your agenda. But part of that, I think, is also trying to cultivate a supportive community between students, among students, kind of apart from you. I mentioned in the book a number of times research by the sociologist Polly Fassinger who tried to sort of pin down what are the most important factors that govern why students participate in class. And what she found, maybe surprisingly, is that more important than anything that the professor does is the students’ sense of their peers as being a supportive group. And that makes sense to me, that students wouldn’t feel comfortable opening their mouths if they felt like they might be the object of fun or they felt like maybe they weren’t in the mainstream of the class. Again, a lot of this work is best done early in a semester. Cultivate community. Often that means trying to encourage students to bring in informal parts of their lives to class, get them to share bits of themselves, get them to, if not become friends, become comfortable with each other as people they can talk to and share an experience with. If I’ve got that, if I’ve got a class that seems to genuinely like each other, respects each other, wants to find out what other people are thinking might want to learn from each other, that makes my job so much easier. And I think most professors can think back to classes they’ve had where the students really gelled. And those to me are the best classes, and not just because it’s pleasant, but it seems to magnify the possibilities for learning if students want to be there, and usually what makes students want to be there is not that they like you so much, but that they like each other.
Fiona: Could you give us an example of a relatively community building activity you can do early in a semester?
David: Yeah, what I really like to do, and it does take a little bit of time, but I think it’s worth it. This is an idea that came from a colleague and friend of mine at the University of Iowa, Ben Hassman, he calls it question roll, and it’s a way to take attendance at the beginning of each class. And it’s certainly easier with a smaller class, but you can do it with larger classes with a little bit of finagling. Instead of just calling out people’s names, you ask a question, and you go around the room and everyone has to answer the question as their way to signal that they’re there. And the best way to do it is for these questions to be absolutely easy to answer. They should be like “What is your favorite movie?” or “What’s something that your parents cooked for you when you were a kid that you have fond memories of?” And so they’re often informal. I like to make them have nothing to do with class content. You can, of course, make them be lead-ins to discussion, but I like to give students an opportunity to speak up that is so easy that they’ll speak up. Basically, I think there’s something that happens after someone speaks up for the first time in a class period that makes it more easy for subsequent times. So, that’s one reason to do it. The other thing is that if you do it regularly, students get to know each other, they remember that so and so likes spaghetti. They remember that so and so likes comic book movies. And so that’s a kind of easy ritual that helps students bring a little bit of their outside lives into the class. And again, signals to them that this class might actually matter to those outside lives, class might be something that they want to do not just because they have to, but because it’s something central to their goals and ambitions.
Fiona: And I’d imagine that’s an approach that also includes you in that learning community, right? You learn?
David: Of course, I have to answer the question.
Fiona: One of the chapters in your book is devoted to what you call teaching the students in the room. Could you give us a little bit of an overview of that approach?
David: Sure. I do think that if there’s anything that teaching is about, it’s about helping particular people develop and learn. And so that is going to change. This is what I was talking about earlier, that’s going to change depending on the human beings in the room. And so I do think that as much as most professors are preparers and were good students themselves and like to do lots of preparation to make sure that they have every “T” crossed and “I” dotted before entering the classroom, there’s a limit to what you can do without meeting and understanding the people you’re going to teach. And again, it’s that idea of thinking of the students as the material rather than the course content or the text. So I do think it’s important that we do more than just tweak our teaching, depending on who’s in the room, but we try to leave a lot to the particular people we have in our classes.
John: One of the things you described is something I’ve been doing recently which is starting with a shell of a syllabus and letting the students pick some of the content on that. And I’ve done that to a varying degree, but I found a dramatic increase in the amount of student engagement when they have some say over the course concepts. Could you talk about some examples where you’ve used or heard good examples of that type of tactic?
David: Yeah, I do love that tactic as well. I recommend to faculty to make a list of things that they absolutely have to have in their courses that are non-negotiable that have to be in their classes, and things that aren’t on that list give to students to decide. This is, again, a way to get as you say, greater engagement, have students have a sense of ownership in the class. I’ve had real success when I taught a survey of American Literature. And I gave students as the assigned text one of these big Norton Anthologies of American literature, these huge 1200 page, very thin paged, big books of poems, and short stories, and excerpts from novels. And what I did was I left slots throughout the semester, throughout the calendar for poems, but I didn’t choose any poems, and I had each student assigned to a slot on the calendar and I said “On your slot, we are going to read the poem you choose. You’re going to introduce it for the class, talk maybe five minutes about it, but then we’re going to talk about it, you’re going to put it on the calendar.” You can do this with bigger classes through voting, through putting them in groups to choose, there are ways to do it. And then I had as the first writing assignment, the first essay for students to justify why they chose the poem. “Why should your classmates read this poem? What’s so good about it?” And the reason I loved how this worked in that particular class was one, of course, that it had that engagement that students owned part of the class, they had their little patch of land, but it also made them read the book. They had to look through this anthology that otherwise they would have just flipped to what I assigned, this made them browse and look for a poem that they could pick and I think it made them think about, “Well, what makes a good poem? What kinds of poems do I like?” Certainly, some students just picked very, very short poems, and we were grateful for that too. But I think students surprised themselves. They discovered things they wouldn’t have found otherwise. And they thought a little bit about, “Well, what’s my taste in poetry?” which is a wonderful thing to encourage, at least in my students. I’ve also had success, I do this all the time now, with letting students determine policies for the class. I do it all the time with technology policy, using technology in class. This is easy for me to give to students because I don’t care at all about what students do with their phones or laptops. I’m not a stickler, other professors feel differently, and that’s fine, of course. But that was an easy thing for me to offload to students because I don’t care. And what I found is that inevitably, students come up with a technology policy that is more strict than anything I would have come up with. I asked them to think about what really annoys them about people using phones in class and come up with regulations, and they tend to regulate pretty heavily when left to their own devices. And it works better if the rules are coming from them than from me. I just don’t like to play policeman, that’s not a role I’m suited for. So policy is a good thing to give to students, whether that’s a technology policy or late policies some professors do, they leave it to students to come up with. And that’s another thing where you’d be surprised that students are not that laissez faire. Some tend to be quite strict when they suggest late policies. But sort of going through your syllabus and looking for “What can I give to students to come up with?” And I think that you’ll see that there are sort of outsized effects from letting students decide. Student ownership is, I think, a really helpful concept for professors.
Fiona: And a totally practical question. So is this an activity you do on the first day, first week kind of thing? And then do you codify it in a formalized syllabus in some way?
David: Yes. So, usually, if I do a technology policy activity, it’ll be on the second day, it’ll be sometime in the first class periods. And what I usually do is I put them into small groups and have them brainstorm possible challenges with using technology in class and possible rules that they want. And I tell them I want them to think about their experiences as students, that they are veteran students, they’ll know probably better than I what comes up from a student’s point of view. And then I open up a document on the screen and I say, “Call out your suggestions.” And I type them as they call them out on their transcriber. And sometimes I have them vote if there are some things that are different, but often they kind of find consensus. I sort of try to guide a discussion, we find consensus. It’s a sort of constitutional document that I add to our learning management system. It lives there for everyone to see and I almost never need to refer to it. But there have been times where I do refer to and I say, “Let’s remember the rules we put in place.” And again, it helps that they’re not my rules. It helps enforcement if I can say “This is what you came up with, do we want to revise them? Maybe this doesn’t work anymore, that’s fine.” I would much rather be their learning coach, for lack of a better term, than to be Nurse Ratched in enforcing rules.
John: The only problem I’ve ever had with this strategy is the secretary keeps nagging me for a copy of the syllabus a week or two before the semester and I say “We won’t have a syllabus until after we meet” and I just open up a document which has the learning objectives and broad categories, and then we spend that first class period just working it all out.
David: I tend to make a distinction between the syllabus I give to the people upstairs and the sort of living document that governs what we do in the classroom. Some people make appendices to their syllabus. I think there’s things that the college needs to know, and I think that’s appropriate. And there’s things that the college doesn’t necessarily need to know.
Fiona: I wonder if I might turn the direction of our conversation towards the way that you talk about faculty and teachers themselves in this book, because many of the ideas: that learning is a process of revision, of challenging your preconceived notions about how something might work, you actually suggest that teachers themselves do the same sorts of processes in terms of their own experience as learners of teaching.
Fiona: Could you talk a little bit about how you ask people to revise their teaching?
David: Sure. I think you’re right that how I think about students learning influences how I think about giving advice to faculty on improving their teaching. And I think it’s important to remember that most of us did not have a rich education on how to teach. And so we sort of have to teach ourselves as we go, which does mean that it’s a process of revision. It’s also the nature of teaching that it’s such a complex pursuit. The product in question, the thing that is produced by our teaching, is spread out over a whole semester and diffused by how many students we have. And it’s very difficult to assess how well we did. And you can come out of a classroom thinking “That was a great class, I did wonderfully.” And you can come out of a class period thinking “Oh, that didn’t work well,” and equally have no idea why it worked or it didn’t. So, I do think it’s important for faculty to know that it’s a difficult process and to give attention to trying to assess, trying to evaluate, trying to stay on top of what they do that’s healthy and works, and what they do that doesn’t work. So, I do try to encourage what we might think of as good writing advice for teaching. And that’s thinking of a drafting process when coming up with a lesson plan, just as I tell my writing students to write a really bad draft as their first draft just to get something down, knowing that you’ll come back to it. I do the same thing with teachers I work with, I say, “First just fill the class period. Come up with a class period and then try to be critical in looking at what you came up with. Does that meet your goals? Does that do what you think students should be doing? Does that engage students?” And keep going back to and going back to it. The other thing that I think is really important is after a class period, or after a unit, or certainly after a semester, writing down how you think it went before you forget. I find that, especially in August for a fall semester, but even in January, if I’m teaching something I taught before, I am always kicking myself for not having taken good notes on how I changed things from what I wrote down, because our lesson plans don’t often survive a class period intact. And so trying to keep good notes, trying to see teaching as a sort of career long pursuit that you’ll benefit from having an archive of notes to self. Just sort of developing those habits I think are really important. I try to be aware of this whenever I talk teaching, but certainly when I was writing the book, that most faculty members are, without a doubt, overworked and underpaid, and almost without exception, not given enough credit or time for their teaching. And so I think it’s all the more important that we try to come up with strategies that help us to be better teachers that don’t keep us up all night grading, and that don’t add to our considerable anxiety and stress. I think we need to sort of navigate within what’s still a pretty unfair system for most faculty members when giving advice. So I really try to be aware of that.
John: Talking about that issue of the effort required for grading, you do recommend giving students the right kind of feedback. Could you talk a little bit about how we can do that? We know that students benefit from having feedback. But the more feedback we give students, the more time it requires. What type of feedback would be most helpful for students without overburdening faculty with the work of grading?
David: That’s a really good question. I think the most effective feedback comes at a time when students can still use it. So, too often I think we give students feedback after the fact, we give students feedback on their essays or on their assignments when we give them their grade, and then we’re already moving on to another unit. Often, because of time constraints, it might take us a month to grade a paper. And we’ve already moved on for a month to another unit when we’re giving them feedback on something they did last month. And so that can tell them a little bit. But most students, it doesn’t help them that much to find out that a month ago, they made an error with a too long paragraph or something. So I really try to give students feedback while they’re still working on something. And so the way to do this without doubling your work is to give them much less feedback after the fact. So I think it’s entirely appropriate to give just a grade and very minimal feedback at the end, if you give lots of feedback in the middle. So when I teach writing, I have all of my students, for their essays, they have to turn in a rough draft, and this is after a number of checkpoints where they’re working on components, but they turn in a rough draft at a midway point. And I meet with them one-on-one. Again, this is something that can be adjusted for bigger classes. But I try to give them feedback at that point, like really extensive feedback. That’s where they hear from me the most. And why that’s effective is, well one, because they still haven’t gotten a grade, there’s still something they can do with the feedback, but two, it allows me to be much more of a coach rather than evaluator. And that’s where, at least personally, where my strengths as a teacher lie. I’m much worse at justifying a grade than I am at giving advice on how to improve work. So I never answer in those conferences, questions like “What grade do you think this will be?” Or if they ask me that, I say, “Well, it’s not done yet. This is a draft, I don’t grade rough drafts. Here’s what I think you need to do for this to be better.” I try to sort of strenuously resist being evaluator there. But I do think looking for ways that you can shift when you give feedback to earlier in the process can help you keep that feedback formative. I think it’s useful to have this distinction between formative feedback, which is feedback designed to teach, designed to help students grow and learn, and summative feedback, which is feedback designed to deliver a verdict on their performance. Summative feedback is important. Certainly an engaged student will want to know whether their work met the grade. Certainly we have institutional pressures that want us to give them a summative grade at the end of the semester. But to me, formative feedback is so much more valuable, it is teaching rather than just grading. And so looking for ways whenever possible to make our grading formative, I think, is good practice.
John: Do you recommend giving some sort of light grading though, even just “They completed this or not” just to provide incentives for those who may not be as intrinsically motivated?
David: For sure. 34:21 Yeah, I think that can help. I think that it’s worth considering the ways that our grading policy, like how much weight we give to each element of the course itself, is a rhetorical signal that tells students what we value and so I think, unless you’re able to do away with grades altogether, and most of us are not because of our institutions, it’s worth looking for ways to use that to help us teach, for sure. And extrinsic motivation is not worthless, even as most people, I think depend on it too much. But if you’ve got the grades yeah, I try to use them strategically.
Fiona: Could I ask about the chapter which you’ve entitled Teaching in Tumultuous Times, which in many ways pulls together all of the threads we’ve been discussing. What it means to meet students where they are, what it means to work as a learning coach in order to develop long-term, perhaps civic oriented ways of being in the world, but also opens up into issues of inclusivity in teaching and what it might mean for teaching to be a space in which we can actively address some of the more alarming directions that the world is tending at the moment. Could you talk about teaching in tumultuous times?
David: Yes, I believe very strongly that teaching matters. And I believe that because of my experience in the classroom. I really think that the transformations that can happen through working closely with young people are real, and they are incredibly meaningful to me. And once I realized that teaching is the pursuit of helping people develop, or change, or learn, it then became inevitable that I’d have to be committed to helping every single student develop, or change, or learn. And I recognize that I am not going to be successful in reaching every single student, but my practice needs to be committed to helping every single student. So what that means on the one hand is student centered teaching, as we’ve been talking about what that means, on the other hand, is looking closely at our status quo of teaching and realizing that it doesn’t serve every student equally well. I think it is decidedly the case that our normal way of teaching rewards students who can navigate the school environment, it rewards students who have better preparation, it rewards students who are mentally healthy. It rewards students who are physically capable and we want to ask ourselves, “Is this what we want to promote in our classrooms?” It’s not what I want to promote. And so that sort of led me into thinking about inclusive teaching practices, which I talk about not nearly long enough in that chapter, but as part of that chapter. I do think if we’re committed to helping every student learn, we need to think about making our classrooms more accessible. We need to think about practices that unwittingly, unwittingly, privileged students who have had better schooling, we need to think about ways that we are reproducing inequality. The other part of that chapter, or one other part of that chapter, has to deal with talking about politics in the classroom. And to me these things go together in a sense, because they are, as you implied with your question, they’re kind of about taking responsibility, or seeing that teaching does produce changes in our students and trying to be responsible for creating citizens. And I think that’s kind of a difficult pill for some professors to swallow, who say, “Well I teach chemistry. I don’t produce political thinkers,” but I do think that we have more influence than we know. And it’s worth thinking about what kinds of thinking we’re encouraging in our students. For those times when politics do come up, and they do come up more frequently than you think, it’s worth thinking through what we’re trying to achieve and what we’re trying to avoid. What really helped me in writing about politics in the classroom, and you’ll know this if you’ve read the book, is coming across some material from philosophy of education on the concept of indoctrination. And I really like this because indoctrination is one thing that everyone can agree we don’t want to do. And so it helped me to clarify my thinking to get clear on what we’re trying to avoid. So there are a number of philosophers who have worked to define more closely this concept of indoctrination, and what they’ve come up with is that indoctrination requires us to use our authority to inculcate an uncritically adopted belief. And so keeping that in mind that we have authority that can be used for ill, and that we want to avoid as students adopting beliefs without examining evidence without being critical. That helps me think about how I do want to talk about politics. So I want to privilege open mindedness rather than closed mindedness. I want to foster students to have more control rather than me having the control, I want to work against the authority that I might have. So things like that, I think, came out in that chapter. It’s a chapter that I get asked about probably most of all, I think these are subjects that are on a lot of teachers minds. And I think for good reason.
Fiona: The other piece of this puzzle is, of course, how the authority you just described that inheres in the figure of the teacher in some way in the classroom is itself not evenly distributed. So different sorts of teachers do and don’t match students’ ideas of what an authority figure is, what a professor looks like, what a teacher looks like.
David: Absolutely. Right.
Fiona: And so I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how these techniques you suggest also are risky?
Fiona: For professors or for teachers who are already themselves in some way at risk just by trying to be in a classroom in the role that we call teacher.
David: Yeah, I think that there’s a real problem in advice given to teachers that ignores the many kinds of teachers that there are and ignores the, the huge differences in power that belong to different kinds of teachers. I learned this very vividly when I worked with grad instructors, all novice instructors, particularly young women struggle with authority in the classroom with students not respecting them, with students openly challenging them. And it’s something that I think we need to take very seriously. So it’s worth remembering that there’s no one size fits all teaching advice. You need to take a teaching approach that works for you particularly as a teacher. But it’s also worth remembering that no matter how powerless any one faculty member feels, institutional realities ensure that students have less power, at least within the institution. There are many other kinds of power, and those are real as well. But as long as we have the power to grade students and the power to fail students, we have to remember that giving students more control, giving students more power where we can, is almost always going to benefit us, no matter our position. And so that’s a difficult thing to get across, particularly for me as a white man, relatively healthy, relatively young, though that’s less and less each day. So I do try to be aware of that, that what works for me is not going to work for every teacher. And that’s pretty clear to me. And so no teaching approach is going to work if it makes the faculty member uncomfortable, if it makes the faculty member feel like they’re going to lose the room, as it were. So this is things that anyone who gives advice, which I guess it’s something that I’m doing professionally now needs to keep in mind, for sure.
Fiona: It also points to the importance of collaboration and community building among teachers, which is something that all of your work points towards, and your suggestion that we take co-teaching opportunities if they come along, or at the very least sit in on each other’s classes.
Fiona: Which is something that I don’t think we think about as an actual pedagogical strategy.
Fiona: But which seems so, so important, both in terms of what you described, which is seeing the classroom from the students’ perspective, but also seeing another teacher…
Fiona:… In their environment dealing with what they’re dealing.
David: Yeah, I often think that so many of the problems that afflict teaching as a profession, so many of the reasons why teaching isn’t taken seriously as a discipline. So many of the reasons why students and learning is not understood as well as it should be, has to do with how private connectivity teaching is, how thick our classroom walls are. And actually the traditional independence of tenured faculty, which tells everyone else to stay away and “don’t tell me how to teach.” I do think that we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t pay attention to community, where we don’t try to learn from other people who are doing the same thing we do. Almost every other profession tries to take advantage of this. And so it’s a really strange and terrible tradition that we don’t get in the habit of seeing other teachers. It’s really amazing actually that you can go your whole career as a professional teacher and never, unless you’ve been required to evaluate someone for promotion, never see the inside of someone else’s classroom.
John: We’re starting to introduce an activity this semester where faculty will sit in on other people’s classes and then get together informally, and I think more and more colleges are doing that, but it is a relatively recent phenomenon. And I think it’s one we can all benefit from. One of the things you suggest, and we just talked about a little bit, is breaking down some of the barriers caused by that authority figure in the room. One of the ways you recommend doing that is by letting people know that you don’t know things.
John: Could you talk a little bit about that strategy?
David: Yeah. And this is something that I often get pushback from faculty of color, from women faculty, but I get a lot of mileage out of self deprecation as a teacher. And again, this isn’t gonna work for everybody. But I do think that in that pursuit of students feeling like they own the class, part of that has to be me, giving up some of my ownership. It doesn’t need to mean inviting disrespect, but it does, to me at least, mean showing students one that I don’t know everything, which is pretty easy, for me at least, but two, that learning is a process and that you’re never done. And it’s not just that I’m not so smart, but that anyone, no matter how much they’ve learned, they’ve got more to go, and they’re going to make mistakes, and they want to keep learning. So I’m trying to encourage this to my students. A lot of it comes from being a parent actually and trying to encourage this in my children, this idea that I can always learn more and that curiosity is the best engine. So I do try to model uncertainty. This is quite common advice, but I do tell faculty all the time that it’s very powerful to tell students “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” When students ask something, to not feel the need to pretend like you know everything, I think, is really powerful and can take away, in fact, some of that anxiety that young instructors have about being found out, which is something I certainly felt very strongly when I was starting out. If you take away from your concept of teacher this idea that you have to be the supreme authority, it can actually, maybe paradoxically, increase your authority a little bit because you’re no longer aiming so high. You don’t need to know quite so much. You can be a sort of fellow searcher with your students. And that’s a great place to be, where you’re part of that community of looking for answers of learning. You can model along the way for them.
John: And you could also work with them perhaps in trying to explore how you would find an answer to model that more explicitly and get them involved in finding the answers themselves.
Fiona: That sounds great.
John: One of the problems we had in preparing for this is in reading through the book, there were just so many wonderful things that we wanted to discuss that it could have taken days to go through all of this.
David: That is wonderful to hear. Thanks for saying so.
Fiona: We do end by asking “What’s next?”
David: I’m very excited about what I’ve been working on. I’m working on what I see as my next book. We’ll see if it gets there. But I’ve been thinking more and more about what I think of as one of the most important and most persistent problems in higher education, which is inequality of outcomes. We still have quite shocking completion rates in America. These numbers can vary depending on how you measure or what you’re looking at. But typically 70% of all White students in universities graduate within six years. That number for Black students is 40%, which is shockingly low, I think. For Hispanic students it’s at 50%. We see similar gaps for first generation students, we see similar gaps for students with disabilities. We see similar gaps for academic achievement for women in STEM still, we see similar gaps for low income students. So it’s something that I’m looking at in my research. Most universities are aware of this problem and are tackling it, or trying to tackle it, in one way or another with diversity and inclusion initiatives. And what’s really interesting to me is that for the most part, these initiatives don’t tackle teaching. They very often target students support networks. There are financial incentives, of course, but they don’t really tackle teaching. And I guess my intuition is that there’s a lot we can do in the classroom to affect these outcomes. My initial research so far has borne that out, that actually there’s been quite a lot of research in the scholarship of teaching and learning in the past decade on narrowing academic achievement gaps within particular classes. And I guess my running thesis is that by changing teaching approaches, we can do something about these broader completion gaps. So that’s the big picture project. I do think it’ll take a number of years to turn into a book, but that’s where I’m working right now. And I’m finding it very exciting, I think it’s something that’s really important.
Fiona: Your work is exciting and inspiring to us, we look forward to hearing about the developments in this newest direction.
David: Right, thanks so much.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.