Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Learning to teach (continued)

I'm finally learning how to design a university course. It sounds kind of funny and a bit embarrassing to write this; I'm entering my 6th year of teaching at Ottawa U, and I taught a couple courses during my PhD/post doc years at Guelph as well. But until this summer, I'd never sat down and systematically designed a course curriculum the way the teacher education textbooks would have you do it.

The reality is, few professors outside the faculty of education, myself included, are ever taught how to teach. More often, when we get hired we're assigned a list of courses for which we'll be responsible (hopefully on topics within our area of expertise, but not necessarily) and, if lucky, get a copy of the previous year's syllabus. If you're really lucky, you'll get the teaching materials used by the previous prof. Universities typically have an office designed to support teaching and teachers (e.g. uOttawa's is called Teaching and Learning Support Services) that are usually staffed with people who are really keen to help. They'll offer workshops, crash courses, and so forth. All are useful but none are mandatory. The onus is on the prof to seek out their services. Some profs may not really need the help, others desperately do, but no one is forcing either to learn to be a better teacher.

When I was first starting out, I took a number of these types of workshops and learned a raft of practical skills, like how to use teaching-support software. With research and graduate supervision taking up more of my time with each passing year, I've stopped enrolling in these workshops, and instead consulted our teaching support service on an as-needed/problem-solving basis. This has worked well. Even so, the reality is that, even though teaching is one of my core job duties, my teacher training has been acquired on an ad hoc basis.

Somewhere along the line in this ad hoc training program, I missed the workshop on developing a new course (assuming there was one; there probably was). Fortunately for my students, I recently volunteered to develop an online version of our big first-year environmental studies course, Global Environmental Challenges. By doing so, I also unwittingly volunteered myself for one-on-one tutoring from someone whose job it is to train people like me how to develop a course properly. My tutor is very nice and patient with me, even though some of the things I say in response to her questions must make her wince.

Previously when I was setting up a course, I'd put together a 2-3 page syllabus, create a course schedule, devise a reading list, plan for a couple exams/assignments, create a rubric for each. I'd have these things in place before the course started, save for the exam questions. The first few weeks of the semester were fairly tightly planned; subsequent weeks were more loosely planned, so that adjustments could be made as necessary. If I started out a semester with all my courses organized in such a fashion, and I usually did, I felt on top of things and ready to go.

With the help of my tutor (I think her title is teaching & leaning consultant, but really, she's tutoring me) I'm learning I could be a whole lot better prepared and organized. For example, I'm being asked to put into writing such things as my learning objectives for the students not simply for the course, but for each week of the course, and in considerable detail. I am also required to write down how I am going to reinforce the student's attainment of each of the learning objectives through a range of possible activities, how each objective will be evaluated, what resources I will provide to supplement the course text, etc, etc. Even though I've taught this course five times already, I'm finding it a lot of (useful) work to make explicit what was often until now implicit.

An example; for the second objective of the fifth module of the course, which deals with the connection between soils and food production systems, I told my tutor I wanted students to "understand the importance of good quality soil to agriculture". As any experienced learning consultant no doubt knows, and which I now appreciate, the term "understand" is vague and not assessable. Instead, I may want the students to achieve some reproducible level of competence, such as be able to explain the importance of good quality soil to someone else, or show they are to analyze how good soil contributes to productive agriculture, or so forth. And if they can do some of these things, they probably understand the concept.

When describing this process over the supper table to my spouse, who is a trained educator, she looked at me and asked, "Sounds like pretty basic curriculum development. Don't you guys have standardized curriculum for all your introductory courses?" Um, well, no. When you think about it, we should, shouldn't we? Of course, if we did, I probably never would have had this opportunity to develop one. And I think that by developing the curriculum myself, properly, I'll actually be a better teacher for it. After all, having a good curriculum in hand and executing it are two different things.

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