Improve Your Teaching with a Teaching Toolbox

Years of teaching and coaching online faculty have taught me that the move from face-to-face to online teaching brings both benefits and dangers.  One benefit is that the course’s center of gravity shifts from the lecture to discussion.  Whereas much of a faculty member’s time in a face-to-face classroom is devoted to preparing and delivering lectures, that time is now front-loaded into course creation, and the day-to-day work is redistributed to engaging students in discussion and on assignments. 

This move can be liberating for faculty who feel themselves falling into the rut of delivering the same face-to-face lecture semester after semester, year after year.  Lecturing can come to feel robotic.  How many of us have had the experience of suddenly being unsure of whether we had already covered a point that we were making in class because our current class was blending into our past classes in our memory?  I also wonder if the sleepiness I see on students’ faces during a lecture is a result of them just picking up on the robotic nature of my delivery. 

Online teaching provides a refreshing engagement with students as individuals.  Teaching online can become closer to the ideal of a one-to-one meeting of minds where the instructor connects with students on an individual basis by providing each with the specific instruction needed to elevate his or her understanding.

Yet this very move to one-to-one engagement with students can eventually create its own rut as the instructor falls into the trap of reading student work with the mind-set of calculating a grade rather than teaching.  Faculty read student work for places to deduct points, and their interactions are then meant to justify the grade.  The faculty member fills up the student work with margin comments like “vague” or “need to provide more detail” as a means of explaining why the student received the point deduction.

This grade-based mentality is not teaching.  Neither the grade nor the commentary is specific enough to help the student, and neither tells students how their work is vague or how to make it less vague.  Moreover, the mentality is boring to the faculty member, who is reading student work to check off errors rather than engage on the issues of the assignment.  Teaching again becomes automated and a drudgery as it loses that very spark of connection with the student that draw faculty to teaching in the first place.

A good way to reinvigorate teaching is to reconceptualize your relationship to a student in a one-to-one model such as that of a master to an apprentice or a coach to a player. A master craftsman and a coach are both fundamentally teachers.  The master craftsman is teaching those things that constitute expertise in his or her guild to the apprentice, and the coach is teaching those skills that bring expertise in a sport to his or her player.

Importantly, both the craftsman and the coach teach in a one-to-one model that is not grade-based; rather, it is focused on identifying the pupil’s deficiencies and providing the instruction needed to address them.  The master blacksmith says, “See, when you tried to bend the metal, it broke.  This is because it was not hot enough, and you know that because it glowed dark red. Notice how mine glows bright red.” The coach says, “You are dropping your elbow when you swing, which is causing you to lose power.  You need to raise your elbow, like this.”

For a master craftsman or coach, interactions with their pupils are taken as opportunities to share their expertise with that pupil. Similarly, faculty should approach each student assignment not primarily with a mind toward calculating a grade, but rather with discerning what the student does not know and how to share their own expertise with the student.

A good way to implement this mind-set is to read each assignment with the goal of identifying one major concept or understanding that the student is missing, and to provide the information needed to fill that gap.  For instance, if the student’s work shows that he or she does not understand the difference between theoretical and conceptual frameworks, the faculty member can start by explaining how the student is confusing the two.  This is what is sometimes called “feed back,” as two words, as it is commentary on what the student did in the past. 

Here is where many faculty stop.  But this is not yet teaching.  The coach who tells a player, “You are swinging wrong,” has only done half the job.  The other half is to explain how to swing correctly.  Similarly, the instructor should now explain the differences between the two concepts.  This teaching strategy is called “feed forward” because it provides an understanding that will help the student on future assignments.

This feed forward might take many paragraphs to write out, and a faculty member can legitimately object that he or she does not have time to do it for every student.  But here a faculty member can save time by employing a “Teaching Toolbox” of commentary that is saved and reused.  When I first see a student misunderstand a concept, I write out an explanation on the assignment in detail.  I treat this almost like writing a blog post—I am sharing my knowledge of the concept with others.  I then save that explanation in a Word document organized by categories.  When I next see a student missing the same concept, I first provide personalized feed back describing what the student is missing or misunderstanding written from scratch.  But when it comes to explaining the concept to the student, I can use that Teaching Toolbox commentary I have already written on it. 

In this way, the upfront time investment in writing out the original detailed commentary is saved by reusing it.  I also find myself periodically adding to the commentary as new ideas come to mind on how to explain the concepts or as I discover new sources that I can recommend to help the student. Now, each assignment is an opportunity to engage the student on those issues that most interest me.  

Take a look at this overview of how to use a Teaching Toolbox:

Take a look at this tutorial on how to create a Teaching Toolbox in MS Word:

Ask yourself if your online teaching has become automatic, rather than engaging, and if so, reconceptualize it as an opportunity to engage students on the topics that constitute expertise in your field.  You will find your teaching reinvigorated and your students learning more.

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