The Unexamined Class Is Not Worth Teaching

11.06_the-unexamined-class-is-not-worth-teaching

A teacher’s work is rarely done. You may think you have nailed it one day only to flounder the next. One semester may go swimmingly, but another may feel like drudgery. Most college and university teachers have challenging first years as they navigate the rigors of higher education. Of course, just because you have taught for many years, or have a long-term contract or tenure, does not mean you should stop paying attention to your teaching. Yes, there may be few external expectations for growth as a teacher. No, you may not be forced to review your teaching philosophy or be observed (though peer observations and evaluations of teaching are on the rise nationwide). Even if you have no external reasons to do so, constantly being open to your students’ experiences and reevaluating your pedagogical choices can keep you sharp, motivated, and excited about your teaching. With a nod to Socrates, the unexamined class is not worth teaching.


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A teacher’s work is rarely done. You may think you have nailed it one day only to flounder the next. One semester may go swimmingly, but another may feel like drudgery. Most college and university teachers have challenging first years as they navigate the rigors of higher education. Of course, just because you have taught for many years, or have a long-term contract or tenure, does not mean you should stop paying attention to your teaching. Yes, there may be few external expectations for growth as a teacher. No, you may not be forced to review your teaching philosophy or be observed (though peer observations and evaluations of teaching are on the rise nationwide). Even if you have no external reasons to do so, constantly being open to your students’ experiences and reevaluating your pedagogical choices can keep you sharp, motivated, and excited about your teaching. With a nod to Socrates, the unexamined class is not worth teaching.

Whether tenure-track or fixed-term, prepping and teaching a class for the first time takes mental energy. Teaching a class for the second time or the fiftieth may seem less taxing, and it is easy to operate on automatic. Doing so may be less tiring but it will often also make one tune out student comments. In fact, as Maryellen Weimer nicely puts it, “Good teaching requires emotional energy, the will to keep caring, intellectual stamina, creative approaches, vigilance . . . perseverance to find the way back from failure” (Weimer, 2010, p. xi). When you really start examining the choices you have made, it does take work. As the subtitle of the book where I got this quote (Inspired College Teaching: A Career-Long Resource for Professional Growth) suggests,good teaching is not a one and done affair. It takes even more work to change what you have been doing for a long time, but it is always worth it.

There are two main moments to take a good look at your class. The first is when you are designing a class. As you select the types of assignments you use and your policies, ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” Do you require attendance? Do you ban laptops? Do you have a late penalty? Many of us teachers do not have ready answers to these questions. Sometimes we may not know exactly why we do what we do. This easily happens when we teach our first courses by riffing on the syllabi and design of the last people to teach them. I did this. I was a brand-new assistant professor and had to teach four courses per semester. I asked for the syllabi of the instructors who came before me and did what they did.

Many faculty do what they have seen being done without examining the “why” behind it. If you want to ban laptops, then have a rationale for why. The research no longer says that writing notes by hand is more beneficial than typing them out. If you do not use online exams, is it because you are afraid of students cheating? The research suggests that open-book, online exams are more valid, reliable, and equitable that closed book, timed exams. For nearly every course design decision, there is a rich pedagogical research base out there to help you decide what to do. The key is to know why you do what you do.

Teaching becomes easier when your pedagogical decisions move from “Do what I say just because I say so” to “Do what the research says WORKS.” When students have a clear sense of why you are asking them to do something, and even what the data behind your decisions is, they will be more motivated to learn in your class.

Beyond the first time you design a class, there is an opportunity to examine your class every time you teach. This whole second category of scrutiny points are about every time you teach. Here is what happened to me a few weeks ago.

A student wondered aloud why I have an elaborate process in place for them to get my class notes. If a student misses a class or is sick, I allow them to get a copy of my slides. I do not make the slides readily available on my learning management system but have them fill out a short Google Form. When they submit the form, they automatically get a link to my slides for the day. Seeing that I do have a process to get slides, a student asked why I didn’t just make them available without the rigmarole.

For two days I mused on this question. Was I just being an authoritarian teacher? No. Did I fear that if I posted it every class students would not show up? Not really, even though some data suggests this is the case. I was leaning strongly toward posting my slides, but after some more thinking and looking at more research, I reaffirmed my first decision with the fact that when students have slides, they pay less attention in class. In fact, knowing that slides for the entire term are on the learning management system may lull students into paying less attention and taking fewer notes. So why give slides at all? The research shows that for neurodivergent students, multilingual students, and those that need more time to process information, having the slides to check their notes is important. I went back to class and shared this with my students, and they seemed satisfied.

Those two days of mulling were challenging for me. I had not rethought a decision in some time, but it felt so much better in the end. There have been times when after such an examination I changed a previous decision (I now offer recordings of lectures). I now even make sure that early in the term, students have a chance to share their questions and preferences regarding course design. Do I rethink every decision? Not at all. But I certainly make sure I am open to change.

While I trust you may not have the bandwidth to constantly examine all your courses, try and build in some self-reflection time even during the semester. You may be surprised by how much your teaching changes.

Reference

Weimer, M. (2010). Inspired college teaching: A career-long resource for professional growth. Jossey-Bass.


Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is associate vice provost and executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of psychological science at Oregon State University. His latest book is Study Like a ChampFollow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.