What We Forget to Teach Our Students

Credit: LoveTheWind, istocktphoto.com
Credit: LoveTheWind, istocktphoto.com
An engineer once told me that he needed to teach himself engineering in college. By that he meant that his professors would go through sample problems in lectures, demonstrating solution processes for different examples, but that didn’t teach him the underlying thinking that they were using to analyze problems in order to solve them. He had to extract from those examples the underlying principles that the instructors were using to guide their solutions. In other words, his professors did not teach how an engineer thinks, he had to figure that out himself.

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An engineer once told me that he needed to teach himself engineering in college. By that he meant that his professors would go through sample problems in lectures, demonstrating solution processes for different examples, but that didn’t teach him the underlying thinking that they were using to analyze problems in order to solve them. He had to extract from those examples the underlying principles that the instructors were using to guide their solutions. In other words, his professors did not teach how an engineer thinks, he had to figure that out himself.

While the above anecdote may seem extreme, it points to a major challenge for many of us who teach in higher ed: how to cultivate the deep knowledge that defines expertise in our field. How to think like professionals in our fields is often the most important information we possess. And yet, possibly because we’re so embedded in our fields that we take those disciplinary habits of mind for granted, we don’t always make plain the sort of thinking we do when given a new problem to solve. Students’ not having a grasp on this process is the source of many problems in their work. Sharing the process we go through in analyzing a problem and finding a solution gives students a model for success.

Making thinking visible

We can help students by creating simple teaching materials that externalize the thinking we do in our professions—what is called “making thinking visible.” For instance, a physics instructor can create screencasts of the process that they use to solve a problem, starting with the assumption that the problem is new to the faculty member. This starting point is important because the problems that students solve will be new to them. For quantitative fields that work in equations, an instructor can create video guides to their thinking by running a screencasting app, such as Screencast-O-Matic, on a tablet and illustrating how they think about the problem. They might say, “I first look for the energy principle used in the problem. Here we see that the principle is . . .”

The same problem occurs in fields that use text assignments, including in my own field of philosophy. I have always given students assignment parameters, such as what topic to write on and how long it should be, but only recently did I realize that most student problems boil down to a handful of common errors that I can fix by explaining how to develop written assignment. For this reason, I created an instructional video demonstrating how to write an assignment.

Students loved the video, and I immediately saw an improvement in their work. I showed my colleagues the video, and they immediately asked whether I could make something they could use in their courses. I realized that the advice applies to any written work in the school, and so I made this video for all instructors to use.

Making grading visible

Another important type of thinking that we tend to keep from students is how we grade their work. Whereas players on a team know exactly the standards by which they will be evaluated, whether the number of sacks they give up or their batting average, those standards are often mysterious to students. Students write what they think we want but and are often wrong about those things. We too rarely show them how we grade their essays, so they’re often in the dark about how to perform well on them.

Faculty can help their students by pulling up on their computer one or two examples of student work and doing a screencast of how they would grade the work. The instructor can explain what they look for in an assignment. For instance, an instructor might note that they want students to explain technical concepts in their own words and demonstrate this by showing how they would deduct points for using a term like marginal revenue without explaining what it means. Many students think that instructors are simply looking for technical terms in student work and that by stocking their essays with these terms they will do well.

When making such a video, it is important to include examples of both the good and the bad. An instructor might say that “here the student’s point is vague because . . .” Later, the instructor might say that “here the student illustrates the concept with an example, which is what I am looking for to demonstrate their ability to apply course concepts to real-life situations.” Once again, it amounts only to externalizing the internal conversation that goes on in the instructor’s head to take the guesswork out of students’ completing an assignment.

Making reading visible

Reading academic work is another area that requires expertise. Studies show that students tend to read articles for simple facts, whereas instructors look for the structure of the underlying argument (Rhem, 2009/2010). For this reason, instructors can help students by creating simple videos that demonstrate how they read academic work of the kind that they assign to students. To help my students, I created this simple screencast that explained my process for reading academic work, focusing on what I do and do not look for. I explained how I sketch out the author’s argument in my notes on a work, adding my own thoughts on what I find interesting or problematic about the argument as a model for students to use.

As the assignment development video mentioned above demonstrates, often the hidden knowledge is shared by all faculty in a department or even a school. This means that a department or school might tap a faculty member or graduate student to make videos that all interested faculty can use. They might involve study habits, assignment-development techniques, or other topics. These videos are most helpful if they focus on common “pain points” in student work. Not only do these videos improve student learning, but by improving student work they diminish the time and effort put in by faculty dealing with the same problems across multiple student assignments. This makes the videos a win for everyone involved.

Reference

Rhem, J. (2009/2010). Deep/surface approaches to learning in higher education: A research update. Essays on Teaching Excellence: Toward the Best in the Academy, 21(8). https://podnetwork.org/content/uploads/V21-N8-Rhem.pdf