Talk About Teaching and Learning
February 23, 2016, Volume 62, No. 24
What do I have my students do in class and why?
For better or for worse, I have never, either as a student or as a teacher, been all that interested in lectures. But the moment we move beyond the lecture format, we are confronted with choices about what we want students to actually do while they are learning. What content do we want them to absorb, if not the words of our lecture? What skills do we want them to develop? What do we want students to do in the classroom, and why?
Content varies from course to course and field to field, but I believe that many of the key skills that I want students to learn are common across disciplines. Some of these skills are related to questions: how to generate useful questions in the context of our disciplines; how to identify the class of similar questions to which a particular question belongs; how to break down problems characteristic of our disciplines and identify their component parts. Others involve the relationships between data and inference: how to use the characteristic data of our disciplines—be it primary source material, literary texts, laboratory measurements, or responses to survey questions—to make inferences; how to estimate the degree of certainty involved in an inference or an estimate; how to distinguish evidence from argument; how to identify when something is a fact, an inference, or an opinion. Other key skills revolve around communication: active listening, close reading, team work, leadership, oral and written argumentation and persuasion. The final skill towards which most of my classes work as a goal, involves adjudication and synthesis of differing viewpoints about a question or set of questions. Here is where students begin to develop their own creative voices within the parameters of the discipline.
Clearly, how to sequence different sets of skills, which skills to prioritize (and which to let go) and what should be the balance between content acquisition and skill acquisition will depend on what kind of class I am teaching. The level at which a class is offered, its size, the usual mix of majors and non-majors or beginning and advanced students, whether the course is part of a sequence, whether it is required or an elective, are all considerations that affect what I want students to do in the classroom, and that can be taken into account as I plan well in advance.
Much of my teaching takes the form of structured, in-class activities that students undertake in small groups, facilitated by timely feedback from me or a teaching assistant. Planning a lesson—whether it takes place in a 50- or 80-minute “lecture” or a three-hour “seminar” time slot—requires designing activities that require students to engage with the specific pieces of content or skills that I have identified as the key learning objectives for that class session. Orienting my teaching around the acquisition of specific skills has forced me to recognize that many of the skills that I take for granted as a scholar need to be taught and practiced. Just as we would not expect to be able to give a student a bassoon and a lesson book and have him or her demonstrate musical fluency by the end of the semester, even the very smart and hard-working students with which we are blessed at Penn will need a structured environment in order to learn new skills. So when I lay out a semester’s work around a specific skill, I need to make sure to allocate time for instruction, practice, feedback, more practice, and eventual evaluation.
Take for a moment the seemingly basic skill of learning how to generate questions that are useful in the context of comparative politics. Even with my PhD students, early in the semester I often start class time with some variant on The Right Questions Institute’s “question formulation technique.” The premise behind this practice is that “Strong critical thinking is often grounded in the questions we ask. By deliberately teaching questioning skills, we will be facilitating a process that will help students develop a mental muscle necessary for deeper learning, creativity and innovation, analysis, and problem solving” (http://rightquestion.org/education/). Originally developed for use in primary and secondary education classrooms, this structured technique asks students to work together to generate, refine, and prioritize questions in response to an instructor-provided prompt. For a class on comparative health politics, I have used prompts ranging from “#blacklivesmatter” written on the blackboard to a map of France showing mortality rates by region to an enigmatic and often-cited quotation from the 19th century German pathologist Rudolph Virchow. As students use the technique repeatedly, taking the prompt at the start of class as a jumping-off point for generating questions that they hope will be answered during the course of the lesson, they gain useful real-time feedback on the quality of their questioning by seeing which kinds of questions tend to lead to dead ends, and when their questions provoke productive discussion.
Many of us in the humanities and social sciences have developed techniques for teaching undergraduate students how to write a successful research paper over the course of a semester. When this is a skill that I have decided to work on, it takes center stage for the entire semester. During the first and second weeks in the semester, students may practice isolating the thesis statement from op-ed pieces I cull from current newspapers. They then move on to analyzing how authors of the substantive course readings ask questions and use data to support their answers to these questions. Students turn in graded assignments, with opportunities for rewriting, asking for provisional research questions, research designs, theses, outlines including evidence, and drafts. Most of my students have received little to no formal instruction in the component skills involved in producing a research paper, but I have found that by teaching these skills, giving opportunities to practice, and offering timely feedback, most undergraduate students can and do produce an excellent 20-30 page argumentative research paper in the course of a semester. This intensity of instruction in a single skill set requires de-emphasizing teaching some other skills, and has implications too for the type of content that students acquire. Early in the semester I need to provide content that is broad enough to support a wide variety of research paper topics, while later in the semester students are more focused on researching the specific content area of their papers than on any new substantive topics that might appear on the syllabus. But I think the tradeoffs are clearly worth it in some kinds of classes (for example, in freshman seminars and in 300- and 400-level classes). Students who are exposed to this instruction often go on to pursue independent research opportunities at Penn, and they write some of the best senior theses.
Julia Lynch is an associate professor of political science in the School of Arts and Sciences.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.