This summer I am participating in the Summer Teaching Institute for Associates at UCSB, which will provide grad students like me with an orientation on “principles of interactive, collaborative learning” and which is “designed to assist Associates with the planning, conducting and assessment of summer undergraduate courses.” As part of this training I have to keep an updated blog of my summer teaching experiences, so this is a good enough reason for me to start reflecting and writing about my teaching experience more generally as well.
Before summer classes start we are required to draft several documents pertinent to our class, including student learning outcomes (SLO), a syllabus, an “upside-down” lesson plan, and one assignment that assesses students’ learning. We are able to read and comment on the drafts of other participants, which have proven to be a valuable source for the cross-fertilization of ideas. One participant was developing an assignment where an argument was separated into individual sentences and mixed up. The students had to arrange the 25 (or so) sentences back into order that made sense – and made a good argument. I liked this simple assignment because it introduced students to how arguments were formed, a key to effectively composing one’s own argument.
The “upside-down” lesson plan was the most interesting and at the same time the most frustrating one for me. The basic principle is that instead of working your students up to a concept through the length of a class, you start the class off with a hands-on interactive activity that immediately engages the students with that concept. The more multi-sensorial the better. Slowly, you begin connecting the activity to the more abstract parts of the concept. I generally enjoy adding in things like this to my classes, and this structure acts like an ice-breaker to the concept that engages the student fully and gives them something concrete to reflect upon when the more difficult aspects are introduced.
An aspect of the assignment that I found frustrating was the dictum to not lecture for any longer than 15 minutes at a time. These lecture periods should be punctuated by activities. I personally find 15 minutes to be fairly short, and quite limiting depending on class size, complexity of material, the need to contextualize, etc. Perhaps that is a constraint for my field (humanities/religious studies)? I’ve been audience for so many lectures the extend well past 15 minutes, that this limit seems absurd. But, at the same time, I recognize the principle trying to be asserted. Get your audience engaged and active. I think regularly asking questions of your class, to gauge their reception and understanding would work well in this case.