Monday, February 14, 2011

Teaching Challenge (Baranger Award Application Materials I)

I solicited and received nominations for the Elizabeth Baranger Excellence in Teaching Award, which aims to "recognize and reward outstanding teaching by graduate students at Pitt."  I'll be posting here drafts of my application materials.  Feedback is welcome!

The first item I have written is a response to the following prompt:

In an essay of no more than 500 words, please (a) describe a challenge you faced and overcame as a teacher, explaining (b) how you dealt with it and (c) what you learned from it.
With regards to (a), consider answering some of the following questions: Was the challenge one of how you relayed information to students, how you assessed students, how you organized material, or perhaps with what kind of an attitude you approached the course? Were any particular aspects of your teaching philosophy put under scrutiny as a result of facing the challenge? Do you think this type of a challenge is commonly faced by graduate student teachers?
With regards to (b), consider answering some of the following questions: Was there any previous planning (for example, a well-made syllabus or a comprehensive teaching philosophy), which prepared you for the challenge that arose? Did you seek help from other graduate students or faculty members? Did you attempt to overcome the challenge the first time you encountered it, or was it only after realizing that the challenge was an on-going element that you decided to address it?
With regards to (c), consider answering some of the following questions: Is the challenge something to be prevented from semester to semester, or do you look forward to facing it again? Have you rethought your teaching philosophy in light of the experience? How has experiencing the challenge forced you to rethink the attitude you take into the classroom?

Here is my response:

The first course I ever taught aimed to prepare high school students for the ACT college entrance exam.  I loved my students and spent hours crafting each lesson.  My students liked me too and thought that I was very smart.  There was only one problem: from the beginning of the course to the end, my students’ practice test scores barely improved.  I was teaching, but my students were not learning.  One of my students summed up her experience in the course as follows: “I understand your lessons, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot.  But my scores aren’t getting any better, and I can’t figure out why.”

Those results bothered me.  I refined my lessons, and in subsequent courses my students did slightly better.  The improvements were not dramatic, however, until I received additional training to teach a second test type.  My trainer noticed a general problem with my teaching and called me on it repeatedly: I was talking too much.  Students would tune out during my elaborate explanations.  I needed to identify the most important points of the lesson and punch those points one at a time.

In general, I realized, I was focusing too much on developing thorough, logically correct lessons, and not enough on presenting material in a way that helped students learn.  I streamlined my lessons, breaking them down into bite-sized pieces each of which was focused on one major point.  I read about pedagogical techniques and to incorporate them into my teaching.  (Many of the techniques I use are described in my statement of teaching philosophy.)  And I continued to monitor my students’ test results to see what was working and what was not.

This experience taught me, among other things, the importance of getting objective feedback about what my students are actually learning.  If I had only received feedback in the form of student evaluations, then I would have thought that the first course I taught was going rather well.  However, the data I received from their tests results showed otherwise.  It is difficult in my field (History and Philosophy of Science) to get data on student learning that is as clear as the data I got from my test-prep courses, but it is possible to get useful information from student responses in class and on written assignments by paying attention to deficiencies in their responses and reflecting on how one’s teaching might have contributed to those problems.

Academic tradition says that a teacher’s responsibility is to present the material, and a student’s responsibility is to learn it.  That attitude lets teachers off the hook too easily.  Students bear some responsibility for their own learning, of course, but a good educator helps to bridge the gap between where a student is and where he or she should be by the end of a course through skillful pedagogy and sensitivity to the student’s point of view.

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