Saturday, March 29, 2014

Turning Off Autopilot

by Guest Blogger: James Wadley

One of the challenges of teaching in the academy is that it is very easy to get into “autopilot” mode.  Lecture, lecture, lecture, and even more lecture reduces collegiate instruction to a mundane, bad repeat of a late night episode of “Knight Rider,” “Hill Street Blues,” or “MacGyver.” Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...   My passion for teaching propels me to call on sleeping students as if to actively engage them in the content of the course, and they sometimes offer a compelling response, but then I find them drifting off again as if my voice were a 19th century orchestral performance after dinner.   Perhaps I should take their sleeping in class as a compliment?

If students in our class fall asleep, their heavy eyes may be a function of our inability to connect with them with our instruction.  Most of us don’t have the opportunity to learn about differentiated instruction and curriculum development in graduate school because we are inundated with the content of our disciplines.   The ability to vary our teaching methodologies gives us an opportunity to meet the needs of visual, audio, and kinesthetic learners by using structured, semi-structured, and non-structured educational exercises.  Here are three of my favorite practices that increase the likelihood of meeting students learning needs (and keep them from falling asleep  LOL)! 
Quiz bowl and other games: Games of competition (e.g., quiz bowl, Pictionary, Hangman, $25,000.00 Pyramid, etc.) that require students to know course content and more can energize a classroom INSTANTLY!  Instructors would have to spend time preparing questions based upon readings, previous lectures and assignments, or additional student research.  While there exists the possibility of “winners” and “losers” in competition, those who do not find fortune during the game could earn lost points by completing a short homework assignment.  The short assignment gives everyone a chance to win and learn.
Collaborative learning opportunities: Sometimes our students feel isolated and withdrawn in class and yearn for an opportunity to share what they’ve learned but feel intimidated by our dry lectures or sharing in a large group format.  Collaborative learning opportunities like placing students in small groups (e.g., no more than 6 students), provide them with a more intimate educational experience and the possibility of  sharing more often than in large class discussion.  Instructors would have to remain cognizant of objectives for each small group and time management.
Smart/Cellphones: OK.  I know I may have touched upon a sensitive topic for some folks, but I implore you to hear me out….  There have been a few blogs/ commentaries about the utility of smartphones in the classroom, and I must say that I believe that smart phones can be skillfully used as a means of engaging students and advancing knowledge in the classroom. Instructors could issue students opportunities for inquiry where they must investigate course content, the relevance of what’s being taught, and the ease/difficulty of accessing the information, and the application/utility of what’s found in the search to their personal and professional endeavors.  Again, given the potential of students to become distracted and venture off to irrelevant and inappropriate sites, instructors would have to be clear about learning objectives, time management, and support needed for students who don’t have smart/cell phones (e.g., possibly placing students in dyads or triads; use of smartboard; etc.).
 So, before we automatically plan on lecturing to our students for another dry rerun, we should give ourselves and our students an opportunity to have an academic experience that reflects our passion and creativity as educators.

1 comment:

  1. You may be right. These, however, may be noteworthy:

    1. If college is about active rather than passive learning, much should be required of students; particularly, if we are preparing them for the real world or life after college. In real life or graduate school, they may have to sit through important but boring lectures.

    2. For some, to turn off autopilot is to lecture; particularly, if one has been doing other things besides lecturing.

    3. There may be other causes of students sleeping in class, besides our ability to connect with them by instruction.

    4. "Several psychologists say education could use some evidence-based teaching techniques, not unlike the way doctors try to use evidence-based medicine. Psychologist Dan Willingham at the University of Virginia, who studies how our brains learn, says teachers should not tailor instruction to different kinds of learners. He says we're on more equal footing than we may think when it comes to how our brains learn. And it's a mistake to assume students will respond and remember information better depending on how it's presented." NPR, August 29, 2011

    "The report, authored by a team of eminent researchers in the psychology of learning -- Hal Pashler (University of San Diego), Mark McDaniel (Washington University in St. Louis), Doug Rohrer (University of South Florida), and Robert Bjork (University of California, Los Angeles) -- reviews the existing literature on learning styles and finds that although numerous studies have purported to show the existence of different kinds of learners (such as auditory learners and visual learners), those studies have not used the type of randomized research designs that would make their findings credible." Association for Psychological Science, December 16, 2009

    Safro Kwame