Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Evidence of Learning

As I have taken on more teaching assignments this fall, I find myself asking new questions.  How do I know that the students are learning?  Am I transmitting something?  Am I transmitting something of value?

Since I am talking about traditional post-secondary education rather than continuous professional development, the obvious method for determining whether the students are learning comes in the form of assessments (papers, quizzes, participation in class discussions, etc...).

Since I am relatively new to this, I recognize that my insights are those of a newbie.

In a class of 25 students, it is easy to see with the initial assignments that they come into the class with a wide range of existing capabilities and prior knowledge.  I didn't teach much of anything to the student who writes the perfect answer in the first week of class.  However, I can "see" the learning when they start the class struggling with the concepts being presented, but by week 4 of an 8 week class they are getting more comfortable and by week 8 their final paper demonstrates a significant change in the way they are thinking about the topic. 

In a class of 25 students, at least a third is there to check the box and graduate as soon as possible. They will do the minimum possible and since that has probably been their strategy for a while, they are cruising without learning much of anything. This manifests itself with answers to discussion prompts that repeat something from the assigned readings and does not make any effort to connect to their own experience. Do I give up on that third of the class?  No.  I make them work for it. I try to ask them simple questions that would help them connect the concepts being discussed to their daily realities. I've also learned that it's dangerous to make quick judgments and assumptions about any student's particular approach to learning, their motivation for being in the class, etc...  The reality is that I know very little about them, especially in online classes. 

I have really enjoyed teaching (grading not so much!) and I am most proud of the students who have told me I made them think very hard.  So, that's it.  If I made them think, they built up their thinking muscles and they learned. In online classes, I have to follow strict rubrics for grading.  Those are useful at the beginning, to establish clear standards for the students to follow, but these rubrics are also hampering real conversations and learning from each other.  I'm happy when I see some independent thinking, regardless of whether the readings are cited properly or not.

The students are learning and I'm learning.  What else could I possibly want?