Thursday, January 22, 2015

One Semester Later: Lessons Learned Teaching at Bryn Mawr

Teaching at Bryn Mawr College has finally given me a chance to experiment and reflect as a teacher across a relatively stable stretch of time. As a visiting professor at Carleton College, I never taught for more than two consecutive terms and at Deep Springs two factors conspired against more systematic improvement: I rarely had the chance to teach the same course again and the extremely small class size – I averaged around eight students per course – made it difficult to distinguish the effectiveness of my pedagogy from the changed dynamics or abilities of the students enrolled. At Bryn Mawr, however, I have the chance to teach courses repeatedly as well as larger and thus more consistent classes. This gives me a terrific opportunity to fine-tune my teaching in ways not previously possible.

After one semester at Bryn Mawr and seventeen students officially “taught,” it’s a little early to draw any strong conclusions about what I should change and why. But my participation this fall in the Teaching and Learning Institute’s Pedagogy Workshop, led by Alison Cook-Sather, provided a terrific space and set of resources (both in terms of research materials and, perhaps more importantly, in terms of interlocutors) to reconsider my teaching in the context of the BiCo. I present, then, some “lessons learned” as well as new strategies and tactics for teaching well as I continue to teach and grow in this wonderful learning community.

1. More structure for discussion. At Deep Springs I was accustomed to active and dynamic discussions. Students seemed to intuitively understand the value of learning from one another and the importance of collaboration for reaching insights that would not be possible in a professor-centered learning space. But this fall I found I needed to do more to explain and demonstrate why we would have discussions and what kinds of learning they can facilitate. Throughout the semester my consultant (a Haverford student who partnered with me in my TLI-sponsored activities) and I have experimented with different strategies for engaging students and helping them to understand what can come of collaborative rather than performative discussion. One especially effective strategy for this was the “silent discussion” – the first time I tried this students could hardly contain their excitement and were high-fiving with exhilaration. Here’s a description of the activity from the Teaching and Learning Institute:

Silent Board Discussion: After you give the instructions, there should be no talking out loud at all during this activity. Write a key term or statement on the blackboard and circle it.  Invite students to come up to the board and define/discuss the term by drawing lines out from the circle (like spokes from the center of a wheel), writing a response at the end of the spoke, and circling it. As responses are added to the board, students can draw lines out from those circled responses and “speak” to them. When students have finished writing, give them a few minutes to read what is up on the board.  Then talk out loud about it, referring to what people have written.

The first time I tried this activity, I followed this description but I noticed three issues: first, students still talked with one another; second, some students did not write anything; and third, some other students made their contributions and then retreated behind their laptops and checked out. To address these, I had students move all the chairs to create little theaters around each blackboard, instructed students that they must contribute at least once, and reminded students again of the “silent” part of the discussion. It worked even better: students actually responded to one another; by virtue of these responses they were able to build their ideas in new directions and toward new insights; every student, moreover, could see his/her/their contribution as part of a whole, covering the entire board.

Here are images of our silent discussions of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality:





2. More transparency. When I read over my midcourse evaluations I was surprised I found I could do more to inspire reflection among students about their learning. When a question asked students to list activities that were either effective or ineffective for their learning, students would respond with activities that they liked or disliked. When we discussed the evaluations together as a class, many students again voiced preferences based on what was convenient or comfortable without mentioning how these connected with actual learning. My consultant and I talked about how we might have another short evaluation that prompted more reflection. We devised a follow-up evaluation that included this question: “Why do you think that reflecting on your learning (and Professor Schlosser’s teaching) is relevant to studying political philosophy?” The responses were terrific! Here are a few:

I think it’s important because political philosophy is really a process, and has been for hundreds of years, of people sitting down with these ideas, taking them apart, and trying to apply them to politics. Reflecting on my learning helps me to focus on why it’s important to keep participating and asking questions.

Reflections allows people to pause and to see the bigger picture. I think that everybody, especially people in political philosophy, should reflect once in a while. For the class, it allows one to see where they come from, where they stand in terms of knowledge and understanding, and see where they want to head. 

I think reflecting on learning is exceptionally helpful for realizing what works best and what doesn't.  Before we reflected, I thought that everything in the class was going as best as it could (I still really enjoy the class and think it is run really well!) but it wasn't until students brought up their concerns that I realized that there is always room for improvement.

This is kind of a broad question but the obvious is that if it betters our understanding of the course material it's very relevant. Then there is working in a community to better the learning experience for everyone, and also education is an integral part of any state, as we have learned, and so thinking about the ways in which we learn best and work together is helpful in understanding the importance of education.

I think that reflecting in the way the class is being taught and run is an interesting parallel to how we're reflecting on how societies can be run in class, and I think this whole system of feedback is an interesting exercise in not taking the structure of things for granted and trying to optimize an experience for all parties involved.

I think it's not only relevant to studying political philosophy but to all disciplines. It helps me reflect on how I can learn more effectively.

When we talked about the results of these follow-up evaluations, I distributed copies of all of the students’ answers to this question and underscored a few. The students’ positive response suggested to me that they had understood why reflecting on their learning was not only relevant to the course but also the all of the learning they were doing in the BiCo.

3. Aligning pedagogy and evaluation. A discussion of aligning pedagogical strategies and assessment during the workshop this fall also led me to realize that I needed to undertake more systematic lesson planning. While I’ve always specified course objectives and tried to align class activities to achieve these objectives, I’ve not been especially detailed about the day-to-day class meetings and how these contribute to overarching goals. In other words, I’ve not really scrutinized what I ask students to do outside of class – reading and writing – and how this may or may not provide the most accurate measure of what they are learning and how well. My TLI-related reading and writing this fall has led me to seek more integrity in my course design and execution: tighter connections between what I want students to learn and what I have them do inside and outside the classroom; and more explicit and frequent connection between what they are learning and what I’m assessing them on. For next semester, I’m focusing on lesson planning as a way to create more integrity in my courses along these lines.

The challenge of lesson planning comes when I try to define my course goals. What exactly do I want to accomplish in this course? Too often I have unconsciously repeated my graduate training, assuming that the primary goal of a course is to convey complex information to students. Upon reflection, I can see that while conveying information is important, it’s not everything I wish to accomplish. Chapter 3 of Elizabeth Barkley’s Collaborative Learning Techniques helped me to consider my course goals by drawing three circles for prioritizing these goals: the outer circle of things worth being familiar with; the middle circle of “essential information”; and the inner circle of “enduring understandings.” Stepping back from all of the information I wanted (or felt obligated) to “cover,” I thought about what would be “enduring understanding”: what I most desire students to remember long after specific dates and names and concepts had faded into oblivion. Here’s what I wrote for my upcoming course on power and resistance:


  1. I want students to be aware of the complexity of power and power relationships.
  2. I want students to understand the diversity of modes of resistance and how power relationships change.
  3. I want students to reflect on their own experiences in the power structures characteristic of contemporary social and political reality.
  4. I want students to develop their own paths of change and empowerment for dealing with these power structures.

Simply making this list changed my thoughts on the course: I realized that half of my goals for “enduring understanding” asked for self-reflection and creation from students. I needed, therefore, to provide models within the readings as well as activities that prompted students to consider their social positions with respect to power structures and to prompt them to think creatively from within these positions. Ultimately, I had to balance introducing the complexity and diversity of power and resistance (Goals 1 and 2) with creating and holding space for students to use this knowledge to reflect on and change their own lives (Goals 3 and 4). With these overarching course goals in mind, it became much easier for me to break down what I considered as essential information – such as the specific theories we would treat as well as key variables for assessing political contexts – and as information worth being familiar with – such as where Saul Alinsky developed his model of relational organizing or how Foucault’s theory of power has influenced feminism. (You can find a draft of my syllabus for this course here. Scroll down towards the middle of the syllabus to see the writing projects I designed to combine analysis and reflection.)

4. Focusing on student learning (and not my teaching). Creating “enduring understanding” requires repetition; lesson planning helps not only to “fill time” efficiently but to build learning structures to reinforce enduring understanding from multiple vantage points and for different kinds of learners. If I’m concerned with helping students develop enduring understanding and not just remembering formulas in time for the test, I need to design class activities and evaluation around student learning more specifically. I found this Chronicle of Higher Education piece very helpful for its simple instructions for creating lesson plans to focus on student learning. The article discusses how Meagan Rodgers devised a lesson plan that lists the date of a particular class, the goals for that class, the assignment for the class meeting, and announcements (here’s an image from her website). This covers the left third of a sheet of paper. On the right two thirds, Rodgers uses sticky notes to order that day’s activities, allowing her to shift the order or even move an activity to another day. There’s a clear connection between goals on the left and variable activities on the right.

I made one small change to Rodgers’ method: I added a section for “Assessment.” This helpful piece from the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching emphasized the importance of including strategies for checking student understanding. I tend to ask a lot of questions in my courses, but I don’t always plan my questions with my course goals in mind. If I think of every class as speaking to at least one of my “enduring understanding goals” while also have two or three items of “essential knowledge” as well as a half dozen or so things that students should be familiar with, then I can also evaluate these: by having students summarize the main points of a discussion; by asking students to write about how the new topic connects to the broader topics; by connecting our class activities to the larger writing projects for the course more explicitly. In other words, my assessment won’t always take place in a given course but I want to make sure that everything we do in class feeds into the course goals and that I’m measuring these course goals on the basis of what we’re doing together.

Going forward, I’m trying to map the first few weeks of my “Power” course using the lesson planning strategies described thus far. I have clarity about my overall course goals but developing specific goals for each meeting is more challenging: I’ve broken up the course into four sections, each of which will have its own set of general goals that incorporate the three levels of what I want students to learn; after this, I want to have specific goals for each class meeting and thus a series of templates (following my modified version of Meagan Rodgers’ model) that I can fill with activities appropriate to course goals.

With these goals laid out in advance, finding the right class activities will be much easier. Rather than just thinking about what will engage my students in the day or two before a class meeting, I will have a more focused question: What will help my students develop these specific skills? Right now my consultant and I are creating a list of all of the activities that I have used this semester and what kinds of thinking they develop. With these at hand, I can simply scan the list and pick what will work given my goals.

5. Clearer expectations (and explanations) from the start. As the new semester has begun at Bryn Mawr I've also sought to be clearer about course expectations from the beginning -- as well as to encourage continuing dialogue about these expectations as well as other aspects of the course. To accomplish this, I began both of my courses by distributing an "annotated syllabus," a syllabus to which I had appended comments with elaborations and translations. I explained to students that now they could begin to annotate the syllabus as I went over my various comments. After I had come to the end I gave them a chance to discuss with one another what remained unclear, what they wanted to change, and so forth. The results were rich: students could clarify the specifics of unfamiliar writing projects; check about readings; and offer corrections to minor mistakes. Above all else, I found that this activity elicited student collaboration, which helped them to begin to see themselves not as consumers but as creators of their learning -- and of our learning together. (Click here for the annotated syllabus from my seminar on Hannah Arendt.)

Of course, encouraging collaboration with students requires more than just this first day's exercise. At the end of our syllabus discussion I suggested that the syllabus remain provisional until the end of the next week when we would return to our annotations and make sure everyone liked the results. To continue this collaboration, I left some sections of class activities open and encouraged students to voice their preferences about how we might best use that time. The goal remains the same: fostering not just collaborative learning inside the classroom but collaborative reflection about the structure and substance of that learning. And it just so happens that this kind of thinking is, in my opinion, an essential political skill.