Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What Are They Learning? And How?

In my previous column, I wrote about the importance of tailoring your teaching to your students. In particular, I advocated listening to students, canvassing them to learn about their prior knowledge, their misconceptions, their associations. As a few readers pointed out in the article’s comments, such advice is perhaps more easily offered than followed.

The idea of starting a discussion by asking students what they know, and don’t know, about a topic gets more and more difficult as class sizes go up. In a lecture hall with 200 students, opening class by asking, “now what do you all know about pre-industrial America?” may not be the most effective strategy. Class time, as well, is an issue. Most instructors have a lot of ground to cover over the semester, and not enough time to handle it all. Adding in time for informal chats about students’ prior knowledge and current understanding may feel impossible.

So how do we respond to our students’ needs in a way that leaves room for other pedagogical priorities? What we’re looking for here are practical ways to elicit and make use of quality student feedback. We want to learn from students the information—about what they knew beforehand, what they've learned from us, and what they still don’t understand—that will help us teach more effectively. Providing students with ways to give us that information not only helps us tailor our teaching, it helps them become more aware of themselves as learners. That, in turn, can help them better achieve their goals.

Read the article What Are They Learning? And How?

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