Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below looks at an interesting approach to improving teaching and learning. It is by Nicole Howard, assistant Professor of history at the California State University, East Bay in Haward, CA. The article originally appeared in the CSU Faculty Development newsletter. The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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Parallel Journaling: Students and Teachers in a Classroom Assessment Experiment
The concept of journaling as a pedagogic technique has been discussed by teachers at both the secondary and university level for some time now. Using a diary to raise awareness of one's teaching can be a very insightful process and lead to greater awareness of what goes on in the classroom. Likewise, having students keep journals can be an effective way to get them to reflect on reading assignments, class lectures, and their own learning. In the Fall of 2003, I tried to combine these tools in what I called the "Parallel Journal Project" (PJP), which I conducted in my lower division World Civilizations survey. I was a participant in a Faculty Learning Community at the time, and I benefited from sharing the project with colleagues in the Faculty Development office.
In the PJP, both I and selected students kept a journal throughout the quarter wherein we reflected on the teaching and learning experience. These journals were discussed regularly, and then aggregated at the end of the quarter to create a collective teaching/learning journal. The purpose of the activity was twofold.
1. The project would help me reflect on my teaching in a constructive manner. Specifically, I hoped to answer three questions: (a) What aspects of my teaching are clearly helping students learn? (b) What aspects are impeding learning in some way? (c) What specific, practical steps can I take to improve learning?
2. The project would foster a level reflection among some students about their own learning by asking them to consider not just what they learn, but the way in which that learning happens. It also helped them to become more aware of their role in the learning community of that particular class.
How It Works
The PJP required selection of four students from the class. They were chosen from a pool of volunteers based on their willingness to do additional work (for extra credit) and based on their GPAs. An attempt was made to choose students who had performed at different levels in their university courses (i.e. not all "A" students), thereby diversifying the group. Two of the members were women, two were men. The students were charged with the task of keeping a "learning journal" wherein they reflected on each class meeting. I recommended that their comments include their feelings about how material was presented, their assessment of their own learning, and their perception of their intellectual growth in the class as the quarter progressed.
Bi-weekly meetings were scheduled wherein the students and I met to discuss our journal entries. Each student was given the opportunity to share their thoughts on their learning and on particular lessons or moments that stood out to them in the class. After each student spoke the group would discuss points in common, so that shared or alternative reactions could be explored. These conversations were especially interesting when students differed in their perception of an activity, exam or lecture. At these junctures, I allowed students to discuss their impressions-and what they felt informed those impressions-before I stepped in and explained my objective. Once they understood what I had been trying to do with a particular activity, their perceptions of it quickly fell into either an "I got it" or "I didn't get it" dichotomy. By withholding my aims, however, they could more freely exchange their experiences without the burden of having to fit their experience with my expectati
When I did share my goals and intentions for a particular activity or assignment, we talked about whether my approach made sense, and-for those students to whom "the point" was not clear-we discussed alternative ways I might have presented the information and different ways they might have considered it. In some cases, I made immediate adjustments to my teaching, but most of the time I took comments and ideas into consideration without acting on them right away. The idea was not to be reactionary in the face of feedback, but to take it in and consider how it evolved over the course of the quarter.
The PJP project accomplished several of the goals I had set. Overall, it provided me with a multi-dimensional reflection on my teaching that would be impossible for me to get by simply keeping a teaching journal. I was able to look at my classroom management, my lectures, and my ways of presenting information in a new light. I was also able to experiment with those things while getting regular feedback. Moreover, the PJP afforded the students involved a unique experience, and all of them said they were glad to have been a part of it. They expressed a greater awareness of how they took in and processed information, and all four felt that their participation in the journaling enhanced their experience in the class-both in terms of content acquisition and increased awareness of how they learn. The two students who hoped to become teachers themselves were especially interested in discussing a variety of "teaching moments" throughout the quarter and reported thinking about their o
wn pedagogy in this and other classes.
In the end, I think this kind of activity can be extremely useful, but there are a few caveats. First, it is probably not an activity that should be done regularly. Putting one's teaching under this kind of microscope for 10 weeks is intense, and it is unlikely that constant analysis like this would be healthy for any teacher.
Second, the PJP should be carefully planned and the ground rules set with students at the first meeting. Professors should be honest with themselves about what they actually want feedback on and what areas might be "off limits" for regular student comments.
Third, once the terms are made clear, it is important to be ready for the feedback you have asked for. I was disappointed at times when, mustering all the honesty I asked of them, students criticized aspects of my teaching that I didn't think were problematic. In some cases I thought they were wrong; other times I felt they had valid points, but the defensive reflex can be strong. To make the project work required patience and listening, so that students could express their perceptions fully without having to be defensive. The relationship dynamic naturally tends to privilege the authority of the professor over the voice of the students, but once they understood that I would hear them out before explaining my own perception or goals, they felt like they were fully participating and that the project was legitimate. Had they felt that negative or constructive feedback would be immediately rejected, the project would fail to engender trust or growth within the group.
In the end, the PJP taught me about a great deal about how I present information, how I manage my classroom, and about how my students approach learning. And though the process took some extra time-for meetings and for consistent journaling I think the net gain was absolutely worthwhile.