Small Changes

Teaching is what I spend most of my time on — four days a week, compared to the one day a week that I reserve for research. This year, I want to challenge myself more to try out new things in the classroom. I’ll still update the research blog (Wild Things), but as a form of accountability to myself, I also want to share what I do in the classroom in this space.

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At the beginning of the current academic year, I wanted to make a few changes. I’ve been teaching in higher education for 11 years and I feel like I’m on top of things. But I don’t want to be too fine with the way things are going. Particularly since I work at a teacher training college, I am very much aware of my own teaching practice. Last year also made me realize that I need to explicitly push myself to develop, even if no one else asks me to do, in order to prevent burn-out.

So, in September, I implemented three new things in my classes: I began to use Fliqlo to keep track of time; focused more on images, and less on text; and explicitly began to experiment with different activities in class.

1. Fliqlo

Fliqlo is an analog-looking clock for desktop computers, phones and tablets. For a while, I’d been using my phone as a clock in class. Every so often, I’d walk over to my phone, click the home-button to see what time it was, and try not to get too distracted by messages I’d received during class. It wasn’t ideal: the screen of my iPhone 5 is not big enough to see from a distance, and the occasional message popping up distracted me.

When I first began teaching, I wore a watch. When I’d asked a colleague to sit in on one of my classes at this time, it turned out I wasn’t very good at subtly checking the time. He told me, ‘You visibly looked at your watch four times while student X was speaking’. I hadn’t realized it, but that is something I want to avoid.

Many classrooms will have clocks mounted on the walls. However, that’s not the case in one of the buildings where I do most of my teaching and in the other building, I tend to have my back turned towards the clock that is visible primarily to the students. I want to avoid having to turn my back on the students in order to check the time.

So I downloaded Fliqlo on my iPad. It’s big enough for me to see the clock from different positions in class, whether I’m walking around, checking in on students working in groups, or lecturing. I turn it at different angles whenever I take up different positions in class, and rarely have to explicitly – and visibly – move to see the time. I don’t get any messages on my iPad, but those wouldn’t show up on top of the clock either.

2. More images, fewer words

I teach literature courses, including two survey courses that each span around 200 years. There’s a lot of historical background that’s important for students to understand the texts. While I try to avoid putting too much information on the slides, students have to process a lot, especially in the first class of the semester when I give an overview of the two centuries we’ll be concerned with.

My own education in this sense was very traditional: we’d attend lectures of 1 to 1 1/2 hours where a lecturer would talk for pretty much the entire time — without visual aids or PowerPoint presentations. And, I also very much believe in the value of taking good to notes. But I also realized that the classes were far from ideal.

So in September, for my MA survey course on British literature from 1800 to the present, I replaced my typical overview by an activity that uses images relating to historical events. Rather than lecturing for an hour, I prepared a stack of images for the students. I didn’t specify on the images themselves what the image referred to. Some of them were fairly straightforward: most students recognized Queen Victoria, for instance, though  many of them couldn’t identify the image of the Blitz (World War II).

In groups of about four students they first tried to identify the images and put them in a rough chronological order. When they were done, I handed out a piece of paper with important dates and events. They matched them to the images, and we discussed their answers.

Students loved this activity. It gave them the historical overview that I had wanted them to get, but they also got to try to ‘read’ these images and make sense of them. The images they recognized quickly formed a framework, while those that they couldn’t place provided basis for discussion. The list of important dates I handed out to them turned out to be much shorter than the dates I put on the slides in the previous years. I realized that there was a lot less info that I felt was necessary at this stage. At the same time, having this list enables students to know which dates are important for them to know.

 

Next month, I’ll write about active learning, or including more activities in my BA and MA classes. Since by then I will have marked the exams of the courses in which I tried out the activities, I will also be able to say something about the effect of the activities on student performance.

 

 

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