Very Varied Backgrounds – Maxwell Hartt

student facesAs students get farther along in their program, they are often streamed by discipline or sub-discipline. This creates an environment where the students know each other well and are entering the class with very similar pre-requisite academic experiences. They’ve taken many of the same classes, from the same instructors and will even have many shared experiences from outside of the classroom. However, when students first begin their post-secondary education, they come from all different types of schools and varied academic backgrounds. Furthermore, the larger introductory classes pool different programs, departments, and even faculties together. This makes for a potentially difficult teaching and learning experience.

How can an instructor best prepare themselves to deliver course content to very varied students? How can one ensure that the material is at the appropriate level when some students are far more advanced then others? How does one even tailor examples, projects, tests and other materials to be relevant and captivating to students with a wide range of academic interests?

I have had the good fortune to teach a class of this sort for the past two years. An introductory, (mainly) first-year statistics class for the entire Environment Faculty. This means that there are students from Geography and Environmental Management, Planning, Knowledge Integration, Environment and Resource Studies, Environment and Business, Geography and Aviation, Geomatics, and International Development. Among the slew of differences these programs boast, entrance pre-requisites is one that looms large. Will a student in Geography and Aviation really want to concentrate on the same examples as one from International Development? Maybe. But in my experience, it has not been the case.

The first year I taught this course, I concentrated on the conceptual material and then simply used easy-to-grasp but not overly provocative or discipline-specific examples. Basically, I shot for the middle ground. Something that everyone could understand but that, perhaps, no one would be writing home about. This strategy worked, but only in the sense that the students comprehended the material (more or less) and could relate somewhat to the examples used to get across the concepts. I wanted more than that. Being a first year student is an exciting time to be discovering new knowledge, sharing with others and beginning to forge your way into academia. I wanted to be able to harness this more.

To do so, I put the material into the hands of the students. The overarching concepts and methods remained the same, however, they controlled the specifics of their work. The course was restructured around a group project (rather than midterms and exams) and the students worked with TAs to develop their own research areas, research questions, hypothesis, and methods. Instantly, there was an overwhelmingly positive response. Attendance at optional tutorials went up, office hours had lines down the hall, I could overhear students excitedly talking about their topics and debating the merits of different approaches. In short, they were excited. And so was I. By giving them the ability to steer their education, it demonstrated my confidence in them, even in first year, to get motivated and engaged in their studies and in their field. It was at times difficult for myself and the TAs to provide topic-specific feedback on their reports, but even this barrier had its benefits as it encouraged them to become ‘experts’ in their chosen topic. They developed the research question, they performed the literature review and then found the sources.

We even took the creative element one step further. We allowed them to create stories for where their data (which was distributed without labels or metadata at random) came from, what the variables were, how it was collected, when it was collected, etc. This proved to be a fun exercise as students debated the potential bias or accuracy of different fictional data collection techniques.

In short, rather than trying to find a safe middle ground, the students streamed themselves and then taught each other. We provided the conceptual and course-specific content and techniques and they filled in the rest. And boy was it exciting.


‘Gimmicks’ in the Classroom – Maxwell Hartt

7459407782_ced635e297Everyone has sat through boring lectures or classes. Whether it was during grade school, high school, undergrad or beyond, we have all been in one of these head-nodding situations. In fact, many of us have probably experienced far too many of these at all the levels of our education. Do ‘serious’, ‘intellectual’ lectures need to be inherently boring? Or is there room for creativity? Absurdity? Or a little pizzazz?

I believe that most students and teachers can all recognize the value in an exciting, memorable lecture. And hopefully, we have all experienced some of these at one time or another. So let me take the question one step further, is it right for students to feel that they should be entertained? Considering the high cost of post-secondary education, is it fair for students to expect a show along with academic rigor? At what point do classroom creative approaches become nothing more than antics? And is there room in respectable, effective teaching for such gimmicks?

To be perfectly honest, there is no definitive answer to these questions. As with many aspects of teaching, different people believe in different approaches. For the most ‘traditional’ educators, there is absolutely no room for such shenanigans. School and universities exist for the exchange of knowledge, not for entertainment. Games, costumes, videos and the like are merely distractions that take away from serious academic work. Adults should not need anything more than the quest for knowledge as motivation. Catering to child-like methods of engagement and learning are ultimately holding back the students from educational maturation.

On the other hand, why not embrace exciting, creative teaching and lecturing methods? Excitement and surprise can be extremely effected ways to engage students and build student participation. If the content can be delivered in an unexpected, upbeat or emotional way that will engage students and create a positive, electric learning atmosphere, then shouldn’t this approach be taken whenever possible? The students are paying to learn and if this best peaks their interest, why not embrace it?

University teaching has seen a shift towards participatory and creative teaching styles. Much research has been done to document the positive outcomes of such approaches. That isn’t to say there is no longer a place for traditional lecturing. Above all, the method must suit the material, the environment, the lecturer and the students. However, in general, it can be said that integrating creative approaches into lectures is a fantastic way to engage students as long as all aspects remain relevant to the lecture content.

This brings me to my last question, are gimmicks (something done to make lecture more exciting or captivating but does not necessarily emphasize course content or learning objectives) of use in the classroom as a teaching method? Some argue that these distractions take away from the material and are often, unfortunately, the memorable part of the lecture while the real content goes forgotten. Alternatively, excitement and classroom gimmicks can help energize the classroom and raise both participation and attendance.

I, personally, feel that when appropriate classroom gimmicks can be useful. However, it is imperative that the lecturer be aware of its role and does not accidentally overshadow the course material. Also, whenever possible all aspect of creating memorable lectures should stay relevant to the lecture content. Use the creative approaches to excite and drive home the learning objectives.

That being said, if attendance is low, lectures delivered dressed as a clown to a full room will be more effective then those dressed professionally to an empty one.