When I was a student, professors lectured while I sat in the back of the hall and doodled, or read the paper, or talked with my friend. When I got a bit older, I paid more attention, because I was older. When I went to graduate school, everything changed. I got to talk. There were only a few students. I learned things, and I thought. I would like to hope that the professor learned things too and was provoked to think too. When I became a professor (only I did so in the UK and we were called lecturers), I found it was easier and less scary to just lecture, and the students sitting in the back doodled, or read the paper or talked to their mates. But, I always remembered what was more rewarding, so I have tried to replicate experiences like those I had in graduate school.
Sometimes this works in class. I can think of two particularly rewarding courses, one at Dartmouth College a long time ago and one recently at Hong Kong University. The course at Dartmouth was called Gendered Geographies, and the one at HKU was about Economic Geography. In both courses, I had great students; they talked, and we had deep discussions. I learned, and they learned. I used the blackboard/whiteboard to direct discussion. For the HKU course, I followed this up with summary notes because a powerpoint didn’t or couldn’t capture all the directions we travelled.
Sometimes I have been able to only partially enable that experience with my students. This is usually when the class size is large, and the seats are arranged in a traditionally rigid lecture hall configuration. In these courses, brainstorming lists and quick reflection groups with feedback to the whole work reasonably well to generate discussion on a predetermined topic, but rarely have I been able to move the discussion in a way that resembles what has happened in my smaller group classes. What has seemed to work better is some form of group work with reflections and some form of public dissemination. I did this with my Culture, Social Justice, and Urban Space course at HKU. This is the link for the web site that the S1-2011 group made and the one from S1-2012. The first site is smoother and easier/quicker to navigate. The second is not as welcoming initially and slower to load, but has really great depth once you get into the individual places. (That is, of course, another discussion about the perils of student group work). What was key for both these exercises, was that in the individual reflections it was clear that the student’s had learned something, and perhaps as important I also learned from the work they did.
Taking this direction in teaching was scary at first for both for the students and me. You have to give up the structure and control that comes with a pre-prepared power point. You get labelled as experimental, and the students don’t always like that. This can be particularly problematic if they are expecting to learn by memorization and don’t work out that it won’t be that way until after the drop-add period. But for those who let go, it is a great experience and one they take away with them, even if they don’t get an A, though I have also found that the students who engage also get better marks than they would normally have gotten.
2015 was the first year that I ran a new masters course in Food Security and Food Justice that I designed and implemented. There are a number of videos of me talking about the programme for a toolkit developed by the Learning and Teaching team at Sheffield for staff wishing to develop innovative masters courses. The videos focus on programme development, inquiry-based learning, and recruitment.
You can read more about my reflections on the student web page projects at HKU on the post titled Bloom’s Taxonomy and Collective Understanding.