As I have mentioned before, on August 7, 2013, I will be giving a 75 minute presentation about this blog at the Annual Convention of the American Accounting Association in Anaheim, California. If you are going to be at the convention, I hope you’ll stop by and chat. I’d love to meet each and every one of the people who read these essays. I’ll be there for several days so let’s get together over coffee and talk about teaching.
In preparing for this talk, I have gone back and looked at some of the 170 posts that I have written over the years. To me, it is interesting how many of these posts push teachers (including me) to think about the last day of class and what the teachers want their students to have accomplished. Until you visualize what you want your students to do by the end of the semester, it is hard to know how to guide them. Over and over, you see that theme in my thoughts on teaching. You can accomplish very little without knowing specifically what you want to accomplish. Notice the word is not “vaguely” but “specifically.”
One of my very favorite posts was “Training Dogs” which I put up on this site on March 4, 2010. (It is available at http://joehoyle-teaching.blogspot.com/2010/03/training-dogs.html ). This essay talks about how people go about training dogs and makes what I thought was an obvious point: training students uses the same basic techniques that you would use in training dogs. It seems easy when you talk about dogs; in fact, it seems like basic common sense. I am not sure why it appears so much more complicated when working with college students.
In this earlier essay, I ask readers to come up with 8 steps for training dogs. They are all obvious but my very first one is: “Have a firm understanding of what you want them to accomplish.” Again, that seems so self-evident. You cannot teach a dog to roll over if you are not sure what you want the dog to do.
Unless the goal is clear in your mind, the dog will just be confused.
Unless the goal is clear in your mind, the student will just be confused.
I think a lot of teachers who struggle are simply not sure of their goal. Maybe vaguely they are but not specifically.
Okay, how do you put this into practice? I was working with one of our younger teachers this week and I gave him an assignment that might be helpful to you. I told him to spend several hours over the summer writing a “hypothetical but absolutely perfect final exam” for his fall classes. In other words, if the students did exactly what he wanted them to do for the entire semester, what would he want them to show him on the final exam? That seems like a legitimate assignment. If the students learned exactly what he had hoped for, how would they be able to show that on the final exam? It seems to me that there really needs to be a connection between those final questions and what they ultimately need to know.
So, don’t write your final exam at the end of the semester to ascertain grades.Instead, write your final exam now before the semester even begins as a guide for what you want your students to be able to do by the end. Don’t be vague – make those questions as specific as you possibly can. That's the real purpose -- to add specificity to your goals.
Okay, you probably won’t ever give this exam. That’s not the point. The point is to help YOU (not them) to visualize what you want them to be able to accomplish at a high quality level.
Visualize the perfect semester where every class goes great and every assignment is done well and every reading is carefully analyzed. How would the students be able to demonstrate that they had done really well for you?
Surely, you would not fill up this hypothetical exam with memorization questions. That just cannot be your ultimate goal. Well, if that’s not the goal, what is your goal? What would be several perfect questions to allow students to show you the intense depth of their understanding?
I have an idea that this might be a very interesting summer project. I have held before in these essays that most teachers spend way too little time thinking about testing and how it can be used to help pattern student learning. Here’s a chance to give some deep thought to that process.
By the time school starts back in the fall, can you have a hypothetical final exam created that would enable your students to show what they know and understand? If so, that can really serve as a road map for how you attack each day of the entire semester. Anything that won’t get the students moving toward the point where they can answer those hypothetical final exam questions will quickly start to seem trivial to you. And, that’s probably a good sign.