Monday, April 25, 2011

Not surprised

I am teaching an upper division ecology course this term. It's a class I've taught before and it's one of the best ones I get to teach. The two professors  allow me to run the discussion section autonomously. The rest of class is conducted in a typical lecture style with some interactive moments.  I often find myself sitting in the back of the room thinking about ways that I would change the delivery of lecture and the content. I'll be giving a guest lecture at the end of the term; this is both generous of the professors and also one less lecture they have to prepare for.

There. I've set the stage. It's a good class. The objective is to help students learn ecology. All of the emphasis I've added is on purpose. For the first exam, the professors gave the students 50+ essay exam questions to study from and said "10 of these questions will be on your midterm." They also, at the beginning of the term, emphasized how important it is to learn together, to work together to learn. However, when the students collaborated to create a G-doc in which they shared their answers for the exam questions one of the professors was appalled. How could they possibly learn from creating a repository of "answers"? he blustered. This is not what we meant when we said "work together"! This cannot happen again. We have to make a change!

Luckily, they asked me what I thought (and I am appreciative of them asking for a TA's opinion). I said, first, the students did exactly what you told them to do. They answered all of the questions and they worked together. And they did it in a highly technologically advanced, creative and positive way. Yes, there may be some free loaders, but those individuals who read (and trust) the answers that are given to them will not gain anything. Second, the syllabus you give your students at the beginning of a term is essentially a contract. Any changes you make later in the course ought to be agreed upon by both parties. Therefore, it's easier to make changes that benefit your students, but changes that redirect the class are problematic. And three, hello! Teaching is a learning process. And this incident is your "learning experience" and you can change how you teach the class in the future, as a result.

And I went home silently applauding my students for working collaboratively,  communicating with one another and grappling with tough ecological questions. That's what learning really is.

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