Bearing the Responsibility for Our Own Expectations

At several points in my development as a college teacher, I have learned the hard way (and too late) that I bear the responsibility for my own expectations. This is not to say that students cannot be held accountable for their own work, but that we must be held accountable too. To that end, I believe my role as instructor must begin with humility and presence.

In the past, I have gotten caught in the forward force of the semester, and I have failed to reflect on how my students are doing (truly — in the ways that matter) and what I can and should change about what I am doing as their instructor. Indeed, just as students have one shot to get it right with each new class, an instructor has one shot to get it right with each new class of students.

I have found myself at the semester’s end realizing that my students were not taking good notes, that the classroom presentations were not as fulfilling as they could have been, and that the instances of plagiarism I saw may have occurred in part because I had not taken enough time to explain how to cite original sources.

Maintaining a sense of humility — that my instructions were not clear, that my assignments could have been improved (with better scaffolding!), and that I can adjust the values in my classroom through the priorities I set — is a key to improvement. And, so I can make these changes before it is too late, I hope to have a sense of presence — even as the semester pushes on.

Knowledge Transfer

I was asked to give a workshop last year to a group of grade school teachers on the issue of knowledge transfer. The reason for the workshop was teachers’ perceptions that students moved from grade to grade and subject to subject apparently treating each grade or subject in isolation and not applying the skills and knowledge from one grade or subject to the next.

This issue necessitates redundancy in teaching, and worse, lost chances to build and expand on students’ skills and knowledge across their academic development.

In thinking about this issue as college educators, consider the following two questions:

1) When you meet your students at the beginning of a semester, what expectations do you have about the knowledge the students should bring to your classroom?

2) What expectations do students have about the knowledge they should bring to the classroom?

The answer to the first question might be extensive.

For example, I want my students to know how to make an argument, what constitutes evidence for an argument, why things like labeling and generalizations can be problematic, how to study and take notes, and the list goes on!

The answer to the second question might be “None!”

So you see one of the first things we can do is set clear expectations about knowledge transfer for our students.

The reason a student’s list might be shorter than her teacher’s is that students might expect each new classroom to be a brand new challenge. There is a new instructor to figure out, a new set of concepts to learn, a new style of testing, a new form of classroom discussion. To a student, understandably, each new class and each new instructor might feel entirely new! So, why would they apply knowledge from prior classroom experiences to this one?

That your expectations and your students’ expectations might differ is not inherently a bad thing, but it does call for you as the instructor to make your expectations clear!

Once expectations are better matched, the next step as instructors is to find ways to promote knowledge transfer across classes and disciplines.

Some ideas:

1) Portfolios
Within disciplines, students might develop portfolios that will be carried over from one course level to the next. A second-year calculus (or second-year writing, etc.) teacher could see some of a students’ work from the first-year calculus (or first-year writing, etc.) class. Students and teachers could include goals and feedback to facilitate development rather than re-starting from one course level to the next.

2) Teach-Backs
A component of an advanced course in any discipline could be to teach-back foundational concepts to students in first-year courses in that discipline. This could be done verbally through mini-lessons, or in writing, through summary sheets.

3) Previewing
In your classroom, make a point to elicit prior knowledge, and “preview” subjects as you move through course content.

4) Inter-disciplinary collaboration
Talk to other instructors – in other disciplines!
Perhaps a writing course could team up with a math course to partner students for a project that integrates narrative and mathematical formulation. The possibilities are endless!

Special thanks to the 2015-2016 WAC Fellows at Brooklyn College with whom these ideas were developed!

Generating Hypotheses Across the Disciplines

Take a chance to think: In your discipline, what sort of writing do you do? What do you make hypotheses about?

We all know that students of the scientific method are instructed to generate hypotheses and perform tests of those hypotheses through experiments. But, across the disciplines, we all generate hypotheses in our writing! If your discipline involves writing that includes beliefs or attempts at explanation, then this blog post is for you. A brilliant psychologist, Bill McGuire, came up with a list of 49 heuristics for how to generate better, more nuanced hypotheses. I will briefly describe my 7 favorites with the goal of helping you find at least one you can use in your own or your students’ writing, no matter your discipline.

Source: McGuire, W. J. (1997). Creative hypothesis generating in psychology: Some useful heuristics. Annual Review of Psychology, 48, 1-30.

1. Introspective Self-Analysis
The fun here is analyzing your own behavior. Ask students to free-write about their past experiences. If you are trying to explain something that has not actually happened to you, then you can role-play or do a thought experiment by imagining how you would act in that situation.

2. Retrospective Comparison
There is nothing new under the sun! When attempting to solve a problem, consider analogies or other problems already solved, such as an opposite problem with a reciprocal solution. For example, try to explain why people resist taking drugs that are good for them, but cannot stop taking drugs that are bad for them?

4. Sustained, Deliberate Observation
Analyze case studies or engage in participant observation. If you are considering ethics or the nature of love, get out there and observe it in the world!

5. Simple Conversions of a Banal Proposition
This is my favorite! Step 1: Take an obvious hypothesis and stand it on its head. For example, if you assume that a more likable source will be more persuasive, consider when a less-liked source will be more persuasive? Step 2: Take an obvious hypothesis and reverse the direction. For example, if you assume watching TV violence leads to increased aggression, consider how increased aggression might lead to increased watching of TV violence? Step 3: Push a reasonable hypothesis to an implausible extreme. For example, although it is reasonable to assume that eye contact increases liking, what would happen if eye contact were pushed to the extreme?

6. Multiplying Insights by Conceptual Division
This one is helpful across the disciplines. Consider changing the language or labels you are using, such as by using synonyms or acknowledging distinctions between similar terms. This can serve as a great early, low-stakes writing activity.

7. Jolting One’s Conceptualizing Out of Its Usual Ruts
This is especially useful when one’s thoughts are constrained, as they often are with assumptions. Try reversing the focus of your attention, shifting from the nature of the cause to that of the effect, from costs to benefits, or try a new thinking style or seeing something from a different perspective.

Thanks to Bill McGuire for these and his other useful heuristics. Now, go out there and generate some neat, new hypotheses about the world!