I have been reading Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do as a part of a reading/discussion group sponsored by our Center for Teaching and Learning. I was glad to see some of my already existing teaching practices validated by the examples in the book, and I’ve been motivated to try techniques discussed such as simulations and real world application assignments. So a year marked by a radical shift in my teaching philosophy and practices has been punctuated by the arguments in this book.
That’s why I think the recent spate of negative Twitter comments by my students has personally hurt me. I’ve been working really hard on my teaching, on helping students achieve writing goals and become lifelong learners. The composition classes use every mode of communication, every human sense. We talk, we listen, we do. I’ve revamped my lit survey courses so that we make connections between the worlds we read and the worlds we live in through projects, exercises, and conversations. I took midterms and finals out of my upper-level classes and added conference presentations and cultural studies projects.
And it’s hard. It’s so much easier to teach from the same old notes, to lecture rather than devise multiple classroom activities, to grade a test rather than to assess a project. I’m feeling emotionally and intellectually thin (although, unfortunately, that thinness hasn’t manifested physically).
So when in the space of a week, four students from three different classes used our class Twitter feed as a space to complain that comp and British lit are pointless, I just feel defeated. Done. Over. When I’ve worked so hard on these classes, on making them relevant and alive, it just hits me in the gut to hear students say they don’t get it. And they aren’t in my office saying they don’t get it and need help; they are passively-aggressively complaining on Twitter.
In my previous post, I outlined the research/teaching questions that have come from this experience. Today we discussed the last chapter of the Bain book, and I felt myself get angrier and angrier. He says that the best teachers de-emphasize grades and that students go along with that. But how do they get the students to buy into the system? I think one reason these students see the classes as “pointless” is their perception of just that — because the point of the class is application, not a grade, they see it as literally lacking in points for them. Of course they are assessed and they do receive grades, but not in the input-output way of lecture/study guide/test.
How do we help students see their college classes as training in lifelong learning? How do we help them see past the GPA to the bigger goals of critical thinking and communication skills? How do we change university systems so that grades are not the ultimate factor in student success?