I enjoy teaching, whether in the classroom or in the workplace. Over the past 10 years, I’ve supervised 70 or so students, and I love teaching them not only how to successfully accomplish office tasks, but also about how to manage projects, communicate in the workplace (hint: never use the word “utilize”), work with peers, work for others, and supervise others. My love of teaching goes even farther. If I hear students discussing an academic or socio-political subject, I often leave my desk and join the conversation. I love hearing their perspectives and I also think it’s important to contribute my own. After all, I’ve lived 55 years, which included 20 years as a military officer, and in some cases experienced the events they are discussing. I like to think they are learning from me as much as I am learning from them. Although I sometimes wonder if my students are thinking “oh no, here he comes again” when I walk out of my office, they sometimes admit they have learned a new fact, concept, point of view, or even a way of thinking about an issue.
I’m a program administrator, but I occasionally teach as an adjunct in the Business School. After grading the first test of my first semester teaching, I was distressed to have a grade distribution in which 40% of my students earned an A, 32% a B, and 24% a C. One student received a D. Seeking advice to improve student learning, I showed the distribution to a senior professor. He told me the distribution was not only normal but also laudable. It proved, he claimed, that I was teaching the course with just enough, but not too much, rigor. His statement puzzled me in two ways. First, I wanted advice on student learning, but he was focused on teaching. Second, although I certainly wanted to challenge students, I thought it odd that a distribution which included poorer-than-average grades was something for which a teacher should strive. The incident forced me to think seriously about my teaching philosophy and to worry less about student grades and more about student learning. My philosophy rests on five pillars: we know why we are learning, we learn together, we learn by doing, we should know how we learn, and we know what we learn by assessing.
I teach operations management to business students, most of whom are marketing majors who have no interest in the subject. I know from experience that if I simply lecture and give tests, I will have a grade distribution like the one described above and that no student, not even one who earned an A, will learn or remember anything from the class. My first goal when walking into the classroom on the first day is to convince students they need to learn the concepts of operations management. I suspect this is true for any subject. If students don’t believe they need to learn, they won’t. They may diligently complete all assignments and perform well on assessments, but they won’t learn if they don’t care. I believe this is the most difficult task for a teacher, and I work to accomplish it during every class session and every discussion with a student outside of class.
There are, I suppose, teachers who are truly experts in a particular field and can set a distinct boundary between teacher and learner. I am not one of them. When I first began teaching operations management, I was aware of the fact that my experience was military-related and not from the business world. As a result, I emphasized a teacher-student boundary to establish credibility lest the students think me unqualified. I found this did not foster student learning. I now make it clear to students that we are all learning together. I encourage them to question my teaching and to participate in open dialogue with me and other students. I even occasionally detour to topics not related to the course just to get students talking. I believe if students aren’t talking, they aren’t learning.
I also believe students can’t learn if they are not doing something with what they learn in the classroom. No one ever learned to drive a car by reading a manual, listening to a lecture, and passing a written test. Since many students would rather simply read, listen, and test, (and not necessarily learn), it’s important to make them do something with what they read and hear. There are numerous activities designed to help students learn, but I believe it’s important to not simply choose for the students. Students have different learning styles and personalities. Some may resent being forced to participate in a particular activity. Although it’s impossible to please every student every time, I prefer to discuss the possible activities and encourage students to reach a consensus on those they find interesting. Doing so helps convince students that what they are learning is important, and it encourages learning and working together. It also helps students understand how they learn.
Ever since I first studied theories on cognitive development, I have wondered why students don’t take a course on meta-cognition during their first semester of college. I think it’s important for students to be aware of their preferred learning styles and where they stand on cognitive development scales. Self-awareness is the key to self-efficacy. It demystifies learning and helps students develop confidence. Students who are confident are more likely to engage in the subject. I don’t, of course, have time to teach a course within a course, but having students complete simple on-line assessments provides a useful starting point for helping students become more self-aware.
Finally, learning must be assessed, and not just at the end of the course. I have found that designing accurate and useful assessment tools to be a challenging task requiring many hours of thought and experimentation. Assessment is vital for students, who need to know what they have learned, and for teachers, who need to know what their students have learned. I believe assessment instruments should accurately measure what students are expected to learn, be designed to challenge students but not confuse or trick them, and should be varied so that students have the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in more than one way. Assessment is the final pillar of my teaching philosophy because it is the only way students can communicate what they have learned. It’s not simply a method of generating grades to report to the registrar; rather, it generates the evidence we must have to know our students are truly learning.