Cold, Hard Numbers: Teaching Practices

The second category in which I polled students was teaching practices. The students were asked to respond on a 1-5 scale to how useful various practices were in helping them to understand history. Results were as follows:


Quick summary: These results demonstrate the continued need for basic skillbuilding.

The good…

The three practices that students found most useful – discussions, notetaking, and debates – all have something in common: they allow immediate and direct feedback. During discussions and debates, it is other students as well as the teacher who can respond to students’ claims. This is a way of giving students a sense of what they understand correctly and thoroughly. Many of my students also come from a culture that favors negotiation and discussion, so these two types of activities align well with their cultural tendencies.

Notetaking also gives students feedback, as my students aren’t shy to interrupt and ask questions when something isn’t clear. I also weave questions into my powerpoints and prezis to stop and check for understanding. Finally, this strategy seems useful because many students expect to be spoon-fed material, and taking notes is the finest example of such a practice.

The bad…

Textbook reading was not a crowd favorite, but this stems from low skills rather than an invalid teaching strategy. Many of my students come from ESL backgrounds as well as home cultures that do not encourage reading. They often struggle to find main ideas and supporting details in a text.

This is likely why TNP Homework – having students define the Terms and Names and then writing a summary paragraph of the chapter – was also disliked. Given that elsewhere in the survey students indicated that there was too much homework, I think that low skills make what should be a straightforward and quick homework assignment into a laborious one.

Surprisingly, worksheets scored poorly as a useful learning device. Given my students’ love of group work and the social dynamic that accompanies it, I would have expected a majority to like doing it. Two factors may be at work here:

  1. Poor worksheet design. Here’s a worksheet that isn’t terribly useful for studying. It doesn’t highlight main ideas nor is it easy to absorb at a glance. Here’s one that does it better. More competent worksheet design could improve the utility thereof.
  2. Worksheets require too much initiative. Since some students prefer to be spoon-fed the material and aren’t motivated to explore the subject themselves, self-directed tasks such as worksheets become burdensome. One way to verify this would be to revisit how well students prepare for discussions and debates – for some of these activities I require written preparations. By measuring student engagement and effort for these prep activities, I can see whether initiative or design is to blame.

The ugly…

The low utility of basic reading and writing homework tells me that I should continue to emphasize basic reading and writing skillbuilding in my classes. Students don’t find reading and writing useful, yet they are the most efficient ways to absorb knowledge and are absolutely essential for success in higher education (I teach at a college prep school). Next year I can emphasize reading and writing by:

  • including a wider variety of sources, whether primary or secondary, to encourage engagement
  • using iClicker quizzes after reading passages as a stick to encourage completion and attention to task
  • focusing more on scaffolding the summary-writing process and using peer grading to give students additional feedback
  • incorporating short reading passages as evidence to be used in discussion and debate activities, to give students a sense of purpose in reading the documents

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