Teaching Tip: Jumping into New Methods

Many of the posts on this blog advocate new teaching methods, tools, or styles that involve some aspect of technology. I believe that technology has a place in the classroom and can, in specific situations, lead to improved learning outcomes for students. You may not share this belief with me, but I’d urge you to consider testing your convictions.

Teaching is just a series of small experiments involving students. It’s a process of trial and error. A lot of professors though, will go to great lengths to avoid the error portion. Teaching in new ways is scary, and failing in front of a class of 20 students isn’t any fun. It’s easier just to use a teaching method that’s comfortable and to pretend that it’s successful, even when you don’t know for sure. The problem with avoiding error is that without experimentation and ultimately failure, there’s no chance of meeting the individual needs of students in your class.

I recently attended InstructureCon, a gathering of users and administrators of Canvas. During his keynote, Instructure’s CEO, Josh Coates, gave the (not entirely original) advice to “start small and fail fast”. He was talking about product development, but I think that these words of wisdom apply to teaching as well. Try out a new method judiciously, figure out if it’s working, and stop if it isn’t. There are hundreds of different ways to teach the same content. If one method isn’t working, there’s no point in trying to hammer in a screw.

Take for example, implementing the flipped classroom. In case you are one of the people who avoids educational trends, the flipped classroom is the idea that lectures and content should be delivered online before face-to-face class, while traditional “homework” tasks should take place in the classroom with direct instructor support. This sounds overwhelming to implement, but the process can be broken down into smaller more manageable pieces. Try flipping one lesson. Record one lecture and post it on Canvas for your students, then prepare to help students with “homework” in class.

Be transparent and let your students know that you’re trying something new with them, and that you want them to evaluate how it works. Then, if the student feedback and formative assessment data isn’t promising, quit. You may have spent time implementing this strategy, but the time isn’t wasted. Perhaps this was just the wrong group of students, or the wrong content. You’ve added another tool to your quiver of teaching methods, and you’ve probably learned something along the way. It’s time to move on to the next experiment.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the influx of new ideas and data about how to teach your subject, and to react by shutting it all out. But all of this data and hubbub is a good thing. Without this variety, it would be impossible to truly differentiate instruction within the classroom. So start small, fail fast, and ask your students how you’re doing.

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