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Friday, June 11, 2010

Researching teaching

Given that I've never taught statistics, I eagerly read this Tomorrow's Professor post on Teaching What You Don't Know, which led me to Therese Huston's book by the same name. I haven't read all of it yet but I started with chapter 3, "Getting Ready" (yeah, I jumped ahead but Huston even says it's OK - the chapter starts with: "If you've just been assigned to teach a course that's outside your specialty and you're barely hanging on as it is..., you might have skipped directly to this chapter and bypassed everything else. That's fine."). The first thing that Huston suggests is 'planning backward':
Fortunately, you can turn to the proven educational principle of backward design, also known as planning backward, to organize your class in a way that maximizes student learning and focuses your daily preparation. It's called "backward" design because you begin with the end product first: what do you want students to be able to do as a result of learning in your course? Note that the emphasis is on what students can do, rather than what they will know.
Since this new course I'm teaching is supposed to be focused on having students do a bunch of stuff, this sounded good to me. Huston goes on to discuss developing learning outcomes, outlining evidence of learning (how will you know your students have learned what you want them to learn?) and then, only after that, thinking about what you need to do as an instructor to help students produce that kind of evidence. This all made a lot of sense to me, though I was still fuzzy on how exactly to go about doing this.

So I googled 'backward course design' and that led me to the work of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe and for the last few days, I've been reading Understanding by Design and filling pages of notes with random ideas about 'big questions' that I think this course should be trying to address, as well as smaller questions that will probably end up driving individual class meetings or units, plus activities, assignments and projects for students to do.

And because I can only go so long before a lack of an overarching organizational structure starts to drive me nuts, I also went back to some classic articles in economics education that I thought might help, including Hansen's work on proficiencies for undergraduate economics majors (AER 1986, JEE 2001) and the Siegfried, et al, article on "The Status and Prospects of the Economics Major" (JEE 1991), which also led me to three papers in the AER Papers and Proceedings from 1987, from a roundtable on teaching economics statistics. There's a lot to digest!

I'll be coming back to all the teaching stuff but my point here is that it dawned on me that I'm actually tackling this new course the way I tend to tackle new research projects. That is, I think one of the side effects of graduate school, or maybe doing research in general, is that whenever I'm faced with something I don't know much about, I have a tendency to think, "the answer must be in a book/journal somewhere". As a researcher, whenever a possible research topic pops into my head, I usually start by trying to find out if anyone has already answered the question (that is, for questions that have not just grown out of research I'm already working on and where I know the literature). So I guess it's not surprising that I seem to be taking a similar approach to teaching this new course (though I didn't really go looking for 'how to teach what you don't know' but it's turning out that I'm going through a similar process nonetheless). I know that, just like with my research, at some point I have to stop reading other people's stuff and start doing it myself but given my lack of experience with both the subject matter and with course design in general, I'm thinking that doing some research before jumping in isn't such a bad use of my time...


  1. Consider L. Dee Fink's Creating Significant Learning Experiences - he does a nice job of laying out this type of backward course design


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