In the last post, I described how I altered my office hours into homework session. It led to improved learning gains from my students and better evaluations for me. This was a specific example of how a small change of some specific things in my class greatly improved my course pedagogy. There is a rule of thumb when making changes: only change the worst 20% at one time and keep the best 80%. Following this rule of thumb allows changes to be made a little at a time. It isn’t so daunting to make just a few changes to a few things.
For example, from year 1 to year 2 of teaching a particular course, I change my office hours to discussion sections, I added in small group work, and I started doing more computer demos as examples in class. I did not overhaul my lectures or completely change from a lecture style to an inverted classroom. For the following year, I made more changes to the course that included more student participation and active learning during class. If I could have taught the course for several more years, I would have eventually completely overhauled the course into an inverted classroom.
I want to point out: The additions and changes to my course did not require any extra time on my part. As anyone with any new course, I spent a lot of time the first offering coming up with the curriculum. Years 2 and 3 were a breeze compared to the effort of year 1, even with making important changes that greatly improved the course. The items that you change should strive to approach the scientifically documented best practices for scientific teaching. Honestly, my first year of teaching my course, I was struggling to get the material into lecture format in time for class. My teaching was not innovative or inspiring. Only the best students probably learned anything and they probably did not retain it. The blandness of my course was evident in my moderate evaluations of about 3.6 out of 5. The 20% changes I made were in the direction of best teaching practices. More student participation. More interaction with the teacher. More one-on-one time. My evaluations improved to a 4.2 in year 2 and a 4.9 in years 3 and 4 with students writing that I was the best professor they had in college and being nominated for university-wide teaching awards. I was able to make these improvements without a huge effort or commitment of time because I only changed 20% at a time.
Here is another issue: In order for this process of change to be effective, you need to teach the same course multiple years in a row. This is essential for any new faculty who is trying to get tenure. If your department will not let you teach the same course multiple times in a row, they are not being supportive and you absolutely need to demand it. They may tell you that they need you to teach something else for whatever reason, but really, they could do whatever they want. If teaching the same course multiple times in a row is not a regular thing in your new department, you need to put it in your contract or get a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the department chair. If you chair won’t do this for you, you need to go to the dean’s level to put pressure on the chair to ensure you can repeat the course. This is such a minor thing that most chairs will immediately agree, but you have to know to ask for it. If they ask you to change the course you are teaching after only one time, simply refuse. Don’t be nice about this. This is your career, and it depends on you teaching relatively well (relative to your colleagues), so make a stink if they aren’t helping you.
Do others have examples of simple changes that can be made to improve teaching that don’t take a lot of time? Or examples of 20% changes you made that made a huge improvement to your teaching? Guest post or make a comment.