Sunday, March 4, 2012

Teaching to Non-Majors

In GTC workshop this week, we explored some of the challenges and considerations related to teaching to non-majors. The session began with three short “mini-lectures” on topics from the disciplines of ecology, music theory, and genetics. Each was designed to illustrate “bad” ways of engaging non-majors and featured exaggerated performances that were intended to be pretentious, jargon-heavy, and generally overwhelming (a.k.a. the TA’s from hell). Workshop participants were asked to evaluate these presentations as if they were non-major freshmen attending the first day of class. After some discussion, the three mini-lectures were repeated, except this time lectures were designed to illustrate a more realistic way of engaging non-majors. In comparing the two types of lectures, participants identified some key differences that made each presentation more or less effective. In general, the “good” presentations were slower-paced, used less technical language, engaged more senses (using drawings, multimedia and metaphors), had reasonable expectations of previous knowledge and conveyed more enthusiasm for the subject.

The “good” and “bad” presentations, although exaggerated, allowed us to discuss and highlight some of the major challenges we identified related to teaching to non-majors:

1. Assuming the appropriate level of previous knowledge: The over-use of jargon is an unfortunate byproduct of being a grad student and overly technical language may unintentionally leak into presentations and “lose” an audience. This may be particularly problematic with English as a second language (ESL) students. We suggest the importance of identifying what terms are necessary for a class to learn and explicitly defining them. In general, reduced expectations of previous knowledge moderated by feedback (surveys or in class questions) may be helpful.

2. Generating and maintaining interest in the subject: Although we may find the minutiae of our chosen field of study exhilarating, it’s obvious that many, if not most, non-majors will not (unless we help them!). Although our own enthusiasm for the subject should be evident, we suggest that developing a rapport with students is critical for making this enthusiasm contagious. Getting to know names and backgrounds, answering questions in a patient and respectful way, letting students know that they can contact you—these are great ways to get students engaged.

3. Dealing with variable experiences: Non-major classes often draw a broad mix of students with diverse interests, strengths and learning styles. Making use of many different types graded assignments may increase the likelihood that students will ‘connect’ with the material and demonstrate proficiency. It has often been helpful to encourage and students to look for and report “real-world” examples of subjects covered in class. One assignment, possibly near the end of the semester, could be to relate the subject matter covered in class to the student’s own chosen field of study.

An interesting pedogogical note that came up in discussion was the importance of formative assessments in contrast to summative class assessments. Formative assessments are ways of getting feedback from students (surveys, observations, quizzes) to help teachers improve instruction adaptively during the course. Summative assessments are taken at the end of the quarter to evaluate student competency (final exam). As an example of formative assessment, we suggested that a good way to gauge class progress in learning would be to have the students turn in 2 major questions they still have at the end of every class session. This technique may help the instructor a) take attendance b) determine class participation c) identify subjects that need clarification.

Like the other aspects of diversity in the classroom we have covered this quarter, teaching to non-majors is greatly enhanced by a) getting to know your students and their backgrounds/needs and b) employing a diversity of educational tools. Teaching to non-majors can be difficult, but ultimately rewarding. We suggest that engaging non-majors effectively is an act of service to your department, but also to society as a whole. You may be the last exposure to your subject that a student ever receives!

Some resources:

Courtesy of Steve Fick

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