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CTL Faculty E-Newsletter

Learning to be a Student: Reflections on Open Teaching Week

By Patricia Mowery
Assistant Professor of Biology

In the fall of 2013 CTL offered an Open Teaching Week and I jumped at the chance to take other professors’ courses. I wanted to observe teaching in different departments as a way to broaden my approaches. I attended a total of four courses, where I learned subtle tricks to keep discussion moving, effective approaches for giving practice on the day’s topic, ways of moving abstract ideas to tangible understanding, and methods to involve everyone with the material. However the biggest learning I experienced was from the act of being a student again. None of these observations are novel insights, but revisiting being in the seats—as opposed to at the chalkboard—helped me see the details that make learning easier.

Walking into a classroom as a teacher, the day’s topic is fresh on my mind as I have prepared the material, organized the lesson flow, and completed final preparations right before class begins. As a student, I had the opposite experience. Just as students come to my classes after a different course on a completely different topic, I observed classes after teaching an unrelated topic or attending a meeting. My brain was elsewhere, and I was reminded of how important providing a transition is in order to center everyone’s mind on the day’s material.

For some classes I was assigned homework! Being a dutiful student I read my assignment right away, took notes on the material, and wrote questions in the margins. However this backfired on me as I forgot much of the reading by class time. Even if I had read the assignment the night before, there would be no way for me to thoroughly refresh in the ten minutes traveling between classes. I was suddenly reminded why students do not always recall the assigned text the way a professor who has read it numerous times does. Additionally, as teachers we purposely do not always prescribe what the student should exactly take from the text, but we can be confounded when we have to help them walk through what we assume is the obvious take home message.

I was particularly interested in observing a discussion-based class, as this format is the one least taught in my discipline. In the student role, I suddenly remembered nervousness at answering questions (“Am I right?”) even though I knew from the teacher’s viewpoint there was no “wrong” answer. To my surprise, I was also an impatient student – I was excited by an insight and blurted out an answer instead of raising my hand.

As the person in a seat taking notes, I was reminded of how critical articulated goals are. As a teacher it is easy to assume the class understands the rationale for learning the day’s particular material. In addition, as a note taker I quickly remembered how little things like neat handwriting, informative handouts, and use of colored chalk make the important concepts of the lesson easier to understand.

I was surprised at the impact of sitting at a desk for a long stretch. I am a physically active teacher who is constantly moving and I forgot how sitting for 55 minutes leads to moments of mind wandering even with the most exciting teacher and interesting subject. I also realized at times I probably looked inattentive, but I was actually making connections across material or subjects. I was reminded that student faces do not always reflect what they are thinking or their interest level.

Overall I encourage everyone to take advantage of the next CTL Open Teaching Week. How wonderful to learn new material and to be reminded what the classroom experience is like for those in the seats.