Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?
It is all too easy to take a look at your syllabus, see what you “have to cover,” couch that in your vast knowledge from many years of graduate school, and have a little panic attack about how much you have to do in so little time. When this happens, it is tempting to just walk into the classroom and dig in, nose to the grindstone, with no intellectual foreplay. But this may lead to student anxiety, a disassociation with the fun and interesting components of the course material, and a sense of dread and drudgery for both professor and students. What can we do to introduce our beloved content in a more peaceful and appealing manner? And how can we make sure that our students are walking away from a unit or course with the kind of love we have for our chosen disciplines and content areas?
Take a SIP of This: Previewing and Summarizing a Lesson
Experiment with class previews and summaries! By dedicating just a few minutes of each class meeting to these exercises, you can greatly enhance your students’ engagement with the material and improve their chances for a more meaningful and successful outcome in your course. Furthermore, laying out an organizational overview of your ideas for covering class material gives you the sense of calm that only comes from good organization and a solid plan. It’s a win-win!
Previews let you share your well organized course content and design with your students, and empower them to start productively engaging with your material:
- Think of your preview on both macro and micro levels. Announce to your students what the next unit will look like and how long it will last (one concept or chapter, two weeks or a month or whatever), and then let your students know what you will be doing on a daily basis. Keep in mind that daily lesson previews need not be detailed! A one-minute intro will absolutely suffice.
- Make an overt connection to your syllabus while doing the preview. Show students how their work in the current unit correlates to the Student Learning Outcomes for your class.
- Previewing a unit allows you to paint a complete picture for your students. By filling them in on the various elements of instruction—content delivery, student engagement, projects and assessments—your students can have a holistic idea of how all the discrete parts fit into the whole of learning.
- By doing a preview exercise, you may find that you can skip a lot of initial material you had planned to teach because the students already know it. This creates more time for in-depth exploration of the content! Alternatively, you may find that students need even more support to get to the baseline level that will allow you to deliver a successful unit. Either way, the more you know about your students’ positions before beginning, the better!
So how do you do it?
- Start each unit by taking a couple of minutes to do an in-class preview exercise. A great tool for this is a “KWLH Chart.” Ask students what they already Know about the topic, what they Want to know, How will they learn and apply the material, and (at the end of the unit), what they did Learn. Provide students with a fun graphic organizer and time in class to complete the exercise, and then share answers aloud. This lets students see that some of their classmates are just as in the dark as they are (thereby reducing the affective filter that causes anxiety and blocks learning), as well as identifies students who may serve as peer leaders in the content area. Pronounce this as “kewl” and see how many Urban Dictionary points you earn with your class!
For daily lesson previews, try writing the two or three learning objectives and/or activities for the day on the whiteboard. Point these out to students at the beginning of class. They will be able to follow along as you go through the class period–it’s like a little road map for their learning experience that day!
- Previewing units and daily lessons can contribute to improved class attendance! If students have a clear idea of exactly what will be missed by skipping class and how that gap will negatively impact their potential for success with the unit, they will be less likely to ditch.
It is just as important to wrap up a class or unit by summarizing what was learned:
- Unit summaries can be conducted on individual or group levels. Try giving students ten or more minutes in class to write a private reflection piece that allows them to dig deep into what they learned and how far they have come with their control of the material. Or, throw out some questions that spur reflective discussion among all members of the class: “Do you all remember on the first day of this unit when we thought that titanium was heavier than lead? Where are we now on that point? How did we get here?”
- Revisit your KWHL Chart and ask students to fill in the “L” column to indicate what they learned. The variety of responses may surprise you! You might find that the students learned more than just content and actually forayed into the meta-cognitive or structural realm.
- Like with the preview, connect learning and accomplishments to the Student Learning Outcomes listed in the syllabus. Ask, “Where are we now with regard to our progress toward the mastery of this course material?”
- Acknowledge the students’ accomplishments at the end of each unit as part of the summary. And don’t be afraid to make it fun, bring a treat, sing a song, or establish some little ritual that metaphorically pats your students on the back and encourages them to recognize their own hard work. This aspect of the summary, no matter how silly, can go a long way toward instilling a love of lifelong learning in your students.
Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of Previewing and Summarizing a Lesson
These are just the basics. If you want to know more, check out Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching. It has a great website on backward design and unit planning, based on Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design.