Monday, November 19, 2007

The Importance of the Classroom Experience

Professor’s face many complex decisions when determining what constitutes the best educative experience they can create for their students. These decisions range from one’s lecturing style to choice of course readings and method of formal assessment. There are of course many different visions of what the ideal educative experience is and how best to achieve it. For example, some professors like to use power point when they teach, while other profs hate and despise power point. Some profs prepare very structured lectures and feel compelled to keep to these plans. And yet others prefer to have a more open and spontaneous approach to lectures and thus they may go off on various tangents if the dialogue with students should happen to go in such a direction, etc.

The pluralism of pedagogical strategies and ideals is one of the things I love most about working in higher education. I like to think that I am a reflective educator and I am constantly fine-tuning my craft so as to provide the best educative experience I can for my students. I do not believe there is only one way to be an effective educator. For me, much depends on the level of the students I am teaching (1st year intro vs specialized senior seminar or graduate course), the size of the class (200 students vs 20 students), as well as the material to be covered in the course.

I read with interest this opinion article in the latest issue of University Affairs. It’s titled “Let’s Not Kill the Classroom Experience” by Donald Taylor, a professor of psychology at McGill University. The article focuses on the question of whether or not it is a good idea for a prof to make all lectures readily available online, thus giving the impression that class attendance is really optional. It’s a very insightful piece, and I agree with Taylor’s arguments. I have never put recorded lectures online and I would be reluctant to do so because I think this threatens the very skills and values that we should be seeking to cultivate in our students. Here is a sample from Taylor’s article:

Lectures are the backbone of modern university education. Students must listen attentively to a ranting prof while simultaneously jotting down notes, all the while capturing the intellectual structure to the knowledge being proffered. That is not only an honourable challenge for students; it is the task that human beings must master all day, every day, with all people, in all situations.

That skill is being lost when students can sit at home in their beanbag chair and listen to a recorded lecture online, pausing all the while to take a note or two, or to warm a slice of last night’s pizza in the microwave.

....Students react to a lecture. Where they look and how, when they sit collectively riveted, laughing or squirming, and the quizzical or unbelieving expressions, all communicate so much.

And that communication affects the pace and mood of a lecture. In short, students are major players in the pedagogical experience. Questions are crucial. There are the clarification questions that signal your failure to clearly explain a point. There are also the penetrating questions that take the lecture in a whole different, but meaningful and important direction. In either case the student is performing a service for the whole class and making an impact on the pedagogical process.