Dumbing Down or Teaching UP?

Public education is committed to the ideal that all students must have equitable access to learning…equitable is the key word here.  Brain research confirms what every teacher has known for centuries:  students vary widely in their prior knowledge, skill development and readiness to learn.  While private schools may have the freedom to sort and select their students to minimize the variance in knowledge and skills (we only take those students in the top 2% percent of SAT scores), public schools have a commitment to serve all our citizens regardless of race, creed, gender, sexuality: we teach any and all.

What then, must professors do to ensure the academic success of all students, regardless of where they may fall in their knowledge and skills?  First there must be “program readiness”: a carefully designed curriculum that is aligned to academic outcomes.  Required courses must be offered in the appropriate sequence; ensuring students’ continually develop the targeted knowledge and skills  as they move through the academic program towards graduation. Course outcomes are directly aligned to the program outcomes.

Begin each new course by establishing a positive learning environment for your students: use kind, inclusive humor. Clearly communicate what the students will know and be able to do at the end of the course. Outline the criteria on which students will be evaluated, if possible give examples of student work that illustrates the level of proficiency you expect your learners to achieve by the end of the course (with student permission you can post examples of student work from years past) or post rubrics to guide students’ learning throughout the course.  Be sure to explain how the knowledge and skills in this course are relevant to the students’ lives, world of work or study; relevancy helps students to contextualize the course content and increases student motivation (Marzanno, Pickering, Pollock, 2004).

Administer a pre-assessment that helps you identify the variance in your students’ knowledge and skills…as you review these pre-assessments seek patterns: is there a group of students who need more math development? A group who are second language learners and struggle with the vocabulary or with writing?  Is there a group of students who are advanced and may need some extensions and refinement of the content, or may need to be in another course? Pre-assessment is a critical first step in getting to know your audience; the better you know them the more likely you will be able to support them in their learning.  Let’s be honest, with hard work students will learn…but some students will have to work harder than others depending on what their prior knowledge and skills are upon entry to the course. Tell your students this…ensuring students that your expectations are high, yet attainable for all through hard work, communicates an ethic of care…central to creating a classroom environment conducive to learning. the pre-assessment should also communicate the kind, and proficiency level of thinking you want your students to do during the course: if you want them to apply the knowledge, ask them application questions; if you want them to synthesize, ask a synthesis question.  If most students fail at this type of thinking at the very beginning of the course what will you do as a teacher to improve their thinking?

Formative assessments, (those mini quizzes and assignments teachers assign during the course) are the primary way in which students academic growth is monitored.   Use the formative assessments to diagnose students’ misconceptions, check the pacing of your instruction, and…(here’s the nugget) identify the variance in the students’ understandings.  Formative assessments (I like to call them “dipstick assessments”) allows you to “check” the students’ academic progress…they need not be factored into the final grade as they are the classic example of “assessment for the purpose of supporting student learning.”  As the instructor reviews the students’ work, patterns will emerge: those who need additional help with language…math…group work etc.  This is where we can really assist our students’ learning.  By “scaffolding” or “differentiating” (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006)   support, students learning will be enhanced.  For instance, students who need more work with vocabulary may need the BB site to include definitions of key words; those who need further mathematical assistance may need to see  example problems on the BB that include a narrative or podcast explaining the thinking behind the problem solving.  support provided on a BB site can be catered to attend the learning differences identified through the pre-assessments and the formative assessments.

Depending on the nature of the course and your philosophy of teaching there are many ways to administer a summative evaluation of students knowledge.  The first and most important principle of a fair exam is that it is directly aligned to what you, as their teacher, have emphasized throughout the course: the exam is aligned to what was taught.  The purpose of a final is to learn what they learned…not to trick them…so it is a good idea to provide a space for students to also do a free write in which they can explain what else they learned in the class that was not included in the exam…  Consider allowing student to bring a page of notes with them to the exam (by the time they prepare the page of notes they have done a great deal of review).  Another technique to consider is to have a portion of the exam done independently…then allow students to get in groups and discuss the exam, allowing students to make revisions to their exam in a different color.  Even the final exam is an opportunity for the students to clarify misconceptions and learn the content and skills once again.  The manner in which you choose to administer the final exam, scenario, task of course will vary with the nature of the discipline, the size of the class, and the importance of the course content to the major.  If student learning is our ultimate goal, though, it is worth taking the time to consider,what kind of final “event” will best illustrate all that students have learned as a result of this course.

If there are any “rules” in teaching they are: be kind, love your subject, enjoy your students, clearly communicate your expectations and continue to encourage your students that they too, regardless of where they came from…can, with hard work, succeed.  Avoid dumbing down your expectations, and concentrate on helping student identify what “work” they need to do in order to be successful in your course.

Have fun out there…and thank you for all you do for our students!

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