Using Experimental Teaching Methods

Here are some points that I've found useful to keep in mind when trying out new teaching methods:

They may not be working well.

This is the most obvious point. You may have misgivings about traditional lectures, but for better or worse they've survived a long time and students are quite used to them. So I think that most people who try something new are, quite reasonably, worried that they might be making things worse instead of better. You shouldn't let these fears stop you from trying new things, but you shouldn't let your enthusiasm for something that sounds good to you in theory blind you to ways in which it might not be working well in practice.

They may be working well.

In my experience, figuring this out can be a bit more of a problem: I'm always afraid that I'm screwing things up when trying something new, and even when a new method seems to me to be working pretty well, I'm afraid that I'm missing something and that the students don't like it and/or aren't learning from it. Most of the time, when trying something new, some aspects of it work well, and some don't: so you're often aware that there are problems, but rather than just throwing out everything, it's best to keep the good parts and modify the bad parts.

You may not be able to tell which is which. (Or: feedback, feedback, feedback.)

The first time I tried an experimental method, it didn't work wonderfully. It wasn't awful, but it certainly could have been a lot better. I was aware of that at the time, but I didn't really know what to fix. I probably could have spent more time thinking about what was going on; however, I also ignored an extremely important resource, namely the opinions of my students.

The next time I tried that method, things went a lot better. Part of that was due to greater experience, but I also handed out questionnaires to my students every couple of weeks. So while, at the time of the first questionnaire, I thought things were going well, it felt great to read those questionnaires and have so many of the students say that they loved (most of) the ways things were going. So don't be afraid of feedback: you might hear some bad things, and that won't always be pleasant (but it's not so unpleasant), but you'll also hear good things, and that will make you very happy. However, even though most of the students liked most of the class, not everybody was happy with everything, and I tried to improve the class based on their suggestions. I've also started making a habit of spending most of the last class in a quarter talking about teaching (starting the conversation by asking students to name things that they didn't like about the quarter seems to work well); I've gotten some good ideas from those discussions which I'll try to incorporate in the future.

There are probably other resources on campus. Both MIT and Stanford have teaching centers that are there to provide help. They can videotape your classes, and are staffed with people who have spent lots and lots of time thinking about this stuff and who are great to talk to, full of useful suggestions. Your department doubtless has people who enjoy talking about teaching. And if, when you're asked at events outside your department what your research interests are, you throw in some words about teaching, you'll probably find people outside your department to talk to as well.

Feedback is especially important the first time you try a new technique. It can speed up your learning curve tremendously, and can really improve your psychological state (both because it helps the classes go better and you get to hear people tell you what's going right). I've put up a sample questionnaire, which I have used; but I don't like its wording very much, and I've found targeted questions to be useful as well. So it's good to have vague questions, but if there's something specific that you want to know your students' opinions on, by all means add a question on that. A longer questionnaire on the last day of class can be nice, too (especially when paired with classroom discussion that day).

A side note here: obviously, when trying out experiments, you don't want your students to feel like experimental subjects. Fortunately, in my experience, most students like it when professors try new things: they interpret this as a sign that the professor cares about them, and they've taken enough bad courses that they believe that there's lots of room for improvement. So as long as you're careful to monitor how well things are going, and to solicit their opinions about what works and what doesn't, you'll probably be pleasantly surprised at how well your efforts are received.

The importance of modeling.

If you're trying out something new, chances are you don't know exactly how it will play out in class; this will be much more true for your students. So it's important to think in as much detail as you can about how you expect something to work out. Don't just think "and now groupwork will happen", or "now a wonderful class discussion will happen"; instead, think about specific behavior that you expect to occur doing groupwork or during the discussion, and what the signs would be that the method is functioning as you'd like. Then compare what you envision with the actual class. If the actual class isn't going as well as you'd envisioned, think about how the reality doesn't match with your vision, and think about ways in which you can steer the class towards more productive behavior. (Gentle nudging often suffices: after all, your students want class to be productive too, they just might need some help.) Also, sometimes the actual class diverges from your vision in positive ways: look out for those, and try to incorporate them into your vision.

Don't be afraid.

Don't be afraid to try new methods. While lecturing is time-tested, time has also shown it to be far from perfect. How many college courses can you think of that you were mostly bored or resentful in? For that matter, how many of your college courses can you actually remember anything about? And, honestly, no matter what you do, your course probably won't end up awful (or wonderful): students are pretty resilient, and they'll probably learn a reasonable amount no matter what you do. So if you hear about a new method that you think you and your students will like and that you think could be useful, don't be afraid to try it out.


david carlton <carlton@bactrian.org>

Last modified: Wed Jun 28 17:35:39 PDT 2006