Howard Rheingold has posted the syllabus for his upcoming class for comment. It has a great selection of texts. It’s a class I’d have loved to have been able to take as a grad student–heck, I’d love to take it now–and I’ll point my students in the Media & Society class there for some ideas. One of the things he is doing is having students take on a week to teach.
Now, this was such a mainstay of my own grad career that I expected every seminar was that way. While many of the grad (and some undergrad) seminars I lead do this, many do not. I am a big fan of the assignment, because I think you learn more by teaching than you do in the traditional “student” role. A year ago, I had a colleague come into one of my classes (522 again) to assess my teaching. She asked what I was teaching that day, and I told her I wasn’t–the students taught this course. She thought I was kidding and said she’d come back next week. I asked permission from the presenters that week to do a little lecture, and they agreed, though they thought is was pretty funny that I would actually lecture or lead discussion in a class. They were nice and didn’t give me too hard a time.
Anyway, having students responsible for the class can be a great experience for everyone, but it can also lead to disaster. Students naturally bring what they have learned from other classes to bear on a given task, and they will default to the tag-team Powerpoint talk. Some of them do this very well–some do it very poorly. There is something to be said for a provocative talk to open up discussion, but the process is often reduced to a five minute meeting among the students a week before they teach, in which they haphazardly divide the topic and then present consecutive, relatively unrelated, heavily text-laden Powerpoint decks.
Some of the most creative presenters, on the other hand, have had students engage in simulations and games, have come in costume, and have had folks put together videos on the fly. These super-classes put my own class planning to shame, and everyone–the presenters, the other students, and me–got a lot out of them.
So, how do you get more of the latter and less of the former. Two ways, I think:
The first is modeling. Generally, it’s unfair to students to assign a student-led discussion at the second meeting. It doesn’t give them time to prepare, or an adequate idea of what is expected, usually. Some of my seminars had the prof in charge of the first half, and the students of the second. This was actually pretty nice, since the course had a bit of a rhythm before students took the reigns. But even a class or two where you do the things you want your students to do–prepare, bring in examples, provide opportunities for interaction, ask questions and challenge assumptions–is helpful. Unfortunately, they may miss the cue: so you need to actually tell them what you are doing, engage in a bit of meta-class planning. “So, I was curious about this dude and wikipediad him and found out he named each of his dogs ‘Charles’, and I thought it might be interesting to…” In other words, tell them how you prepare, how you plan for a good discussion, and note that this is one way (and not the only way) to do it. At the end of each session, whether student or instructor led, be sure to debrief: what worked, what didn’t, and how does it inform coming meetings?
Along the same lines, don’t be afraid to distribute a reading from something like McKeachie’s Teaching Tips or the like, both as a resource and to emphasize that actually thinking about form is as important as being prepared in terms of content.
Finally, be very clear about what outcomes you want. Students naturally tend to think about personalized outcomes, and want to prove to you, and perhaps to the rest of the class, that they are capable and knowledgeable about the subject. It’s important to push them away from that “brain dump” attitude. Assume (whether or not this is safe) that they will have a solid understanding of the material. Emphasize that what you are looking for is a collective understanding of some core set of concepts, that they need to share in the responsibility of having their peers reach a better understanding of a problem.
For me, the success of a class is measured in a perhaps childish way–but one that tends to resonate with students. Don’t bore me. Show me something new. The ideal class is one in which there is a good discussion, one in which there is disagreement that is worked through and teased out, one in which there are more questions at the end than in the beginning, since that generally is a good gauge of real learning. But for this to happen, students need to know that is what you are looking for and expecting.