Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Here is a useful list of links to teaching resources: http://www.developfaculty.com/online/index.html

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Critical thinking (or lack thereof) in our courses

For this session of the Teaching Lunch we had no pre-planned topic, but Amira began the discussion asking about teaching critical thinking - she finds that many 3rd year students seem unprepared to think and write critically, and she wonders how much teaching critical thinking is or should be an explicit part of our courses.

Judith suggested that small writing assignments can be a way to stimulate critical thinking - rather than overwhelming students with longer papers (some similar suggestions were made last month - see below).

Frances said that she has been troubled by this too and may start assigning a book on critical thinking in her 2nd year courses. Something like Nosich's Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum, for example, which is presented as a sort of textbook that could be part of a list of required course books. David suggested that religious studies may require a specialized presentation of critical thinking; reference was made again to a work on this topic by Scott Brown, a former CSR student (where is this book available?). Penaskovic's Critical Thinking and the Academic Study of Religion may be helpful, although it doesn't seem to be presented as a textbook but rather as a guide for instructors.

There was some discussion about whether such a book should/could be required of all (?) second year courses in the department. Do we want to make acquisition of critical thinking and writing skills such a priority that we require our students to read books on this topic? It was agreed that this is a topic that should be part of a larger discussion about the development of our undergraduate curriculum.

Pamela favored the accumulation of a set of online resources for the department, such as Laurier's "Blue Book" on how to write religious studies papers. All agreed that it would be useful to have such a resource, although we would then have to actually create it. (Perhaps this is another thing that we'd want to get a grant for.)

Wondering why our upper level students seem to have a hard time thinking critically, we spent some time discussing the World Religious course, wondering whether its content ought to be standardized to some extent at least, especially given that we consider it to be such an important way of drawing students into our programs. (Frances asked, though, whether we have any actual data to support our assumption that this course draws more students into our programs than other courses.) Should it include readings explicitely on topics such as critical thinking and how to write? (David thought it would be hard to introduce anything else into this course's already packed schedule.) Should it be team-taught? Should it be taught by a team of senior faculty? Should that team consist of 2 faculty members, or perhaps of many faculty members, one per tradition, for example? This last possibility might be a way of exposing prospective majors to our faculty (but then how would those faculty participants be "compensated" for this additional teaching)?

There was some enthusiasm for scheduling a workshop of sorts - perhaps a half-day event even - to discuss the World Religions course and its role in the department's curriculum. Most people seem to feel that it is an important course, but everyone agreed that we could put more thought into how it is taught and how it could be better integrated into the curriculum as a whole.

We will have one more Teaching Lunch this semester, scheduled for Friday DECEMBER 7th. For that session, Amira suggested that we might bring in someone from the Office of Teaching Advancement; John suggested that we might discuss how to make small groups work in large classes. Other suggestions are welcome. A reminder will be sent around the week before.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Cooperative Learning Activities eBook

You may be interested in this Cooperative Learning Activities eBook by Alice Macpherson, of the Centre for Academic Growth at Kwantlen University College in BC - it is online at http://www.kwantlen.ca/academicgrowth/coopact2007.doc

I heard about it, by the way, from the Forum for Teaching & Learning in Higher Education email list. You can see instructions for joining this list, and also list archives, at https://listserv.unb.ca/archives/stlhe-l.html.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Evaluating student writing and other topics

At today's Teaching Lunch (although few were eating) we talked about evaluating student writing. Frances began by showing an example of a customized essay evaluation scheme she used one year that was a modification of the U of T A&S Statement on What Grades Mean (see http://www.utoronto.ca/writing/grading.html). She is troubled by how much writing she should be teaching in her courses - how much class time should be devoted to teaching writing and research skills as opposed to other course content? She wondered if she should stop assigning papers at all, if writing instruction isn't part of the class explicitely, for should we be grading students on skills that they haven't been taught?

No one thought it was a good idea to stop assigning papers. Pamela and Laurel described classes where they assign various smaller assignments leading up to a final paper, each of which targets skill development of a different sort that is relevant to the final paper. All assignments are thus strategically integrated to help students practice different aspects of writing and research that should result in a better final paper. Pamela has a complex system of check boxes addressing various aspects of a paper, including examples; she also has a set of examples of common writing mistakes that she hands out to students before papers are due.

John M said he has thought of assigning student research papers in two stages: first a 5 page version of a paper is due, and once feedback is given on that paper, a 10 page version of the same paper would be completed. John K also has found it beneficial, if labor intensive, to assign a series of smaller papers instead of a large semester-end paper.

Walid saves examples of A papers to show to students who come to his office to ask for grade explanations; this helps students actually see what an excellent paper looks like.

Amira suggested that students could comment on each others' papers, using a specified set of guidelines for how to do so.

In the end, it was generally agreed that we should all be helping students with their writing, and that it seems to work best to integrate some aspects of writing instruction into the overall set of assignments designed for a course, so students can practice in different ways throughout the course. Sending students to the writing centre is a good idea, although hard to enforce, as is providing information on good writing on a website.

Frances wondered how much of this should become an explicit part of the course itself - i.e., how much classtime should be devoted to this sort of skill development? Pamela said she uses tutorial sections for this.

It was noted that the writing centre can give advice to faculty and graduate students, not only to paper-writing undergraduates. Maybe writing centre people could even come into our classes to discuss good writing with our students.

We also then discussed the general issue of skill development - library research skills, specialized bibliographic skills of various sorts, writing book reviews, etc. - noting that this is also important for graduate instruction. John K mentioned that when he was a graduate student one of his exams involved the development of a very specialized bibliography, and then an oral component where he was questioned on how to find things in certain collections, for instance. It was agreed that more instruction of this sort would be good for our graduate students as well as for our undergrad majors and specialists (in addition to the first or second year students, although for them it would be done at a different level).

Another topic addressed at this meeting was the collaborative drafting of a Wabash Center grant for the purposes of evaluating our undergraduate curriculum. A committee will be formed to write this grant; the committee will include interested graduate students as well as faculty. Some of the ideas discussed, in addition to general curriculum overhaul, include:

- inviting scholars from elsewhere, e.g. Calgary, to help evaluate our programs

- having a faculty retreat to discuss this task

- establishing a website of best teaching practices drawn from our own faculty

- paying for a writing consultant for the department; this person would be available to our faculty and TAs for advice on writing assignments and evaluation

Finally, a couple more ideas for future Teaching Lunch topics were identified: we could have someone from the plagiarism office come speak to our group; we could also have someone from the writing centre come and tell us more about their services.

We realized that the U of T Teaching and Learning Symposium (see http://www.provost.utoronto.ca/tlsymposium.htm) is on October 25, the date of the next scheduled Teaching Lunch. So we'll schedule the Teaching Lunch instead for November 1st, the following Thursday, from 12-1. Thanks for a stimulating conversation to all who attended today's session.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Web 2.0 Teaching Tools blog

Web 2.0 Teaching Tools is a blog by a geography professor in Arizona that features many useful digital tools for teaching. E.g., see Using Social Software in Online and Hybrid Classes or the entry on Formatpixel. Nothing to do with Religious Studies, but interesting.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Blogging and other methods of student participation

For this first lunchtime session on teaching in Religious Studies, we discussed methods for encouraging student participation.

Frances and Pamela introduced their experience with blogging in upper level undergraduate and/or graduate courses. Frances described courses in which each student is required to maintain a blog that is an ongoing record of interpretations of and reactions to the readings and course discussions. Students composed a one-three page paper each week on the readings, but instead of handing it in to the instructor, they posted this onto their blogs, which eventually became a continuous log of all their papers throughout the semester. Other students were required to read and respond to those papers. Students are assembled into permanent "commentarial groups" of 5 or 6, and group-mates are required to respond to each others' blog entries every week. These postings and discussions took place several days before the class meeting dedicated to that topic or set of readings, so by the time of the class meeting, considerable writing and discussion had already taken place.

Frances' pedagogical goals for the use of this approach include (1) to encourage interpretive creativity, where students learn to gain as much from each other as from the instructor, and to allow her contribution to the class meetings to be, to a certain extent, guided by the needs and interests of the students (this is sometimes referred to as, ahem, "facilitating a sense of student-centered community" in the classroom), (2) to engage students in intensive and sustained discussions about course materials that continue beyond the classroom walls, and (3) to facilitate the active participation of shy students.

Before a given class meeting, Frances would read all the blogs from the class and then organize certain issues from them into themes or arguments, which would then be the basis for class discussion. At given points in a discussion, she could refer to the writings of certain students, sometimes quoting them, for example, thus bringing into the classroom the voices of even the most shy students.

Courses in which this technique has been used can be seen at http://ccnet.utoronto.ca/20069/rlg404h1y/ , http://ccnet.utoronto.ca/20049/rlg372h1f/, http://courses.ece.utoronto.ca/20041/rlg372h1f/, http://courses.ece.utoronto.ca/20041/rlg236h1s/.

Pamela reported good success with this approach too, and wondered if it could be an effective approach in other courses in the department - for example, could it be used in tutorial sections for our large undergraduate courses? A few graduate student instructors thought that might be a very helpful way of encouraging discussion. Others wondered if this technique is better for upper level courses, where students are better able to engage in creative analytical thinking and writing without quite as much assistance.

There was some discussion about what sort of writing is encouraged in blog assignments. Frances favored bloggin as a very free and creative writing venue where students could develop their own interpretive personality over the course of a semester; she wants them to use this forum as a way of finding their own personal voice for their writing, which they can then learn to insert into more academic writing styles. Pamela wondered if more structure ought to be given.

Michael brought up privacy issues, wondering if there is something potentially dangerous about requiring students to post their work online for the world (or even just the class) to see, especially in Religious Studies courses where content can sometimes be sensitive. (Does this mean that I should delete the links above?) Others agreed that this is something we ought to think more about, although not wanting to restrict students' ability to communicate with each other in ways that are familiar to them (i.e., online). Apparently, however, there are some very extreme laws (? can someone provide links?) that actually prohibit us from all sorts of things in the name of privacy, such as - be careful - speaking students' names out loud in class... It was suggested that we ought not sit back and accept such laws.

Ken described an effective technique he called the "minute round". He passes a watch around a small seminar class, and each student has a minute to introduce a topic of discussion or a provocative issue to address. If the class is small, this could be completed in 15 minutes, and then the rest of the class could be taken for discussion of these issues. This allows all students to own some part of the discussion. If the class is large, Ken has asked subsets of the class - groups of 10, say - to do the minute round on a given class meeting, then rotating through subgroups.

At the end of the discussion, we discussed possible topics for future meetings. These included:

- should there be a department style book or set of standard resources, posted on our website, for example? if so, what would it include?

- approaches to the teaching of World Religions courses (and what should such a course be called?)

- approaches to the teaching of Method and Theory courses

- negotiating the issue of religious sentiment among students

- the relationship between text and practice; assigning "religious practices" as coursework

- discussion of specific topics within religious studies

- assignments and testing

- grading essays, and evaluation in general

It was decided that we will meet once more this semester, in about a month, and then we will adjourn until the fall. At the next meeting, we will take up the last of these topics listed above. People might bring in their essay evaluation schemes to share, if they have such things. A notice will be sent around with the date of the next meeting. Thanks to all for a productive discussion!