Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Using Student Learning Outcomes to Improve my Teaching

When my tenure committee observes my class this semester (I'm expecting several visits in October!), they will check how well my lessons address the goals and objectives for that class. One one level, that means they are looking to see if I clearly state the specific learning objectives and critical questions on a particular day. On another, they will want to see how well those daily goals line up with the learning outcomes for the course. 

In anticipation of that observation, I've taken a few steps toward making sure that I'm not only announcing the learning objectives every period but that I make the connections between what I'm doing in class and the broader learning outcome. In fact, the very first day of my English Comp classes, we dived right into an activity meant to engage the student learning outcomes the English Department established for the class. 

The formal language on our course outline states two learning outcomes. But for the sake of simplicity and clarity, I think of them as four separate-but-related concepts:  

  1. Identify the argument or main point of a text;
  2. Name the major strategies and "moves" the author uses to support her argument;
  3. Evaluate those strategies, considering the text's purpose and audience; 
  4. Compose well-developed essays that manifest understanding of rhetoric (outcomes 1,2, & 3). 
And this is precisely where we began on the first day of class. After a much abbreviated version of the required throat-clearing teachers do the first day of class, I asked students to read a timeline of killing of Michael Brown and ensuing civil unrest in Ferguson. This reading served as context for the two "texts" students analyzed and discussed: a photo of two children at a protest in Ferguson and a tweet. 

After reading and discussing the first photo, I asked students to work in groups to answer the following questions, questions informed by the student learning outcomes: 

  1. What is the implicit argument in this image? 
  2. In terms of composition, what strategies did the photographer use to make that argument? 
  3. How successful were the photographer's strategies? 
  4. What is your stance on the civil unrest in Ferguson? 

After discussing the image, we analyzed a tweet (pictured below). In conversation, students asked for clarity on the term "argument". They wanted to know what I meant by "strategies". They asked me what criteria they needed to judge the efficacy of each text. I explained what I could, asking other students to chime in if they knew the technical terms for the strategies they noted in the texts. 

As I facilitated the conversation, I toggled back and forth between the immediate task at hand (answering questions about these particular texts) and explaining that the questions we are using for these texts are precisely the questions that will guide us for the rest of the semester. Memorize the shape of the questions, and you've got the point of the whole class. Everything we do in class should be related to these broad outcomes. 

Regardless the activity, students should be able to see that every lesson is directly related to the four outcomes. I noted that sometimes we might focus on one aspect of the outcomes one day, another outcome the following day, and all four when we do a large project. I announced that these four questions will serve as the backbone for every written composition they will produce. Indeed, the questions are a template for what each prompt will sound like, including the final exam. 

We weren't able to do deep analysis of the image or tweet. But as the class progress, students should gain competence and develop proficiency at the skills embedded in the learning outcomes. And they should, if I keep it transparent, be able to see their own progress vis-a-vis those outcomes. 

This is the first time I've intentionally  brought up the learning outcomes this  way, compelling student to "feel the burn" of the outcomes this quickly in the semester. Students responded well to the lesson, likely because of the timeliness of the the issue. Another part of their positive response had to do with getting a real flavor of what to expect in terms of the central questions of this class. Plus, we didn't spend the precious first meeting simply going over the syllabus.  We began building shared experience and language for the learning outcomes, the reason why we meet together for four hours per week. 

The second period we met, we reviewed the outcomes and applied the same questions to short written texts - going a bit more deeply than we could the first class meeting. Since then I've been able to signal to students how what we are doing is connected to at least one of the four outcomes.  I can feel a dramatic shift in the quality of focus and clarity of understanding student have for the purpose of the class. I hope I can keep up this level of transparency and deliberate attention to the outcomes when I'm observed in October - not just because I want a good review, but because it'll be a long semester if we lose sight of our shared purpose.