I use the six hat thinking method created by Edward de Bono as a structure for critique in my art and design courses. Normally when I ask the class to put on their "red hats" I don't get much of a response. Today was different. The red hat is an emotional, gut instinct type response to a problem or thought; no rationale is required or given. I tell my students, "this is your chance to say things like, 'I hated this torture' and 'it took up too much time,' etc." After about 3 or 4 minutes of responses like, "I thought this was difficult" one student said, "I felt inadequate and unintelligent because it seemed like all the students in the class got it except me." The floodgates opened and many other students expressed similar feelings. It was great because 1. students had the opportunity to relieve their tension and anxiety, and 2. students realized (I hope) that their experience was more common than they realized; that they projected a false reality of group understanding around them. The immediate student response gives me the opportunity to address learning problems now instead of hearing about them during course evaluations long after the course is over. I also came to the conclusion that simply asking students if they understand a problem or if they have questions doesn't necessarily yield any results. Answering "no" to a "do you understand?" type question might be too difficult for a student to swallow. My assessment of student understanding was based on a fallacy, namely that students would self-report if they did not understand the course content. I plan on being more active in assessment of student knowledge, by asking them what they are doing to solve the problems and why they are using one strategy over another and so forth. My gut feeling (red hat at work again here...) is that I will both help knowledgeable students better articulate their thought processes as well as discover students who are having trouble with the course content.
The idea of starting this teaching journal occurred to me after reflecting upon a poor answer I gave during a job interview. The question was, "Can you please tell us how you address students who are having a difficult time learning in your class?" I couldn't think of a good answer. I've had plenty of students who struggled and overcame their difficulties with my help but I drew a serious blank. I thought about it for a while after the interview and still had no luck thinking of any specific anecdotal evidence of such an event. I ran into a former student and asked him what I did when he had trouble. Basically he told me two things, #1 I am persistent, and #2 the third way I explained a certain drawing problem was better than the first two.
The question and subsequent student interview made me realize the importance of self-awareness in my teaching practice. This week I became aware of a deficiency in my approach to teaching. Like so many of my weaknesses this deficiency has its origin in one of my greatest strengths: having my blinders on. I tend to be hyper-focused, diving deeply into subject matter that I'm teaching. I cultivate my interest by research, following each strand or clue to the next bit of information. I find the pursuit of knowledge fun, beautiful and exhilarating. This last week I taught a unit on balance describing radial symmetry, reflection symmetry, asymmetrical balance, and imbalance. The students were to make designs illustrating each of these concepts. I found an essay on symmetry from Architect Greg Lynn, who basically posits a theory that symmetry is a system based on a lack of information reproducing itself in mirror, similar to what happens in teratology (study of birth defects) - think two headed snake. I found this a fascinating idea especially because I have always taken the more common approach to bilateral symmetry, one that expresses beauty and good genetic reproduction. I employed these concepts in explaining bilateral symmetry to my students with diagrams, a PowerPoint presentation etc.. In my newfound zeal for considering bilateral symmetry from a greater depth I failed to adequately address the concept of radial symmetry, leading to assignments that were not done as well as they could have been. My hyper-focus on the details of one topic limited my ability to address the assignment in a holistic way. I'm hoping that my newfound awareness will make it less likely that I repeat my mistake.
Over the summer break I was asked to make new syllabi for the three foundation (2D, 3D, and Introduction to drawing) courses at SVSU. I designed each course with the assumption that students would arrive in the first class with no knowledge or experience in the subject matter. In the past I had always been hesitant to start in this manner out of fear that rudimentary exercises might insult my students. For my 2D class my first formative exercise was to cut out a 4" square piece of illustration board with a utility knife, mark off a 3" square with a 4H pencil, and adhere pieces of black magazine clippings onto the 3x3 surface with a dry on dry rubber cement application. I demonstrated all steps of the project, especially cutting the black magazine clippings on a bevel so that no white paper under the printing surface would be visible. The assignment asks students to perform this task with very careful measuring and cutting; the understanding is that they should be incredibly well crafted.
I am so very glad that I took the time to do this simple exercise. Almost all of the students in this class had major difficulties cutting a straight line. I had to demonstrate this skill multiple times in order for students to understand the principles. I realize that in past years I may have assumed that students came to the course with far more knowledge of basic procedures than they actually had. This may have alienated students or made them feel bad. I feel like it is much more constructive to have a student fail and struggle on a simple exercise than for them to face the same challenges on a larger project. My task now is to encourage my students by explaining that skills may look easy but are actually difficult until mastered, not unlike watching a master potter throw a pot.
60 Second Office Hours
I decided to stress the importance of office hours to my students. There are two reasons I wanted to do this. First, new students do not have any experience with office hours. They do not know that their professors are their advocates, and some even see the relationship between student and teacher as adversarial. The second reason was to support the university's declared mission of increasing rates of student retention.
This is what I did. During the last 30 minutes of class on the first day I had the students follow me to my office and line up in the hallway. One by one they knocked on my door. I asked them to come in and have a seat. I then told them something like the following face to face (I was very surprised that all of my students made very strong eye contact): "I had you come to my office so that you would know where it was and so that you would feel welcome here. My office hours are right there on my door and also in the syllabus. I want you to do well in my course this year and all your courses here at SVSU. If you have any problems in my class or other problems that are making it difficult for you to succeed here at the university please let me know about them. I may not have a solution for you immediately but I will try my best to direct you to someone that can help you. I'm happy you are here." I then offered them a chocolate or pencil and sent them on their way. Most, if not all of the students, seemed really very pleased with the experience. An added plus was that my department chair saw all of these art students in the hall and he was able to introduce himself as well as actually meet and advise a few students.
UPDATE 9/8/2014 - I have already had students stop by for regular office hours in the first two weeks, which is actually quite surprising to me.
9/16/2014 - I continue to have a high number of office hour visits compared to all of my previous semesters teaching as well as students who stop by outside of scheduled office hour times.