Dealing with top tertiary teaching challenges

By: Nabeel Albashiry, Olivia Panzic and Lyn Collie

New technologies and teaching innovations in higher education continue to present a number of challenges and opportunities for teaching staff. However, according to the Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University, much of what academics struggle with in university classrooms is not related to technological change at all. This blog post details three common issues that teaching academics face and some possible solutions.

Problem 1: Students see little value in a course or its content

Causes
It’s relatively common for students to see little value in a course when it’s compulsory for their degree programme but they can’t see a relationship to their major or future. That said, students may still fail to understand the value of a specific course, even when there’s a clear link between the course they’re taking and their future career. This can be due to multiple factors. Two of the most common are a lack of clarity around course learning outcomes or how these are communicated, and a lack of perceived relevance (see Keller, 2009).

Possible solutions
One of the first ways to help students perceive value is to set clear learning outcomes. Creating statements that detail what students will know and be able to do after completing the course helps them understand the expertise they’ll gain. Beginning each lecture with a map or PowerPoint slide that reminds students of what they’ve done so far, what’s still to come and how it all fits together in the course, can also be very beneficial. It also allows students to look forward to topics they may find enjoyable, even if they struggle to engage with the course in its entirety.

Another solution is to make explicit links between theory and the students’ future professional lives. While a few of our students go on to pursue academia, the majority are gaining degrees in order to enter a career in business. Providing case studies and real life problems to solve is a proven approach to help students engage with the material and see its relevance. Being enthusiastic and passionate about your subject matter also has more power than a lot of us realise. Teacher enthusiasm can have a direct impact on student motivation in a course (Patrick, Hisley & Kempler, 2010).

Problem 2: Students do not perceive the classroom climate as supportive

Causes

There are many possible reasons why students may feel the classroom climate does not support their learning. A significant one is the way participation is managed. If you consistently give the floor to the loudest or most opinionated students, other class members may feel unable to contribute. A lecturer’s communication style or way of facilitating discussion can unintentionally constrain student involvement (see Crawford, 2016). A supportive climate also considers course content. If a student perceives materials to be biased toward a particular social group they may feel unable or unwilling to engage, and any course should take accessibility issues into consideration.

Possible solutions
Being aware of class participation is important to making sure all students get opportunities to participate. A good option is to make sure you give students sufficient time to answer the questions you ask the class. Don’t be afraid of silence. Asking specific tables or groups to contribute means that different students get the opportunity to be heard. It’s also important to note, however, that many students may not want to voice their thinking in front of the entire class. Instead, look to include small group discussions that allow them to share their ideas more privately. A pair-share exercise is one relatively easy way to do this, even in really large classes (Eisen, 2010). Allowing more confident students to continue participating in open discussion supports their learning style and personality type.

The best way to make sure your personal communication style is creating a supportive environment is by requesting an informal peer review (email ilt@auckland.ac.nz). Key tips, however, are to acknowledge the validity of students’ ideas and opinions and, if they’re off track, steer them in the right direction by gently asking questions that facilitate further discussion.

When considering the inclusiveness of your course content, as long as you bear in mind the diversity of your classroom when putting the course together, then you’re on the right track. For example, in the Business Schoolwe have a large proportion of recent immigrants and international students who require greater context when being introduced to local business cases or real-world examples than local students do. Although it is important to make sure that learning opportunities for all types of students are available in class, accessibility is also important to think about when producing audio-visual materials. Canvas have created a user-friendly guide to accessibility which can be accessed below.

Accessibility Guide

Problem 3: Students do not believe their achievement levels reflect their effort

Causes
In some situations, students may feel they cannot meet a course’s objectives or that the effort required to do so is out of step with what assessment is worth. These are two of the main reasons for students to feel that their effort is not reflected in their achievement levels (Keller, 2009).

Possible solutions
Assessments should directly support students’ learning and feedback should be provided quickly so there is adequate time to improve before the next assessment. Smaller assessments with lower weighting or compulsory, non-assessed assignments also provide a valuable low-stress opportunity for students to receive feedback on their progress before attempting more difficult assessment with a higher weighting.

Identifying an appropriate level of challenge for course content and assessment can be tricky, particularly if you’re in charge of a new paper. Asking other members of your department, referring to the curriculum map if available, getting input from a learning designer in ILT, and taking feedback from students, both during and after course completion, are some useful methods for identifying the depth and breadth your course and assessment should cover. Attending staff/student consultative meetings and soliciting feedback from class reps is a good option. Scheduling office hours where students can discuss their concerns with you is also helpful. Anonymous class feedback forms or platforms are also useful if you feel students are apprehensive about approaching you directly.If a small number of individual students are struggling, support services are available. First-year undergraduate and postgraduate Business students can access Skills Hub as a course on Canvas. Skills Hub provides one-on-one support, workshops and other tools designed to help students develop effective study skills. For non-first-year students a number of useful study support services are also available. See links below for more information.

To address any of the issues identified above, ILT generally recommend that teaching staff solicit formative feedback in the first few weeks of the semester. This will allow you to get input early enough to address issues and to better understand what’s working and what may not be. Even if you can’t make any suggested changes, students typically feel far more positive about the course and their participation if you respond to the survey, even if simply to spend 10 minutes in a lecture showing the aggregated responses and discussing what will (and won’t) happen next and why.

If you’re a Business School staff member and you’d like to discuss your teaching or explore teaching development opportunities please contact Innovative Learning and Teaching: ilt@auckland.ac.nz

Based on the following article from Carnegie Mellon University: 
Eberly Centre: Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation. 2015. Students Lack Interest or Motivation. Retrieved from https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/solveproblem/strat-lackmotivation/lackmotivation-01.html

References

  • Crawford, T. (2016, February 17). Breaking Down the Barriers that Hinder Class Participation [Web log post] Retrieved from http://edtheory.blogspot.co.nz/2016/02/breaking-down-barriers-that-hinder.html
  • Eisen, J. (2016, June 23). Think-Pair-Share. Retrieved August 26, 2016, from http://www.victoria.ac.nz/vbs/teaching/steps-to-teaching-success/think-pair-share
  • Keller, J. M. (2009). Motivational design for learning and performance: The ARCS model approach. Springer Science & Business Media.Brian C. Patrick , Jennifer Hisley & Toni Kempler (2000) “What’s Everybody So Excited About?”: The Effects of Teacher Enthusiasm on Student Intrinsic Motivation and Vitality, The Journal of Experimental Education, 68:3, 217-236, DOI: 10.1080/00220970009600093


Nabeel Albashiry is a professional teaching fellow with curriculum and instructional design expertise. He joined Innovative Learning and Teaching recently after finishing his PhD at the University of Twente, Netherlands. Nabeel has several publications about professionalization of curriculum design practices in tertiary contexts. He also taught General Education courses at a community college in Yemen for several years.

Olivia Panzic is Communications Intern with Innovative Learning and Teaching at the University of Auckland Business School. With a focus on excellent communications, she is passionate about creating relevant and interesting content around learning and teaching for tertiary teaching staff.

Lyn Collie is Digital Media Producer in Innovative Learning and Teaching. Her role encompasses communications around learning and teaching at the University of Auckland Business School, including learning media. Lyn is currently enrolled in CLeaR’s Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice, and taught digital media production in the Business School for six years.

Contact: ilt@auckland.ac.nz

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