Last month, I bought and read Terry McGlynn’s excellent new book, The Chicago Guide to College Science Teaching (published 2020). It is one of those books that hits the rare combination of being informed by educational research without dwelling on the minutiae or jargon of that research. (A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about my other favorite teaching book, Saundra McGuire’s excellent Teach Students How to Learn.)
What do I like about McGlynn’s book? Most importantly, it’s practical. It’s not exactly a “How to Teach” guide, because as the author acknowledges, each of us has different goals, different personalities, different classrooms, and different constraints. Instead, the book presents an easy-to-read narrative describing ways to implement what he calls two keystones: Efficient Teaching and the Respect Principle.
“Efficient teaching” is the idea that we can all spend more time—and more, and more, and more time—crafting an ever-more-perfect class. But will that added effort produce a proportional improvement in student learning outcomes? If not, perhaps it’s time to repurpose some of that polishing time into making larger changes that yield a bigger payoff.
Implementing the “respect principle” means setting aside the idea that students are dishonest or that they are constantly trying to exploit loopholes in our course policies. It means choosing trust instead, and actively dismantling class policies that reinforce a culture of mistrust. The author challenges readers to develop policies that are fair to all students, regardless of their individual circumstances and obstacles. In short, he likes to think of teachers as coaches, not adversaries.
Interested? Well, you’ll be happy to know that I’ve summarized only the first 13 pages! Those pages make up the first part of chapter 1, “Before you meet your students.” Subsequent chapters provide useful suggestions for the syllabus (chapter 2), the curriculum (chapter 3), teaching methods (chapter 4), assignments (chapter 5), exams (chapter 6), common problems (chapter 7), and online teaching (chapter 8).
This book gave me a lot to think about. Here are a few of my other main takeaways:
Make Class Policies More Flexible. I learned that inflexible class policies make life hard for today’s students in ways that many of us “old-timers” may not even think of. College is way more expensive than when we were in school, and lots of students work a lot of hours at low-paying jobs—not to mention caring for kids and/or ailing parents, facing technological challenges, spending time in long commutes, being sidelined by car troubles, and so on. Why not add some breathing room by dropping a few low scores in some assignment categories, or by reducing late penalties? Next time I work on my syllabus, these issues will be at the top of my mind.
Be More Accommodating: I also have been thinking about “services” that I offer outside of class, like office hours, review sessions, and supplemental instruction. Students can and should be held responsible for attending classes as listed in the schedule. But when it comes to out-of-class activities, how can we accommodate students who are unable to attend because of class conflicts, work schedules, or family responsibilities? I confess that I have considered my own convenience more than my students’ needs in offering office hours and weekly supplemental instruction. If a student wanted to attend but was unable to, well, that was too bad. I rationalized that these activities were “extra” and therefore not strictly required for success in the class. Now I see there’s a better way, as I outline below.
Record Review Sessions and Supplemental Instruction: The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly expanded opportunities to offer review sessions and supplemental instruction online, even for in-person classes. Putting them online should reduce barriers for students who cannot physically attend. The recordings can then be made available for all students to view at their convenience.
Better Office Hours: I think online office hours will also be in my future, along with more frequent reminders of what office hours are, how students can benefit from using them, and how to make appointments when my office hours don’t match up with a student’s schedule. I may even require students to sign up for a brief meeting at the start of the semester so I can talk to them one-on-one. That way, maybe it won’t be so scary for them to ask for an appointment later in the semester.
Anyway, this book has so much good stuff in it that I couldn’t possibly summarize it all here. If what I’ve described here sounds good, I encourage you to buy the book or see if you can get it at your local library. If you are open to new ideas about teaching, I think you’ll be glad you did.
P.S. As I was looking up the publication date for McGlynn’s book, I noticed that it is part of a series called “Chicago Guides to Academic Life.” Other titles in the series include What Every Science Student Should Know and How to Succeed in College (While Really Trying) and 57 Ways to Screw Up in Grad School. There are lots more, too. If they’re as well-done as McGlynn’s, they’re probably worth a look.