A book that’s in my beach bag — Teaching What You Don’t Know

beach-bag-on-shore
You know how there are books that everyone says you should read, and you just can’t get to it? I finally got to sit down with Teaching What You Don’t Know by Therese Huston after hearing about it, well, since she published it in 2009.

The author wrote the book for those faculty in a university/college who are asked to teach on subjects far outside their research areas, and end up teaching by the skin of their teeth, staying a day or two ahead of their students.

This may not seem as relevant for our meds, nursing or rehab therapy teachers, at first glance, but as I read through the book there were so many messages that I thought our colleagues in Health Sciences Education would value.

So here’s a smattering…(I’m still dipping back into this book, and it’s going up to the cottage with me.)

First of all, why not volunteer to teach in an area that is not that familiar to you? For example, could a cardiologist teach in a respiratory course? Could a neurologist teach in an anatomy course? What would an obstetrician bring to a gastro course?

Teaching in an area you’re not as familiar with can be very beneficial:
You learn something new and interesting, you connect with faculty outside of your traditional area, and you broaden your own areas of research and interest. But most importantly (to me anyway), you may spend more time thinking about the topic, more time thinking about the students and their learning level, and you may end up learning along with the students, perhaps thinking a bit more like them than you usually do. When I’ve seen some of our clinical faculty instructing outside their own comfort zone, what impresses me most is that they’re breaking down material into very understandable chunks–really helpful to our students.

Teaching as telling breaks down when you’re more of a novice in an area. It’s actually “disastrous” especially if you’re anxious already. As Huston says, students don’t learn as well when we’re doing all the work for them, and falling back on default lecture mode isn’t helping them any. If we’re teaching outside our comfort zone (or frankly in it :)) we should avoid asking ourselves “What do I have to cover today?” Huston offers these questions to start the planning with instead:

What do students already know about this topic?
How can I connect this new material to their knowledge?
Which examples will be meaningful to them and how can I structure time in class so they’ll get the most from these examples

Huston gives a great summary that is an effective introduction to “planning backward” or “backward design” made popular by two those two innovators in the field, Wiggins and McTeague. In Chapter 4, she cites 3 mistakes that novices to a subject area can make: over-preparing, lecturing too much, and focusing on lists. I blush to say that it’s not only novices who can make this mistake (ahem:).

Some of the best tips are in Chapter 5, “Thinking in Class”, where Huston looks at some great strategies to get students active, whether in a lecture, or small group session. Two of my own personal favourite activities are listed here: Think Pair Share, where students think about a question, work with a partner on the answer and present a shared answer to the class and Category Building, where students work to create charts/tables/schema and generate categories from the work they’ve done OR where you give students a list of categories and ask them to put the work into the right spaces. (This works well with an algorithm).

I enjoyed learning about Sequence Reconstruction, where students reconstruct a list of items into a proper sequence. This got me started thinking on how students learn well from errors, a fact borne home to me in a recent conversation with our Meds students about Directed Independent Learning. Several said they like having quizzes where the wrong answers have explanations for why the answer is wrong–“I go through all the wrong answers, even if I’ve gotten it right, because I learn so much more then,” said one. This is a whole other conversation, Teaching from Errors!

There are other chapters with gold in them, in the book: “Teaching Students You Don’t Understand” and “Getting Better” (Huston says she was going to call the chapter “Getting Feedback” but she realized that if we’re being honest, many of us shy away from feedback, especially if we’re already anxious:). I think I’d like to try her “clarity grid” exercise with students–it will give me a great understanding of what students are getting and where they are getting lost. And there is a good advice for Course Directors, Department Heads, and Faculty Developers etc. in “Advice for Administrators.”

In her appendices, Huston give us some great stuff: Ten solid books on teaching strategies (2 of our blog’s favourites are in there), a great activity for a Syllabus Review, and a sample mid-term evaluation (which is a very useful time to get student feedback).

I hope I’ve convinced you that even if you’re not a novice teacher, and even if you’re teaching in an area in which you’re knowledgeable, this book has great value. And who knows? Maybe you’ll be inspired to teach a bit outside your comfort zone. Either way, this is a good book to take on your vacation.

Have a good one!

image from http://cruise-dude.com/

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