Part of Pete Schwartz’s 2016 application for promotion
During my 16 years at Cal Poly, I have transformed in a way that I am grateful for: from confidence to curiosity; from expert to collaborator; from director to participant. At present my intentions in directing classes is to:
- provide students with resources to support their learning;
- identify their class community as the most powerful of their learning resources and support productive relationship building inside and outside of the classroom;
- provide motivation for both why the course material is important as well as why our novel the learning model is effective;
- establish a scaffold to provide measurable milestones of achievement and evaluation metrics that the students accept;
- provide reflection opportunities for students to feel heard, practice listening, and raise awareness to their thought and emotional processes (which affect their learning); and
- get out of the students’ way
It’s often the last of these, conducting myself less as an instructor and more as a facilitator, that is the most difficult for me with 30 years of lecturing behind me that I habitually recognize as “teaching.”
Introductory Physics Classes
When I came to Cal Poly in 2000 after I had taught physics for year at The Colorado College, and two years of high school teaching, I already knew how to teach. I was a dynamic lecturer who actively involved students in discussion, examples, and demonstrations. I think I was good at keeping students’ attention and explaining things. However, my student acceptance was rather bimodal: They loved or hated me. Although I’ve always cared for the students, some students found me unsupportive or mean. Additionally, I became frustrated in consistently seeing students not demonstrate an understanding of what I knew I’d taught them. During my first years’ efforts to improve my teaching, I didn’t consult my colleagues or students because I felt I knew what to do, or maybe because I was to insecure to ask for help. My student evaluations remained constant throughout this time.
In 2009, I began innovating with different technologies and grading policies to engage students on a more fundamental level. Likely, my teaching improved, but what I was doing was increasingly different from other classes and my approach was still with the mindset that if I did the right thing to the students, they would respond in a desired manner. My student evaluations became erratic. Sometimes it worked OK, but other times the innovative teaching model was strongly rejected.
We began planning SUSTAIN in 2009 and initiated our first cohort in Winter 2012. In Fall of 2011, I invited Linda Vanasupa (MATE), from SUSTAIN to participate in my mechanics class, PHYS-141. In one of our discussions, she asked me what I wanted to see happen and I responded that I wanted the students to work together. She suggested that I make this a priority. In the year that followed, I increasingly incorporated active learning measures and at the end of the quarter, I committed to a “flipped classroom” with active learning strategies. Again, this strategy won over some students, but a few classes went badly – with regard to both student performance as well as student evaluations.
After being rejected for promotion for the third time in 2013 with student evaluations being a central concern, I developed an empathy with the students for being labeled and judged by a number that the university finds necessary but does not tell the whole story of what I think I am. Additionally, I became convinced that, while I could not find a correlation between the student-evaluation grade and how well I felt I taught the course, there is correlation between student success and student evaluations. I think that if a student rejects the teaching model as ineffective they will fail to engage in the learning process, rendering it ineffective, fulfilling their evaluation. I realized the importance of marketing the unique learning model to the students.
I have become intensely curious about my students’ experiences in our class, their lives, what they want, and how they learn. Luckily I had many of them to teach me these things. I now communicate more personally with my students and provide the motivation for our novel learning model. I provide the relevant literature supporting our learning model, such as this video from Veritassium. I speak directly to their experience offering, “it may appear to you as though I am not doing my job because I am not lecturing and you are not taking notes. However studies show that students learn better from other students than from an expert.” I provide them with appropriate reports such as this NPR article about confusion often being an indication of deeper learning. I also solicit their thoughts on a daily basis at the beginning of class via discussion; and every several weeks in writing. I tabulate their thoughts, post them on the class website and provide some comparisons, such as in this Week 5 reflection and this Post Finals summary after final exam and surveys were completed. My intention is that students know that their voices have been heard; that they see they are not alone with their feelings; and that they also see many choices in how to respond to our learning environment.
This transition in my attention was particularly important starting Fall of 2014 when I initiated a “parallel pedagogy”; whereby momentum, energy, forces, and motion are introduced on the first day of class and developed in parallel throughout the quarter. My efforts are increasingly successful to win the students’ approval. In a survey after spring 2016 classes, only 17% of the students disagreed with the statement “I adjusted to the parallel pedagogy very well.” and 74% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Parallel pedagogy resulted in my thinking more about concepts.”
My student evaluations for introductory physics have steadily improved since 2013, and I feel closer to my students and enjoy my classes more. Additionally, when a student doesn’t like the class, they seem to acknowledge my intention and the value they or other students receive from the learning model. For instance, what might have previously been a condemnation of perceived incompetence and contempt, one now sees statements in the student comments recognizing positive intention and value in policies that they found less effective for themselves, such as “Tough course for me, maybe the teaching style just didn’t work much for me?”
One may ask if the change in learning model and my perspective resulted in final exams indicating improved conceptual or computational abilities. The short answer is, “I think so, but I have yet to do a rigorous comparison.” although my change in perspective and goals will make a rigorous comparison difficult. However, surveys show that students began thinking more like physics experts during my mechanics classes: Before and after the quarter-long mechanics class in Spring of 2016, 63 of my 96 students in two classes completed an online version of the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey (CLASS). The results indicate a modest positive average shift, and a significant shift in “applied conceptual understanding”. This shift is noteworthy because Adams et al. reported that most teaching practices result in students thinking less like expert physicists after instruction. I describe these changes in my provisionally accepted submission to The Physics Teacher, Summary
Energy and Appropriate Technology Classes
In the last 6 years, I’ve also shifted my other classes to be increasingly student centered. Both classes have video and literature resources on the class websites and considerable time is left open for student discussion. Both classes are political in nature, and thus I find it most effective to have the literature and discussion drive the education, rather than my lecturing. In the Appropriate Technology classes, I allow students considerable freedom to guide the direction of learning. As an example, student feedback has resulted in more introspective exercises (such as the self interventions), and local projects (rather than only in foreign countries). Students express both celebration as well as discomfort with this freedom. Some request to know which economic development model is correct (between for instance Sachs, Easterly, Bageant, or Illich), or what their projects need to supposed to find. I am open to these questions, but proactively explain that I can not provide this structure and still have the class be exploratory, as I do in this Week 4, 2015 Response.
In all, I genuinely model curiosity, explore, watch what happens, and accept myself as a co-learner. Maybe this is “Learn By Doing?” It makes every day an adventure for me because in letting go of control of the learning, I never know exactly what will happen. I admit that this lack of structure presents challenges for some of the students – which may itself benefit the student. However, it seems to me that the majority of the students find in this environment, seemingly ever increasing intrinsic motivation and empowerment to learn.