Learning and Teaching Class: Second Reflection

This semester, I am co-teaching a graduate class focused on college learning and teaching. Each week, our students will have to write a reflection based on a prompt we provide them. Partially to “pre-test” each prompt but mostly because I believe in reflection and purposeful metacognition, I’ll write my own replies to the prompts in my blog.

This week’s prompts are both intended to get students to consider how they organize information and how that differs from how their students organize information. It follows the second chapter in the book we’re using as our text and it should also link well with the work we’re doing in class right now, particularly the focus on learning bottlenecks (which are often caused by the differences between how teachers – experts – and students – novices – organize and connect their knowledge).

This week’s prompts:

First: As a graduate student, you have become (or are quickly becoming) an expert in your field. And as described in this chapter, you have almost certainly learned to organize your knowledge differently than you did as an undergraduate. How did you did you organize your knowledge as an undergraduate and how does that differ from how you do so now? How did you learn to organize your knowledge in those ways? And how can you best help your students organize their knowledge like you – an expert – do?

Second: Identify a specific moment in your course in which your students face a learning bottleneck, something that is essential for their success but which semester after semester large numbers of students fail to grasp. Describe as precisely as you can what they are getting wrong (i.e. what is the nature of the bottleneck?).

(I don’t feel like this first answer is sufficient. I still have a lot of thinking to do about my own thinking and how I organize knowledge and I fear that my answer is incomplete because my own self-knowledge is incomplete.)

First, I am an interdisciplinary scholar so the inherent challenge I face is connecting seemingly-disparate bodies of knowledge. As an undergraduate, I usually partitioned my classes, keeping their content separate in my mind just as my class schedule ensured that my courses didn’t overlap. Why shouldn’t I have done this? It seems to have been what was expected by my faculty and making connections between disciplines was rarely if ever rewarded outside of a handful of exceptional classes. Now that I’m a graduate student, I find that interdisciplinary work is indeed valued by many faculty members but it’s rarely taught or practiced so the path is still a solitary one with few guideposts.

It seems that the best thing I could do for my students to help them make explicit connections between disciplines and courses is to publicly practice making those connections myself. In that way I can demonstrate how it can be done as I work to discover broader principles and methods to make this practice easier and more approachable. Moreover, students should be encouraged to draw upon all of their knowledge and experience in their learning and rewarded whenever they make strong connections between disparate bodies of knowledge.

Second, in a course I previously taught undergraduates about identity in the digital age students seem to get tripped up in the readings, especially but not exclusively the more academic ones. Specifically, they didn’t seem to understand the importance of critically reading and evaluating the arguments made in the readings and the evidence presented in support of those arguments. Most students seemed to accept the assertions made by each author as if it were The Truth, even if This Truth contradicted That Truth We Read Last Week. I expect some of this is related strongly to the level of intellectual and ethical development of many younger students who still expect to receive the truth about the world from the anointed experts. But I imagine that much of this is related to inexperience in making such judgments, both because they lack a sufficient knowledge base to challenge factual and methodological inaccuracies and because they lack experience and practice in making these judgments.

(An aside: I wonder if some kinds of bottlenecks are only experienced by experts and easily avoided by novices. It seems that experience places blinders on us and invites trepidation when we approach forbidden areas of philosophy or methodological approach.)