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Redesigning Teaching to Meet All Students' Needs: Responsive and Productive Courses

By Leora Baron, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

New ways of teaching are not so difficult to incorporate into current approaches.

We tend to develop a "comfort zone" in our course structure and teaching style and consider enhancements mostly in the content area. Our students need more, and we can respond with relative ease.

Students have changed!

The challenges of teaching today's college courses are a far cry from the ones we faced only a few years ago. When I first started teaching in the 1970s, it was a rare occasion to have an undergraduate student in one of my classes who was older than 22; it was just as rare to have students who worked off campus. In today's class roster, by contrast, approximately 50 percent of students are classified as "non-traditional." When one digs a bit deeper, the 50 percent who are traditional 18- to 22-year-olds are no longer the typical undergraduates of years past; most of them work off campus for far more than a few hours per week.

This shift is so profound that we need to take a serious look at teaching our courses in a different light. No longer can we assume that most of our students are in our courses for the sheer joy of learning and discovering. For most, there is a very practical reason for being there. At the same time, we cannot expect that non-traditional students—older, with life and work experiences—can easily adjust to traditional ways of being college students. They are likely to be some years removed from any significant academic classroom experience, and they are apt to be much more focused on the practical aspects of college education than their younger, inexperienced classmates.

Teaching, usually done in academic settings, and training, typically (but not exclusively) done in non-academic settings, are two instructional models, each with a set of unique features (see table).

Typical college instruction is characterized by long-term courses. Most instruction is textbook-based, relying heavily on independent work by each student outside the classroom: homework assignments, research projects, creative projects, and study for tests. The instructor serves largely as a transmitter and interpreter of information. Unless the instructors are working professionals themselves, as is often the case in professional disciplines and community colleges, little or no information is provided to students regarding the relationship between course material and work applications. Sessions may be self-contained units; most frequently they are part of a continuum, providing a great deal of flexibility in pacing. Sessions tend to focus on a single activity such as lecture, testing, or guest speakers' presentation. Rarely does a single session include multiple types of activities. Assessment of learning is highly structured and relatively infrequent and tends to focus on mastery of content rather than on applications. Instructors are usually available for further, informal instruction outside of formal sessions.

Training—key features

Training, by contrast, tends to be highly structured so that all components fit well together. The effect is of a total, self-contained "package." With the exception of basic technical skills acquisition, most workplace training is relatively short in duration and is either a single session or two or three sessions. Courses ("workshops") tend to have a narrow focus, concentrating on an easily defined and articulated specific topic or skill. Highly segmented sessions may vary in length and last several hours, yet concepts, ideas, and materials are presented in rather discrete chunks, lasting anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes. Sessions tend to be self-contained, requiring minimal work outside the classroom. Independent research and projects are rare, as are homework assignments. Instructors may be in-house or visiting professionals, experts on a particular subject. While the term length may not be significant, instructors are respected as professionals. Little instructor–student interaction outside of class takes place.

Workbooks and other materials follow almost verbatim the presentation by the instructor and are directly related to the work environment. They may contain minimal reading text and are formatted to allow participants to "fill in the blanks" during the presentation. Practical applications of information are important. Course content is therefore a combination of a minimum of theoretical background and a maximum of interpretation through everyday workplace applications. Key points are illustrated with real-life examples. A variety of interaction models between instructors and participants and among participants is utilized. A straight lecture may be illustrated by audio-visuals, and participants spend part of the time working in small teams; or, instruction may be done by teleconferencing or online. A significant amount of training is done with and for groups. Training does not involve significant ongoing mastery testing or assessment. The outcomes of learning are measured indirectly through work performance.


   Teaching  Training
 DURATION OF COURSE  Longer   Shorter
 FOCUS  Broader  Narrower
 PACING  Uneven  Segmented
 TEXT/MATERIALS  Textbook-based  Tailored, follows Presentation
 ASSIGNMENTS/RESEARCH  Much outside of class  Minimal outside of class
 INSTRUCTORS  Academicians, GAs  "Experts"
 CONTENT  Theory-based, few real-life applications  Practical applications/minimal theory (except in professional programs)
 PRESENTATION  Information-based  Skills-based
 INTERACTION  Mostly individual work  Group work, A/V, technology in and out of class
 TESTING/ASSESSMENT  Grades, tests, etc...  Outcomes measured mostly through performance
 "PACKAGING"  Little or none  Highly structured
 STUDENT MOTIVATION  Individual goals  Individual & Common goals

Integrating teaching and training practices—key areas

An effective integration of essential elements from training practice into teaching is neither very complicated nor does it require a total revamping of a course. Rather, it can be successfully accomplished by simply modifying some of the more traditional course formats. Here is a list of sample modifications in key areas:

  • Format the syllabus and any other handouts in outline form.
  • Include rationale with requirements; for instance, include your evaluative criteria—"these are the things I value in student work"—along with your grading scheme.
  • Structure sessions in 15–20 minute segments, varying the type of activity or the content area or both.
  • Create multiple opportunities for students to interact with each other either in small groups or in pairs.
  • Use problem-solving as the foundation for as many activities as possible; include such approaches as provocative questions, debates, advocacy for an opposing point of view, and others.
  • Use brainstorming to elicit basic information from the students (rather than telling them about it).
  • Segment the material into relatively small, manageable "chunks"; don't depend on the textbook chapters to provide segmentation as many of them are very extensive and complex.
  • Provide frequent opportunities for students to reflect on the relevance of content to their own lives.
  • Integrate theoretical materials with possible applications, the latter provided by both the instructor and students.
  • Establish an ongoing assessment system that frequently measures students' learning and that provides meaningful feedback in a timely manner.

References & Resources

For those not familiar with training methods, a good starting point is the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD).

Online resources on adult learning can be found at the Council for Adult & Experiential Learning.

New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education is a series of publications (nearly 100 to date) focusing on nontraditional students. It is published by Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Caffarella, Rosemary S. 2002. Planning Programs for Adult Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. This is a very comprehensive resource rich in ideas and practical suggestions.

Gross, Barbara Davis. 1993. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. This is a “classic” volume containing numerous strategies and ideas for college teaching.

McKeachie, Wilbert J. 1999. Teaching Tips. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. A compact volume used extensively by faculty developers.

Weimer, Maryellen. 2002. Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. This book focuses on student needs.

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