A glance of my teaching background
When I was in junior high school, my family organized Sunday’s educational charity for less fortunate children (c. 5 – 8 year old) from lower class families in our neighborhood. We taught English and provided light nutritious meals at the end of each session. This was my early experience in real teaching activities, i.e. standing in front of students, using a marker and whiteboard, and explaining teaching materials. I received no pedagogical training or formal teaching course back then. I primarily used my intuition to convey my knowledge and to understand student’s feedback regarding my “lecture”.
Fast forward to college time, I have been assigning as a teaching assistant ever since. As a postdoc, I am also taking part as a teaching staff for two master-level courses. However, my role is only teaching 1–2 modules (i.e. not designing the full course). Therefore, I am still relatively new in conducting a formal teaching as the main lecturer. This is exactly why I enrolled myself in a proper pedagogical course and to learn the underlying theory of teaching in a higher educational institution.
Due to limited previous teaching activities, I mainly teach based on my experience being taught when I was a student. I have attended a number of academic courses led by excellent professors during my studies in Bandung, Bergen, Tromsø and Svalbard. They are from different countries, such as Norway and most of the EU, the UK, the USA, Canada and Indonesia. Most of them gave outstanding lectures for my learning experience (note that you learn from bad examples too). Prior to attending the pedagogical course at UiT, I adapted my teaching methods and techniques to what I believe was a “good teaching” based on classroom lectures, scientific conferences and online resources (e.g. TEDx talks).
Motivation and grit
Student’s motivation is important in learning process and is the key difference between “academic” and “non-academic” students (Biggs, 1999). In theory, if students have passion (more than just a motivation) to learn, they will likely excel the course, regardless the teaching methods.
Students, especially in master level, should ideally have a long-term goal. If they do, the best way to achieve it is if they have grit in their personality. Grit is a passion and perseverance to achieve a long-term goal (Duckworth et al., 2007). They should appreciate that attending every lecture means adding more bricks to build their career. The grittier the students, the easier for the teacher to educate.
Motivated students will use “deep learning” (Biggs, 1999). They will likely be relating, applying and theorizing in a high-level engagement (Figure 1). Unmotivated, thus “non-academic” students will use “surface learning”, i.e. low-level student’s engagement such as memorizing and note-taking (ibid.). The idea of good teaching is essentially to narrow the gap between these two types of students (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Biggs (1999)’s diagram on teaching method, student orientation and level of engagement.
Is there any cookbook for good teaching?
There is no unique solution to a good teaching as there are various parameters that may contribute to teacher–student intellectual cooperation. Intellectual cooperation here means a joint effort by both elements to achieve optimal cognitive development and pedagogy, which are associated with active learning for the students and proactive–creative teaching for the teacher (Figure 2; Lasabuda et al., 2020).
One alternative of a good teaching is trough Aligned Teaching concept (Biggs, 1999). This concept promotes a coherency among the three teaching components of Biggs (1999), i.e. outlining the learning outcomes, choosing the suitable teaching methods, and formulating the appropriate assessment. I do consider the interrelation of these aspects in my teaching. For example, I outline the expected learning outcome every time I give a lecture. I combine traditional lecturing with a prepared Q&A session, including beforehand questions and online quiz (Kahoot.com). This is what I called “Improved lecture and Q&A session” (Figure 2).
I don’t oppose to a standard teacher-centered method where students may be in their low level of engagement (Figure 2). The traditional lecture may be useful to introduce a basic concept where students memorize and take notes as in an early phase of learning. It is important in academia that students follow the ancient Greek skepticism approach, i.e. being skeptical in new knowledge (e.g. Vogt, 2010). This academic skepticism will be reflected in a two-way communication lecture activity, which also aim to maintain student’s concentration and focus to the topic.
I often organize student’s presentation after they get a chance to discuss in a small group (c. 3–4 students). I give freedom for the students in my class to choose group members and select the paper they are interested to present. A small-group discussion referred here differs from a focus group discussion, whom group members are pre-selected to consider heterogeneity and homogeneity (Wong, 2008; Hennink, 2013). For the assessment formulation, I contributed to exam questions based on modules I taught.
Problem-based learning (PBL) is proven to be useful to actively engage students as part of the learning processes (e.g. Schmidt, 1983; Hmelo-Silver, 2004). PBL is defined as a “learner-centered approach to conduct research, integrate theory and apply knowledge to a defined problem” (Savery, 2015). In PBL, students are grouped in small numbers to discuss and find solutions. Students learn to provide explanations and in the same time, listen to others in a small-group discussion (Van Blankenstein et al., 2011). Small-group discussion is considered as a collaborative learning in which students at different level will “help” each other (Gokhale, 1995).
Figure 2. Modified Biggs (1999)’s diagram to include teacher’s level of stimulation and creativity (Lasabuda, 2020)
To increase student’s participation in a Q&A session, I once gave a small souvenir as a reward to any student who firstly answer the quiz’s question correctly. I performed this trick during my early teaching history in the Sunday’s teaching charity (see above).
However, I realized now that rewards may be positive for short term but prone to negative impact in the long run (Wilson and Corpus, 2001). Students may not be interested in answering my questions per se, but in the rewards that appealing to them. Students may be lost their orientation on the true incentive of rationing and learning. Wilson and Corpus (2001) suggested, instead, to give positive social recognition of achievement such as celebrations/praise (e.g. applause or intelligence compliment).
Escalating student’s learning experience
In PBL, students are expected to be actively engaged and reach the ‘Theorizing’ level (sensu Biggs, 1999; Figure 1). In the ICAP (Interactive, Constructive, Active and Passive) framework, the ‘Theorizing’ level is comparable to the ‘Interactive’ learning outcomes for students (Chi and Wylie, 2014).
I argue that students will less likely reach the ‘Theorizing’ level by only using a PBL method. This is simply because the PBL is an approach in which the problem has been defined (see above).
Therefore, I propose a modified PBL as a teaching method, in which the students themselves who define the problem by writing a research proposal in a small-group discussion (Figure 2). Writing a research proposal will significantly increase student’s critical thinking (e.g. Bean, 2011).
Then, students will discuss their idea with the class in a breakout session. Here, the breakout terminology is used to illustrate more “lively” discussion rather than a standard seminar/presentation. This is due to the intensity of the discussion to theorize knowledge and crystalize ideas. A student representative from each group leads the breakout session. The lecturer acts as “a reviewer” to actively challenge the proposed theory by the students. The teacher has to be proactive in facilitating the breakout discussions.
I have an experience being involved in this teaching method (i.e. research proposal and breakout session) when I attended a geoscience workshop in the USA. The aim of the workshop was to brainstorm a long-term plan for a high-impact scientific program. The attendances were mostly academics (e.g. professors, senor scientists, etc.). It was an amazing experience for me as an Early Career Researcher to be involved in a small-group discussion to draft a research proposal, followed by a breakout session.
By writing a research proposal and “debating” in a breakout session, students are expected to optimally utilize their cognitive senses to fully comprehend the learning materials and likely reach ‘Theorizing’ level. While some argue that the breakout session enhances learning processes (e.g. Lougheed et al., 2012; Holley, 2017), others document that breakout session may not always in line with student’s success in the final exam (cf. Blackstone and Oldmixon, 2016). Blackstone and Oldmixon (2016) argue that to get a good grade in the exam, there are several considerable factors including the attendance level of the students.
My father once said “there is no such thing as a stupid student, only a lazy one”. This is how he try to elevate my motivation to study back then. After attending basic pedagogy course, I realize that his wisdom words are true. My job as a teacher is to optimize student’s learning potential. I am delighted that I am still in the early phase of teaching when I took this pedagogy course. I am sure that my teaching philosophy will always be under reconstruction, in order to constantly seek excellence.
Becoming a role model for students may elevate their motivation to attend course, engage in learning activity and study teaching materials. I will keep on working to improve myself professionally and personally. Professionally means constantly upgrade my career so that the students may feel “worth to learn” from my lecture. While personally means that I try to build a good friendly relationship with my students so that they see me as a trusted and reliable individual in helping their learning processes. Altogether, these factors will essentially contribute to a successful teaching–learning activity.
This text was part of the pedagogical course at UiT as a requirement to receive a formal certificate in teaching at higher education. I would like to thank Rizky S. E. Lasabuda (PhD Candidate at the Achucarro Basque Center for Neuroscience, Spain) for commenting an earlier version of the manuscript. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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