From the Director: Take your time: finding balance in the classroom

Dr. Ann Johnson, Faculty Development

Dr. Ann Johnson, director Faculty Development
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Recently we solicited reflections on teaching from our Open Classroom faculty and it was a joy to read their enthusiastic descriptions of favorite moments in class and typical days in their own classrooms. What struck me was the consistent focus on engagement – involving students in hands-on problem-solving, application of ideas, and discussion of difficult issues. The old lecture format certainly hasn’t disappeared, but we seem to have made an important shift toward believing that learning occurs best when students actively engage with course materials inside the classroom and in collaboration with professor and peers.

Plenty of evidence supports the value of increased student engagement for stronger learning outcomes, but it is not always easy to make the shift; most of us find it hard to shake free of the old voice in our heads compelling us to power through as much material as possible in a single class session, leaving little time for activities or discussion. That’s why I was struck with the suggestion embedded in the Found Wisdom article in this issue that the instructor’s agenda should not take up more than 50 percent of the class period. Management professor Dennis Gioia makes a compelling argument that if we want to encourage creative, high quality contributions from class members, we need to share the air and concede some control.  Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Teachers Do, cites this as one of several key qualities of good teaching: creating conditions that allow learners to feel a sense of control over their education. To do so requires breaking free from the tyranny of content and generally slowing things down to respond to questions and issues that arise.

Is it possible to cut back on content and still feel we’ve achieved learning goals dictated by our disciplines? Is it responsible? Answers to those questions depend on the class and its goals. Good teachers are also flexible, adjusting their teaching styles and strategies to match students and course objectives. But reports from the front lines indicate that members of our faculty have found ways to increase engagement and active learning while still fulfilling their goals for the class. They are making it work, and they inspire me.


Copies of What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain (2004) can be checked out from the Faculty Development lending library. Interested? Contact the Center for Faculty Development: facdevctr@stthomas.edu.

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