Professors need basic course in pedagogy

College professors still overwhelmingly rely on lectures to teach their subject and then wonder why students don’t perform as expected.  I was reminded of this after reading an essay by Kathy Hirsch-Pasek and Laurence Steinberg (“Beyond the midterms: Helping students overcome the impact of No Child Left Behind,” brookings.edu, Nov. 21).

They say they’ve been teaching and grading undergraduates for more than 35 years.  During that time, they’ve seen a decline in the ability of their students to write a coherent and well-structured essay even after distributing a series of questions in advance of the test day.  They blame the problem on No Child Left Behind, which relied heavily on multiple-choice tests.

But what about their responsibility in the matter?  They claim that with “adequate preparation” everyone should get a good grade.  I submit that unless their students are given frequent practice writing coherent and well-structured essays their students will continue to disappoint them.  I doubt the two professors do anything even close to that.

The most effective way is to give students appropriate practice followed by immediate feedback.  If the goal is to have students write an essay that meets their criteria, then it behooves them to provide their students with the opportunity to do exactly that.  Instead, they likely lecture what an acceptable essay looks like and then assume their students will miraculously produce one.

When I was working on my M.S. in journalism at UCLA, we spent afternoons in a writing lab.  We were given a topic to write about and then sat down at our typewriters while the professor circled the room making suggestions as he looked over our shoulders.  It worked beautifully.

I know that lecture halls are not conducive to such a practice.  But why can’t the two professors break up the students into small groups and ask them to compose an essay on their ubiquitous laptops while they visit each group to make comments?  The best essay can then be displayed as a model.  I know this will never happen because tradition dies hard in higher education.

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2 Replies to “Professors need basic course in pedagogy”

  1. Doubt that these two professors are teaching courses in writing — more likely, they are teaching courses such as history or sociology. Teaching writing is not within the course description and there is little reason to believe the professors are particularly qualified to teach writing (as opposed to being able to tell ineffective from effective writing). To my knowledge (admittedly outdated), colleges (other than journalism schools) rarely — if ever — offer courses in writing-to-inform/persuade (as opposed to creative-writing). The first such course I took was in law school — never took or was even offered a course in writing-to-inform/persuade during high school or college. And, even the law school course was very superficial — focused more on the technicalities of legal writing rather than general concepts re writing-to-inform/persuade.

    Drawing from my personal — admittedly anecdotal — experience, seems that K-12 and college virtually ignore the entire topic of effective writing to inform/persuade. About all that’s ever taught is paragraph structure.

    I learned a lot about the mechanics of effective writing to perform/persuade during the years that I supervised other attorneys writing briefs for the US Courts of Appeals. To do that job correctly, I had to not only identify and cure deficiencies in the draft briefs but also articulate to the drafting attorneys why what they wrote was ineffective and why the edits made the writing more effective. After two years doing this supervising, another supervisor and I developed a three-day brief-writing training program that we called “articulating the intuitive” in which we articulated the fundamental principles that we had unconsciously applied as brief-writing attorneys ourselves (which resulted in our being selected as supervising attorneys) and had consciously identified as supervising attorneys.

    These effective writing principles, as bottom, are mostly outlining and logical analysis — identifying/segregating major affirmative arguments, identifying supporting points for each major affirmative argument, identifying/segregating each major opposing argument, identifying rebuttal arguments/points to each major opposing argument + recognizing/appreciating the difference between chronological vs. topical organization + recognizing/appreciating the difference between reciting “facts” (what happened in the real world) and reciting “evidence” (what happened in the courtroom).

    Seems like these same principles — possibly excepting the “facts” vs. “evidence” distinction — apply to pretty much any writing to inform/persuade.

    As a bonus — if students learn and practice these principles, they will necessarily also learn/practice analytical thinking.

    As to why students today are less effective writers than students in prior decades, I’d primarily blame the internet — seems likely that today’s K-12 students spend much more of their non-school time doing relatively mindless tasks (or at least tasks that do not require analytical thinking) on the internet (social media, gaming) and, as result, spend much less time reading books/newspapers/magazines than students in prior decades. The emphasis on multiple-choice testing certainly contributes, but I’d give much less weight to that factor — I took many tests in K-12 that required me to write short or even long essays, but I rarely received feedback re the writing (as opposed to the points awarded, such as “12/15”). Where I did receive feedback on my writing was in high school English courses, but even then the feedback was almost exclusively focused on strengths/weaknesses in the points I made (or omitted) rather than feedback on the writing effectiveness itself.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: If professors complain about the inability of their students to write a coherent essay, then it behooves them to try to remedy it. Instead, they go on their merry way lecturing about their subject. Why don’t they use their subject as the basis for writing what they think is coherent?

    I learned grammar starting in 7th grade and used that knowledge to improve my writing. But students today are bored by anything to do with grammar, let alone composition. They do not read and rely on texting alone to communicate. It’s little wonder that they fail to measure up. Teaching writing requires frequent practice followed by immediate feedback. I received that when I earned my M.S. in journalism at UCLA.

    Even though lecture halls are usually filled to capacity, professors can break up students into small groups and assign them a topic in the subject they are teaching. They can then circulate around the hall to make comments and post what they consider an acceptable essay. But professors sneer at pedagogy, which they believe has no place in higher education.

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