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How we can improve our teaching quality in English Class

An announcement goes out to the faculty that from now on the university will operate as a total quality management campus. All academic, business, and service functions will be assessed regularly, and quality teams will plan ways to improve them. A campus quality director and a steering team are named, with the director reporting to the Provost. All university departments appoint quality coordinators, who attend a one-day workshop on quality management principles and return to their departments to facilitate faculty and/or staff meetings at which quality improvement is discussed. Some academic programs and many individual faculty members have tried applying quality principles in their work. Nevertheless, after more than a decade of such efforts, TQM has not established itself as the way many universities operate, especially in matters related to classroom instruction.

Write instructional objectives: Instructional objectives are statements of specific observable actions that students should be able to perform if they have mastered the content and skills the instructor has attempted to teach (Gronlund 1991; Brent and Felder 1997). An instructional objective has one of the following stems:

  • At the end of this [course, chapter, week, lecture], the student should be able to ***
  • To do well on the next exam, the student should be able to ***

where *** is a phrase that begins with an action verb (e.g., list, calculate, solve, estimate, describe, explain, paraphrase, interpret, predict, model, design, optimize,…). The outcome of the specified action must be directly observable by the instructor: words like “learn,” “know,” “understand,” and “appreciate,” while important, do not qualify.

Following are illustrative phrases that might be attached to the stem of an instructional objective, grouped in six categories according to the levels of thinking they require.

  1. Knowledge (repeating verbatim): list [the first five books of the Old Testament]; state [the steps in the procedure for calibrating a gas chromatograph].
  2. Comprehension (demonstrating understanding of terms and concepts): explain [in your own words the concept of phototropism]; paraphrase [Section 3.8 of the text].
  3. Application (solving problems): calculate [the probability that two sample means will differ by more than 5%]; solve [Problem 17 in Chapter 5 of the text].
  4. Analysis (breaking things down into their elements, formulating theoretical explanations or mathematical or logical models for observed phenomena): derive [Poiseuille’s law for laminar Newtonian flow from a force balance]; simulate [a sewage treatment plant for a city, given population demographics and waste emission data from local manufacturing plants].
  5. Synthesis (creating something, combining elements in novel ways): design [an elementary school playground given demographic information about the school and budget constraints]; make up [a homework problem involving material covered in class this week].
  6. Evaluation (choosing from among alternatives): determine [which of several versions of an essay is better, and explain your reasoning]; select [from among available options for expanding production capacity, and justify your choice].

The six given categories are the cognitive domain levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Bloom 1984). The last three categories–synthesis, analysis, and evaluation–are often referred to as the “higher level thinking skills.”

Well-formulated instructional objectives can help instructors prepare lecture and assignment schedules and facilitate construction of in-class activities, out-of-class assignments, and tests. Perhaps the greatest benefit comes when the objectives cover all of the content and skills the instructor wishes to teach and they are handed out as study guides prior to examinations. The more explicitly students know what is expected of them, the more likely they will be to meet the expectations.

Use active learning in class: Most students cannot stay focused throughout a lecture. After about 10 minutes their attention begins to drift, first for brief moments and then for longer intervals, and by the end of the lecture they are taking in very little and retaining less. A classroom research study showed that immediately after a lecture students recalled 70% of the information presented in the first ten minutes and only 20% of that from the last ten minutes (McKeachie 1999).

Active learning exercises may address a variety of objectives. Some examples follow.

Recalling prior material. The students may be given one minute to list as many points as they can recall about the previous lecture or about a specific topic covered in an assigned reading.

  • Responding to questions. Any questions an instructor would normally ask in class can be directed to groups. In most classes—especially large ones—very few students are willing to volunteer answers to questions, even if they know the answers. When the questions are directed to small groups, most students will attempt to come up with answers and the instructor will get as many responses as he or she wants.
  • Problem solving. A large problem can always be broken into a series of steps, such as paraphrasing the problem statement, sketching a schematic or flow chart, predicting a solution, writing the relevant equations, solving them or outlining a solution procedure, and checking and/or interpreting the solution. When working through a problem in class, the instructor may complete some steps and ask the student groups to attempt others. The groups should generally be given enough time to think about what they have been asked to do and begin formulating a response but not necessarily enough to reach closure.
  • Explaining written material. TAPPS (thinking-aloud pair problem solving) is a powerful activity for helping students understand a body of material. The students are put in pairs and given a text passage or a worked-out derivation or problem solution. An arbitrarily designated member of each pair explains each statement or calculation, and the explainer’s partner asks for clarification if anything is unclear, giving hints if necessary. After about five minutes, the instructor calls on one or two pairs to summarize their explanations up to a point in the text, and the students reverse roles within their pairs and continue from that point.
  • Analytical, critical, and creative thinking. The students may be asked to list assumptions, problems, errors, or ethical dilemmas in a case study or design; explain a technical concept in jargon-free terms; find the logical flaw in an argument; predict the outcome of an experiment or explain an observed outcome in terms of course concepts; or choose from among alternative answers or designs or models or strategies and justify the choice made. The more practice and feedback the students get in the types of thinking the instructor wants them to master, the more likely they are to develop the requisite skills.
  • Generating questions and summarizing. The students may be given a minute to come up with two good questions about the preceding lecture segment or to summarize the major points in the lecture just

concluded.

Use cooperative learning : Cooperative learning (CL) is instruction that involves students working in teams to accomplish an assigned task and produce a final product (e.g., a problem solution, critical analysis, laboratory report, or process or product design), under conditions that include the following elements (Johnson et al. 1998):

  1. Positive interdependence. Team members are obliged to rely on one another to achieve the goal. If any team members fail to do their part, everyone on the team suffers consequences.
  2. Individual accountability. All team members are held accountable both for doing their share of the work and for understanding everything in the final product (not just the parts for which they were primarily responsible).
  3. Face-to-face promotive interaction. Although some of the group work may be done individually, some must be done interactively, with team members providing mutual feedback and guidance, challenging one another, and working toward consensus.
  4. Appropriate use of teamwork skills. Students are encouraged and helped to develop and exercise leadership, communication, conflict management, and decision-making skills.
  5. Regular self-assessment of team functioning. Team members set goals, periodically assess how well they are working together, and identify changes they will make to function more effectively in the future.

An extensive body of research confirms the effectiveness of cooperative learning in higher education. Relative to students taught conventionally, cooperatively-taught students tend to exhibit better grades on common tests, greater persistence through graduation, better analytical, creative, and critical thinking skills, deeper understanding of learned material, greater intrinsic motivation to learn and achieve, better relationships with peers, more positive attitudes toward subject areas, lower levels of anxiety and stress, and higher self-esteem (Johnson et al. 1998; McKeachie 1999).

Formal cooperative learning is not trivial to implement, and instructors who simply put students to work in teams without addressing the five defining conditions of cooperative learning could be doing more harm than good. In particular, if team projects are carried out under conditions that do not ensure individual accountability, some students will inevitably get credit for work done by their more industrious and responsible teammates. The slackers learn little or nothing in the process, and the students who actually do the work justifiably resent both their teammates and the instructor.

The following guidelines suggest ways to realize the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of cooperative learning (Felder and Brent 1994; Johnson et al. 1998; Millis and Cottell 1998; NISE 1997).

  • Proceed gradually when using cooperative learning for the first time. Cooperative learning imposes a learning curve on both students and instructors. Instructors who have never used it might do well to try a single team project or assignment the first time, gradually increasing the amount of group work in subsequent course offerings as they gain experience and confidence.
  • Form teams of 3-4 students for out-of-class assignments. Teams of two may not generate a sufficient variety of ideas and approaches, teams of five or more are likely to leave at least one student out of the group process.
  • Instructor-formed teams generally work better than self-selected teams. Classroom research studies show that the most effective groups tend to be heterogeneous in ability and homogeneous in interests, with common blocks of time when they can meet outside class. It is also advisable not to allow underrepresented populations (e.g. racial minorities, or women in traditionally male fields like engineering) to be outnumbered in teams, especially during the first two years of college when students are most likely to lose confidence and drop out. When students self-select, these guidelines are often violated. One approach to team formation is to use completely random assignment to form practice teams, and then after the first class examination has been given, form new teams using the given guidelines.
  • Give more challenging assignments to teams than to individuals. If the students could just as easily complete assignments by themselves, the instructor is not realizing the full educational potential of cooperative learning and the students are likely to resent the additional time burden of having to meet with their groups. The level of challenge should not be raised by simply making the assignments longer, but by including more problems that call upon higher level thinking skills.
  • Help students learn how to work effectively in teams. Some instructors begin a course with instruction in teamwork skills and team-building exercises, while others prefer to wait for several weeks until the inevitable interpersonal conflicts begin to arise and then provide strategies for dealing with the problems. One technique is to collect anonymous comments about group work, describe one or two common problems in class (the most common one being team members who are not pulling their weight), and have the students brainstorm possible responses and select the best ones.
  • Take measures to provide positive interdependence. Methods include assigning different roles to group members (e.g. coordinator, checker, recorder, and group process monitor), rotating the roles periodically or for each assignment; providing one set of resources; requiring a single group product; and giving a small bonus on tests to groups in which the team average is above (say) 80%. Another powerful technique is jigsaw, in which each team member receives specialized training in one or another subtask of the assignment and must then contribute his or her expertise for the team product to receive top marks.
  • Impose individual accountability in as many ways as possible. The most common method is to give individual tests. In lecture courses, the course grade should be based primarily on the test results (e.g., 80% for the tests and 20% for team homework), so that students who manage to get a free ride on the homework will still do poorly in the course. Other techniques include calling randomly on individuals to present and explain team results; having each team member rate everyone’s contribution and combining the results with the team grade to determine individual assignment grades, and providing a last resort option of firing chronically uncooperative team members.
  • Require teams to assess their performance regularly. At least two or three times during the semester, teams should be asked to respond to questions like “How well are we meeting our goals and expectations? “What are we doing well?” “What needs improvement?” and “What (if anything) will we do differently next time?”
  • Do not assign course grades on a curve. If grades are curved, students have little incentive to help teammates and risk lowering their own final grades, while if an absolute grading system is used they have every incentive to help one another. If an instructor unintentionally gives a very difficult or unfair test on which the grades are abnormally low, points may be added to everyone’s score or a partial retest may be administered to bring the high mark or the average to a desired level.
  • Survey the students after the first six weeks of a course. As a rule, the few students who dislike group work are quite vocal about it, while the many who see its benefits are quiet. Unless the students are surveyed during the course, the instructor might easily conclude from the complaints that the approach is failing and be tempted to abandon it.
  • Expect some students to be initially resistant or hostile to cooperative learning.

This point is crucial. Students sometimes react negatively when asked to work in teams for the first time. Bright students complain about begin held back by their slower teammates; weaker or less assertive students complain about being discounted or ignored in group sessions; and resentments build when some team members fail to pull their weight. Instructors with experience know how to avoid most of the resistance and deal with the rest, but novices may become discouraged and revert to the traditional teacher-centered instructional paradigm, which is a loss both for them and for their students.

Cooperative learning is most likely to succeed if the instructor anticipates and understands student resistance: its origins, the forms it might take, and ways to defuse and eventually overcome it. Felder and Brent (1996) offer suggestions for helping students understand why they are being asked to work in groups and for responding to specific student complaints. These suggestions may not eliminate student resistance completely, but they generally keep it under control long enough for most students to start recognizing the benefits of working in teams.

Assessment and evaluation of teaching quality: Most institutions use only end-of-course student surveys to evaluate teaching quality. While student opinions are important and should be including in any assessment plan, meaningful evaluation of teaching must rely primarily on assessment of learning outcomes. Current trends in assessment reviewed by Ewell (1998) include shifting from standardized tests to performance-based assessments, from teaching-based models to learning-based models of student development, and from assessment as an add-on to more naturalistic approaches embedded in actual instructional delivery. Measures that may be used to obtain an accurate picture of students’ content knowledge and skills include tests, performances and exhibitions, project reports, learning logs and journals, metacognitive reflection, observation checklists, graphic organizers, and interviews, and conferences (Burke, 1993).

Longitudinal study of the proposed instructional methods : In a study carried out at North Carolina State University, a cohort of students took five chemical engineering courses taught by the same instructor in five consecutive semesters. Active learning was used in all class sessions, and the students completed most of their homework assignments in cooperative learning teams. Both academic performance and student attitudes were assessed each semester for both the experimental cohort and a comparison cohort of students who proceeded through the traditionally-taught curriculum. Felder (1995, 1998) gives detailed descriptions of the instructional model and of the assessment procedures and results.

The experimental group entered the chemical engineering curriculum with credentials statistically indistinguishable from those of the comparison group and significantly outperformed the comparison group on a number of measures. Students in the experimental group generally earned higher course grades than comparison group students, even in chemical engineering courses that were not taught by the experimental course instructor. Comparison group students were roughly twice as likely to leave chemical engineering for any reason prior to graduation and almost three times as likely to drop out of college altogether. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that the experimental group outperformed the comparison group in developing skills in higher-level thinking, communication, and teamwork.

The value of TQM in improving classroom instruction : It is not difficult to find semantic links between teaching and total quality management. Almost every known strategy for teaching effectively cited in standard pedagogical references has counterparts on a list of TQM components compiled by Grandzol and Gershon (1997). Examples include writing instructional objectives (clarity of vision, strategic planning); student-centered instruction (customer focus, empowerment, driving out fear), collaborative or cooperative learning (adopting a new philosophy, teamwork), assessment (measurement, benchmarks, continuous improvement), and training and mentoring new faculty members (human resource development, employee training).

Improving institutional teaching programs: The proper use of any of the instructional methods described in the preceding section improves the quality of learning that occurs in the classroom. If several of the methods are used in concert, the potential for improvement is all the greater. The quality of an institutional teaching program may therefore be improved by persuading as many faculty members as possible to use those methods in their classes and providing them with the training and support they will need to implement the methods successfully.

As noted in the introduction, many campuses have experimented with TQM, provoking a great deal of faculty opposition in the process and having relatively little impact on what happens in most classrooms. The conflict between the TQM advocates and opponents reflects differences between the industrial culture where TQM was developed and the culture of the university. The conflict can easily turn what should be a united effort to improve the quality of education into a power struggle between faculty members and administrators. The consequence is that the introduction of TQM to the campus may work against the cause it was intended to promote.

Toward an effective institutional teaching improvement program: We have so far spoken only of changes in teaching methods, but improvements in instructional programs may also involve subject integration, just-in-time instruction, writing across the curriculum, or any of a variety of other non-traditional approaches that have been found to improve learning. In the final analysis, however, the quality of a teaching program is primarily related to the quality of the instruction that takes place in individual classrooms. For the new curricula and instructional methods to have the desired impact, a reasonable percentage of the faculty must participate willingly and competently in both their delivery and their assessment. If they do not, the curriculum structure and any other educational reforms will be largely irrelevant in the long run.

Most faculties have enough members who are sufficiently dedicated to teaching to participate voluntarily in pilot studies of new instructional programs, with minimal expectation of tangible reward. As many administrators have recently discovered, however, attracting and keeping enough faculty volunteers for a full-scale implementation of a new teaching program can be difficult or impossible, particularly if their participation is an add-on to all their other responsibilities and does not count toward tenure and promotion.

Here, then, is our view of what can be done to improve the instructional program at a university. Each step requires agreement of the faculty members who must implement it and the administrators who must provide the necessary resources.

  1. Faculty members and administrators define the knowledge, skills, and values that the graduates of the program should have.
  2. With the assistance of experts in pedagogy and learning assessment, the faculty defines the instructional methods most likely to lead to the acquisition of the desired attributes, selects the methods needed to assess the effectiveness of the instruction, and estimates the resources (including provisions for faculty development) needed to implement both the instruction and the assessment.
  3. The administration commits to provide both the necessary resources to initiate and sustain the program and appropriate incentives for faculty members to participate.
  4. The faculty and administration formulate a detailed implementation plan.
  5. The faculty implements the plan.
  6. The faculty and administration assess the results and modify the plan as necessary to move closer to the desired outcomes.

Rogers and Sando (1996) present models for teaching program assessment that include recommendations for all but Step 3 of this list.

This six-step plan sounds like a TQM model, and of course it is. It can be put into effect perfectly well, however, in the context of the university culture, without ever mentioning customers, empowerment, bottom-up management, or any other TQM term whose applicability to education is questionable. Consensus on all of the issues involved in educational reform might or might not be achieved, but at least the dialogue would focus on the real issues rather than semantic red herrings.

Our recommendations for improving teaching quality finally come down to this. Instructors who wish to improve teaching in a course should consult the literature, see which instructional methods have been shown to work, and implement those with which they feel most comfortable. Total quality management need not enter the picture at all. An administration wishing to improve the quality of its instructional program should first make the necessary commitment to provide the necessary resources and incentives for faculty participation. Then, don’t talk about TQM—just do it.

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