Tips from the AEJMC Teaching Committee

Learning to Teach, Finally

By Mary T. Rogus
AEJMC Standing Committee on Teaching
Ohio University
rogus@ohio.edu

 

 

(Article courtesy of AEJMC News, January 2019 issue)

When I first walked into a classroom at Ohio University with 20 years of television news experience, I was, like many of us who come to academe after a professional career, fairly confident I could teach students to write, report and produce for television. Heck, that’s what I had been doing every day as an executive producer, hadn’t I? After my first couple of quarters, I was a little panicked. I had good evaluations because of my professional “creds” and great war stories, but the students’ work didn’t show they got it.

I went to colleagues and got some good advice about overcoming the “expert syndrome” of forgetting that students don’t know those things that had become second nature to me, and they don’t learn from my war stories. With that insight and lots of trial and error, I got the hang of it.

But now, in my 21st year of teaching, I’m finally learning how to teach, by learning how students learn.

I want to use this space to share some of my aha moments after completing the first half of a year-long teaching academy that Ohio University provides for a dozen professors every year. I hope they will encourage you to do what I should have done    20 years ago — seek out pedagogy research and resources. (If you were smart enough to do that when you first started or    had a great teaching seminar as part of your graduate program — I’m sure you can find something else in this newsletter to read!)

One of the most valuable resources has been How Learning Works: 7 Researched-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (Ambrose, et al, 2010). We’re up to number 5 and the margins of my book are full of notes on changes I can make in my courses using the research-based strategies the authors present. Here are three which I found especially useful.

“Principle: Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning” (Ambrose, et al, pg. 13).  Many of us teach skills classes that are sequenced to build on previous classes. Ambrose, et al cite research that found students must be able to connect new knowledge to some prior knowledge or experience in order to learn. The point that struck me was, we can’t assume students are making those connections automatically. We have to activate their prior knowledge and make sure it is sufficient and accurate, before building on it.

That idea of activation made me think of a struggle our newscast practicum students have with proper television news scripting. Although they learn and practice it in the requisite class, students still make lots of scripting mistakes which lead to errors when the newscasts go to air. It may be that they are not able to activate that prior knowledge with just a review lecture. We will try hands-on scripting exercises during our training workshops before they start producing newscasts, and also will emphasize in the requisite class why proper scripting is so important beyond a good grade.

“Principle: To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned” (Ambrose, et al, pg. 95). At first read this principle seemed obvious to me, and probably to anyone who teaches skills classes. We teach AP Style, information gathering, interviewing, narrative formats, etc., before we have students write a complete story. Then the authors used the example of the component skills required for case study analysis.

I use the same basic steps for my ethics students which they described as component skills—define the problem, identify stakeholders and your ethical obligation to each, choose relevant values/codes for guidance and make a decision. I never thought about those steps to reaching a decision as individual skills that I should have students practice. That could explain why students struggle with their written case study assignments even though we go through multiple practice cases in class. Next time I teach this class, I will focus on developing each component skill before they have to integrate them into a full decision-making assignment.

“Principle: Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback are critical to learning” (Ambrose, et al, pg. 125). It was the key features of “goal-directed” practice that I found enlightening: “(a) focuses on a specific goal or criterion for performance, (b) targets an appropriate level of challenge relative to students’ current performance, and (c) is of sufficient quantity and frequency to meet performance criteria” (Ambrose, et al, pg. 127).

As I thought about how this applies to the newscast practicum semester mentioned above, I realized that while the experience of producing a live television newscast four days a week was very real-world, we were not maximizing student learning. Students rotate through different jobs every day, and with the exception of reporting, they typically get two to four rotations on most jobs. My co-instructor and I critique everything from day one of live newscasts and grade based on all aspects of the rubrics for every job.

We’ve discussed making some changes in how we focus our feedback and grading—for example, during the first two to three weeks emphasizing more basic skills such as deadlines, and proper scripting. Then weeks three to five dig into conversational and transitional writing, storytelling, and more sophisticated producing. The final five weeks would focus on the complete product. We also will have students repeat their job rotations for two weeks in a row, rather than wait until each student does every job once, hoping that without a 2-4 week gap between rotations they benefit from immediate frequency. It will be interesting to see how disrupting our well-oiled machine, and focusing on research-based learning techniques, works for the students.

Reference:  Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M., Norman, M. (2010) How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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