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Jenny Baker
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Max. Classroom Capacity: On Preparing to Teach

Loren J. Naidoo, California State University, Northridge

Happy summer! I hope you are enjoying this spectacular season of BBQ, picnicking, swimming, vacationing, and (for some of us) working on our research with fewer interruptions! In addition to all of the above, summer is also a great time for instructors to take a step back, reflect on the classes that we’ve been teaching and are scheduled to teach in the upcoming academic year, revisit old course evaluations, and start planning classes for next year.

I haven’t always taken enough time to think about how to create or modify my upcoming classes. I can remember being advised to instead focus on my research, and when it comes to your classes, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it—perhaps I’m not alone in this. This is unfortunate because, in part, I feel like I have a professional obligation to strive towards continuous improvement in my teaching. But, if I’m being honest, I also want to make my classes better because that will make everyone happier—I’ll be happier that I’m a more effective instructor and because it’s a lot more fun to teach a class that works well, and I hope students will be happier because my classes will be more interesting, impactful, and useful to them. So I’d like to discuss some ideas on how to prepare classes.

One useful way to think about preparing classes is articulated in the Understanding by Design (UBD) framework of McTighe and Wiggins (2012). They propose a process by which all curricula, regardless of the discipline or field, are designed and continuously improved upon. One important assumption of UBD is that instructors are responsible not just to teach or present information but to ensure that learning is actually happening—that meaning is being made and knowledge is being transferred successfully by students. As such, it’s not enough to think about the content of the class or what you are going to present to students, one has to think about how to ensure that students are actually learning. In the UBD framework design happens “backward” in three stages, starting with the long-term outcomes that you want to see in your students, followed by assessments of this learning, and ending with instruction plans. This is backward in the sense that the starting point of the process is the desired end products of your class, and then decisions are “reverse engineered,” working backward from those desired end products, and arriving at what you plan to do in the classroom.

1.  Desired Results

The first UBD stage is to identify what you would like your students to know, understand, and do. This process involves instructors thinking about how they would want their students to use their learning from the class in nonschool settings. This, arguably, is one ultimate goal of education in any discipline, but is particularly relevant in applied disciplines such as I-O psychology. For example, if you are teaching a class on leadership, one desired result might be that students can construct and articulate a vision. For a statistics class, one desired result might be that students can choose, conduct, and interpret the statistical test appropriate to the hypothesis or research question and study design. For a personnel-psychology class, perhaps students should be able to conduct a job analysis. By the way, these desired results are also known as learning goals.

At this stage, it’s also important to consider how your desired results fit with larger standards (e.g., accreditation standards) and curricula (e.g., what belongs in your course as opposed to other courses offered). In my experience this is latter issue is something that is not often thought about. While working on curriculum committees I have had the experience of realizing that identical content was being taught in several different courses. This is not necessarily a problem—sometimes redundancy in content across courses is the best way to ensure knowledge retention and transfer. The main point is that this was unintended and for years nobody knew it was happening!

Although this is likely an obvious step when developing a completely new course, thinking about desired results is also a useful exercise when prepping a new class, or even when modifying a class you’ve taught many times before. Sometimes we inherit syllabi and materials from others that ease our preparation time but may lock us into suboptimal practices that we haven’t fully thought through and may not make sense. Sometimes these materials have drifted far from the intended role of the course within the curriculum over time based on instructors’ idiosyncratic preferences. Although thinking about desired results does take time and effort, it may be a worthwhile investment in your own and your future students’ enjoyment and well-being.

2. Assessment

The next UBD stage is to determine how you will assess to what extent students have achieved the desired results or are capable of learning transfer. McTighe and Wiggins (2012) identify several ways in which students can demonstrate their understanding: (a) explain in their own words, teach to others, show their reasoning; (b) interpret text, data, models; (c) apply their learning in new contexts; (d) show perspective by recognizing different points of view and seeing the big picture; (e) display empathy through taking others’ perspectives, and (f) have self-knowledge by reflecting on the meaning of the learning. These examples are meant to help guide the development of assessments.

The key issue in designing assessments according to the UBD framework is the alignment between the desired results and the assessments, and that all desired results are assessed. Personally, I think that this is an extreme view, and I worry that excessive focus on goals, assessment, and performance in the classroom can undermine student learning, as copious research on goal orientation (e.g., Payne, Youngcourt & Beaubien, 2007) and goal setting (e.g., Ordonez, Schweitzer, Galinsky & Bazerman, 2009) would suggest. Yes, focusing on learning goals and assessment in planning a course doesn’t necessarily lead one to focus on them while in the classroom. Regardless, I think that much important learning can happen that is difficult or impractical to assess, and thus an excessive focus on assessment in designing a class can be detrimental by itself. First, numerous practical factors constrain what we can assess and how well we can assess it. Days-long assessment-center procedures with work samples and multiple raters may be among the best ways to assess learning transfer and may be the only way to assess certain forms of it, but it may be impractical to expect that an instructor will have the time, personnel, and training to run an assessment-center procedure, compile and analyze the data, and deliver the feedback (I actually tried to approximate this using a team exercise and peer raters, but it is resource intensive and was used more as a class activity than an assessment). Multiple-choice tests are much quicker and easier to administer but may not adequately assess learning transfer. If something is impractical to assess, does that mean that it is unimportant to teach? Second, some unknown or unknowable amount of learning may happen well after the class is over, as ideas from the class take on new life with exposure to the rest of the curriculum, and later, experiences in the workplace. Since assessments presumably must occur within the timeframe of the class, longer term desired outcomes may be dropped because they cannot be assessed, as might the learning activities that would otherwise lead to these desired results. In my view, such a narrow focus on assessment can undermine our potential impact as instructors.

Anyway, notwithstanding the arguments above, I do think assessment is important and necessary, and that we need to think more carefully about it! As assessment figures quite prominently in I-O psychology theory and practice, I won’t go over the many, many assessment options available to instructors. Instead I will again note that assessment decisions involve practical considerations about the time and effort involved in administering and scoring assessments that cannot be ignored. For example, I can remember once realizing that it was a bad idea to assign three long essay exams to 60 students because it took me several weeks to grade each exam, and by the time students received feedback from me, they had forgotten all about the exam and probably learned very little from the feedback I had spent weeks preparing for them! In this case, more immediate feedback may have led to better learning outcomes.

3.  Instruction

The last stage in the UBD framework involves making decisions about how you, as the instructor, will support students and enable the achievement of the desired results. McTighe and Wiggins (2012) note that although many instructors focus on learning activities that target the mere acquisition of knowledge, true learning happens when students actively construct meaning and when given opportunities to apply their learning to novel situations.

One issue to consider at this stage is the resources you will make available to students to support their learning. This might include a traditional textbook. However, there are many alternatives to traditional textbooks available these days if you are concerned about their restrictive costs. First, there are all of the usual alternatives, including academic journal articles, more practitioner-oriented journals (e.g., Harvard Business Review), newspaper articles, popular-press books, and so on that are free or considerably less expensive than textbooks. Second, there are open educational resources available, a topic I wrote about in this this column in 2018. For example, Erdogan and Bauer (2019) have a module on I-O psychology available for free on the NOBA project. Third, one option that you may or may not have considered depending on your age and tech savvy is podcasts. Last year I started assigning my master’s-level students the occasional podcast, including episodes from Adam Grant’s worklife podcast and the Bribe, Swindle or Steal podcast (on ethical failures in organizations). Beyond the interesting content and entertaining format, my students seemed to enjoy being able to make good use of the many hours they spent commuting to and from campus through LA traffic. TED talks and similar short video presentations are numerous and freely available. Undoubtedly there are many other new forms of educational resources—e-mail me if you have ideas you’d like to share!

Aside from resources, the main decisions that need to be made at this stage concern what learning activities you will use to ensure that students are acquiring knowledge, actively constructing meaning from it, and applying their learning to new situations. Lecturing with PowerPoint slides, for example, may be part of this but probably shouldn’t be all of it. In-class exercises, role plays, team-based learning, discussions, debates, think-pair-share, games, presentations, freestyle rap battles (haven’t tried it), problem solving, flipped classrooms—all of the above and many more are tropical islands to explore! Some changes may be tactical based on feedback from course evaluations, assessment results, or conversations with students: Expand on topics and/or activities that seemed to work and reduce or remove those that didn’t; assign a recent article from the popular press that illustrates a phenomenon from class. These can be fairly quick and easy changes to make but may have big impacts on achieving the desired results of the class.

As always, dear readers, please e-mail me with your questions, comments, and feedback: Loren.Naidoo@csun.edu. Wishing you a happy and generative summer!

 

References

Erdogan, B. & Bauer, T. N. (2019). Industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. DOI:nobaproject.com

McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. (2012). Understanding by Design® Framework. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/siteASCD/publications/UbD_WhitePaper0312.pdf

Ordonez, L. D., Schweitzer, M. E., Galinsky, A. D., & Bazerman, M. H. (2009). Goals gone wild: The systematic side effects of overprescribing goal setting. Academy of Management Perspectives, 23, 6-16.

Payne, S. C., Youngcourt, S. S., & Beaubien, J. M. (2007). A meta-analytic examination of the goal orientation nomological net. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 128-150.

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