My New Course on Infancy and Child Development
How I am using a flexible approach and new teaching methods in the classroom
The fall semester is upon us. And with it comes great uncertainty, debate, and confusion. After more than a year online, many campuses are charging ahead with in person classes – mine included. I am now teaching at Utah Valley University, a teaching institution in Orem, Utah, and I’ll be honest with you: I am utterly thrilled to be back on campus.
Even saying that makes me nervous for backlash given the widespread debate online that I am seeing unfold as faculty are downright pissed at their institutions for moving forward with an on-campus return. I am sure many are appalled by my excitement to have myself and 27 students engaged in deep discussion about child development beginning this week.
Anger aside, the uncertainty of the upcoming semester has contributed to changes in my pedagogical approach to my course. I have focused on reducing the pressures and stress on students while constructing a learning environment designed to get them excited and curious about learning again.
Lectures, proctoring spy software, and formal exams have no place on my syllabus.
Should my course need to move online, we can engage in lively discussion synchronously online. Should a student be absent, assignment submissions can be done easily online with maximum deadline flexibility. The university classrooms are equipped with recording devices to easily capture the day’s discussion. Gone from my syllabus is the harsh language from my first years as a professor of which I now read and cringe.
Coming back into the classroom after three semesters removed post-PhD has allowed me to take a fresh perspective on what I hope to accomplish in my new course on infancy and child development, and what I want my students to get from the course, too.
The goals for my course this semester include:
Trying new assignment types
Fostering curiosity in my students
Bridging organic, personalized connections across students’ courses and experiences
Make my class more than exams and grades
Many books have inspired the many changes to my course design and operations that I am practicing this semester. Two are specifically worth mentioning here: The Missing Course by David Gooblar, and Why They Can’t Write by John Warner. While both of these books are written by writing professors, it is easy to extract teaching principles to apply in your own course. Writing is arguably one of the hardest skills to teach (as can be gleaned by unrelenting complaints of professors that students can’t write) because it requires that students actively engage in writing to improve. In the social sciences and humanities, students, too, need to actively engage in the skills used in the professions: research, communication, and critical thinking.
My course applied the principles and ideas that I have gleaned from the aforementioned books, my own trial and error experiences of teaching, and fun ideas from other teachers I’ve observed online.
The syllabus for my new upper-level course on infancy and child development is online, and more documents will be added to the course OSF page as the semester progresses. Below are some of the new approaches I’m taking this year to engage students, foster curiosity, and make learning fun.
How I’m Engaging Students
If I can avoid it, I don’t lecture. Aside from intro survey courses in psychology, I don’t think that lecturing is an effective method to get students to develop the research, communication, and critical thinking skills we intend for them to develop in our classroom. And when I do lecture, there is ample activity time, group work, and engagement built in.
Beyond survey courses, discussions are highly effective – if approached correctly.
Students today are highly accustomed to reading textbooks. They usually aren’t interesting, and students don’t really read them. I instead assign popular-style books (like I am in this course) and/or journal articles. Despite professors being well-versed in this type of reading, students, however, are not. To provoke high quality discussions, I provide reading guides for each chapter or article I assign. This gives students a high-level outline to help direct them to the major components you want to focus on, and then allows them to know where to dive in for discussion.
In my experience, the discussion questions students produce (which are required at the start of each class meeting) are high quality, and the discussion that ensues is more focused on the main points, which requires less interference from you, the professor.
When running a discussion course, the number one complaint I hear is that professors can’t get their students to talk. Why not? Probably because you’re talking too much. Don’t start your class meeting with a rambling monologue. Instead, have the students start the discussion. It sets the expectation that they are leading the discussion. You also must embrace the silence. Give students time to think and compose a thought rather than waiting three seconds before talking to fill the void.
My course this semester is 2.5 hours once a week. The time is broken up into three to four discussion chunks, with students starting each discussion day with a brief presentation on their weekly homework research (more on that below). I won’t even attempt to start talking or guiding until 15 minutes into class each day!
How I’m Fostering Curiosity and Honing Research Skills
Whereas I’ve developed great discussion strategies across previous courses, I’ve been struggling to develop ways to develop research skills in a more authentic way. Of course, intro psych students are required to participate in research as subjects “to get involved in the research process” (a lie we tell ourselves to get cheap data), but what are they really learning about research? How can we get students to develop interesting questions, conduct research to find an answer, then effectively communicate what they found?
I’m trying something new this year called “independent homework research”. How it works is that the last 15-20 minutes of class will be a space for students to break into smaller discussion groups and bounce around ideas and lingering questions they have about the day’s topics. Each student will identify a question that is interesting to them. Their assignment for next week is to go answer it! They need to find research articles and other sources that can help answer the question. Once they have a good answer, they must figure out a way to effectively communicate what their question was and what they found through their research to the class.
The first 40 minutes of the following class will be a presentation and discussion period in which a few students present and discuss their research with the class. The goal is for students to dive into aspects of the content that is interesting to them, develop real life research and scientific literacy skills, and effectively communicate findings. By beginning the course with some focused discussion on last week’s topics, the discussion also serves as a nice bridge to the current week’s discussion.
How I’m Fostering Creativity and Building Connections
Learning is most effective when students have some autonomy over their learning and when they are able to authentically form connections across topics. In my course this semester I am trying something radically new (for me at least) though Exam Projects aimed at giving students ample space for creativity and connecting the course content to their personal knowledge space.
In the week or two before the exam project is due, we will have dedicated discussion time devoted to collaboratively identifying the core themes and lessons from the book we finished reading. Then, students will pick one of those lessons and develop an output that effectively communicates what they learned. I have a vague idea of how these projects could maybe look – a Wikipedia article, an op-ed, a podcast, an infographic, a website, etc – but the goal is to work as a class to come up with ideas and co-develop the rubric for what an ‘A’ project will look like.
Students have lots of unique skills and knowledge areas from their personal and educational experiences – I want them to have a way to use them to creatively and effectively demonstrate what they have learned. A key lesson I took from Warner’s Why They Can’t Write is that we too often box-in creativity by forcing students to demonstrate knowledge by only one means. Instead, I want to see what they can do when given more space to be creative. I am also taking a note from Gooblar’s The Missing Course and getting students involved in developing parts of the class. What do they think a great project will look like? This I imagine will foster greater motivation to produce a great output, but also feel that they have input into how I am grading a highly flexible assignment.
Teaching is a practice that should be developed over time. And I have come such a far way from my stern first semester of exam-only grades and ridged course policies. I am trying a lot of new pedagogical approaches this year, and I couldn’t be more excited to see how they work for students. Drop any feedback or suggestions in the comments!