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Award-winning instructor offers five strategies for effective, efficient teaching

Feb 10, 2021, 08:53 AM

When Emily Knox was in seventh grade, she took French because “everybody took French, and we didn’t have Spanish”.

“It did not occur to me that the point of taking French was so that I could speak French when I went to France, or that I could actually watch the show Lupin … without reading the subtitles. I was just taking the course,” Knox said.

“This is what a lot of our students do,” she continued. “It doesn’t occur to them that they are actually needing to learn something that they could apply later … in their personal lives or their professional live. … They are just taking your course.”

Knox is the Interim Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, an award-winning Associate Professor in the School of Information Sciences, and a second-year Faculty Fellow. Her comments came during her presentation, “Effective and Efficient Teaching for Student Success,” which she gave recently as part of the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning’s Art of Teaching: Lunchtime Seminar Series.

Knox wasn’t criticizing students – or implying that faculty should just phone in the teaching part of their job.

On the contrary, “I think it’s one of the more important things we can do especially at an R1 university where we are often not judged on our teaching but on our research,” she said. However, to do that effectively and efficiently, Knox said instructors must be willing to scrutinize their practices and determine what’s working and what’s not when meeting their course objectives and helping their students be successful.

To that end, she shared her five thoughts on teaching. Here’s a summary:

Table setting and repetition are important.

On the first day of class, Knox tells students what they can expect from her – no matter how mundane it may seem. To illustrate the importance, she shared how she learned through an evaluation that a student was upset because the guest speakers sometimes spoke on topics that weren’t on the syllabus. That student gave her all 2’s.

“I hadn’t set the table correctly that first day,” Knox said, adding she now makes a point of preparing students for that possibility.

“I also talk about what are my expectations for students … and letting students know why I have these expectations,” she said. 

Knox said it’s also important to share classroom norms “that we don’t articulate to students, but we expect them to do.” 

For example, she said, “my actual norm is if you send me an email, you can turn in the thing late. It’s actually if you don’t send me an email, I’ll take off points for late assignments.”

You can’t care more than they do.

This is where Knox shared her story about taking French and drew the comparison to some college students’ attitudes about their courses.

“When you have those large classes, most of those students are just hanging out,” Knox said, adding she once visited another instructor’s class and saw a student pull 10 iClickers out of her bag and proceed to answer questions for her friends who had skipped class. 

While there are certainly hardworking, enthusiastic students, Knox said a fellow doctoral student made her realize that there will always be those who don’t go to class, do the work, or show up for office hours. To that end, teachers need to think about how much energy they want to expend trying to make students do things.

“There is only so much you can do,” she said.

Articulate why, not just how.

Knox serves on the Provost’s Council for Learning Outcomes Assessment (C-LOA).

“Best practice is you put the objectives in your assessments,” she said, adding she does that now, and it causes her to think very carefully about the why.

Knox used to assign a paper called “Desperately Seeking Citations” that was 15 to 20 pages long and required 20 citations from scholarly articles. But over time, she realized that while people in academia are expected to write lengthy research papers, those outside are not.

“I now give students response papers that need to be short. I say to them, ‘What would your boss want to read?’” she said, adding that type of assessment better meets her course objectives. Knox has also changed her stance on requiring students to memorize course content. She now allows them to bring one sheet of notes to their finals.

“In my field, memorizing things is not really meeting the course objective,” she said, adding that of course, isn’t true of all fields. “We feel like learning is this memorization a lot of times. This is how we were taught, and it’s the currency of our realm – to know things.”

Rubrics make a difference.

 While some dislike rubrics, Knox said they have made her grading much more efficient.

“And I will tell you that even if I don’t get ranked as excellent in a course, I’m always told my grading is fair. The students see rubrics as being fair,” she said, adding it provides transparency on both sides.

She pointed out that CITL offers "a great" workshop on rubrics, and she encouraged her teaching colleagues to take it.

Knox said rubrics also show very quickly when a student isn’t putting in the effort.

“If I find that a student has not put much effort into an assignment, I stop grading,” she said, adding that’s the time to reach out to the student and offer a do-over, “otherwise, you’re getting this not-so-great grade

“I feel that way especially right now during the pandemic,” she said. “If in fact a student hasn’t put the effort into it, I don’t need to take that time.”

The space between good and excellent teaching is wide.

Knox calls this one of the best pieces of advice her mentor gave her when she arrived on campus. You have a lot of teaching experience, the mentor said, but you have to think about how much effort you can give to teaching.

“Do you have the bandwidth to be excellent? … Because that bandwidth is long.”

Knox said she doesn’t have time to write out their lectures like some instructors do.

And during the pandemic, she has made more group assessments.

“I do feel like some of my assessments are better if I do them individually,” she said. “But I just was like this is going to have to work.”

So, will students still learn if you do all of these things all of the time?

“This goes back to that fill students up versus helping to facilitate the process,” Knox said, referencing an earlier statement that some instructors believe they are filling students up with knowledge, while she believes they are more facilitators of learning. “I really think that a lot of times you’re just facilitating the process. And if I do all of the things, it’s not going to have much of a difference on that facilitation.”

The Art of Teaching: Lunchtime Seminar Series takes place from 12 to 1 pm on the first Thursday of each month through May. Join CITL on March 4 when Shelly Schmidt (FSHN) presents “Harnessing the Profound Connection Between Emotion and Learning to Enhance the Success of All Student”. 

Register to receive a zoom link at: https://go.illinois.edu/artofteachingregistration.

To learn more about The Art of Teaching, visit the website at: https://go.illinois.edu/artofteaching.