Things I think about before I ever walk into a classroom #4(5): What Are My Pedagogical Values, and How Am I Going To Implement Them In My Teaching?

Things I think about before I ever walk into a classroom #4(5):

What Are My Pedagogical Values, and How Am I Going To Implement Them In My Teaching?

In this final post in my series on pedagogical considerations in the classroom, I’m tackling a question that can sometimes get lost in the shuffle: what are my pedagogical values, and how am I going to implement them in my teaching? There is so much to think about when you are beginning to teach, from how to dress and behave, to classroom policies and procedures, to what to teach and how to teach it, that it’s easy to forget that without theory—without ideas about why you are doing what you are doing with your students, what you hope to accomplish with them in the class, and why it matters to you—teaching becomes a mechanical job of assign-assess-repeat, with little true value either for you or for your students. You’re all just going through the motions of education, rather than genuinely participating in the learning process.

At many levels of instruction in America, your syllabus and/or curriculum are dictated by state and federal guidelines. At the college/university levels, however, in most cases you are responsible for determining what you’re teaching and how you are going to teach it. The third element of this equation—why you are going to teach it—is often overlooked in the grand scheme of things, but in reality it can be the most important thinking that you do when you are structuring or revising a syllabus. If your own pedagogical values are not reflected in your choices of what to teach and how you’re going to teach it, then your class will be much less authentic and effective both for you and for your students. They need the “why” as much as you do, and the more transparent you can be about the matter, the better off everyone involved is going to be, as well.

I’ve been thinking about this subject off and on for the better part of a decade, and I have a pretty clear idea about what my pedagogical values boil down to at this point:

I value my students’ backgrounds and the intellectual training they bring
with them into my class

I value my role in helping them to develop the skills they need in order to succeed in my class

I value my responsibility in helping them learn to translate those skills into lifelong skills that can be applied in a variety of situations to meet a variety of needs and outcomes

I value the classroom as a dynamic, collaborative learning laboratory, where discovery is at the heart of the work we do

I value the tensions between creation and craft; invention and convention;and working towards personal goals versus satisfying the requirements for a graded assignment

I value process and product equally

These core values all translate in important ways into the pedagogical principles that underscore all of the classes that I teach, from the selection of materials to how I choose to present them, from the percentage of time I spend lecturing to the amount of writing, reading, and groupwork that my students are asked to do.First and foremost, I value my students’ backgrounds and the intellectual training they bring with them into my class, and I value my role in helping them to develop the skills they need in order to succeed in my class. Particularly in my lower-level general education courses, I never assume that students walk into one of my classes already knowing what they need to know in order to succeed. It is, after all, my course, designed around the principles, methodologies, and theories that I find most useful for a given set of course objectives that I chose for them to attain over the term. While those principles and theories might seem “universal” in nature—for instance, critical thinking and reasoning skills, close reading skills, analytical skills, research skills—assuming that every student who comes into your class is equipped with the skills necessary to succeed in it is putting the students at a disadvantage. Anything that I expect them to know how to do, I provide modeling for, during class, through a variety of activities. I always schedule a library research orientation and an orientation for the university writing and speaking centers and digital studio. It takes two class sessions, but it also ensures that I know my students have received the basic instruction they need and know the resources available to help them complete the research, writing, and presentation requirements in my class. I spend the majority of the first month in a course alternating between modeling for them the kinds of questions I ask when I approach a text, and having them practice this skill in small-group activities, until I am convinced they know how to approach a text in order to achieve our course objectives. If there is a theoretical model or paradigm I want them to use, I don’t just have them read it—we break it down together in class, so I know they understand it. I read short passages aloud to them, ask them what they notice, and then re-read the passage out loud and provide my own close reading of it, so they can see clearly the depth of reading required for literary analysis. WHY do I take so much class time to do these things? Because it’s the only way I can be sure that as the course instructor, I have met my responsibilities in giving them the tools they need in order to meet the course objectives and succeed in my class. It’s not “wasting class time” when you build activities into the syllabus that give them the tools they need in order to develop the skills that you have determined they will be assessed on, it’s the responsible pedagogical choice to make.

To be honest, I did not always hold this view. When I first started teaching, I thought, like many of the professors that trained me did by their own admission, that any student coming into my class should already have the basic skills s/he needed in order to do the work, and that if s/he didn’t, it was the student’s responsibility to acquire those skills. I don’t buy that ideology anymore. I think it is reasonable to expect a certain degree of literacy, a certain basic understanding of how to read and write scholarly prose—but beyond that, it is, actually, my responsibility to help my students acquire those skills, especially in the general education courses, but also more generally in any original course that I have developed. If it’s my objectives and my expectations that they have to succeed at meeting, then expecting the students to come in with the skills sets I want them to have already in place is, in essence, expecting them to read my mind. That’s not fair, and it automatically sets up a wall between you and your students that you have decided they have to jump over, ready or not. This is not a good foundation for a positive teaching or learning experience. Rather, use the class to develop and foster the skills sets you are asking the students to have, and let them bring what they’ve already got to the table in order to achieve this. In other words, give up preconceived notions that every student in your class is coming in ready to go, “your way.” The reality is that every student comes into your class with a set of skills already in place. They might not necessarily be the skills you expect them to have, but every student is good at something. As the instructor, find out early on what their strengths are, and help them build from there. Easy ways to do this are learning style surveys, in-class writings about the students’ background in a subject, or questionnaires about the students’ prior coursework and training and career goals. WHY do these things? Because they ensure that you are meeting your students at the intersection between what they know and what they can do, and what they don’t yet know and need to learn how to do. They therefore provide you with the basic knowledge you need in order to be as effective an instructor for each student as it is possible for you to be—even in the larger general education classes. You have a better starting point from which to work than simply assuming “everyone should know this.” If they all knew it already, why would they be taking your course?

Hand in hand with this, I value my responsibility in helping my students learn to translate the skills they acquire in my classes into lifelong skills that can be applied in a variety of situations to meet a variety of needs and outcomes. Truthfully, particularly in my general education courses, very few if any of my students are going to go on to become literary critics, professional writers, or English instructors, and while we would love for it to be so, “education for education’s sake” isn’t the goal of most college students–they have their own reasons for taking your class, rarely related to the class itself. Because I understand this, while I myself am obviously deeply engaged with and greatly value literature, literary analysis, and writing, I do not expect my students to love everything that we do, or even necessarily to like everything that we do, in my classes. What I do expect of them is that they demonstrate proficiency in the learning objectives for the class. Those learning objectives, in turn, are always tied to a set of “life skills” that everyone can find valuable for a variety of purposes both professional and personal in nature. This is not always an intuitive thing. It’s my job, and one of my great joys, to help them translate the skills they are applying in my class to their everyday lives. They may never again need to do a poetic analysis, but they will always need to be able to read critically and reflectively—from news stories, to instructions for assembling appliances and furniture, to job requirements and evaluations. They might never again need to complete a research paper, but they may find themselves needing to conduct research in order to find the best deals and locations for a honeymoon, or a family vacation, or to buy the best new car they can afford. They will probably not be writing 3-5 page essays, but they will need to write coherent and legible application letters for jobs, grants, and other purposes, evaluations of their own and of others’ work, business models, and other such written forms of expression. They might never give another Powerpoint or Prezi for a class, but they may find themselves using such multimodal programs for business presentations, job talks, speeches, or other public speaking occasions. What we do in class might at first seem like it has everything to do with Geoffrey Chaucer and the Middle Ages—but the underlying skills are what we’re after, delivered through the medium I find easiest to navigate as a scholar and instructor, and when I make that clear to my students they appreciate that the class is about more than my own sphere of reference. And hey—if they leave liking a Canterbury Tale or two, or able to identify an Arthurian allusion in a television show they’re watching, then that’s even better! WHY do we do the assignments that we do in my classes? Because each assignment assesses a particular skills set my students need in order to pass the class and, ultimately, to succeed in a variety of professional and personal endeavors that may have little, or even nothing, to do with the course readings and requirements that helped them attain those skills.

I truly value the classroom as a dynamic and collaborative learning laboratory. There’s nothing more electrifying than a great speaker delivering a twice-weekly lecture on a subject about which all involved are passionate…to those who are passionate about such things. Most modern college students fall into two other camps, entirely—either they want simply to take notes while you lecture about what is going to be on the test, expecting the teacher to deliver just what they need in order to pass, or they want to have a say in the class, to be able to discuss their own thinking and bring their own views to the table, to be valued. There is no reason why a course cannot accommodate all of these needs and also be a dynamic learning environment that goes beyond “just what they need to pass.” Keeping your lectures to manageable chunks—no more than 15-20 minutes at a time—will ensure that there is plenty of time for question-and-answer sessions in which you can ensure that the students understood the central points of your lecture through well-chosen questions and they, in turn, can ask for elaboration on points that interest or confuse them. Making it clear that you value their questions early on ensures that students are comfortable asking them. Alternately, if you have a quiet group, try having them write down one statement that you made that stood out to them, and one question they still have about the material, and collect these. Read through them, answering the questions and taking note of what the students took away with them, then adjust your next class to handle anything you find still needs further clarification. Have students lead discussions, instead of always running the classroom from your own position as the authority in the subject. You will be surprised at what they can bring to the table, the ways in which their own forays into the subject will enlighten and challenge your views, if you give them the room to try. I’ve written about student-led discussions before, and I will continue to advocate for them, because they demonstrate to the students that they, too, have something to contribute to the class, that it isn’t just about you. Give the students plenty of time to talk, to think through things in small groups or together as a larger class, facilitating their thinking without dominating it. Model the kind of critical thinking and reflection you want them to do, and then give them the room they need in order to do it. In many of my classes, I structure the whole course around a question or a set of questions or an idea or set of ideas I want to explore, and we work together to create meaning and find answers through the readings over the course of the term. This is where the students’ own pockets of knowledge can become invaluable—they will bring rich insight and thinking into the mix, things you might never have considered on your own. The experience becomes transformative for many of the students in the class, because they find themselves exposed to so many different ways of seeing and thinking. Encourage them to share their own areas of expertise, their own methodologies, things that have worked for them—it makes you a better instructor, and the classroom a wonderful place to be. WHY make the class both teacher- and student-oriented? Because both the teacher and the students are there, and need to be accommodated, challenged, and fairly assessed throughout the term.

I value the tensions between creation and craft; invention and convention; and working towards personal goals versus satisfying the requirements for a graded assignment, and I value process and product equally. I always tell my students that I really don’t care about their grades–and I really don’t–because as long as they are actively engaged in achieving proficiency in the skills related to the class objectives, their grade will follow suit. Therefore, I am much more concerned with the work they do in my class, with the ways in which they are engaging the course material. I encourage them to identify and work towards their own goals as learners and as individuals, and to focus on the skills they think will be most useful to them in future endeavors. I am as invested in teaching them to view learning and attaining skills as an ongoing process that extends well beyond the classroom as I am in assessing their written work for a grade. I want them to feel like they can take intellectual risks without feeling like it will hurt their grade too much or that they will be put on the spot and embarrassed. To that end, I make sure that the grade distribution in my classes reflects an equal interest in process and product; that I’m not assigning more than 50% of their grade to summative assessments like quizzes, tests, and essays, that class participation includes myriad activities and assignments beyond simply speaking up in class, and that the essay process is accounted for during as well as outside of class, through activities such as brainstorming, looking for examples, and peer review. I use class time not just to give them the information they need for a test, but also to help them learn to conduct lines of inquiry they may or may not ever have considered before, and then to think and write about those new ways of reading and seeing texts. I encourage them to use any and all of these initial musings towards developing essay or other written assignments. If it doesn’t work, I help them think through why that was and what they might consider doing differently the next time, usually in individual student conference during my office hours or at a time when they can meet with me. WHY do I value process and product equally? Because for me, learning doesn’t have an end game, it is an end game. Every student needs to be able to use his and her learning in order to successfully achieve the learning outcomes of a class, and that’s assessed through graded assignments. But the graded assignments aren’t the ultimate goal, they’re simply a goal on the way to the ultimate goal—which is to help students develop their minds into tools they can use to meet their own goals and aspirations, whatever they are, through the successful implementation of a variety of skills, from critical reasoning to close reading and analysis of a person, situation, or text.

As you can see, then, my pedagogical values so deeply reflect within my classes that they actually seem to be an integral part of each course, and I think that is as it should be. Taking the time to think about what YOU value as an instructor and what you want your students to value as learners, can really help to shape the ways in which you approach the design and implementation of your classes. Every class is a different chance for you to develop and implement your pedagogical values, another chance for you to try to help your students develop as successfully functioning members of families, communities, and societies, and another opportunity to decide what skills are most needed in order to accomplish a given set of course objectives, and how you can best help your students achieve and make use of those objectives—both for your class, and beyond.

What about you–what are your pedagogical values, and how do you build them into your course design and instructional choices?


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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2 Responses to Things I think about before I ever walk into a classroom #4(5): What Are My Pedagogical Values, and How Am I Going To Implement Them In My Teaching?

  1. phillipmitchellnm says:

    Thanks for the overview of your pedagogical values. I find them quite instructive and clarifying. Also, as a new university faculty, it is satisfying and confirming to see much of my own echoed here.
    How do you engage the student who only wants a lecture/homework/paper/grade kind of class, who isn’t into the cool activities, small group discussions, online forums, “learning lab”, etc. that we dream up?

    • Melissa Ridley Elmes says:

      That is a really good question, and I’m glad you asked it. I see many different ways of handling the situation you mention, i.e. the “I just want to do the work, get the grade, and move on” student. The adage, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” holds very true in these instances. The easiest way of handling it is simply to go over the syllabus on the first day of class and to remind students who aren’t living up to their end of the bargain that that document is a contract between you, and their choice to remain in your class means they have agreed to honor that contract; their grade depends upon how well they adhere to class guidelines, which means participating actively in all assignments. You can’t make them like it, and you can’t make them do it, you can only remind them that to stay in the class means to be graded as per the syllabus, and that means they will need to step up and actively engage as you have asked them to in order to get the grades they want. Try not to take it personally when a student chooses to drop your course rather than do the work as you have envisioned it–many times students are savvy enough to realize early on that they won’t respond well to your teaching style and will self-select out of your course early on because they don’t want the group assignments & etc., and that’s completely fine. There’s a reason there is a wide spectrum of instructors and instructional styles available, and not every student is going to respond to your instructional style, no matter how hard you work at making it inclusive (some students don’t WANT inclusive, they want a “lecture-take notes-take the test” course, as you’ve noted.) Those are certainly available….but, they’re not my course. The students have to make the call for themselves as to whether or not my course will be effective for them.

      Another tactic–the one I most often use in my own classes–is simply to be very transparent about why you have chosen for them the activities that you have chosen. Explaining the pedagogical value of certain activities for different learning styles–that, for instance, you choose to use prewriting strategies and small-group discussions prior to larger class conversations because that way people who are less confident then get a chance to think about and sound out their ideas in a non-threatening arena before putting themselves out there for the whole class to critique, or that you’ve chosen an active, kinetic assignment because some people learn better by doing things physically–lets your students know that you care about them as learners and that you have thought carefully about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Likewise, explaining the real-world applications of activities you do–how group assignments can help students learn how to work in a team towards a company goal, for instance–can mitigate the frustration some students feel about those kinds of activities, especially if you grade group efforts both on an individual and a group level, so they don’t feel their grade is suffering because of perceived lack of effort from other group members (I’ll be posting about how I handle group assessments later in this term).

      You can also meet individually with students who seem to be resistant, and to just ask them in open-ended fashion how the class is going for them. This takes the most guts and the most ego-checking, because they may say something deflating and soul-crushing, like “you’re the worst instructor I’ve ever had. All the group assignments have wrecked my grade!” and you cannot get defensive; it defeats the purpose of the meeting. You have to go into it aware that you have no control over the conversation that is about to happen, and you have to be able to open the discussion in a non-threatening, welcoming way and then sit there and take the sometimes stinging and utterly unfair criticism, understanding that this is not about you or your class; it’s about the student’s experience of your class and his or her frustration, possibly with things utterly unrelated to your course. You can explain more clearly to your student why you do things the way that you do, and ask him or her how s/he sees you supporting them to be more successful in your class (within reason) but you have to be willing also to understand that you may well not be able to do anything to make that student feel better about you or your course. On the other hand, sometimes these turn out to be amazing conversations that help you rethink your pedagogical choices, because the student has a valid complaint or bit of feedback that you hadn’t even considered when you set the class up.

      In the end, for me it always boils down to the course, the students enrolled in it, and the individual student in question. If the class seems to be going smoothly and most of the students are doing well, then I need to approach the individual or few individuals who aren’t doing well and see if there’s anything I can do to encourage or support them. If the class seems shaky overall and few students seem to be doing well, I need to think about more: is the class really structured at an appropriate level? Who are the students currently enrolled in it, and do I need to make modifications to the class based on its population? Is there something about the material or about my handling the material that is deeply off-putting for the students in the class, and if so, what is it–is the problem integral to the subject matter, or is it imposed in some way by how I’m approaching it? If I am having trouble getting a bead on the problem, I will take it to the class–just go in and lay your cards on the table: “This doesn’t seem to be working very well. Can you give me some insight into what I might do to improve the class and support your learning?” And then just listen. If what you’re hearing seems valid, then consider making changes that reflect that. In some cases, of course, it really is just a bad group dynamic and/or the perils of teaching a required class, and sometimes you just have to batten down the hatches and just get through the term–but in my experience, limited though it yet is, you can almost always do something to improve conditions.

      I’m happy to hear other people’s methods of handling the recalcitrant student–what do you do when a student doesn’t respond well to your instruction? How far can or should an instructor go to try to rectify that situation?

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