by Veronica Herrera, Political Science
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2007
Teaching Issue: When teaching a reading-heavy and theoretically rigorous course on Latin American politics in the fall of 2006, I noticed several unique teaching issues. First, no one particular section format created uniform response across all students in both sections. Some students liked creative section formats, others wanted straight lecture or presentation; some enjoyed interactive group work, others preferred GSI-facilitated discussion. Second, although students seemed to keep up with the workload and come to class reasonably prepared, because section was always structured for them eager students did not get a chance to express their own creativity or analytical thinking by influencing the way section should be run. Finally, I thought that many of these students would go on to teach, facilitate presentations in future careers, give public speeches, or otherwise coordinate and instruct a group of colleagues, students, etc. The way sections were commonly taught did not allow for them to be constructors of the material in order to prepare for such a career, but rather the students were often passive digesters.
Lesson Plan Assignment: Choosing a week in which the readings were general, accessible, and broadly applicable, I devised an assignment that asked students to devise a written lesson plan describing how they would teach an hour-and-a-half section on that week’s readings and two lectures. I handed out a detailed and specific two-page handout describing the terms of the assignment. First, the handout detailed the readings and lecture themes from which they could select two or three themes (all under the same week’s readings, entitled “Political Change”). Second, I provided four “format options,” which included interactive group work, mini-lecture, group discussion, or make-your-own format. Under each option, I described various examples of what they might do, for example: “Group discussion: Will you facilitate group discussion with the use of pre-prepared discussion questions? Will you have sent out reading questions beforehand? If you choose this option, your lesson plan should consist of a series of discussion questions, anticipated answers, any relevant follow-up questions, and how much time you will spend on each question.” The assignment required a detailed written itinerary, with time allotments, of each portion of the lesson plan, a written introduction and conclusion that they would verbally present to class explaining the activity, and concluding with themes and major arguments addressed. Any charts, diagrams, discussion questions, and teaching aids used should also be included. They should consider feasibility, originality, and appropriateness of lesson plan when devising the activity. Finally, the assignment was a mandatory one due the next week in class, but extra credit would be awarded to assignments that showed unusual creativity and effort on the part of the student.
Assessing Outcome: Although I was hesitant about the assignment — worrying it was too difficult — I was delighted with my students’ response. Students turned in a wide array of creative, elaborate, color-coded, interactive, thoughtful assignments. The level of creativity was astonishing; they came up with presentations, games, and frameworks I never would have thought of. Importantly, I was able to adopt many of their ideas into my own lesson plans and adapt the tone and style according to their suggestions. Looking at the time allotments, content, and level of dynamism, I was able to see which students preferred which kinds of assignments. They were able to think through questions they would ask of each other, how to frame them, how to think about time allotments, timing, discussion facilitation, and other pedagogical issues they had probably never considered. I noticed that they had a new-found appreciation for GSIs and section design: “It’s not as easy as it looks after all,” they joked. Additionally, that week’s section where these themes were covered was by far the best section of the semester; students were active, engaged, and really excited about the material. It was clear that they understood it from a richer perspective after having had to think about how to teach the material. In the future, I would take this assignment a step further and allot time for students to actually present their lesson plan to the class. Overall, it was a very effective and popular assignment.