Saturday, March 24, 2012

Classroom Assessment, Management and Setting Goals

Teaching does not happen in a vacuum, and a teacher cannot teach without students. And students, unless forced, would not seek out a teacher, unless they thought there was something that they could gain from that teacher that they could not gain from actions that they could take without using that teacher. Therefore it’s important to work to achieve a partnership between teacher and students where goals are met.

            Teaching is not something you can just talk about or plan or study and then have it take place. It must be done and it must be done through interactions with other people. And these interactions should follow a well-thought out procedure.


            First, you must assess needs and desires of the students, expectations of both the students and those managing or administrating the course, and then assess time allotted for the course and available classroom and external resources. A good teacher then assesses the possible way these things fit together and makes decisions concerning how he or she can best use the resources available, within the time and administrative framework that exists, to best produce a situation where the students can achieve as many of their desired goals and make as many of their needs met as possible.

           At this step in the process, the teacher is like a manager or a director or even, if I can allow myself a military metaphor, a commanding officer. He or she must take the responsibility of assessing resources and setting realistic goals to produce the most benefit for those connected with the course, both administrators and students. Of course, he or she should consider consulting with others, as necessary, during this process, but ultimately the teacher must take and show responsibility during this part of the process. Students can be consulted during this part of the process, under special conditions, but usually will not be.
There are several reasons why not, prominent being that course design normally takes place prior to recruitment of students.

          Second, goals and expectations of the course are stated and set forth before the students as soon as possible. This should be done on the first day of the class, perhaps even earlier if realistically feasible, and in the syllabus and through lecture and as often as is necessary. Students should be encouraged to seek out the teacher if they do not understand or agree with the goals and expectations of the course or feel that they do not fit them personally. When that happens the teacher should listen as dispassionately as possible and address the issue, perhaps by assigning the student extra or alternate assignments to help them meet their own needs, perhaps by referring them to an alternate class, or perhaps, in rare cases, even by modifying the course itself should it become obvious that the course will not meet the needs of the majority of students.

         In some situations, quite honestly, students will have personal goals for the course that do not fit those of the teacher or administrators. For instance, many students wish to get an A or as high a grade as possible with as little work as possible and have no real concern about learning the course content. I have taught EFL as a required elective and this was the case with a sizable minority of my students. Some students do not value classes but for reasons that are generally outside the teacher's control, take them anyway. In such cases, I feel, it is especially important to make it very clear as to not only what the expectations are, but that they will be enforced. And then, if the sad event should take place that students not meet these expectations, one must say “But you were told. Did you not understand?” and the pre-stated policies put into place. It is important in such cases that the teacher's expectations and stated goals be kept sensible, logical and non-controversial. (i.e. It is perfectly reasonable to expect class participation and attendance in a class where students are expected to develop their English through classroom practice and conversation practice in the classroom.)

          If the goals and expectations are clearly stated, and the results of students' efforts to meet those goals uniformly evaluated, then it reduces not only the possibility of charges of favoritism (which has not been a problem for me at Fudan) but requests for favoritism. (which, by contrast, is a constant problem at Fudan.)

         Although I take no joy in causing students pain or suffering, I have failed several students for not meeting clearly stated expectations (2 out of 117 in my last semester, for instance) and punished others for cheating and acts of plagiarism by lowering their grades after clearly stating I would do so. I wish to say that it is my belief that learning and personal growth often takes place through the enforcement of rules and even through failure. I say this as someone who once failed out of a high level emergency medical technician class I desperately wished to pass. It was the most effective lesson I have ever received in time management in my life, and I have never forgotten it and doubt if I ever will. This failure had a very positive effect in preparing me for graduate school later.

          Therefore I believe that setting and making clear the goals and expectations of a course, and then enforcing those goals and expectations is a very important part of fair and effective teaching.

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