January 5, 2009

New Year Resolutions

When learning a new skill, a good technique is to focus on just one aspect of the task at a time. I used to play piano and trumpet. When learning new songs, I would use this technique a lot, focusing only on the dynamics for a while, then just on the rhythm, then just on my fingering. I'd get really good at that one thing I was focusing on. This helped me later when I played the entire piece as a whole.

This can be an effective teaching method, and I've used it a few times with my students. Well, now I'm learning a new skill: teaching. Teaching is a highly complex task with lots of components. This year, I've talked about many of those components – how I've struggled with them and how I plan to improve.

For the rest of the year, I've decided to use this technique for my own teaching. I'm going to focus on just one area and make a concerted effort to improve in it. My goal for the rest of the school year is to focus heavily on increasing student engagement.

Student engagement is defined as the amount of time students are actively participating in a learning activity. This definition is independent of teaching method – it could include time students spend actively listening to a lecture, participating in cooperative groups, working on projects, making presentations, writing papers, conducting research, or any other method, as long as what the students are doing actually contributes to learning.

Research has shown that the number one predictor of student achievement, above anything else, is student engagement. This trumps socioeconomic status, the classroom environment, and even teacher effectiveness. Regardless of all other factors, the more time students spend actively engaged in a learning activity, the higher their achievement is. We have empirical data to support this, but it makes a lot of intuitive sense as well. That's why I've chosen to focus on this particular area.

The second reason I've decided to focus on student engagement is that I know it's an area where I can definitely improve. With respect to student engagement, I think I actually did better during my student teaching than I'm doing this year. Here's why I'm having trouble with it. Some of the classes I teach are lab classes, where students have individual work time on the computers. This is great student engagement. What happens, though, is that some students finish faster than others and sit idle while the slower students try to catch up. The slower students require the entire class period, so they're engaged 100% of the time. That's good. But the advanced students only need half of the time, so they're only engaged 50% of the time. Some of my teacher preparation courses at the University dealt with this issue: how to create differentiated instruction for students with individual differences. We spent some time talking specifically about gifted and talented students. That would be the subject for another article entirely, so I won't go into it here. Creating good individualized instruction requires more work and more time for the teacher, but keeping that student engagement number up is well worth it.

The third reason I'm focusing on student engagement is because of what's happening in my non-lab courses. Computer projects are not part of these classes. These classes use more traditional methods such as lecture, cooperative learning, debates, reading, writing, and written tests. The problem is that these classes are taught in the computer lab, and the computers provide a big distraction for the students. Some days, the students are more engaged with the computers than they are with my class. I keep an informal atmosphere in these classes but I'm afraid some students have misconstrued that as a ticket to be lazy. My plan of attack in these classes is twofold: first, create relevant and rigorous lessons that are more engaging than their computers; and second, create a more work-oriented atmosphere in the classroom.

This goal is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time bound.

Specific: Student engagement will increase in my classes. This is the amount of time students spend actively engaged in a learning activity.

Measurable: I will measure this by observing how much time students spend on learning tasks. Throughout the remaining weeks of the school year, time on learning tasks will go up and time on non-learning tasks will go down for all students.

Achievable: This goal can be achieved by implementing specific, time-tested policies such as those I've mentioned above.

Realistic: In my own classes, I've observed student behavior vary widely from day to day in response to specific techniques I've employed. Therefore, I know it's possible for me as a teacher to create conditions and lessons which promote student engagement.

Time Bound: There will be good weeks and bad weeks, but generally, student engagement will be higher during the second half of the school year than it was before today.

This article was originally written during my first year teaching experience.

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