How do you teach the syllabus and teach the students, when they might be pulling you in two different directions?
I don’t have a comprehensive answer to this question, and to be honest, I’m not confident that anyone else really does either.
But here are two elements that I think work together to connect the students and the course objectives.
Feedback has been on my mind a lot lately (formative assessment, student panel, exit tickets, being tuned into student stress levels, and coming up: surveys on Week 4). I think that it’s often given lip service, but not as often treated in practice as the lifeblood of an effective classroom.
If we think of teaching a class with a syllabus as building a bridge between the students and the content, we can most effectively bridge that gap if we know the landscape of both sides as well as possible. The teacher is ideally already a master of the content, but I think especially in a community college setting, this isn’t enough. We have to build the bridge out to where the students are, not to where we imagine them to be.
The way to do this is to check again and again on where they are, how they’re doing, what their strengths are, and what they’re struggling with.
It comes down to asking, and to listening.
To be clear, “listening” doesn’t mean making the classes ridiculously easy. Listening means knowing what student needs are and taking some sort of action on that, be it simply reporting back to the department that the course is universally overwhelming, or referring struggling students to the tutoring center as early in the semester as possible, or conducting more activities that reach kinesthetic learners, or clarifying assignment instructions.
Examples of Desired End Products
I’ve noticed that a lot of language instruction, not just ESOL but also my own experience with Russian, is very bottom-up.
The idea with bottom-up instruction is that the pieces of language (nouns, prepositions, grammatical patterns) are learned and then assembled. It’s a bit like building a book shelf: acquire your boards, cut them to size, pre-drill holes for the screws you’ve gathered, and then all of those pieces get put together into a book shelf. (You can tell I’m not much of a woodworker, eh?)
But the thing is, you know what a bookshelf is, and that knowledge is top-down. You know what it looks like, what it does, and have some idea that if the shelves are not parallel to the floor or strongly supported, there are going to be major functional issues. You’ve used bookshelves before – you’re just building another iteration.
The students are bridging themselves to the assigned material, and top-down support helps them see what they’re aiming for.
When top-down processes are missing, it’s a bit like telling students they’re going to be building a snyrfhute. So when you start leading them through the process of collecting the necessary materials, they don’t really have a framework for understanding what all the bits are for or what the finished snyrfhute will look like or be used for. They can still build a snyrfhute with your guidance, but most are not going to have the same success that they’d have with a known end-product.
Top-down learning is not enough by itself either – just knowing what a bookshelf looks like does not give me the skills to make one.
We really need both.
Consider that we teach students how to use Present Perfect in speech and writing, but many ELLs are unable to hear Present Perfect as it’s used in everyday speech… so they don’t hear it in real use. Without help hearing Present Perfect in real speech, the top-down is typically missing and they’re just blindly conjugating for reasons unknown.
Consider that we typically teach students about MLA formatting when they have literally never read a journal article before. We get extremely specific and high-stakes about in-text citations while most of our students cannot relate to the conditions that in-text citations arose from: a pre-hyperlink world. Without examples of journal articles or successful assignments from previous semesters, we aren’t supporting their top-down process.
Meeting In The Middle
Feedback informs the direction of our teaching. It makes sure that our bridge-building connects our content to where our students actually are.
Using examples of end-products keeps students informed on the direction of their learning. They know where they’re aiming for and can use that knowledge to think critically, self-correct, and seek assistance. If they make a mistake, they’ll know their bookshelf doesn’t look right, but how could they know that about their snyrfhute?
Do you agree that there’s a great potential for synergy of purpose when a course has both adequate feedback (we know where they are, so we can reach toward them) and adequate top-down support (they know where we want them to get, so they can reach toward it)?
What else do you see as crucial toward striking a balance in a syllabus-led course?