Angelo and Cross, Classroom Assessment Techniques, 1993
The enhancement of student learning is at the center of all my activities at Ferris State University. Although I have extensive training as a microbiologist, I see my role as being more analogous to that of a coach than a content expert. Each semester, I watch with some distress as students set about trying to memorize what they perceive to be the most important facts in my classes without making any rational connections between them. I tell all of my classes that microbiology is more than a mere assemblage of arcane facts with Latinized names. It is both a method for exploring the interactions within and between living systems and a way of understanding the material world in which we reside. As I see it, the only way to truly teach microbiology (and the only way that it can really be learned) is to emphasize and understand these interactions. My goal is to present the essential content for the course in such a way as to engage the students in the process of learning rather than merely rote memorization.
The type of learning that I am attempting to foster is often referred to as “active” or “deep” learning in the literature. I, however, prefer the term “effectual learning” as this implies that the learning can be used for some later purpose. To me, effectual learning is the acquisition and development of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that can later be recalled and applied to solve or evaluate potential solutions to new problems. This definition recognizes three different domains of learning: the factual material (cognitive domain), new abilities and techniques (psychomotor domain), and attitudes and beliefs (affective domain). I believe that a successful instructor best facilitates learning by providing students with opportunities to progress in all three of these domains. In addition, the cognitive domain is divided into three levels of performance: recall, application, and analysis. Recall is the recognition of isolated information that generally does not vary relative to the situation. This is the lowest level of cognitive learning and is mainly an effort of memory. Application involves the interpretation of limited data to address a problem. This requires more than simple recall, but does not involve complex problem solving in which the response or outcome is situation dependent. The final level, analysis, requires integration of a variety of concepts or elements to solve a specific problem and primarily test the evaluation of data, problem solving, or inductive reasoning. This necessitates making judgments concerning the effectiveness, appropriateness, or best course of action for a particular situation. Finding the appropriate balance of these in my teaching and assessments is a matter of continual experimentation.
Science is a dynamic process of posing difficult questions and taking intellectual risks. Hypotheses are put forward and then tested; some ideas withstand this scrutiny while others do not. I believe that the act of teaching science should be built upon the model of scientific inquiry. Each semester, I try new ways of presenting course content and assessing student learning. I then compare the outcomes to previous semesters in order to determine their effectiveness. In addition, I solicit student feedback about each new exercise. Based upon these analyses, effective materials are retained, weak materials are modified, and poor materials are eliminated. In this way, my teaching becomes an iterative cycle of innovation wherein I am attempting to optimize student learning.
Even more importantly, I believe that the act of learning science must be built upon the inquiry model. Too many of my students arrive at college with very poor learning strategies. Most students have a very atomistic view of knowledge – they want to memorize fact “A”, spit it out on an exam, and then forget it and move on to fact “B”. I want my students to recognize that learning is a process and that they all do not all proceed in the same way or at the same rate through this process. Therefore, I have intentionally designed my courses to compel my students to engage with the course materials in an iterative way. My grading system is set up to allow for different learning rates and provides opportunities for students to continue to demonstrate learning of essential concepts over the span of the semester. I also provide mechanisms to make the students more aware of the strengths and weaknesses in their learning strategies. By getting the students to think not only about what they are learning, but how they are learning it, I am putting them in position to alter and optimize their learning. I believe that, in the long run, getting our students to actively and intentionally engage in their own learning is far more important that any particular piece of content knowledge that we may help them to learn.