Award Winning Teaching: Learning and Teaching from the Outside In

Academic writing, specifically textbooks and journals, are written much differently than most other forms.  Those other forms usually have a beginning, middle, and end.  The reader must start at the beginning to have any idea what the ending means.  In other words, the ending will be nonsense or confusing if the reader didn’t follow the writing in a linear fashion from the start.  For an academic piece, the beginning and end are usually similar.  Consider a journal article.  Unlike a good mystery or romance novel, the abstract and introduction typically give the whole story away.  The author tells you everything up front, conducts the analysis, then summarizes at the end.

Undergraduate students typically don’t recognize this writing style.  They are used to opening a book then progressing from page one until the end (or until they are told to stop).  They are sometimes confused when an instructor skips a chapter or proceeds in an order that is different than the table of contents.  I inform my students of this different writing and reading style on my syllabus with the following instructions.  In order to maximize your comprehension about a chapter, follow this procedure:  read the chapter “outside in.”  By that, I mean read the introductory paragraphs then the last few paragraphs of the chapter first.  These will provide the major themes and topics to be covered.  Then read the definitions in the margins.  This will provide you with the terms that will be used.  Then read the chapter paragraphs in order from the beginning.  They are also encouraged to not read the entire chapter at one time.  That can be intimidating and lower their confidence to comprehend the new ideas.  I tell them to read the chapter in the same way they eat a cheeseburger- one bite at a time.

I recently re-evaluated all my classes with a similar philosophy.  I now write my comprehensive final exam first, carefully considering which topics and concepts I want my students to master.  This should be the pinnacle of their knowledge success and everything before it should lead them to that mastery.  I then work backwards to my midterm exams and assignments to ensure they preview and prepare students for the final.  My content presentations are designed to address each topic and concept.  I end at the syllabus where I specifically state learning objectives that provide a clear map to the final exam.

In some sense, this is “teaching to the test,” but I think of it differently.  I write my final exam with this question in mind:  “What do I REALLY want my students to know when they’re finished with the course?”  If I REALLY want them to know a formula, I’d better state it as a learning objective, talk about it in class, provide an example during my presentation, ask them to use it on a homework assignment, provide a question about it on the midterm, then ask another question about it on the final exam.  No student should ever leave a final exam saying “I didn’t know that concept was going to be on the exam!”  Surprises are for mystery and romance novels, not for college final exams.

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