Know Your Teaching Patterns: Sometimes Simple Changes Have the Biggest Impact

January 20, 2015

Pattern shifting is the active pursuit of uncovering new purposes and potentialities for engaging students in learning. A very simple re-ordering can reveal relatively easy methods to teach more from your strengths and more actively engage students in the class.

 There are patterns everywhere, and one need not look far to find them in nature, science, literature, or art. Those patterns often serve as foundations of understanding upon which our disciplines are built. The rhetorician uncovers patterns of argument to analyze means of persuasion and their function. The economist uncovers the patterns of production and distribution of resources, goods, and services to interpret and forecast market trends. The astronomer uncovers patterns of planets, stars and galaxies to understand the physical processes at play. The ecologist uncovers patterns of species distributions and interactions with the environment to understand and predict impact of global change on ecosystems.

While the patterns themselves vary widely across the disciplines, and across campus, the one common denominator for us all is that we teach. In some capacity, we are all educators.

The educator uncovers patterns of teaching and student experience to affect changes that promote increased student learning.

If you are exploring ways to adjust your teaching to refresh a tired course or teach more from your strengths, and ultimately improve student learning, start by deciphering your teaching pattern/s so that you can simply modify it to illuminate new pedagogical possibilities. So, how does one do this? In just 5 steps:

  1. Identify the different pedagogical approaches you use in a class. Lecture. Discussion. Demonstrations. Debates. Case Studies. Small Group Work. Problem Solving. Etc.
  2. Script out a lesson plan for several upcoming class sessions, and see what patterns of pedagogical practice emerge. For example:
  • Lecture – Demo; Lecture – Demo.
  • Q&A – Discussion – Lecture.
  • Homework Review in Small Groups – Mini-Lecture – Case Study – Problem Sets in Small Groups.

The combinations are endless, but important to decipher. The patterns may emerge within a class session, or across several sessions. Either way, the patterns will provide insight into “how” the pedagogies are used.

  1. Decipher the underlying pedagogical purpose of each aspect of the scripted lessons. In the context of teaching, patterns reveal purpose. For example:
  • Lecture – Demo; Lecture – Demo. In this pattern, the lecture is likely used to introduce a new topic or concept and lay out its principles and/or processes, since it comes first. The demonstration is meant to illustrate any phenomena, processes, or principles explained in the lecture, since it follows the introductory lecture.

In this example, these are viable pedagogical purposes and can be effectively utilized in a class. However, this order and purpose can also create conditions that limit obvious opportunities for student engagement and active learning. If you are looking to increase student engagement, try to …

  1. Shift the order of the existing patterns. Shifting the order almost always shifts the purpose. This process can reveal alternative ways to engage students in the learning experience. For example:
  • By simply re-ordering and re-distributing the pattern from Lecture – Demo; Lecture – Demo to Demo – Lecture – Demo, new purposes and pedagogical practices emerge. By placing a demonstration first, it could be used to arouse student curiosity and interest in the topic at hand. Students could be asked to pose questions about the demonstration – its principles and/or processes. They could be asked to hypothesize why something is happening, or not happening. Or, they could be asked to predict what will happen. Then, the lecture (which was likely abstract previously) serves to convey that same abstract concept, but is now grounded in a concrete example from the demonstration. It gives students greater access points to the lecture topic and a stronger foundation on which to ask good questions. The lecture could be made more interactive by asking students to explain abstract concepts in concrete terms through reference to the demonstration. Finally, the demonstration could be done again after the lecture, but now students could use the concepts or the derivations explained during the lecture to predict what will happen if certain variables are altered as part of the demonstration, actually apply it to the demonstration and explain why it works the way it does, or circle back to the initial demonstration and ask if any predictions change and why.

At the core of any pattern shifting is the active pursuit of uncovering new purposes and potentialities for engaging students in learning that may not rely on wholesale change or radically altering your pedagogy. In fact, a very simple re-ordering can reveal relatively easy methods to teach more from your strengths (“I’m at my best as a teacher when I’m reading and reacting to students in real-time through dialogue.” vs. “I’m at my best as a teacher when I’m able to plan out an intricate lecture on a complex topic, and do more active student interaction and feedback via assignments.”) and more actively engage students in the class (regardless of size).

  1. Reflect on the experience of pattern shifting within your lesson plans and use of pedagogical approaches. Consider how the purposes changed, how the shift impacted your teaching and opportunities you saw to engage students, how you were able to better align your in-class pedagogy with your teaching strengths, and what still needs attention and refinement. By shifting the order of teaching and learning activities in a class, you necessarily shift the student experience to enable promotion of student learning in new ways.