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Teaching expert shares philosophy for learning assessment

May 06, 2008

To Tom Angelo, the university classroom is like a balcony overlooking a dance floor.

The professor spends some time on the dance floor, interacting with the students, teaching them the day’s lesson, then goes to the balcony to get an overview of how things are going.

“Really good professionals move back and forth,” says Angelo, director of the University Teaching Development Centre at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand. “That’s what they do.”

Angelo presented his philosophy for learning assessment during a recent two-hour workshop sponsored by the Center for Learning and Teaching Excellence.

“The kind of learning we want is learning that endures,” he says. “Most learning in the university does not endure beyond the course, studies show.”

Angelo is a native Californian who earned his doctoral degree in education from Harvard University. He has taught at DePaul University, the University of California-Berkeley, and other universities here and abroad. He notes that students all have preconceptions about subject matter when they walk in the classroom door.

“Overall, the most powerful indicator of what people will learn is what they already know,” he says. “All students know things that are deeply visceral, and they often come in with core beliefs that they may even not know they have. We need to learn what the students bring to the coursework.”

Angelo says teachers should ascertain where the students are as a starting point, adding: “If I don’t have baseline knowledge, I can’t assess what I have taught them.”

In his own classes, Angelo asks students what their goals are, then compares the answers with his syllabus.

“I use their goals to tailor my illustrations,” he says.

Many freshmen don’t know what their goals are, Angelo says, adding: “Just bring it down. What do they want to get out of this class?”

He advocates letting students talk among themselves about their goals to help clarify them.

Angelo says collaborative learning, though difficult to implement, is one of the most effective means of teaching.

“At least half of all students learn better when they are working with someone else,” he says. “Students can often explain things better than faculty. Some students learn by talking about it.”

Angelo also advocates building in many iterations in assignments, saying: “Let them re-write and re-do. Give feedback early in the term. Don’t write remarks on the final exams. Students won’t read them.”

During the session, Angelo demonstrated collaborative learning techniques several times by having the attendees break up into small groups to discuss questions among themselves.

He calls this the “Think-Pair-Share” technique.

“This technique provides students with the opportunity to formulate responses and practice communicating them with their peers,” he says.

“Since ‘Think-Pair-Share’ can dramatically improve students’ willingness and readiness to participate, it’s often used as a ‘warm up’ or ‘step up’ to a whole class discussion.”

Angelo, who previously was director of the American Association for Higher Education Assessment Forum, is a co-author of the classic text on assessment of student learning, “Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers.”