I’ve never really been very interested in teaching methods, pedagogy or anything like that until this past semester at Columbia Theological Seminary. But first, let me back up a bit. When I first heard that professors read manuscripted lectures at Princeton, I was so disappointed. I couldn’t believe they would teach in a way that was so un-interactive, so boring. I was not looking forward to those classes.
And then…after a few weeks of sitting through Intro to Old Testament, and then later in the year, Systematic Theology, I got used to it. In fact, I was appalled when another student would raise their hand during a lecture (especially a woman we dubbed as “Question Lady“). “This isn’t your time – put your hand down – we’re here to learn from the professor!” So I had become used to the “Princeton way” of doing things. Not that all of my classes were like this; they weren’t. We had some great discussions in some courses, but it was rather funny to see how quickly I became a supporter of these types of lectures.
So then I came to Columbia. I was excited for my classes, knowing that there were going to be smaller courses, more chances for creative teaching, more interaction in the classroom. And unfortunately, I was seriously disappointed last semester. Now, trust me that this is not indicative of the quality of academic life at Columbia – I think I just had some pretty bad classes last semester. My classes this semester are much better and Sarah has enjoyed many of her courses here. But last semester, I just had three really bad classes.
My rant has to do with small groups. It seems that, in an effort to provide more classroom interaction, the default mode for Columbia professors is to break students up into small groups: small groups to discuss in class, small groups to present things in class, small groups to work in projects, small groups to share feelings in response to readings. I had one class last semester where the professor probably gave 4-5 lectures the entire semester, and the rest of the class time was spent sitting in small groups, discussing in small groups and then having other small groups present to the class. During the last 5-10 minutes, the professor would stand up and “wrap things up.” Not that I didn’t appreciate those 5-10 minutes, but is that really what Columbia Seminary is paying this professor to do? They didn’t *really* grade our papers either, just wrote some comments. So, a quick skim of papers and 5-10 minutes per class? That doesn’t seem quite right.
It’s as if throwing students into small groups is the only alternative to teaching with a lecture. After a few classes that were excessively small group intensive, I started getting very frustrated. As nice as many of the students in my small groups were, I started to really not care what they thought. I took one certain class because I really wanted to know what the professor thought, I wanted to learn from that professor. And instead, I’m spending 80 percent of the course time listening to what Sally or David or John thinks (not real names) – and frankly, I don’t care.
Now, I don’t like to think like that – and in reality, I probably do care what my fellow students think. I like discussions that involve the whole class (although I’m more of a listener than a talker in small group discussions), which is definitely doable with the small class size here at Columbia. But to have the entire class focused on small groups and small group learning…no thanks.
In contrast to this, I’m taking Youth & Young Adult Ministry with Rodger Nishioka this semester, and he is employing many different teaching methods in his course, including small group activities. But when we get to the small group portion in his class, it doesn’t bother me. Because he lectures, we have discussions, we do other, more active ways of small group bonding and discussion…it’s the variety that helps keep us interested and focused on the material.
So…any of you out there educators? Teachers? Please tell me you are doing more than just sticking students in small groups? Is that what they are teaching now? There must be more creative teaching methods?