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Who's Improving?

I've taught three classes in which I never changed the content of the course and I only changed the teaching approach by very little. They were my advanced writing class at the University of Wisconsin in La Crosse and both methodology courses at Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul. In all three classes, I noticed a marked improvement in the students semester after semester. Either the students were getting better or I was improving.

I taught the same material in relatively the same manner in Seoul for 3 years, which is 6 different terms. In La Crosse, I did the same for 4 semesters. However my feelings about the outcome were different for each case.

Seeing better results from my students from term to term in Korea was rewarding. This meant I didn't have to spend as much time explaining certain vocabulary and concepts as I did in previous terms. The students' English levels weren't necessarily higher, but it seemed that their understanding of the content (TESOL methodology) was. The objectives of the methodology courses were always met at the end, but during the last few terms it seemed that students didn't have to struggle as hard to develop sample lesson plans and get good scores on exams. However nobody ever told me that the courses were too easy.

Seeing better results from my students from semester to semester in La Crosse was frustrating. Every semester it seemed that students would reach my course objectives earlier by a month. For the semester that just finished, I believed that 90% of the students reached the objectives by the mid-term. I was told that students' abilities waver from semester to semester, but for this course it didn't seem true. They just got better and better. Nobody told me that my course was too easy, but a few student's attitudes and body language indicated so.

I had to think back to the first semester of teaching the same class. I used the same book and I taught in nearly the same way. The biggest difference was the conferencing (peer editing) stage of the writing process. Outside conferencing, I noticed that the majority of students had a difficult time understanding how to construct a 5-paragraph essay until the very end of class. This was not so in subsequent classes. Every semester, students would understand how to construct a 5-paragraph essay sooner and sooner.

I have talked with instructors who teach at around the same level as my essay writing class, and most of them have also noticed marked improvement in the majority of students during the last 3-4 semesters. Perhaps it is the students who are improving. If this is truly so, then the next semester should be made to be more challenging.

But then I think back to my experience in Seoul. The content I taught was more challenging, and I taught the subject with greater ease from term to term. I was also able to answer questions with less ambiguity and more confidence. In this case, I believe it was me who was improving, but I can't rule out the students.

I believe this kind of exercise is useful in the development of an instructor. If you feel that the course objectives are being met quicker, don't be too quick to take credit for improved instructor and also don't be too quick to believe that you had a wonderful batch of students that semester. Take time to think it over, so the right adjustments (if any) can be made for the next time you teach the course.

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