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May 2015, Vol. 3, No. 12
Theme: Identifying Errors in Teaching


Is Finding a Bottleneck a Bottleneck?
Teaching Tip: Teaching Professor Tips

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Is Finding a Bottleneck a Bottleneck?
By Alex Urquhart

I recently met with a faculty member who was furious about how, and I quote, "inept his students were." He went on at length about how the students just did not get the assignment and how they were "just not that bright." To say the teacher was frustrated would be an understatement.

I know this professor is not alone. I have had these moments. A few years ago I started assigning a lit-matrix, and I was met with a barrage of, what I saw as, substandard products. It frustrated me that the students "just did not seem to get it." Not a single student turned in something I thought represented graduate level work. This was especially frustrating because I believed these were some of the brightest students I had ever instructed.

This issue is also a common theme in Ms. Mentor, an advice column for faculty in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The column is written by Ms. Mentor, who is actually Emily Toth, an English professor. In her article, entitled "Can You Transcend a Bad Class?," she is responding to a professor who is dealing with a similar issue, a classroom that the instructor believes is having "behavioral problems." In it, Ms. Mentor gives a number of well proven strategies and best practices, but one line has stuck with me since I first read it. She reminds the frustrated professor that there is "One principle that should be engraved on every instructor's heart or sleeve: The only behavior we control is our own" (Mentor, 2014, para. 10).

This statement stuck with me for two reasons. First it reminds me to not take everything that happens in my classroom personally. There will always be a difficult student or two from time to time. This is the nature of human interaction. Second, but a little harder for me to admit to myself, is it reminds me that if I am having problems with a class or an assignment in my class, my actions are part of the cause as much as they are part of the solution. If an entire class is struggling with an assignment, if a professor is frustrated that the students are "not that bright," or a class is not behaving professionally, then we as professors must have the courage to reflect on what actions we have taken to cause the problems at the same time we think about what actions we can take to solve them. In other words, we must look for the bottlenecks we have created in our course designs.

At the same time, the idea that the "only behavior we control is our own" has made me think about how finding bottlenecks is a process that is itself a bottleneck. If an entire group of students just "do not get it," I may understand my actions are the cause, but identifying the culprit of that confusion is far more challenging. That’s why I find the possibilities of Dr. Middendorf’s interview methodology so fascinating. I must admit, however, I am not particularly good at “the interview” and it makes me uncomfortable. I do not like talking to my colleagues or students about something lacking in my course design. What makes me want to try it is the hope that it will make for a better class and less personal angst. This is why I am so grateful for the upcoming Teaching and Learning Series, which will provide me with an opportunity to practice finding the bottleneck to my bottleneck.

Mentor. (2014). Can you transcend a bad class? The Chronicle of Higher Education, 60(21).

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