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Tools for Teaching

By Barbara Gross Davis
Jossey-Bass ( www.josseybass.com )
464 pages
ISBN: 1-55542-568-2

Reviewed by

Lawrence Herringer

California State University, Chico

Teaching: you love it, you hate it, and you have to do it. If you are CSU faculty, teaching is your primary assignment and your most available source of career esteem. You wear many hats as a faculty member, but your "teacher" hat is clearly the most conspicuous, the most self-internalized, and the one for which you are the most accountable. Teaching is a familiar daily reality, brimming with rewards, fraught with frustrations. Some faculty struggle at the complex juggling act that is college teaching, many faculty thrive at it, but all could benefit from simple, direct information about "how" to deliver a college course. Even seasoned faculty have questions about the merits of various teaching techniques or the available options for course activities.

Most faculty have been informally encouraged by their peers and superiors in the art of teaching but were not given a "handbook" to fall back on. Most of us do not have a simple compendium of "tools" for improving and gaining greater satisfaction from our teaching. Tools for Teaching by Barbara Davis is just such an easily accessible resource for all college instructors. It is a bit daunting at 429 pages, but it is extremely well written, carefully organized into sections and chapters, and thoroughly indexed by subject and name. Every CSU faculty would benefit from a personal copy of this book at the beginning of his or her teaching career. If I had this book when I began teaching in 1987, it would have answered many questions, increased my self-confidence as a beginning teacher, and allayed my anxiety about full-time teaching. After reading it now, I found that it provided answers to some questions about teaching that I continued to have and showed me some real, useable alternatives for my courses that I had never thought of. This book, as the author maintains in the preface, can benefit college faculty at all levels: beginners, experienced professors who have hit their strides, and senior faculty looking to renew their teaching.

This book is not a magic wand for teaching problems, nor a list of shortcuts or "tricks" to get around good teaching. If you are looking for that, forget this book. If you do care about your teaching and invest time and energy in your courses to make them successful, then you will use this book. In her preface, Davis identifies elements of teaching that promote academic achievement: "organizing and explaining material in ways appropriate to students' abilities; creating an environment for learning; helping students become autonomous, self-regulated learners; reflecting on and evaluating one's teaching" (p. xix-xx). These are hardly unexpected, yet are easily taken for granted. You may find that, rather than gain many new techniques or approaches to teaching, instead you get confirmation of the good teaching practices you already use. This itself can be a valuable gain, especially to new faculty.

Davis notes at the beginning that the aim of her book is "to encourage faculty to become more aware of how they teach and how they might teach more effectively, and to provide them with the tools for doing so" (p. xiii). She notes that the book assumes that the reader cares about teaching, cares about students, wants to learn strategies to improve and streamline his or her teaching, and is too busy to read through extensive literature, needing instead the gist and basic information to adapt and extend as appropriate. Stressing that Tools for Teaching is not a book of essays, case studies, or discussions of philosophy or theory, she explains, "The book consists of forty-nine tools organized into twelve sections that represent, in roughly chronological sequence, the key teaching responsibilities and activities of college instructors." (p. xv). I see these twelve sections as having four themes: Planning and Beginning a Course (beginning a course, student diversity); Instructional Strategies (discussion, lecture, and collaborative learning strategies); Course Delivery Issues (student motivation, writing, homework, testing, grading, technology); and Professional Issues (evaluating your teaching, mentoring and office time, finishing a course). There are multiple, brief chapters in each section (e.g., four chapters on exams), and each chapter begins with "general strategies." Chapter Eight, "Leading a Discussion," has these divisions: general strategies, setting the context for discussion, starting a discussion, guiding the discussion, evaluating the discussion, and references.

Within a chapter, Davis presents each idea in its own succinct paragraph, with an overview sentence in bold and a reference. For example, in Chapter 26, "Evaluating Student's Written Work," one suggestion is "Resist the temptation to assign split grades (one for content, one for writing). Split grades tend to reinforce the false notion that content can be divorced from the clarity and precision with which the ideas are expressed (Source: Tollefson, 1988)." (Davis, 1993, p. 224). This concise presentation allows the reader to choose specific ideas easily. You do not have to commit to hours of reading many pages to acquire whatever particular tools you need. You even can view some of the book material online or link to the publisher at Davis's Tools for Teaching Web page, and you can find general information about teaching at Barbara Davis's personal Web page.

Tools for Teaching begins with chapters about preparing a syllabus, the first day of class, and accommodating student diversity. New faculty will find the syllabus and course planning chapters especially helpful. Experienced faculty will appreciate the reasoned, sensible emphasis on things like identifying constraints on the course, keeping the syllabus flexible, using course goals to dictate structure, and managing student attendance, make-ups, and late work. Her chapters on student diversity can be overwhelming if you try to accommodate all of the various needs and differences in learning style, disabilities, race, ethnicity, gender, and re-entry populations, while also attending to the myriad content, delivery, and course structure issues. However, her discussion is generally even-handed, and these chapters provide information to smooth the task of teaching diverse student populations. The portrayal of the difficulties in teaching college courses today is somewhat dated. The book underemphasizes the biggest problems in college teaching today: decreased student preparation for courses; decreased student investment in their coursework, over extracurricular activities; increased institutional emphasis on outcome assessment activities; and increased "marketplace" competition of universities for student FTEs as fiscal commodities.

However, the thirteen chapters (three sections) on instructional strategies are especially helpful and thorough. If you have questions about lecturing, leading discussions, or using case studies or group work, you will find a wealth of well-organized answers here. I found useful information about options in presenting lecture material, student attention issues, and ways to incorporate collaborative learning assignments. Her chapter on fieldwork provides clear guidelines for internship programs, as well as for less ambitious field assignments.

The chapters on student motivation, writing, and homework are clear and thorough but assume the luxury of plenty of class time to deliver the course. Suggestions in these chapters tend to emphasize activities in addition to your regular activities, often involving class time. In my experience, faculty are often hard-pressed to cover even the essentials in the allotted class time. Her chapters on testing and grading are absolutely first-rate, providing grading guidelines and rubrics, comparisons of testing practices, and suggestions for writing test items of all kinds. Testing and grading tend to be two of the more contentious areas of teaching a course, and I found myself reading these chapters with particular interest. Chapter 34 (Preventing Academic Dishonesty) is very interesting, and underscores the complex nature of this issue. Davis even includes a discussion of "fraudulent excuses" of students for missing class, exams, and assignments. Out of probably two hundred suggestions in these chapters, I only found myself disagreeing with one-her proposal to make the first exam relatively easy. While material is easier in the beginning of a course, my own experience is that deliberately making the first exam "easy" can produce overconfidence in students, which may lead to dissatisfaction later, when material becomes more difficult.

The technology chapters are probably the least useful, only because of the changes since 1993 and the widespread promotion of faculty competence in technology in universities today. In contrast, in the final sections dealing with professional issues, the chapters on self-evaluation are excellent. Chapter 43, "Self-Evaluation and the Teaching Dossier" is a jewel of a tool to have available when writing about your courses and teaching for a personnel review. Davis's suggestions for "fast feedback" and course assessments of student learning are useful and compatible with the current emphasis on assessment of student outcomes.

In sum, Tools for Teaching by Barbara Davis is an excellent resource for college faculty, well worth having and using. Remember, however, that no methods of course delivery, good practice, or assignment structure will supercede the need to know your own subject, and be able to explain it effectively. Particularly if you teach quantitative material or difficult concepts, the most important thing about good teaching is clear and effective examples that work for your subject. Davis herself says as much in the preface. Remember also, as Davis notes, that you cannot use all the suggestions. No college course could accommodate them all, and no college professor could devote the time necessary, at the exclusion of their other responsibilities. Given these cautions, however, this book offers benefits for every college teacher: some tools to make teaching better and more satisfying.

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Posted August 27, 2001