Let’s Get Intense! (On the road again for intensive teaching)

I’m sitting in Singapore as I write this, preparing for a weekend of intensive teaching. Our intensively delivered courses span months, as does a normal course, but features a combination of in-person and on-line instruction. The in-person segment is two weekends, over a month apart, where I go through half of the course with the students. We work 3 hours on Friday night, 6 hours on Saturday and 7 on Sunday. In between that time, we use electronic fora, assignments and, recently, tools like Piazza to keep the community together.

Intensive mode teaching presents some challenges, of course, but it does have its benefits. Yes, having students together for such an intense session does require you to structure your material well, but you can rely upon entire concepts being framed (primed) for students without the intervening week of ‘the rest of their lives’ abrading the principles. Then again, cognitive elastic being what it is, sometimes it needs to get stretched and relaxed in order to allow people to pick up a principle.

My guidelines for intensives are pretty straightforward and, as I prepare myself for teaching, I like to review them so I’ll share them with you here. The last time I was in Singapore, I talked about some specific teaching practices, these are more pleasantly wooly.

  1. Concepts shouldn’t span intensive weekend sessions. Pretty sensible here, try and keep the concepts in one day if possible. Yes, development over time is good, but we’re going to try and develop with minimal revision and then use priming and follow-up to address the other issues.
  2. Prime students for later work through questions, activities and assignments. Thinking time is not at a premium here, neither is digesting time, which brings us to…
  3. Follow-up on knowledge development with questions, activities and assignments. Teach it, ask for it, evaluate it, refine it, encourage knowledge.
  4. Break up your activities. Whatever the activity, don’t do it for more than a few sessions in a row. People get fatigued, then disengage, then get bored.
  5. Avoid passive lecturing. Wherever possible, involve the student. Get them to sketch their own answer, talk about them and tie it back to the core material. In the intensive I have already handed out all of the lecture notes – I have a record to refer to.
  6. Build on interesting questions to drive learning. Posit examples, get the class discussing (even gentle arguing) about the examples and force a need for them to get more knowledge.
  7. Shape their mental models through constant review of their in-class and on-line content. Correct, suggest, reinforce, reward. Operant conditioning is a powerful tool and it can be just as effective in an on-line setting.
  8. Follow-up in person if possible. Electronic communication can be cold and easy to misinterpret. If you can, set aside time to sit down to discuss problems that were raised between intensives to solve these ‘backwards and forwards’ e-mail or forum loops.
  9. Be active in whatever on-line spaces you provide. When you answer, people will ask more. The students should feel confident that you will answer and respond.
  10. Set aside some time each day to handle this class as if you had a physical lecture or consulting time with them every week. By making time to think about their work, their progression and their participation, you’ll make it easier to do all of the above.

I try to do all of this and I can be more or less successful but I know that the more of these I tick off, the better the experience for my students, so these as a set are always my goal.



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