James M. Lang, On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching (Harvard University Press, 2008).
Reviewed by Heidi Tworek, PhD Candidate, History Department
James Lang’s On Course is an accessible and wittily-written guide to all the major aspects of the first semester of teaching. Lang takes readers through their first semester week by week, from writing the class syllabus, lecturing, and leading discussions right up to the last days of class and designing and interpreting student evaluations. The major contributions of the book stem from its down-to-earth practical advice and its excellent summaries of existing literature on teaching and learning.
The most important service of Lang’s book is its immense practicality. Rather than simply advising that teachers dress as they feel appropriate on the first day of teaching, he suggests ‘safe’ outfits for men (long pants and collared shirt) and women. Similarly, he advises new lecturers to concentrate on enunciating the final words in their sentences, as we tend to run out of breath toward the end of a sentence, yet often the most important information occurs in those final words. Over and above such straightforward practical tips, Lang encourages reflection on the best means to promote student learning and engagement in the classroom. Rather than merely advocate group work for its own sake, for instance, Lang grounds his argument in the VARK Inventory statistics on different learning styles and academic work on student satisfaction. He encourages instructors to combine participation evaluation with students’ own self-assessment, and provides a sample form in the appendix. Since Lang guides readers through the entire semester, his book offers the follow-up advice that other books often lack. He not only explains how to incorporate clear learning objectives into a syllabus and how to ensure that students understand their responsibilities throughout the semester, but he also explains how to re-energize the classroom during sluggish periods by creating posters, staging mock trials, or using case studies.
While the book’s main focus is practical advice, Lang also explores more theoretical concerns. In week 7, Lang discusses two classic learning models: Jean Piaget’s constructivist theory of knowledge and William Perry’s three-stage scheme of college-level learning (the wish to discover the “truth”; relativism; and mature and reflective learning). Lang also draws from two popular classics, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips and What the Best College Teachers Do and a variety of other online sources. In combining foundational pedagogical theory with classic teaching texts, he provides a good start for thinking about educational theory.
Lang synthesizes different theoretical approaches with his own experience, and happily admits his own mistakes, such as turning up to the first day of class in navy-blue khakis that he had cut haphazardly into shorts himself. In provoking our laughter, he helps us to reflect on our own approach to clothing or presence in the classroom. While Lang is an English professor, he introduces examples from science classrooms, such as Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur’s use of the Personal Response Systems (PRS), or “clickers.” Lang suggests how instructors in both the humanities and the sciences can use PRS to measure student learning throughout the lecture as well as create an interactive atmosphere by allowing student responses to help determine the next stage of the lecture’s content. In addition to high-tech advice on using clickers or maintaining a class wiki, Lang also suggests plenty of low-tech activities, such as “inkshedding” (in-class free writing). Each chapter ends with a highly useful annotated bibliography of literature and resources; at the end of the book Lang lists his top ten resources, five of which are online.
Some of Lang’s advice is more controversial. In particular, in week 6, Lang recommends grading according to his own highly detailed point system. That he is able to illustrate how different mathematical schemes can yield different grades in itself provides evidence against purely numerical grading schemes. Nevertheless, Lang’s categories for his point scheme will certainly generate productive discussion on the challenges of grading and give first-time teachers a useful starting-point for reflecting on how to quantify student achievement.
In sum, Lang’s book is an excellent start for those dipping their toes into pedagogical literature for the first time or those seeking practical tips for their first semester of teaching. By demystifying teaching, providing practical advice and encouraging further exploration, On Course shows us the promise of mindful teaching. For a first-time teacher, this is an excellent buy.