Small Changes That Can Make a Big Difference in Teaching

For many of us this time of year marks the beginning of a new semester. Even if your classes have already started up, it’s not too late to consider some tips for improving the teaching and learning experience in your classroom. James M. Lang, professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, has written two articles in a proposed series for The Chronicle of Higher Education “…making the argument in this space that small changes to our teaching — in things like course design, classroom practices, and communication with students — can have a powerful impact on student learning.”

Students given presentation to a class.

CC Photo by Creative Services: http://spirit.gmu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/student-presentation-ncc.jpg

In the first article, Small Changes in Teaching: The Minutes Before Class: 3 simple ways you can set up the day’s learning before the metaphorical bell rings [CHE November 15, 2015], Lang states that “The more time I spend with students in that brief space before the start of class, the more I recognize that those warm-up minutes actually represent a fertile opportunity.” He recommends chatting briefly with students as they come into the classroom. By informally rotating through the roster of students, the instructor can create connections. The results can be striking—a more positive classroom climate, increased participation in discussions, better evaluations from the students at the end of the course were cited.

Land’s second recommendation is to “display the framework” meaning that helping students to organize the content they are about to engage in improves their understanding and learning. The approach can be as simple as using the board to write an outline of your lecture or list of discussion topics. Connections that are clear to you, may not be to your students. Creating this kind of agenda helps students see what is important and how topics are connected.

Third, Lang exhorts instructors to “create wonder.” He uses an example of an astronomy professor who before the start of each class puts up an image from the cosmos and asks two questions: “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” Using material related to your course content to stimulate informal discussion at the start of class can “can activate students’ prior knowledge, helping them form connections with what they already know. It also offers both the instructor and the students the opportunity to discuss how the images connect to previous course material.” As well, students see your excitement about the course content.

In the second article, Small Changes in Teaching: The First 5 Minutes of Class: 4 quick ways to shift students’ attention from life’s distractions to your course content [CHE January 11, 2016], Lang argues that “[t]he opening five minutes offer us a rich opportunity to capture the attention of students and prepare them for learning.” Students come into the classroom distracted and using the opening few minutes for logistics—taking attendance, making announcements—may not be the most effective strategy. Instead, Lang suggest opening class with a question or two, the answers to which will be uncovered during class. At the end of class, return to the questions so that your students can now formulate potential answers. This exercise allows students to see a purpose to the class session.

Another idea is to review what was covered in the previous class. Lang proposes that “… instead of offering a capsule review to students, why not ask them to offer one back to you?” He points out that learning researchers have shown that quizzing students works not only as an assessment of student learning but promotes it.

Not only will you want to review what you have taught, but you should “reactivate what [students] have learned in previous courses.” By asking students what they already know, you can help them make connections to the material in your course, and you can fill in gaps and correct misunderstandings.

Lang states that all of these activities will benefit from having students write down their individual responses before sharing with the class. “That way, every student has the opportunity to answer the question, practice memory retrieval from the previous session, or surface their prior knowledge — and not just the students most likely to raise their hands in class.” He advocates for “frequent, low-stakes writing assignments” to encourage student engagement.

All of these suggestions are low-barrier, easy to implement strategies. You don’t have to use all of them at once. Pick one or two and see how they work. I am looking forward to Lang’s next article in the series and to his new book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, which will be published in March of 2016. 

*********************************************************************************************************

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: CC Photo by Creative Services: http://spirit.gmu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/student-presentation-ncc.jpg

“A Lecture from the Lectured”: What students have to say

View of a large university lecture in progress. Seen from the back of the lecture hall.Back in October 2015, I wrote two posts about the tradition of the lecture format and where various faculty stand on its value in 21st century teaching: Where goes the Lecture? and Where Goes the Lecture, Reprise. The second post reviewed an article by Molly Worthen, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, who wrote an op-ed piece, Lecture Me. Really. Worthen came out in favor of the traditional lecture, especially for humanities courses. Rebecca Schuman, who writes as an education columnist for Slate, refuted Worthen’s position with Professors Shouldn’t Teach to Younger Versions of Themselves. But, there was an important voice missing from the debate—that of the students.

In A Lecture From the Lectured [Vitae, The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 4, 2016], John Barone, Cassandra Chaplinsky, Taylor Ehnle, John Heaney, Riley Jackson, Zoe Kaler, Rachael Kossy, Benjamin Lane, Thomas Lawrence, Jessica Lee, Sarah Lullo, Kevin McCammack, Daniel Seeder, Carly Smith, and Demetrius Wade, all students in Catherine Prendergast’s writing course at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wrote a thoughtful response to Worthen and Schuman.

For these students, who are often taking a heavy course load of large, lecture format courses, competing with other students to fulfill distribution requirements, and holding down a job as well as being a full-time student, the sage on the stage can be intimidating. And why should a student attend lectures if the instructor is reading from a PowerPoint that restates the material found in the textbook?

“We expect to be held accountable, but we would also hold accountable our professors as well. Nothing will guarantee our attendance if we do not have the opportunity to challenge our professors, ask questions of them, and engage with our paying classmates. When we feel as though we won’t be missed if we skip class, it makes it easy to do just that.”

The students state that the lecture is not necessarily doomed. They have had professors who were great lecturers and offer examples of what those faculty did to inspire their students. Often, it is simply a case of offering a human side, making the students feel as if they matter.

“Instead of debating the lecture, instead of imagining what students are thinking, get to know us. Find out what college is like for us now, rather than what it was like for you years ago. Learn that we respond to your lecture very individually, and that we pick our lectures often for the individuality of the professor rather than the subject. Condemning or celebrating the lecture isn’t, in the end, as useful as understanding what we need. So please ask us. Because we’ve had enough of sitting silently in the dark, listening to all of you talk.”

If you lecture, read the article. It’s good to know what your students are thinking.

********************************************************************************************************

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Pixabay.com

Can We Discourage Violations of Academic Integrity?

It’s been some time since The Innovative Instructor looked at issues of academic integrity [see Discouraging Cheating in the Classroom, November 13, 2012], but a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, In a Fake Online Class With Students Paid to Cheat, Could Professors Catch the Culprits?, December 22, 2015, stimulated discussion among my colleagues. Although this study involved an online class, the implications are far-reaching. Even in face-to-face classes students can avail themselves of these for fee services that supply research papers that will pass through plagiarism detectors and provide answers to other types of assignments. In the face of such egregious practices, what can faculty do to encourage students to be honest?

StudentsCheatingIn smaller classes, where the instructor can to get to know the students as individuals, and course work is centered on in-class discussion, there may be fewer opportunities for violations of academic integrity. In these classes, however, writing often plays a big role and plagiarism, intentional or not, can be an issue. In Designing Activities and Assignments to Discourage Plagiarism, Alice Robison, Bonnie K. Smith suggest some strategies for instructors of writing intensive courses.

For mid-size classes, pedagogical interventions, such as flipping a class (see previous posts here, here, here, and here) can be productive if in-class problem solving, group work, and experiential activities are emphasized. These innovations can be time-consuming for an instructor to implement, however, and if the class size is large, it may not be possible to follow a flipped class or hybrid model.

Large classes can present greater challenges, particularly if testing is the focus for student assessment. There are a number of academic websites with resources for dealing with preventing cheating on tests, for example the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offers a tip sheet on Dealing with Cheating. Stanford’s Tomorrow’s Professor, offers a post on (Cheating) Prevention Techniques for Tests, based on three principles: “1) Affirm the importance of academic integrity; 20 Reduce opportunities to engage in academic dishonesty; and 3) Develop fair and relevant tests (and/or forms of assessment).”

In all cases, the best results come when colleges and universities establish a strong institutional culture of academic integrity.  This was the subject of the 2012 post. It’s worth repeating the citation of the University of North Carolina’s Center for Faculty Excellence’s blog, CFE 100+ Tips for Teaching Large Classes, article Tip #27: Discourage Cheating by Providing Moral Reminders and Logistical Obstacles.

Do you have suggestions for encouraging ethical behavior? As always, we welcome your comments.

********************************************************************************************************

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Microsoft Clip Art

What’s the DiRT?

Logo for the DiRT -- Digital Research Tools directory. The word dirt with the i shown as a light-bulb.Looking for a tool (preferably free and easy to use) for a scholarly project?  Maybe you need to clean up, model, or interpret data. Perhaps you are looking at ways to visualize information, or you have a large number of audio files that you have to transcribe. Building a website for your project? Trying to learn how to program? Look no further, here’s DiRT, Digital Research Tools. “The DiRT Directory is a registry of digital research tools for scholarly use. DiRT makes it easy for digital humanists and others conducting digital research to find and compare resources ranging from content management systems to music OCR, statistical analysis packages to mindmapping software.” Beyond your own scholarly endeavors, think of how these tools could be used by your students for their course research projects.

The welcome page greets uses with “I need a research tool to…” followed by a long list of possible tasks.  Each category has a number of suggested tools. Many of these are free and open source, many have been developed at universities to accommodate specific faculty scholarly needs.

There are several ways to search for tools beyond the list of tasks. Searching by category will lead you to the TaDiRAH (Taxonomy of Digital Research Activities in the Humanities) listing. “TaDiRAH breaks down the research lifecycle into high-level “goals”, each with a set of “methods. …In addition to goals/methods, TaDiRAH includes open lists of ‘techniques’ (which are more specific than methods, and may be used with more than one method) and ‘research objects’.” This will give you and your students another way to think about and find tools appropriate for your needs.

You don’t need an account to use DiRT to find a tool. If you want to add a review of a tool,  have found something that you like to use that isn’t listed on DiRT and would like to add it, or have developed a tool that you want to share, it is easy to create an account for these purposes.

*********************************************************************************************************

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: DiRT logo: http://dirtdirectory.org/

Developing and Facilitating Research-Based Assignments

On Tuesday, December 8,, the Center for Educational Resources hosted theLogo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom. second offering in the new Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching series with two faculty presenting on their experiences in developing and facilitating research-based assignments.

Elizabeth Rodini, Director, Program in Museums and Society and Teaching Professor in the Department of History of Art, led off with a presentation [presentation slides pdf] Incorporating Research into Teaching: 10 tips (in no particular order). Rodini has taught many courses during her time at JHU with students doing research-based assignments. While in some of these students have produced research papers, in many cases the assignments have been less traditional.

Photograph illustrating teaching skills,with two students handing objects in a museum setting.Here are Rodini’s ten tips:

  • Teach Skills—begin with your librarians, who can help students learn basic research skills. Invite a librarian to your class. Other discipline-specific skills include close looking and reading, descriptive writing, proper handling of objects, and learning how to reach out to experts for help.
  • Experiment with Format—move beyond the traditional research paper and have students make posters, create actual or virtual exhibitions (involves researching material, writing text, conceptualizing the whole), or develop an audio tour for an exhibition. Students learn alternative ways of presenting information (visual, oral) and can benefit from the potential public face of this work.
  • Let Content Drive Form—make sure that the content and your learning goals drive the format rather than choosing the form first and trying to build around it.
  • Smaller Is Often Better—doing too many projects in a semester can pose problems for you and your students. Consider how you can break one project into parts. Have students focus on doing one thing well.
  • Focus on Building Blocks—drawing from the previous teaching skills and smaller is better ideas, consider having students do the background work of a research paper without writing it up. For example, they turn in an annotated bibliography, an outline, and abstract, an opening paragraph, or they produce a research portfolio on a particular topic, gathering and ordering the information, perhaps giving an oral presentation. This approach is particularly effective for younger students who are just learning research skills.
  • Look to Other Disciplines—in a science lab, students have the opportunity to see project research as a collaborative process with contributors ranging from the senior faculty on down to undergraduates. This isn’t the case in the humanities. For humanities students the science lab model could be replicated in a group museum project, where the project research is conducted collaboratively toward a shared end with a public presentation. Some of the benefits: a “building block” approach to a project where different people contribute different things; students learn from/teach each other; use of a “lab meeting” format where students give regular, brief updates; and the professor can be part of the team, serving as a model for students.
  • Be A Locavore—encourage students to work on objects/materials/texts we have here in Baltimore. Local venues offer opportunities to connect, see, work with relevant archival material, meet experts, and do original
  • Vary The Feedback—writing comments on papers feels futile when you know they won’t be read. So try other things like oral presentations (use the final exam slot for this in a seminar), or poster sessions, and have outside experts come to these presentations to critique.
  • Practice Asking Questions—another skill/building block that many students are lacking is how to ask new questions of texts and images. In one of my freshman classes we start on the first day with, “What can you observe about an old pair of shoes and what else do you want to know?” [See the educational exercise from an exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum, 50 Ways to Look at a Big Mac Box].
  • Insist on Revisions—to eliminate useless final comments and make the project worthwhile you can incorporate revisions to work starting early in the semester. Students benefit from genuine critiques to which they must respond.

Joel Schildbach, Professor in the Department of Biology and KSAS Vice Dean for Undergraduate Education, presented [presentation slides pdf] on his research-based course Phage Hunting. The course description reads: “This is an introductory course open to all freshman regardless of intended major. No science background is required. This is … a year-long research-based project lab course in which students will participate in a nation-wide program in collaboration with undergraduates at other colleges. Students will isolate and characterize novel bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) from the environment using modern molecular biological techniques.”

The Hopkins Phage Hunters lab comes to JHU from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance – Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science program (SEA-PHAGES).  HHMI provides training for instructors and teaching assistants and support for this program across the country. The program is based the work of HHMI Professor Graham Hatfull, University of Pittsburgh.

Negotiating the network to find available positions in research labs around the Photograph showing students in a lab setting.University can be difficult, particularly for incoming freshman. The goal of this course is to provide freshmen students with a lab experience in a small course setting. Enrollments in the sections are limited to 24 students.  Work in the lab starts on the first day, when students bring in a sample of dirt. They then begin a process of isolating a bacteriophage. Because phages are so numerous, it is likely that each of the isolated phages will have not been previously identified. During the course students isolate the phage, purify the DNA, and use an electron microscope to identify it. Assuming their phage has not been previously identified, the student gets to name it and send the record to a national archive. One phage per section is selected for genetic sequencing. The process is both challenging and rewarding.

The benefits to students include experiencing a quick time from the start to seeing progress;, gaining comfort in a lab setting; learning to deal with the failures, repeating processes, and finally, sense of achievement that define lab research; having a sense of ownership of their work; and developing a community of peers.

Schilbach noted that the labs are staffed with both instructors and PhD-level teaching assistants. He stressed that for faculty seeking to implement similar programs, it is essential to have sufficient resources—budget and staff—to ensure success.

For more on this course, see the blog, JHU Phage Hunters, with posts authored by students and instructors.

In the discussion that followed, attendees asked questions and talked about the mechanics of collaborative work and grading group projects. Not all students like group work because they don’t have control over the process, yet many of them will be required to work in teams once they graduate into the workforce. There was consensus that, at least for humanities projects, groups of three were a good number. Larger groups may encourage a phenomenon one faculty member called “social loafing” where a team member relies on others to do the work. It was suggested using contracts for group work, which the students can create themselves, to define the roles and responsibilities of each team member and criteria for evaluation. These can be used at the end of the project for the students to grade themselves and each other. This can them supplement the instructor’s grade. It is also possible for students to work in a group, but submit individual assignments. Elizabeth Rodini pointed out that some group projects may bear more fruit than others, so it is important to have multiple aspects on which to assess students.

In a related discussion, Joel Schildbach was asked about how students deal with failure in the lab. For the phage hunting course, this has not been a big issue, as historically, almost all students have been successful. The idea of repeating a process until you get results is integral to scientific research and the students in the course generally embrace this concept. As to grading, Schildbach uses a multi-tiered grading system based on benchmarks and time lines. There are also graded presentations and a paper at the end of the semester. He noted that freshman first semester grades are covered, which allows students to take some risks.

In regards to managing a number of end of the semester presentations, when those are substituted for a traditional paper, it was suggested that the slotted exam time could be used. Sometimes students are willing to meet in a special session for these presentations, particularly if refreshments are provided. A poster session is an efficient way to handle a larger group of presentations, especially if you invite other faculty or outside experts to assist in the review process.

Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts & Sciences and Whiting School of Engineer faculty will receive email invitations for the forthcoming Lunch and Learn presentations. We will be reporting on all of the sessions here at The Innovative Instructor.

*********************************************************************************************************

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image sources: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources. Other images were taken from the presentations by Elizabeth Rodini and Joel Schildbach.

Managing Students’ Emotions while Facilitating Active, Peer-to-Peer and Experiential Learning in the Class

silhouette  of a human torso with heart and brain. How do you deal with disengaged students in your class? Those students can easily be discounted as people who “just don’t get it.” We can label them as “dysfunctional” and be comforted thinking that we can’t make every student happy in our classes. But what if your assumption is that your responsibility is to create a learning environment where transformations – from bored to engaged –can happen? What if the actual content you are teaching, and the learning you are hoping to achieve, has an emotional component?

Key questions comes to mind:

  1. Does learning involve both cognitive and affective/emotional work?
  2. How do we do this affective work and how do we balance the need for dealing with it in a way that doesn’t make the class a “shrink” session?
  3. If we agree that facilitating experiential learning is more effective than lecturing in the class, how do we develop acceptance in instructors and students of the feelings that arise during the learning process?
  4. What conditions can make the work of managing emotions in the class easier for facilitators and participants?

Does Learning involve both cognitive and emotional work?

Dualism, the idea that thinking and feeling are separated can be traced from Plato to Descartes, and from Kant to the Logical Positivists. Day-to-day life is permeated with expressions like “Don’t be so emotional!”, “Let’s leave emotions out of this discussion” or even using the word “passionate” to mean erratic and unpredictable, at least in Anglo Saxon cultures. The message is clear: emotions do not belong in a class.

Dualism has been proven to be false; cognition and emotion appear to be dynamic, interactive and interdependent. Research shows that emotion and cognition jointly contribute to the control of mental activities and behavior. Even in classes where a highly-technical subject matter is taught, the learning process is impaired when educators rely on a theory of learning that is exclusively “above the neck”. This makes emotions not-discussable, which in turn makes this decision itself not-discussable.  Thus the role of emotions during the learning process becomes a hidden process that plays a role never fully understood or leveraged for learning success. Learning does involve both the cognitive and the affective domains and educators can learn how to create the right mix.

As an adaptive leadership practitioner and experiential educator, I treasure the distinction between Ron Heifetz’s learning “above the neck” (the intellectual faculties, the home of logic and facts), and learning “below the neck” (the emotional faculties, the home of values, intuition and inner purpose). Heifetz’s great intuition is that leadership work – and that of educators – is about “managing the gradual process of easing people into an uncomfortable state of uncertainty, disorder, conflict, or chaos at a pace and level that does not overwhelm them yet takes them out of their comfort zones and mobilizes them to engage in addressing an adaptive challenge.”

How do we do this affective work and how do we balance the need for dealing with it in a way that doesn’t make the class a “shrink” session? Are emotions expressed in the class a sign of failure or success?

I see emotions as expressions of deeply held beliefs and our work of educators as getting in touch with this inner dimension in order to gain greater awareness. I can only do this work with emotions in class if I am able to explore and handle emotions myself. Exploring emotions during the adaptive change that deep learning is, I have found that the emotion of fear (e.g., fear of loss, fear of the unknown) has the greatest significance. Fear impairs our individual and collective capacity to learn by distracting us and diverting our energy into self-protection. We can deal with that fear head-on by encouraging our students and strengthening their motivational resilience. Dealing openly in the class to counter the idea that learning is only cognitive affair might be a start, as well as dealing with student’s expectations. Indeed students show up for a class with clear expectations:

They expect the work to be at a cognitive level as many individuals – emotionally intelligent in their personal lives – believe in the classroom they must be completely logical and remain emotionally unaffected by their experiences. This idea keeps students from discovering useful information and keeps them from crafting creative solutions.  They also expect the instructor will convey course content in a traditional way (often through a lecture consistent with their previous experiences).

As educators we can decide to keep the conversation at the “cognitive level”. But if we embrace learning as both cognitive and emotional we need to engage courageously with the following paradox:

  • If we meet learners’ expectations of a purely cognitive experience we do not serve them well especially in classes where the premise and purpose of the work is intentionally transformational and centered on personal growth.
  • If we disappoint learners’ expectations (and teach a kind of knowledge that is cognitive/emotional in nature and process) we may generate anxiety; and force our students to renegotiate the social contract with us as authority figures, a contract with which they are familiar and comfortable.

Expression of emotions are neither a sign of success nor a sign of failure, but I do know that classes where emotions are not expressed are more likely to be ineffective.

If we believe that experiential learning is more effective than lecturing because it mirrors more closely the real world, how do we develop acceptance of the feelings that arise during the learning process in both instructors and students?

While there may be no “right way” to manage this complex process as a facilitator, I have found from my personal experience that the following to be helpful:

  • Listening and speaking from the heart. Listening from the heart means understanding what others are feeling; speaking from the heart means expressing what I am feeling. This communicates the values at stake, the reasons that make it worthwhile for people to deal with their temporary discomfort and stay in the game. For example if I talk about something sad and feel the urge to cry, I do not end my class prematurely or walk out of the room: I allow myself to feel while also seeing my class through. By doing this, I let my students know that the situation is containable, that I can stay with the emotion and that they can, too.
  • Allowing for silence. Resisting the urge to fill the silence might be one of the most powerful ways to support students’ expression of their feelings. Marcia Reynolds, the author of “The Discomfort Zone” states “Silence is holding a space of care and trust as a person’s brain tries to make sense of what it is learning…You don’t want to interrupt when a person is processing a question you asked. Silence is more effective than trying to make someone feel better…If you quickly shift the person from feeling negative to positive, going away from the problem to what is possible…the person might feel ashamed for continuing to feel angry or frustrated during or after the conversation. His or her real needs remain unspoken.”
  • Asking myself “What person’s essential values/commitments has been so violated that it justifies these feelings?” I address this issue openly and encourage a sense of adventure and moderate risk-taking. I remind students that in their professional lives they will probably deal with issues that are confusing and unclear. I continue to issue several invitations that encourage the more controlled-minded individuals to “go with the flow, by “renting the ideas” rather than buying them to see where these ideas might lead them.
  • Being comfortable with conflict. I have no problem with a high range of emotions being expressed in the class. My belief is that the power of dialogue can get people far and that we are all better off when we learn with and from each other. Differences can become an exhilarating window into other worlds and ways of seeing the world.

In summary…

In summary, I hope you can see how the courage to be vulnerable and to embrace emotions in the class transforms the way we teach and the way we learn; and how important it is to model for our students the courage our cognitive as well as our emotional selves be seen. Vulnerability is the path if we want greater clarity in our purpose as leaders.

I have discovered that a learning process that allows for vulnerability both of instructor and students makes it easier to courageously seek our authentic purpose as teachers, learners and leaders.

We will do better in our work as educators when we decide that taking risks, braving uncertainty and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure are no longer weaknesses to be feared, rather crucial decisions that ultimately define the quality of our own learning journey, of our work and ultimately of who we are, for our students and especially for us.

For Further reading

  • Heifetz,R., Grashow,A., and Linsky,M., The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (HarvardBusinessPress,2009)
  • Nussbaum, M. “Upheaval of Emotions”
  • De Souza, Renner “Not Knowing”
  • Reynolds, M. “The Discomfort Zone”
  • Baldwin,C. ;Linnea,A. “The Circle Way. A leader in every chair”
  • De Mello, A. “Awareness”
  • Pianesi, A. “Journey to chaos and back: Unlearning in workplace training programs” The Systems Thinker
  • Web site: caseinpointmethod.com by Adriano Pianesi and Jill Hufnagel

*********************************************************************************************************

Adriano Pianesi is a leadership development consultant and principal of Leadersh1p.com. He teaches leadership experientially at the Carey Business School Johns Hopkins University, at the State Department, at the World Bank and at Microsoft. He has worked in the last 20 years in the private, nonprofit, government sector, and in international organizations. A passionate experiential educator, World Café host, and Adaptive Leadership enthusiast, Adriano can be reached at adriano@leadersh1p.com.

Image source: by Macie Hall remixed from “Man shadow – upper” by Mikael Häggström – File:Upper body front.png. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Man_shadow_-_upper.png#/media/File:Man_shadow_-_upper.png and Pixabay.com

Memrise: Making Memorization Fun

Memrise logoRote memorization as a learning strategy has fallen out of favor in recent years, for good reason. When students cram by memorizing facts for an exam, those memories are often fleeting. Long term memory is built differently. Yet a certain amount of memorization of facts is essential to the foundation of any discipline. There can be multiple layers to the need for these foundational facts in a course. In an introductory class, it is expected that students will learn these facts, but as an instructor you may not want to have them spend valuable class time to this end. At higher levels of course work, students may need to do remedial work to brush up on the facts or to learn from scratch on their own. How can you help students with learning the facts for your course?

Enter Memrise, “…an online learning community where one can learn almost anything in the world, entirely for free! Through just the right mix of science, fun and community, learning on Memrise is speedy, enjoyable and lasts.” Moreover, the Memrise app makes it easy for your students to learn on the go using their smartphones. [See: Apple App StoreGoogle Play Store]

Memrise offers existing courses in languages (including vocabulary, grammar, and culture), arts, literature, math, science, the natural word, history, geography, computers, engineering, law, health and medicine, business and finance, prepping for specific standardized tests, and more. If you don’t find a course that meets your requirements, you can create your own.

Memrise “…help[s] you form vivid, sensory memories. We test you continuously, always making sure to give your brain just the right workout. We remind you of what you’ve learned at scientifically optimized times so your memories are always growing stronger, and never forgotten.” Combining this with a gamification element makes the process fun. Students can use Memrise on their own, or there is also a group function that allows students to learn together, which can be created by an instructor or by students. “The group function is beneficial, because the students/group members can compete against each other on the Leaderboards. Also the members can see their overall score all together. This way the group creator/teacher can keep track of the members’ progress and learning easily.”

As a personal endorsement, back in August I tested Memrise by using a course to learn the Greek alphabet. I took two days to go through the process, then put it aside. Three months later, my retention is 100%. Results may vary, but it’s an app worth looking into when you need your students to do some memorizing.

*********************************************************************************************************

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Memrise logo

Developing and Using Effective Active-Learning Exercises in Class

On Friday, October 30, the Center for Educational Resources launched ouLogo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.r Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching series with two faculty presenting on developing and using effective active-learning exercises in their classes.

Vince Hilser, professor and chair, Department of Biology led off with a presentation [presentation slides] describing how he had used active learning to help students understand a core concept, equilibrium, in his Biochemistry course. Showing his sense of humor, Hilser presented a timeline for the first semester he taught the course in 2011: August—Hilser prepares (brilliant) lectures. September, October, November—Hilser delivers (brilliant) lectures to students. January 2012—Hilser receives student evaluations and realizes that students did not learn from (brilliant) lectures.

Vince Hilser's diagram of What is Biochemistry showing inverted triangle with Facts, Reasoning Skills and Core Concept.Convinced that understanding the principle of equilibrium would enable students to truly learn it, Hilser wondered if he could help his students actually see an example of equilibrium.  A classic demonstration of equilibrium is the so-called Apple Wars: An apple tree straddles the properties of two neighbors with yards separated by fences. Every fall the tree drops its fruit and the old man and young man throw the unwanted apples into each other’s yards. Ultimately, as they are throwing, the number of apples on each side will reach a constant state, which is at equilibrium.

In Hilser’s classroom (a large lecture hall), a long line of yellow police caution tape running from front to back stood for the fence. Ping pong balls represented the apples. Students on one side were the young man and could fetch and throw with both hands, on the other side, the old man students were handicapped by being allowed to fetch and throw with the left hand only. A blast from a whistle started the students throwing ping pong balls across the fence, retrieving and throwing back. At the end of a timed sequence the balls were gathered on each side and counted. The exercise was repeated and the results echoed those of the first round. Then Hilser introduced the equation for equilibrium, filling in the results from the ping pong war demonstration to demonstrate the application of variables.  Once the students have seen in real life what equilibrium is, the equation make sense to them. They can then move on to methods of inquiry and how biological systems work.

Hilser could see from course assessments that students had a firmer grasp of the concepts. Evaluations showed that 86% of the students felt that the apple wars demonstration was effective in helping them to understand and apply the concept of chemical equilibrium. Students trusted the facts because they had experienced the proof. One student commented, “This really made me believe that organized randomness occurs in nature,” a statement that shows a high level of perception and extrapolation. Hilser’s presentation demonstrated that a good active-learning exercise can be worth more to students than a lot of words from the sage on the stage.

Todd Hufnagel, Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, presented [presentation slides] on his experience with using peer instruction in his Structure of Materials course. This class typically has 20 to 25 students.

Photograph showing students in the active learning classroom in Todd Hufnagel's Structure of Materials course.In 2011 Hufnagel received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). In response to the broader impacts requirement, he decided pursue an educational research project. For Hufnagel, a core principle underscores his teaching philosophy as articulated in this quote from Herbert A. Simon: “Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks.” The grant allowed him to test whether student learning outcomes would be better if the course was taught using an active-learning model or using a traditional lecture style by teaching it twice each way in alternating years.

He turned to a model developed by Harvard’s Professor of Physics, Eric Mazur, involving the use of concept inventories and peer learning. “A concept inventory is a criterion-referenced test designed to determine whether a student has an accurate working knowledge of a specific set of concepts.” Students are given a concept inventory test at the beginning of the semester and again at the end of the semester to measure their learning gains.

During the semester, the concept questions are used as a basis for peer instruction. Hufnagel introduces a slide with a multiple choice question. Students use their clickers to vote on what they think is the correct answer. Hufnagel shows them a histogram of all the answers. If the histogram indicates that students are confused as to the correct answer, he asks students to discuss the question in pairs of small groups.  Based on the idea that the best way to learn something is to teach it, students who know the correct answer will explain the concept to those who don’t.

After discussing the question, the students are asked to vote again. The instructor can then determine the level of understanding and proceed with a full explanation, a quick clarification, or simply affirm that the students are correct and move on to the next concept.

Is active learning better? Hufnagel’s comparison of teaching the class two ways showed that improvement in concept inventory scores in lecture version of class was 63%, for the active learning classes the improvement was 100%. He also surveyed the students about how their confidence in understanding the material.  Interestingly, the lecture course students rated their knowledge much higher than the active learning students. Hufnagel thought this is because the active learning setting makes students realize how much they don’t know, while the lecture course students aren’t as aware of what they don’t know.

Hufnagel detailed the pros and cons of using a peer-instruction approach. On the plus side, students learn more, and the instructor gets more effective feedback on what they students actually know as s/he circulates through class listening to their discussion. Hufnagel also noted that this approach was much more fun for him as a teacher. The drawbacks are that it can be more difficult to “cover the material,” and there is a significant time commitment on the part of the faculty. For the first, Hufnagel noted that the important thing is that students understand the material that is covered, and that students can be made responsible for learning some of the content outside of class. As to the second, while it is easier and faster for faculty to write lectures, once the concept questions are written, they have a long shelf life and can be re-used. In the end, the strong evidence of improved student learning gains with active learning is a compelling argument for using these teaching strategies.

Faculty attendees had questions and made comments during the discussion period. Following is a summary of some of the main points.

On ways of handling coverall “all the material,” Hufnagel assigns reading and watching videos outside of class. He finds the students like the videos as they can tackle content on their own schedule and repeat as often as needed to understand the material. There is quick four question quiz on the assignment to encourage students to both do the work and to help them retain the concepts. Research tells us that students learn by being asked to recall content frequently. He spends the first five minutes of class talking informally, perhaps brining in a topical information to increase interest, then spends the rest of the class on concept questions. Typically he will get through about six questions per class. He tells his students that he has data that show students learn better with active learning and that helps with buy-in to what may be a new learning experience.

To faculty questioning how much time had to be allocated for active learning exercises, Hilser explained that the ping pong ball demonstration takes an entire class, but it establishes an understanding of a concept so fundamental to the course that is it worth the time spent.

A question, “What about teaching the facts?  What if students don’t absorb enough factual knowledge?” led to a response by Hilser that there are many facts that are critically important as base knowledge, absolutely required facts. But he and Hufnagel agreed that beyond the core facts, students can look up information. The instructor’s role is to provide context.

One attendee noted that he has participated as an instructor in a department where lecture and active learning course covering the same content are running in parallel.  The active learning class do slightly better (10%) on exams, but they are much happier in class–more satisfaction is seen in the active learning students.

Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts & Sciences and Whiting School of Engineer faculty will receive email invitations for the forthcoming Lunch and Learn presentations. We will be reporting on all of the sessions here at The Innovative Instructor.

*******************************************************************************************

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image sources: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources. Other images were taken from the presentations by Vince Hilser and Todd  Hufnagel.

Improving the Climate in Your Classroom

Drawing of a green chalkboard with Welcome to Class written on it and a storm cloud with lightning bolts lower left and sun burst lower right.What do we mean when we talk about classroom climate?  Classroom climate can be defined as “…the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments in which our students learn. [Ambrose et. al. How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Jossey Bass. 2010.] How you, as an instructor, choose to interact with students in your classroom will affect the classroom climate.

The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTE) at Cornell University provides an overview of the factors that teachers should consider in thinking about classroom climate. Not only must we be aware of blantant biases in dealing with students, but also the micro-inequities, small but significant interactions that have a negative effect on students. The Cornell CTE discusses the factors that play into creating a negative or positive climate (sterotyping, tone, interactions, and choice of content) and offers examples of ways to access and improve your classroom climate.

In a recent (September 2015) video produced by The Chronicle of Higher Education, ‘Ask Me’: What LGBTQ Students Want Their Professors to Know, “transgender and gender-nonbinary students share what keeps them from feeling safe and thriving on campus.” These students give us personal and powerful statements on how we can improve their classroom and campus experiences. The video is about 12 minutes long, and covers the recognition of the range of gender identities, use of preferred names over birth names, the use of pronouns, the need for resources and staff deticated to LGBTQ student life, and restroom and housing issues. The message is that by asking about preferences we can make a difference for all students.

Last, but certainly not least, I recommend watching a video produced for the 2014 MOOC  An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching. This course is being offered again this fall by the CIRTL (Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning) Network. The video is also available throught the Vanderbilt University YouTube site. In The Affective Doman: Classroom Climate (25 minutes), Dr. Michele DiPietro, Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Kennessaw State University, discusses the many aspects of classroom climate and the importance for student motivation and learning.

Dr. DiPietro covers a lot of ground in his presentation. Especially valuable, he makes us aware of the fact that even the best-intentioned instructors may be unaware of the ways in which classroom climate has consequences for their students. He cites a 1994 study by DeSurra and Church, [Unlocking the Classroom Closet: Privileging the Marginalized Voices of Gay/Lesbian College Students], that demonstrates that faculty frequently rate themselves higher on a continuum representing creating an inclusive versus marginalizing classroom climate than their students do.

How can faculty do a better job? DiPietro suggests that we start by examining our assumptions, which can be a difficult task as we are often blind to our own preconceptions.  He advocates learning and using students’ preferred names, modeling inclusive language, using multiple and diverse examples, establishing ground rules for interaction, striving to be fair, not asking people to speak for an entire group that they may or may not actually represent, and being aware of micro-inequities. By the end of DiPietro’s presentation, we will understand not only why it important it is to access classroom climate, but what we can do to create the best possible learning environment for all students.

*********************************************************************************************************

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image remixed from Pixabay.com images

Where Goes the Lecture, Reprise

Black and white image of universal sign figure at podium with a point, overlaid with red prohibited sign -- a circle with a question mark over it.Lectures were the topic of the last post, and usually I adhere to the adage that variety is the spice of life. Lectures, however, have been a hot topic in education news recently, and there was a comment on the previous post with a link that I wanted to share. Therefore, lectures, take two.

First, Illysa Izenberg, lecturer for the Center for Leadership Education in the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, commented on the previous post, “I think maybe the best way to teach may be to teach in many different ways.” She wrote an article for Faculty Focus (a free e-newsletter and website that publishes articles on effective teaching strategies for the college classroom) titled, The Eight-Minute Lecture Keeps Students Engaged, August 31, 2015. Izenberg writes: “When I began teaching in 2006, I assumed that students could read anything I say. Therefore, my classes consisted of debates of, activities building on, and direct application of theories taught in the readings—no lectures. But I noticed that students had difficulty understanding the content in a way that enabled accurate and deep application without some framing from me. In short, I needed to lecture—at least a little. This is when I began the eight-minute lecture.” She then describes how to prepare students for using this methodology and how to implement it in your course. An example from a course she taught provides specificity. Although this technique might be more difficult to apply in a traditional large lecture hall, it would work well in any classroom space that allows for flexible seating arrangements.

On October 17, 2015, Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, wrote an op-ed piece for the Times Sunday Review, Lecture Me. Really. Worthen pushes back against the “active learning craze” in favor of the traditional lecture, especially for humanities courses. “Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.” Students should be exposed to “absorbing a long, complex, argument” that requires them to “synthesize, organize and react as they listen.” Along with this she cites the value of learning hand-written note-taking skills, which recent research has shown help students better remember course content.

Rebecca Schuman, an education columnist for Slate, responded to Worthen on October 21, 2015 with Professors Shouldn’t Teach to Younger Versions of Themselves, offering a reality check. Worthen’s concept represents an ideal situation with ideal students, Schuman says, but those may not be the students in your classroom. “The American professoriate shouldn’t gear their courses exclusively to students who are so bright and motivated they could learn the material on their own. They should also include components designed for the average, real, very-much-not-ideal student they will actually meet.”

Regardless of what you choose as the method for content delivery, you will want to consider classroom climate and teaching to diversity, making sure that you are fostering an inclusive classroom.

*********************************************************************************************************

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image remixed from Pixabay.com images