Using Classroom Simulations as an Active Learning Technique

College educators have many goals for students; we want them to acquire more knowledge and be better critical thinkers, but also to feel empowered and energized about their future contribution to society. Students that are motivated and ambitious are more likely to pursue personal opportunities and inventive ideas. This type of energy and focus also contributes to the problem-solving capacity of society as a whole. Although a positive attitude often comes from within the student or outside the classroom, the structure of learning also has an impact.

For the global environmental politics classroom, the problem of student attitudes is especially acute: students of global environmental governance are particularly prone to negative emotional reactions, including feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, which can engender apathy and cynicism.  Students come to believe that the complexity and depth of problems like climate change make effective action impossible. Students who do not believe a problem can be solved are unlikely to seek solutions to that problem in their post-college careers. Using active learning techniques like Simulations can combat these attitudes, by giving students the opportunity to collectively investigate and tackle barriers to international action.

I designed a Simulation for the last week of my fall 2017 “Politics of the Ocean” class, because I noticed that the students often left class in despair. Solutions to over-fishing, Model United Nations simulation with students sitting at tables with flags of the represented countries.plastic pollution, dead zones, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, and other ocean issues seemed out of reach because of political and economic barriers. The number and complexity of ocean issues seemed overwhelming. And yet, we knew that the United Nations was gearing up to negotiate a new treaty to govern the high seas. This provided me with the opportunity to design a politics Simulation that hewed as close to the real world as possible, where students could practice negotiating a treaty that addressed many of the problems they had learned about in class.

The basic features of the course dictated the options for Simulation design – I had 15 students, and we met twice a week for a total of 2.5 hours. I started by assigning students to polity teams in the week before the Simulation began. I choose countries that have had the most influence on ocean governance historically, and groups that would likely have influence in the upcoming negotiations: The United States, China, Russia, the G77 coalition, Singapore, and NGOs. I asked students to do the assigned readings for the next week – each of which contained a specific proposal for ocean governance – with their team in mind.

The Simulation was divided into two days. On day one, students worked within their teams to answer a series of questions like “Who are the primary ocean interest groups in your country?” “What are your priorities for ocean governance?” and “What treaty design best serves your interests?” Students were instructed to work with their teammates, and to do supplementary in-class research to help flesh out their positions. Some teams had specific questions: the NGOs had to decide which NGOs to represent, and the China team had to decide whether to negotiate with the G77, or on its own. The Singapore team had additional questions about how the negotiations ought to be run, because of Singapore’s historic role as a leader in organizing past Law of the Sea negotiations.

On day two, students entered the classroom to discover groups of tables designated with small flags. Singapore ran the negotiations while I took notes, with some minor interventions. Each team started with an opening statement about their key interests and main concerns, with short rebuttals following. Then Singapore asked each team to submit a list of priority topics, and chose the top four. While the original plan was to address each in turn through speeches and open discussion, the students ended up deciding to address all the issues simultaneously. In the last ten minutes, Singapore collected specific treaty language proposals. Each of six new rules was voted on individually, and those that with a majority of teams affirming became the agreed upon treaty.

I designed this Simulation to achieve attitudinal goals in three ways. First, role playing required students to formulate prescriptions from the descriptions of ocean problems and governance models they had learned about in class. The idea is that practicing advocacy will help students recognize that they have informed opinions about ocean issues, and see themselves as agents of change. Second, the format shows students that complexity is not the same as intractability. The two-day design allows group work to break down the structure of a collective action problem, construct a policy agenda and negotiation strategy, and consider various policy models described in the literature. Third, the negotiations allow students to directly encounter barriers to consensus formation, instead of speculating about everything that could hold up an agreement. Confronting obstacles to agreement this way may illustrate the utility of issue-linkages, and demonstrate that there are coalitions willing to move forward.

I assessed the achievement of attitudinal learning outcomes using a short pre- and post-Simulation survey, which asked students to rate their level of agreement with statements like “All relevant parties can get what they want from the oceans” and “The situation in the high seas is too complicated for effective management.” The survey also asked students to rank the importance of different barriers to an international treaty, like “political will” and “public education.” The final questions were open-ended, and asked students to use one word to describe the situation in the ocean, and also how they feel about it. While the survey results showed a slight improvement in optimism, I was surprised by the fact that students started out more optimistic than I expected.

The biggest mistake I made in the design of this Simulation was asking the Singapore team to take a leadership role by designing the basic structure of the negotiations, and leading the class on day two. Although I chose two students with obvious leadership qualities, they found it difficult to command authority among the teams, and to push for efficiency in negotiations. They also seemed displeased that they had a “special” role, and more interested in participating as a regular team. Most of the students reported wanting to start the Simulation earlier in the semester, so they could have more time getting into the details of constructing a workable solution to collective problems in the ocean.

This type of Simulation is relatively easy to design and implement, and there exists a broad literature relating game design to specific cognitive and attitudinal goals. Even though this Simulation was imperfect, students reported on their course evaluations that they appreciated doing something different, and having the chance to work through obstacles to consensus as a group. And because this type of Simulation can be used with a larger class size (just add more teams), I know that the lessons from this class can be used to improve the Simulation for the future.

Elizabeth Mendenall, PhD candidate, Johns Hopkins University

Elizabeth Mendenhall is a PhD candidate in International Relations. Her dissertation concerns obstacles to effective governance in the global commons, specifically the ocean, atmosphere, and outer space. She will be starting as an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island in the Fall of 2017.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunch and Learn: Team-Based Learning

Logo 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.On Friday, December 16, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the second Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching, for the 2016-1017 academic year. Eileen Haase, Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Engineering, and Mike Reese, Director, Center for Educational Resources, and Instructor in Sociology, discussed their approaches to team-based learning (TBL).

Eileen Haase teaches a number of core courses in Biomedical Engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering, including Freshmen Modeling and Design, BME Teaching Practicum, Molecules and Cells, and System Bioengineering Lab I and II, as well as being course director for Cell and Tissue Engineering and assisting with System Bioengineering II. She has long been a proponent of team work in the classroom.

In her presentation, Haase focused on the Molecules and Cells course, required for BME majors in the sophomore year, which she co-teaches with Harry Goldberg, Assistant Dean at the School of Medicine, Director of Academic Computing and faculty member, Department of Biomedical Engineering. The slides from Haase’s presentation are available here.

In the first class, Haase has the students do a short exercise that demonstrates the value of teamwork. Then the students take the VARK Questionnaire. VARK stands for Visual Aural Read/Write Kinesthetic and is a guide to learning styles. The questionnaire helps students and instructors by suggesting strategies for teaching and learning that align with these different styles. Haase and Goldberg found that 62% of their students were “multimodal” learners who will benefit from having the same material presented in several modes in order to learn it. In Haase’s class, in addition to group work, students work at the blackboard, use clickers, have access to online materials, participate in think-pair-share exercises, and get some content explained in lecture form.

Team work takes place in sections most FridSlide from Eileen Haase's presentation on Team-based Learning showing a scratch card test.ays. At the start of class, students take an individual, 10 question quiz called the iRAT, Individual Readiness Assurance Test, which consists of multiple-choice questions based on pre-class assigned materials. The students then take the test as a group (gRAT). Haase uses IF-AT scratch cards for these quizzes. Both tests count towards the students’ grades.

To provide evidence for the efficacy of team-based learning, Haase and Goldberg retested students from their course five months after the original final exam (99 of the 137 students enrolled in the course were retested). The data showed that students scored significantly better on the final exam on material that had been taught using team-based learning strategies and on the retest, retained significantly more of the TBL taught material. [See Haase’s presentation slides for details.]

Slide from Mike Reese's presentation on Team-based Learning showing four students doing data collection at a Baltimore neighborhood market.Mike Reese, Director of the Center for Educational Resources and instructor in the Department of Sociology, presented on his experiences with team-based learning in courses that included community-based learning in Baltimore City neighborhoods [presentation slides]. His courses are typically small and discussion oriented. Students read papers on urban issues and, in class, discuss these and develop research methodologies for gathering data in the field. Students are divided into teams, and Reese accompanies each team as they go out into neighborhoods to gather data by talking to people on the street and making observations on their surroundings. The students then do group presentations on their field work and write individual papers. Reese says that team work is hard, but students realize that they could not collect and analyze data in such a short time-frame without a group effort.

Reese noted that learning is a social process. We are social beings, and while many students dislike group projects, they will learn and retain more (as Haase and Goldberg demonstrated). This is not automatic. Instructors need to be thoughtful about structuring team work in their courses. The emotional climate created by the teacher is important. Reese shared a list of things to consider when designing a course that will incorporate team-based learning.

  1. Purpose: Why are you doing it? For Reese, teamwork is a skill that students should acquire, but primarily it serves his learning objectives.  If students are going to conduct a mini-research project in a short amount of time, they need multiple people working collectively to help with data collection and analysis.
  2. Group Size: This depends on the context and the course, but experts agree that having three to five students in a group is best to prevent slacking by team members.
  3. Roles: Reese finds that assigning roles works well as students don’t necessarily come into the course with strong project management skills, and projects typically require a division of labor. It was suggested that assigning roles is essential to the concept of true team-based learning as opposed to group work.
  4. Formation: One key to teamwork success is having the instructor assign students to groups rather than allowing them to self-select. [Research supports this. See Fiechtner, S. B., & Davis, E. A. (1985). Why some groups fail: A survey of students’ experiences with learning groups. The Organizational Behavior Teaching Review, 9(4), 75-88.] In Reese’s experience assigning students to groups helps them to build social capital and relationships at the institution beyond their current group of friends.
  5. Diversity: It is important not to isolate at-risk minorities. See: Heller, P. and Hollabaugh, M. (1992). Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. American Journal of Physics, 60 (7), 637-644.
  6. Ice Breakers: The use of ice breakers can help establish healthy team relationships. Have students create a team name, for example, to promote an identity within the group.
  7. Contracts: Having a contract for teamwork is a good idea. In the contract, students agree to support each other and commit to doing their share of the work. Students can create contracts themselves, but it is best if the instructor provides structured questions to guide them.
  8. Persistence: Consider the purpose of having groups and how long they will last. Depending on learning goals, teams may work together over an entire semester, or reform after each course module is completed.
  9. Check-ins: It is important to check in with teams on a regular basis, especially if the team is working together over an entire semester, to make sure that the group hasn’t developed problems and become dysfunctional.
  10. Peer Evaluation: Using peer evaluation keeps a check on the students to ensure that everyone is doing a fair share of the work. The instructor can develop a rubric, or have students work together to create one. Evaluation should be on specific tasks. Ratings should be anonymous (to the students, not the instructor) to ensure honest evaluation, and students should also self-evaluate.

In the discussion that followed the presentation, mentoring of teams and peer assessment were key topics. Several faculty with experience working with team-based learning recommended providing support systems in the form of mentors and or coaches who are assigned to the groups. These could be teaching assistants or undergraduate assistants who have previously taken the course. Resources for team-based learning were mentioned. CATME, “which stands for ‘Comprehensive Assessment of Team Member Effectiveness,’ is a free set of tools designed to help instructors manage group work and team assignments more effectively.”

Doodle was suggested as another tool for scheduling collaborative work. Many are familiar with the Doodle poll concept, but there are also free tools such as Connect Calendars and Meet Me that can be used by students.

An Innovative Instructor print article, Making Group Projects Work by Pam Sheff and Leslie Kendrick, Center for Leadership Education,  August 2012, covers many aspects of successful teamwork.

Another resource of interest is a scholarly article by Barbara Oakley and Richard Felder, Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams [Oakley, B., Felder, R.M., Brent, R., Elhajj, I. Journal of student centered learning, 2004]. “This paper is a guide to the effective design and management of team assignments in a college classroom where little class time is available for instruction on teaming skills. Topics discussed include forming teams, helping them become effective, and using peer ratings to adjust team grades for individual performance. A Frequently Asked Questions section offers suggestions for dealing with several problems that commonly arise with student teams, and forms and handouts are provided to assist in team formation and management.

If you are an instructor on the Homewood campus, staff in the Centerfor Educational Resources will be happy to talk with you about team-based learning and your courses.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, presentation slides by Eileen Haase and Mike Reese

Fair Play—Gaming to Identify and Understand Racial Bias

A colleague recently attended an academic conference during which he had an opportunity to attend a workshop demonstrating Fair Play. Fair Play, a video game developed at the University of Wisconsin with awards from the National Institutes of Health, the Gates Millennium Foundation and supported by the University of Wisconsin System Administration’s Growth Agenda for Wisconsin grant program, allows players the opportunity to simulate the complex experience of a graduate student. Specifically, according to the website, “Fair Play provides players with the opportunity to take the perspective of Jamal Davis, a Black graduate student on his way to becoming a renowned professor. In this game, players experience racial bias during interactions with other characters, as well as in the virtual environment.”

Screen shot taken from the Fair Play website showing the four main characters and a link to the Fair Play Game Trailer.Players move through five chapters experiencing typical graduate school challenges (identifying an advisor, managing funding, making friends, publishing, and attending conferences); these are magnified through the lens of being an African American confronting biases. The goal is to identify and name biases.

While workshops, such as the one my colleague attended, are available, it is easy to download and play the game on your own. You can view a trailer to get an idea of the content. Even novice gamers will pick up the navigation quickly as the interface is straightforward and explanations are provided along the way. The exercise is enlightening. Although the game centers around graduate student activities, the lessons to be learned are universal, and would benefit faculty and graduate student future faculty alike.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Images source: Fair Play Screenshot: http://fairplaygame.org/

In Her Words: Alison Papadakis on Teaching

Five times a year the Center for Educational Resources publishes an e-newsletter that is distributed to Johns Hopkins University faculty in the schools of Arts & Sciences and Engineering. Most of the content is of local interest: “… [highlighting] resources that can enhance teaching or research or facilitate faculty administrative tasks.” A recurring feature is the Faculty Spotlight, in which a CER staff member interviews an instructor about their teaching interests. For the April 2016 edition, the interview was presented as a video rather than text. Because it is of general interest, I wanted to share it.

Alison Papadakis received an AB in Psychology from Princeton University, and an MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology from Duke University. She taught in the Department of Psychology at Loyola University Maryland from 2005 to 2014, before accepting a position as Associate Teaching Professor and Director of Clinical Psychological Studies in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins. She is also a licensed psychologist in the state of Maryland. Among her many awards are several that speak to her success as a teacher, advisor, and mentor: 2015-2016 JHU Faculty Mentor for Provost’s Undergraduate Research Award, 2014-2016 JHU Faculty Mentor for Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Grant, and 2015 JHU Undergraduate Advising Award, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

At JHU Papadakis is teaching three undergraduate courses: Abnormal Psychology (enrollment 200), Child and Adolescent Psychopathology (enrollment 40), Child and Adolescent Psychopathology (enrollment 19), and Research Seminar in Clinical Psychology (enrollment 19). The large enrollment for Abnormal Psychology was a particular challenge for her after the small classes she taught at Loyola Maryland. As she notes in the video she sought ways of teaching much larger classes and keeping a conversational style and an environment that engages students. Papadakis also talks about ways in which she sets expectations for students and specific activities she uses in class.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Clickers: Beyond the Basics

On Friday, February 5, the Center for Educational Resources hosted the third Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching. For this session, three presenters discussed their experiences using clickers (classroom polling systems).

Logo 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.Leah Jager and Margaret Taub, are both Assistant Scientists and Lecturers who co-teach Public Health Biostatistics in the Department of Biostatistics at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. This is a required course for Public Health majors, and regularly sees enrollments of 170 plus students. The course focuses on quantitative methods used in public health research. Jager reported that many students feel intimidated by the math. There is no text book for the course, instead students watch short videos before class meetings.

Jager started the presentation, Clickers in Public Health Biostatiscs, with a hands-on demo where the audience used clickers to answer example questions. A basic use of clickers might include checking class attendance or taking a quick quiz on an assignment. Taub and Jager seek a dynamic classroom environment, using clickers to “provide fodder for interaction between students” and gaining formative assessment of student learning of new concepts being taught. In their teaching, clickers are used daily to promote problem solving and peer discussion. They start with “warm up questions” to review materials from previous classes, then move on to checking newly introduced concepts. Jager showed examples of poll results (these may be called results charts, plots, or histograms) and discussed how she and Taub would respond to situations where it was clear that many students understood concepts or not. When students are not clear on the answer to a question, the instructors have them pair up and discuss the question and their answers. The students re-vote, then Taub and Jager review the concept and correct answer. Even when it is apparent that most students understand the material, the instructors briefly review the question to be sure that no one is left behind.

Example of a case report form used to capture data in course survey. Cocoa Content in Chocolate Tasting Trial.Jager and Taub use clickers for data entry as well (see above), a practice that qualifies as beyond the basics. The JHU clicker system (i>clicker) is integrated with the JHU course management system, Blackboard. Using the survey tool in Blackboard as a data recording form allows the instructors to record student responses question by question. It then takes minimal effort to output a spreadsheet with data that can be shared with the class and used for exercises and assignments.

Emily Fisher, Director, Undergraduate Studies and Lecturer, Department of Biology, uses clickers in her classes (Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Genetics). Her presentation, Clickers Beyond the Basics.  Fisher began with a discussion of what she considered to be basic use. Class timeline showing when clicker questions are introduced in a basic use case scenario.This would include a question at the beginning of class to gauge understanding of a pre-class assignment, a formative assessment question midway through class, and a question at the end of class to “place today’s topic in the bigger picture.” This use encourages students to attend class (if answers count toward grade) and acts as a means to “reset the attention span clock.”

Going beyond the basics Class timeline showing when clicker questions are introduced in a beyond the basics use. Fisher uses clickers throughout the class period to help students evaluate data, understand how biological systems work, and engage in higher level critical thinking by engaging in complex problem solving. She also uses the questions to identify student misconceptions. Using student responses and gauging the results charts allows her to make sure that students don’t get lost as she works through building a model for problem solving. Fisher led the audience through a series of slides (see presentation) demonstrating her process.

Fisher noted that using clickers for teaching higher level problem solving takes time to implement but is worthwhile. She explains to students at the beginning of each course how and why she is using clickers in order to ensure buy-in. By developing a model, students get a preview for the type of thinking that will be required to answer exam questions. Students get to practice in class by articulating answers to peers. Fisher has found that the process motivates student engagement, breaks up the lecture structure with active learning, and allows students to see real-world situations.

In the discussion that followed, faculty attendees expressed concern about the amount of time that clicker questions take away from content delivery. Advice from clicker users was to move some content to videos and outside of class assignments. Quizzing can be used to motivate students to complete this coursework.

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

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources. Other images were taken from the presentations by Leah Jager, Margaret Taub, and Emily Fisher.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Where goes the Lecture?

Black and white image of universal sign figure at podium with a point, overlaid with red prohibited sign -- a circle with a slash through it.At Johns Hopkins there have recently been discussions among faculty and high-level administrators around the concept of “blowing up” the lecture. Nationally, we hear and read that the lecture is ripe to be “disrupted” and replaced by online, hybrid, or flipped course experiences. This is a debate that arouses strong feelings for and against the age-old pedagogical method. But what if you aren’t in a position to re-invent your lecture-based course? The three articles reviewed in today’s post offer some insights into best practices for working within the lecture format.

In How to Teach in an Age of Distraction [The Chronicle of Higher Education October 2, 2015], Sherry Turkle, Professor, Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, looks at the broader issue of reaching students immersed in their electronic devices. As almost all instructors today face this challenge, the article is well worth a read, whether or not lecturing is your mode of content delivery.

Turkle defends, with caveats, the lecture, citing anecdotal evidence from colleagues that with MOOCs and flipped classes, students often miss interacting face-to-face with an esteemed faculty member. “A student in an MIT class acknowledges that she gets to listen to the professor speak in an online video, but she wishes she could hear him lecture in person. He is an international figure and has a reputation for being charismatic. She feels she is missing out.” Turkel argues that watching course content videos alone in their dorm rooms isolates students and increases their connecting learning with using electronic devices. Further, she says,

But for all its flaws, the lecture has a lot going for it. It is a place where students come together, on good days and bad, and form a small community. As in any live performance, anything can happen. An audience is present; the room is engaged. What makes the greatest impression in a college education is learning how to think like someone else, appreciating an intellectual personality, and thinking about what it might mean to have one of your own. Students watch a professor thinking on her feet, and in the best cases can say: “Someday I could do that.” What the young man meant by showing up to “something alive” was really showing up to someone alive — a teacher, present and thinking in front of him.

As stated above, Turkel’s essay focuses primarily on the value of face-to-face conversation and collaboration, arguably not the primary components of most lecture-based courses. A well-designed flipped class would be more likely to foster these pedagogies. But, in Turkel’s defense, the flipped-class trend has not guaranteed that all flipped classes are better learning experiences for students than lectures.

In Turkel’s own classes, which are small seminars, students agreed to put away their devices and focus on the discussion at hand. It is not out of the question to ask that your students do the same in a lecture class. Helping students understand what they will gain by doing so may go a long way towards getting buy in. Turkel’s essay will help you make those points.

There are other reasons to eschew the old-fashioned sage-on-the-stage approach in favor of more interactive teaching practices. Annie Murphy Paul in Are College Lectures Unfair?, an opinion piece in The New York Times [September 12, 2015] asks if college lectures discriminate. Specifically, are lectures “… biased against undergraduates who are not white, male and affluent?”

Paul cites studies conducted by scholars at the University of Washington and the University of Texas at Austin that suggest that the lecture format puts women, minorities, low-income, and first-generation college students at a disadvantage. The studies showed that use of active learning strategies in the classroom reversed the effect. “Research comparing the two methods [lecture vs active learning] has consistently found that students over all perform better in active-learning courses than in traditional lecture courses. However, women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families.”

Although Paul looks to flipped-format courses as the answer, there are many examples of ways in which to incorporate active learning into a lecture by using classroom polling systems (clickers), think-pair-share exercises (see more on this below), and other strategies. See Twenty Ways to Make Lectures More Participatory from Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning for more ideas.

Regardless of the content-delivery format, instructors should understand the value of creating an inclusive classroom climate and the importance of teaching to students with diverse backgrounds. The JHU TILE project (Toolkit for Inclusive Learning Environments) is a good place to go for resources. I highly recommend watching the video The Affective Domain: Classroom Climate.

The third article, What If You Have to Lecture?  by David Gooblar, Lecturer, Department of Rhetoric, University of Iowa [The Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae: Pedagogy Unbound, February 18, 2015] addresses the conundrum directly.  Gooblar offers three ideas to keep students engaged for those who “…simply don’t have the option of abandoning a lecture-dominated course.”

Gooblar’s first suggestion is to use regular quizzing. He cites an earlier article he wrote on the benefits of frequent low-stakes testing for student retention of information. He offers the suggestion of handing out a short multiple-choice quiz at the beginning of the class that students will answer as the lecture progresses. All of the questions will be covered in your lecture. The quizzes are collected and graded at the end of every class with each quiz counting as a small percentage of the final grade. An even better pedagogical approach, Gooblar proposes, would be to have students answer the questions at the beginning of the class before the lecture, then correcting their own answers during the lecture. This approach allows students to see what they don’t understand and helps them focus on learning those points.

Gooblar second idea is to incorporate group work, a common active-learning strategy, into your lectures by putting students in pairs. Pairs work best in large lecture settings as it is easy for students to turn to the person next to them, and every student is accountable. He describes the classic think-pair-share activity, but also suggests, “Pair students up and, at various points throughout the lecture, pause and ask the pairs to share and compare notes for the previous section of the lecture. This is a good way for students to discover if they’ve missed anything important, and for misconceptions to reveal themselves quickly.”

Thirdly, he recommends that you “cultivate confusion” by asking students either in the middle of the lecture or at the end to write down their “muddiest point.” If you do this in the middle of class you should then call on students and have them read their responses so that you can address concepts that are not clear.  If students are asked at the end of class, collecting the responses, reviewing them and then responding at the beginning of the next lecture to clarify misunderstandings will help keep them on track. Gooblar maintains that this “…is a great way to break students out of the role of passive listeners….” This kind of formative assessment is a good practice for an instructor as well.

Even if you must lecture, you can ask students to be present and reinforce that by keeping them actively engaged. They can’t be on their cell phones if they are being called upon to answer questions, take graded quizzes, and pair up to discuss concepts with classmates. Be aware of the inequities that lecturing may bring and address issues of classroom climate at the beginning of your course. Use formative assessment to benefit you and your students. As you can see, a lecture doesn’t have to be a passive experience.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image remixed from Pixabay.com images

Back to School

It’s freshman move-in day on our campus, signaling the end of summer and the start of classes. Today’s post offers some resources for instructors as the semester begins.

Empty lecture hall, tiered with wooden seats.The Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker Blog post from August 13, 2015 by Natalie Houston (associate professor of English, University of Houston), From the Archives: Getting Ready for the New Semester, offers tips on getting ready to teach. Whether you are new to the profession or a practiced professor, there are links to articles with suggestions on learning student names, being prepared for medical emergencies in class, and routines to help you get organized.

In the The First Day of Class: A Once-a-Semester Opportunity (Teaching Professor Blog August 19, 2015), Maryellen Weimer, (professor emerita, Penn State Berks) writes, “There’s only one first day of class. Here are some ideas for taking advantage of opportunities that are not available in the same way on any other day of the course.” She suggests using the opportunity to tell students why the course is important, why you are committed to teaching it, why they should be committed to learning the material. Take the time to learn about your students and begin building relationships with them. “[G]et students connected with each other and the course content.”

Students often complain of poor presentation methods in lectures where instructors use PowerPoint (or other presentation software applications). A common mistake is to attempt to make your slides serve two purposes by being both lecture notes and lecture slides. This leads to too much text on the slides and reading from the slide. Both practices lead to student inattention. Bryan Alexander, in Giving a great presentation: notes on using PowerPoint, (July 27, 2015) tell us, “Your argument…is the essential thing.  The slides enhance your essential argument.  They amplify it and render it easier to understand. Make and use slides accordingly.” While the focus of the article is on presentations in general, there are some good things to consider for your use of presentation software in teaching!

Thinking about flipping your course? Check out Robert Talbert’s post Four things I wish I’d known about the flipped classroom (June 5, 2014), from his blog Casting Out Nines.

Or, perhaps you are considering implementing active learning strategies in your classroom. A recent article in Nature, Why we are teaching science wrong, and how to make it right (July 15, 2015) by M. Mitchell Waldrop, examines the problem of persistence in undergraduate STEM education. “Active problem-solving confers a deeper understanding of science than does a standard lecture. But some university lecturers are reluctant to change tack.” Waldrop stresses the importance of active learning, while analyzing the factors and challenges that contribute to slow adoption. For specific active learning strategies, see Cornell’s Center for Teaching Excellence website page on Active Learning. If you are going to be using an active learning classroom, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Education Innovation offers advice.

New to teaching or looking to brush up on your pedagogical skills? The Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) is re-offering the 8 week-long MOOC: An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching, starting September 28 and running until November 19, 2015. Having taken the course last year, I highly recommend signing up. Here’s the description from Coursera:

“This course will provide graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) who are planning college and university faculty careers with an introduction to evidence-based teaching practices. Participants will learn about effective teaching strategies and the research that supports them, and they will apply what they learn to the design of lessons and assignments they can use in future teaching opportunities. Those who complete the course will be more informed and confident teachers, equipped for greater success in the undergraduate classroom.”

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Twine 2.0: Not just for storytelling

For the past several years, I’ve been interested in storytelling as a means of improving student communication skills in any media. When I talk to students about communication skills, we discuss the importance of knowing your audience and of thinking about one’s research or project a being an opportunity to tell a story. I’m always on the lookout for applications and tools that might be useful in the classroom to help put these ideas into practice.

Black and white line drawing of a figure standing on an arrow with three heads pointing in different directions.A few years ago, I came across Twine, a tool for creating non-linear texts. It had potential, but at that time, the interface was a bit clunky, and didn’t seem intuitive enough for faculty and students to be able to pick up quickly. Enter Twine 2.0. A recent ProfHacker (Chronicle of Higher Education) blog post Starter Exercises for Interactive Storytelling, June 18, 2015, by Anastasia Salter, alerted me to a newer, easier to use version, with options for downloading or using it online. Twine casts itself as a game-writing tool, but more broadly it allows users to construct a story map.

What is a story map? If you were or had a child in the 80s or 90s, you may remember the popularity of the print “choose your own adventure” books. A story map allows you to graphically plot the paths that making a set of choices will take you down. This is the structure behind video games, as well as the “pick your next step” stories.

What can you do with Twine? Here’s what the Twine 2.0 guide says:

At its heart, Twine is a tool for creating hypertext. The difference between hypertext and a linear story, the kind found in books and magazines, is that it allows the reader to have some measure of agency. In other words, the reader has some ability over what he or she reads next. … [In creating a complex story or game] [b]ecause hypertext branches so much, it’s easy to get lost in your own work. Much of Twine is dedicated to helping you keep track of your work’s structure visually with a story map, so you can see what your readers’ experience will be like.

Can you build games with Twine? Of course! Twine has the capability to do conditional logic, so if the protagonist finds a key in an early part of the story, he or she can use it to open a door later on. It can also incorporate variables, which encompass the traditional trappings of games such as hit points and score. These, along with agency, are foundational concepts of interactivity, the currency of game design.

Beyond the gamification possibilities and the ability to create interactive narratives, Twine, and similar applications such as Inform 7 and Inklewriter, could be used more broadly for any activity that involves thinking critically about a decision process. Assignments that involve constructing a logic argument, inserting variables into an experimental model, or constructing hypothetical scenarios could all benefit from the features of Twine. Being able to “play” through the story map allows one to quickly identify flaws or problems.

There is a wiki full of information about using Twine. Get started with Twine 2: How to create your first story. Be sure you read Where Your Stories Are Saved before you start to avoid losing your work.

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Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com