How Pretesting Can Help Your Students Fail Well

Our previous post When Failure is a Good Thing, looked at an initiative at Smith College called Failing Well, a set of programs that helps student understand that failing can lead to better learning. Today, The Innovative Instructor offers a concrete way in which you can introduce students to that concept.

Piece of lined, loose leaf notebook paper with six multiple choice questions. ABC or D is circled in red for each question.In Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing (New York Times Magazine, September 4, 2104), Benedict Carey discusses the benefits of pretesting. He asks us to imagine that on the first day of a course we illicitly got a copy of the final exam. Would it help us to study more effectively and better attend to course readings, lecture materials, and class discussions? Undoubtedly it would. He then asks, “But what if, instead, you took a test on Day 1 that was just as comprehensive as the final but not a replica? You would bomb the thing, for sure. You might not understand a single question. And yet as disorienting as that experience might feel, it would alter how you subsequently tuned into the course itself — and could sharply improve your overall performance.” This is the concept of pretesting.

Carey calls it one of the most exciting developments in the science of learning field. “Across a variety of experiments, psychologists have found that, in some circumstances, wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later.” The failure on the pretest is an example of failing well. It sets students up for better learning during the course. A study by U.C.L.A. psychologist Elizabeth Ligon Bjork found that “…pretesting raised performance on final-exam questions by an average of 10 percent compared with a control group.”

Carey cites additional studies of pretesting with the insight that “testing might be the key to studying” and a way of “enriching and altering memory.” More traditional ways of studying do not seem to produce the same depth of learning that frequent testing, including the kind of self-examination that includes recitation, appears to yield. Other studies have shown that immediacy of feedback—getting the correct answers soon after the pretest—led to the greatest learning gains.

Why does pretesting work? There are several theories. First it gives students a preview of the material and helps them “prime the brain” to absorb what is most important. A pretest sets up a hierarchy and adjusts student thinking. Secondly, it exposes false impressions, things students think they know but don’t, by conveying multiple possible answers that they may not have considered as possibilities. Biological factors may come into play as well. Guessing at an answer on a pretest works differently from the memory functions at play in remembering and studying. Guessing embeds an unfamiliar concept into the brain that will be recognized when come across again, particularly if that happens within a short timeframe.

There are limitations. For example, a pretest for an intro course in a foreign language using unfamiliar characters (Russian, Chinese, Arabic) wouldn’t work because students have no “scaffolding of familiar language to work with.” In fact, “[t]he research thus far suggests that prefinals will be much more useful in humanities courses and social-science disciplines in which unfamiliar concepts are at least embedded in language we can parse.”

What can we take away from Carey’s article? Because pretests don’t need to be graded, this can be an easy innovation to implement in your courses. A short multiple choice quiz given before your lecture or class discussion asking questions pertaining to the key points you will cover could make a big difference in your students’ learning of the material. To be sure that they leave with the right information, review the quiz and the correct answers at the end of class.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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How to get students to focus on learning, not grades

Here at Johns Hopkins we have a significant number of undergraduates who are pre-med students majoring in a range of mostly STEM disciplines. For many, their undergraduate studies are a milestone to be marked on the way to a degree in medicine. Getting into medical school is the goal, and grades are seen as critical to their success in meeting that objective. Of course, it’s not a problem just for pre-meds, we see it across the board. Instructors understand that grades are important, but do not necessarily equate to future success. It’s the learning that counts. So how do we get students to focus on the learning not the grades?

Students watching demonstration of frog dissection.An editorial from Inside Higher Ed Too Smart to Fail? (August 16, 2016), by Joseph Holtgreive, Assistant Dean and Director of the Office of Personal Development at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, summarizes the challenges that face faculty and students. The “fear of failing to be perfect, ideally an effortless perfection, versus the joy of learning” creates situations where students opt for an easy grade as opposed to challenging themselves to learn. Holtgrieve has found this to be a problem particularly for students who did well academically in high school with little effort. Such students come to college focused on the “wrong outcome”—a high GPA—thinking “they’re keeping their eyes on the ball, they are actually just staring at the scoreboard.” While this affirms their measure of performance as long as their grades exceed their efforts, it can create a problem when their efforts exceed their grades.

Holtgreive points out that “[f]ocusing on the measurement of our performance reinforces what researcher Carol Dweck calls a fixed mind-set. If students believe that how they perform at one moment in time exposes the limits of their potential rather than serving merely as a snapshot of where they are in the process of growing their abilities, feelings of struggle and uncertainty become threatening rather than an opportunity to grow.” Focusing attention on grades may limit learning. On the other hand, when students can be convinced to “…set their intention to be genuinely curious and authentically excited by the challenge of finding connections between their current knowledge and new opportunities to understand, they experience the true joy of learning and all of the spoils that attend it.”

To find ways to help students “…reposition thinking about grades and learning,” Maryellen Weimer, PhD, offers some practical ideas in Five Ways to Get Students Thinking about Learning, Not Grades, from Faculty Focus, April 12, 2017.

  1. Position assignments as learning opportunities by discussing the “knowledge and skills” required rather than as something they are doing to “please the teacher.” Ask students to consider what they will learn in doing the work.
  2. Help students reflect on learning experiences throughout the course. Ask them to think about their professional ambitions and the skills and knowledge they will need. Have them make a list of those and use the list after every assignment or activity to write a short reflection on how the work they completed furthered their development.
  3. Create evolving assignments rather than one time tasks or activities. “One-time assignments don’t illustrate how learning is an evolving process and they don’t teach students how to do more work on something they have already done.” Instead, have students write a paper one step at a time (research a topic and create a bibliography, submit a thesis statement and an outline, write a first draft, revise, etc.), complete a multi-phase project, write a series of reflections and responses on a subject. Provide feedback but not grades for each phase.
  4. Encourage peer collaboration by structuring group learning and making sure that students are asking the right questions of each other.
  5. Change the conversation by talking about learning with students. Help students see how learning, not grades, will relate to their future professional goals.

Shifting the focus from grades to learning requires faculty to go against the tide of today’s prevailing academic culture. But making a few changes in how you think about teaching can go a long way to improving student perceptions of the importance of learning.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Scaffolding Part 2: Build Your Students’ Notetaking Skills

A few weeks back The Innovative Instructor posted on teaching your students how to read a journal article, essentially how to provide a scaffold for your students to effectively read scholarly writings. Another place where faculty can provide a framework for students is in the area of notetaking. Students who have grown up using laptops in class may not understand either the value of or the means to taking effective notes. Recognizing that schedules are already jam-packed, I am not suggesting that you spend a lot of class time to cover this. But, taking a few minutes on the first day of class to let students know why using laptops to take notes may not be a good idea, and providing them with some resources for several notetaking methods, may go a long way to improving their learning outcomes.

The image shows a green ball point pen resting on a blank page of graphing paper in a blue covered, open spiral notebook.Why not just let your students use their laptops to take notes? As I wrote in a previous post [May 21, 2014 Summer Reading: Three Articles for Your Consideration] in The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking  Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer [Psychological Science, April 23, 2014, doi: 10.1177/ 0956797614524581], reported on the benefits students gain by taking lecture notes longhand rather than on a laptop. Although using laptops in class is common (and instructors complain about the distractions laptops present), this study “…suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing.” “In three studies, [the researchers] found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.” The authors conclude “…that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”

As for resources on notetaking, the James Madison University Special Education Program offers the JMU Learning Toolbox, developed with a U.S. Department of Education grant on Steppingstones in Technology Innovation for Students with Disabilities. It features “tools and resources to enable students with learning difficulties to become better learners.” A section on notetaking outlines several different strategies for taking notes, based on common problems students may experience.

Students who have trouble keeping up with the fast pace of a lecture or discussion may benefit from the I SWAM method. If a student needs a better strategy for organizing notetaking, Cornell Notes may be the answer. For taking notes from a recorded talk PP 123 may be helpful. SCROL is beneficial for notetaking while reading course materials. TASSEL is a method offered for those who are easily distracted.

Although TASSEL is designed to help students not to doodle when they get distracted, Sketch Notes encourages drawing as a means to enhance notetaking. The webpage referenced mentions visual learners. In fact, learning styles such as visual, verbal, or kinetic have been debunked (for an overview or the research study see: Learning Styles Debunked: There is No Evidence Supporting Auditory and Visual Learning, Psychologists Say; for the full article see: Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Volume 9 Number 3 December 2008). Nevertheless, Sketch Notes will likely have the most appeal for those with artistic/creative leanings who like to doodle and draw.

In introducing notetaking strategies to your students, you will want to be sensitive to those who may have learning disabilities that make laptop notetaking a necessity. However, sharing the research on laptop notetaking with students will give them an understanding of why hand notetaking strategies may improve their learning. Providing them with resources to investigate will give them choices based on their needs.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Scaffolding: Teach your students how to read a journal article

Recently I have had conversations with faculty and librarians about students and journal articles, specifically, that students don’t come to college knowing how to find or how to read a journal article. It may seem tedious to have to take time out of your already packed class schedule, but it will be valuable (for you and them) to provide some scaffolding and introduce them to these practices.

A pair of glasses and a highlighter are shown on top of an open text book.Here at Johns Hopkins, our Academic Liaison librarians will be happy to come to your class and discuss with students how to search for and locate appropriate materials for their research. Those at other institutions may have similar resources available. But you may also find it worthwhile to give some guidance on the reading aspect.

The Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the University of Michigan has a great three page guide, How to Read (and Understand) a Social Science Journal Article (pdf) that breaks down the parts of a journal article (e.g., title, abstract, introduction, literature review, etc.) and describes what each is and what it tells the reader. It’s aimed at social science students, but is broad enough to be useful for any discipline. After introducing the parts, the guide describes how to read an article by first determining your purpose, then devising a reading strategy.

The ICPSR guide references an article in Inside Higher Ed, It’s Not Harry Potter (Rob Weir, March 9, 2011), which starts off by asking the question “We tell them, but do we show them how?” referencing reading journal articles. Weir recommends starting by introducing students to the concept of audience and have them consider “…for whom and for what purpose a journal article is written.” He lists things students should consider when reading an article, but emphasizes, as is picked up in the ICPSR article, that having students identify their purpose for reading the article is a critical first step. Strategies such as determining the writer’s method, examining the footnotes to evaluate evidence, and skimming are described.

I usually avoid linking to commercial sites/resources, with the exception of apps and software references, however a blog post from ProfHacker (Chronicle of Higher Education) on another subject [Switching from Evernote to OneNote, part 1 by Amy Cavender, August 11, 2016] alerted me to an article by Michael Hyatt: How to Make Your Non-Fiction Reading More Productive, that I thought was worth citing.

Although Hyatt’s advice may be geared towards those in corporate environments, he offers a succinct guide to reading non-fiction books that will be useful for your students. He suggests starting with reviewing and recording the basic bibliographic information, then summarizing the author’s main premise and argument. “Think of this section like an elevator pitch. If you had to tell someone what the book is about in less than a minute, what would you say?” Then Hyatt advises readers to note the insight they gained before identifying their disagreements with the argument. What was missing from the book? What were the main takeaways? Are they quotes that are notable? Having this kind of template for analyzing a book (or article) will give students a concrete platform for tackling scholarly reading.

If you have tips for scaffolding reading or other assignments for students, please share them in the comments section.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Flipping a Statistical Analysis Course

I wanted to share my reflections on flipping a course in Fall 2015 with my colleague, Dan Naiman, Professor of Applied Mathematics and Statistics at Johns Hopkins University. The course is 550.111: Statistical Analysis I. Previously, this 4-credit course met four time per week for 50 minutes – three lectures by faculty and one small-group meeting led by a Teaching Assistant (TA).

Text reading flipping the classroom with the classroom upside downStarting in Fall 2015, students watched several short videos (anywhere from 5 to around 20 minutes each) before the week started. Students then met once for a 75-minute lecture with the instructor and twice in small-groups with a TA. During these sessions students solved problems in teams of three with a TA available for help as needed.

In Fall 2016, we amended the format slightly: students met in a large lecture twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays, and met in discussion sections twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This was in response to feedback from students indicating that they preferred a bit of additional face-to-face meeting time with the instructor. The Monday-Friday lecture times also made homework submission and certain aspects of course planning (such as exams) easier to handle.

We made this change because we wanted students to spend more time in small groups solving problems and engaged in activities, as opposed to simply listening to a lecture.

What did we learn? I would strongly advise those interested in flipping a class to keep the videos short. They should be about five minutes each. This allows each video to cover a discrete topic, and it’s about as long as students will watch in one session. Recording shorter videos is easier on the instructor as well. The video production took longer than I expected. For each video, Dan and I would first construct a slideshow, and then we would record it using the software program Camtasia. My colleague, Dan, did an excellent job with video production, and we generated significant video content before the start of the semester. I would also advise instructors to complete all video production before the start of the semester; we still had a few videos to produce during the semester, and this was a challenge. I found I was pressed to finish those additional videos in time. We plan to revisit, edit, and potentially add more videos before the next course offering. Specifically, we are considering animations and possible hand-written solutions.

We conducted clicker quizzes at the beginning of each lecture to motivate students to watch the videos. However, based on the video logs, quiz results, and the questions they asked, I found a number of students were not fully prepared. Their questions were on topics covered in the videos. I would estimate that in Fall 2015, until the first exam, a number of students did not pay sufficient attention to the videos. However, after the first exam, students began watching the videos more diligently.

One reason we flipped the course was to restructure class time so that students could spend more time in mentored environments working in small groups solving problems. As it turned out, though, students requested more lecture than the once-weekly format. Students struggled to grasp some concepts from the videos. While students can review these topics multiple times, I believe they sometimes needed an alternative explanation. In a lecture, when students ask questions, I try to respond with a different perspective or explanation. With the flipped model in Fall 2015, students had only one class meeting each week to ask me questions about the homework. The second time we ran the course, in Fall 2016, we had two lectures each week, and I think students appreciated the additional lecture time.

I really enjoy teaching this course. It’s a lot of fun and a great privilege. Many non-majors enroll, and humanities undergrads have shared that this was the first math course they enjoyed and they were impressed with the applicability and universality of statistics. The class typically enrolls about 100 students.  Even with this large number I am able to learn most of their names by the end of the semester when we met three times per week. I did feel, though, that I was not able to get to know students as well when we met once per week. More important, I think the once-weekly lecture deterred students from coming to see me during office hours: I noticed a sharp decrease in the number of students who consulted me during office hours in Fall 2015. In Fall 2016, under the twice-weekly lecture model, I had better office hour attendance and was better able to get to know students.

While we were happy with the increase in the number of lectures, I think it’s important that we not decrease the number of small group meetings. The worksheet activities were important for their learning. Students were not always as enthusiastic about the small group problem solving, but they adjusted to the format and things improved as the semester moved forward. Furthermore, we still found it better than a TA solving demo problems for the class, especially in terms of class engagement and in terms of fostering independent problem-solving.

We used two types of problems in the course. The first required more synthesis-based understanding of previous topics. We began to develop more basic, conceptual worksheets once we saw students were not always able to keep up with the videos.

We did not give students the solutions to the worksheets. We worried that if we provided full solutions, they might be less motivated to work through challenging problems and/or skip discussion section altogether, and participation in section was important. Students did get feedback from the TA when they presented their solutions in class, and we did provide solutions to most assigned homework problems.

Overall, we did not see a dramatic change in student learning. We did not conduct a controlled study of learning gains, but exam scores were not much different from year-to-year. Course evaluations for the one-lecture-per-week format were slightly lower. (Again, the main complaint was that students wanted more time with faculty member in lecture.) Students were happier with the two-lecture-per-week format we implemented in Fall 2016. Therefore, we plan to stick with this format, meeting four times per week so students attend two lectures and two small-group sessions per week. We have also been more explicit about the role of each component of the course – videos, lecture, clicker quizzes, small group meetings – and what students are responsible for completing and when.

Most of all, we were very lucky to experiment with this approach with many terrific TAs—we owe them a real debt of gratitude for their assistance. We gratefully acknowledge support from the Office of the Provost and President for a PILOT grant that assisted us in implementing the flipped course.


Avanti Athreya is an Assistant Research Professor in Applied Mathematics and Statistics (AMS) at Johns Hopkins University. Prior to flipping the statistics course, she and Professors Naiman, Fishkind, Torcaso, and Jedynak (all AMS faculty) implemented a case-study based approach to introductory statistics as a part of the JHU Gateway Sciences Initiative. Her research interests are in probability and statistical inference on random graphs.

Dan Naiman has been on the faculty in Applied Mathematics and Statistics since 1982. Upon arrival at JHU, he taught Statistical Analysis I for 3 consecutive years, and has continued to teach the course occasionally, as well as a host of other statistics courses at all levels, since then.

Image Source: CC Macie Hall 2013


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

Quick Tips: Teaching in Challenging Times and Facilitating Difficult Discussions

In the days following the election faculty and students across the country were faced with Image of a stylized human figure peering into the opening of a large circular maze.teaching and learning in a climate that made both activities difficult. The issues that divided our nation could not be ignored in the classroom. The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University published a thoughtful guide for faculty: Teaching in Response to the Election, by Joe Bandy, CFT Assistant Director. The suggestions are practical, reference additional resources, and are useful not just today, but in thinking about supporting students in general. Three other CFT guides are referenced: Teaching in Times of Crisis for when “communities are united in grief or trauma,” Difficult Dialogues will be useful whenever topics of discussion in the classroom touch on “hot button” issues, and the guide for Increasing Inclusivity in the Classroom is relevant at all times.

We welcome your suggestions in the comments for facilitating difficult discussions and teaching in challenging times.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Lunch and Learn: Flipped courses: What is the purpose? What are the strategies?

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 Thursday, October 20, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the first Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching for the 2016-1017 academic year. A panel of faculty including Avanti Athreya, Assistant Research Professor Applied Mathematics & Statistics; Michael Falk, Professor Materials Science & Engineering; Bob Leheny, Professor Physics & Astronomy; and Soojin Park, Assistant Professor Cognitive Science; spoke briefly on their experiences and engaged in a lively discussion with attendees on Flipped courses: What is the purpose?  What are the strategies?

Avanti Athreya described flipping a large lecture course in Fall 2015 with her colleague, Dan Naiman, Professor, Applied Math & Statistics. The 4 credit course, Statistical Analysis I had previously met four times a week for 50 minutes – three lectures by faculty and one small-group meeting led by a TA.  Starting in Fall 2015, students watched several short videos (5-15 minutes each) before the week started.  The videos were created by Athreya and Naiman using Camtasia. Students then met once for a 75-minute lecture with the instructor and twice in small-groups with a TA.  During these sessions students, working in teams of three, solved problems with a TA available for help as needed.  Clicker quizzes were given at the beginning of each lecture to motivate students to watch the videos. Athreya noted that clear learning objectives were listed at the beginning of each video. Challenges included initial resistance from the students (she stated that there had been less of that this semester, the second iteration of the flipped course), and that students often need alternative explanation for concepts. Typically, the videos cover an idea in one way. In a lecture, the instructor noting confusion may offer another explanation for clarification.

Soojin Park co-teaches Cognitive Neuroscience: Exploring the Living Brain with Brenda Rapp, Professor, Cognitive Science. This 3 credit course has an enrollment on average of 250 students. Park and Rapp flipped their course in Spring 2016, with a goal of putting more emphasis on student exploration. They videotaped scripted lectures (these videos were shorter and more focused than the lectures in the traditional course) and posted them on Blackboard. Students took quizzes on the video content. Students met twice a week in sections of about 25. One section was structured as a review section, the other as an active learning section. The challenge was to create the active learning activities. They decided to emphasize practical skills, such as exercises to learn spatial areas of the brain using 3-D software. These activities were all group based. There were worksheets for each session. For the final project, students developed a mock NIH proposal. Park and Rapp found a 5% learning improvement on the final exam (the questions were reused from the previous year to allow comparison) as well as higher course evaluations.

Bob Leheny reported that he is in the fourth year of teaching an active-learning version of Introduction to Physical Sciences, which incorporates a flipped classroom model. The course serves 700 students each semester. Before class, students watch videos that were developed at the University of Illinois. Leheny noted that there is a great deal of video content already developed for teaching introductory physics, so the faculty developing the course here were spared having to create their own. Faculty are able to track how much time students spend watching the videos. The course was developed with funding from a JHU Gateway Sciences Initiative grant, which included the design and implementation of an active learning classroom that seats 80 students. In the classroom, students review the video content, then work collaboratively in groups of three on exercises and experiments that explore the topic for the day. The course is supported by three graduate student TAs and four undergraduate TAs. Leheny said that one of the challenges was time management in the active learning setting. He compared the instructor and TAs to “waiters working the tables” where students were doing the activities and exercises. There is a constant monitoring of where students are and what they need.

Michael Falk was an early adopter of flipping the course. He now flips two courses: his undergraduate Computation and Programming for Materials Scientists and Engineers, with an enrollment of 35, and a graduate course, Thermodynamics of Materials. For the undergraduate class he created his own videos using Screen Flow. Students take quizzes on the video content before class. In class students work through exercises collaboratively. Falk uses Class Spot to facilitate this work. Class Spot allows screen sharing; students can see how their classmates worked out solutions to problems. For his graduate course in thermodynamics, Falk made short, Khan Academy-style videos using Quick Time. The students watch the videos before class and use class time for problem solving. He also made use of an application called Perusall for annotation exercises. His found in general that his students like it better if there is a short recap of the video material at the beginning of class. Falk feels that the biggest challenge with flipping is finding meaningful activities for class time.

Some key points covered during discussion included:

  1. Making sure that students aren’t assigned too much to do outside of class–videos should replace some of the reading or other homework assignments.
  2. It may be necessary to incentivize students to watch the videos. This can be in the form of quizzes.
  3. If group or collaborative work is done in class, follow best practices for creating groups. Groups of three are ideal. It is best not to have two males and one female in a group as has been shown in research on gender construction of teams. Group work presents valuable experiences for students. For those going into STEM fields, collaboration will be the norm, thus is a good skill to acquire. Group work can help minimize the negative aspects of competition in a classroom.
  4. Base in-class activities on the student learning goals for the course.
  5. Keep videos short, even, or especially when using a lecture-style delivery of the content. Scripting of lecture delivery was advised, as well as adopting a modular concept. Each lecture video should focus on one idea.
  6. Faculty who had flipped their courses noted that preparation for the initial offering of the course took a tremendous investment of time, but that the results had been worth the effort involved.
  7. Several faculty from the humanities discussed whether a flipped model could be used in their class situations, and specifically whether video delivery offered any advantage over reading a text. Certainly offering a variety of learning modalities can be valuable for students coming to a course with different backgrounds and understanding. A humanities course might not benefit from being flipped in total, but having students work together in class to develop specific skills, such as close reading, could prove valuable.

In all, the session was interesting and informative. If you are an instructor on the Homewood campus, staff in the Center for Educational Resources will be happy to talk with you about flipping a course.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources.

Silence is Golden

A recent post in Tomorrow’s Professor by Joseph Finckel, Associate Professor of English at Asnuntuck Community College in Connecticut, suggested an innovative approach to teaching courses that have a discussion-based component. He writes: “I teach English, and midway through the spring 2013 semester, I lost my voice. Rather than cancelling my classes, I taught all my courses, from developmental English to Shakespeare, without saying a word.”

Black and white drawing of a man with his mouth taped shut.In The Silent Professor, Finckel notes that with an instructor-centric approach, talking is often confused with teaching. What he observed when he had laryngitis has compelled him to “lose his voice” at least once a semester since. “A wealth of literature focuses on active learning and learner-centered instruction, but I submit that nothing empowers learners as immediately and profoundly as does removing the professor’s voice from the room.”

Finckel points out that there are non-verbal actions the instructor can employ such as writing on the board, posing questions by typing into a projected document, and using gestures. Further, he tells us that considering when and for what reasons to speak assists developing “…an intentional, reflective teaching practice.” Student response has been positive. Finckel feels that is because he is creating a situation where learning will occur. “Teaching without talking forces students to take ownership of their own learning and shifts the burden of silence from teacher to student. It also forces us to more deliberately plan our classes, because we relinquish our ability to rely on our knowledge and experience in the moment.”

Although such an approach wouldn’t be appropriate for a large lecture class, it is useful to think about whether talking too much or too soon inhibits students. In working with faculty who teach discussion-based courses, one pitfall is being afraid of the silence after asking a question. It’s all too easy to fall into the habit of answering the question yourself when the silence is deafening. That simply reinforces the students’ belief that if they wait long enough, they’ll be off the hook.

Check out the article for more details on implementing the silent approach. Maybe that next case of laryngitis will be an opportunity rather than bad luck.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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