Thursday, October 27, 2011

What is the Purpose of Education?

Duane and Tim led us in a discussion about the purposes of education and how the educational system as a whole fits into society at large, that grew out of watching and RSA video. We ranged over details such as what is the purpose of grading and assessments to how do we value different professions. In all we generated many more questions than we answered.

On a more focused level we discussed the objectives of specific classes and the expectations we have of students coming into and exiting courses, and what to do to support meeting these expectation. In so doing we discussed the roll of "Weed Out" classes, where the at least implicit purpose of the course is to mandate a certain level of competence for students who continue. Often these courses are lecture heavy and stress facts over reasoning. While we did not agree on the necessity of "Weed Out" classes we did agree that lecture was not a great way to get students involved even those who would otherwise be inclined towards involvement.

We meandered onto a discussion of the pros and cons of grading on a curve. The idea that the merit of work is only determined in comparison to that of others flew in the face of many of our sensibilities. Realistic and attainable goals can be set and communicated to the students. The challenge is then for the instructor to know what is "realistic and attainable" for the students. Several suggestions arose to help instructors meet this challenge including assessing without grading.

We segued into a discussion of the purpose of grades and what they are used for. We concluded that grades are used for at least two distinct purposes, a certification that the student knows sufficient material and second as support and encouragement to students. In discussing if these purposes are at odds with each other we raised questions about types of grading and "If the material is really beyond anyone?"

Other questions we raised over the course of our discussion were: Do we put more value on some professions and courses than others? and if so why? How has the context of education changed given that facts are now at our fingertips? Should we be focusing on something other than facts and recall as assessed by standardized test? These are but a small sampling of the questions we pondered in our discussion.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

10.17.11 Rick West and Teaching With Questions

How do you teach with questions? This and many other questions were answered as Rick West both demonstrated and discussed his unique teaching method that encourages student participation and provides instant feedback to the instructor. Rick started GTC with a sample of his teaching technique. Walking around the room he taught us a mathematical concept by constantly asking the class for feedback. Is this right? Do you think it can be done? Who agrees? Rick managed to elicit responses from every one of us.

After the teaching demo we discussed how he engaged the class. A few things came up that were not intimately tied to the questioning, but were engaging techniques none-the-less. Eye contact. Walking around the room. Showing excitement. Then we got into the specifics.

Rick creates an expectation of participation in his classes. He asks a question and waits, patiently, for a response. If there is none, he asks a simpler question, then another, and another, until the class can answer. He asks questions of the entire class and waits for everyone (hand up / hands down). This creates a climate in which students feel they are expected to and supposed to participate. By continuing to ask questions even when no one responds, Rick lets his students in on the secret that they will need to respond in order for the class to progress. By waiting for all students to respond to a simple "How many people have thought about X?" He lets people know that he expects a response from EVERYONE! This breeds a climate ripe for participation. So, when hard questions come along, the class ready and willing to give it a go.

An important thing we noticed was that after a few minutes of his teaching it was actually more comfortable to participate than to sit stoically in silence. This is in part owing to the uncomfortable silence when we didn't respond, but also to the manner in which Rick asks questions. By asking questions of the whole class at once and asking simple yes/no questions much of the time, Rick does not pressure students to answer something they did not volunteer to answer. We didn't feel pressured to answer anything too complex, and we were not made to feel stupid even if we got an answer wrong.

What do you do with a wrong answer anyway? Say, "NO, thats wrong."? Rick adresses wrong answers by trying to understand the student's logic behind them, focusing on what was correct about their logic and then addressing the incorrect part with another question to the entire class. Diverting the attention away from the 'wrong' part of the answer makes the student comfortable and serves as a teaching opportunity.

How do you get started using this technique? Give it a try to review concepts. Graduate to using it for easy explanations for part of the class. If you have more questions or would like to talk to Rick please email him at

Thank you Rick for joining GTC this week! We enjoyed your 'lecture?'.

Monday, October 10, 2011

10.10.11 Student Engagement in the Classroom

We had a wide ranging discussion based around our reading of an article on active engagement in the class room. We talked about both curricular design considerations and teaching techniques.

Some of the considerations for class structure were the trade offs between focusing instruction on processes and skills or the over arching concepts. When does focusing on a process help student understanding and when does it obscure the larger picture? When does a big picture understanding impede students' ability to execute and solve specific problems?

We weighed the relative merits of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Different students have a variety of levels intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and these differences influence instruction. Of the various ways to extrinsically motivate students grades seem to be one of the strongest. One way to take advantage of the strong extrinsic motivation grades provide is to have content the is only accessible in class. For instance you can have power point slides with _________ that you only can fill out in _______. We then focused on ways that we could foster the intrinsic motivation of students.

The bulk of the discussion was around a variety of teaching techniques that might be used to facilitate student participation, and motivation.
  1. Excitement, it's contagious! When your love of the material shows through it can't help but spill over to the students. A corollary to this to include your research as applicable, as it is something you are excited about.
  2. Know your audience. Make the content pertinent to the students. This can be a challenge for instructors to be "culturally aware." Polling students for their interests or assigning them a project that has personal or geographic significance, e.g. campus energy plan, can also be successful. Additionally a pre-test allows direct tailoring of your content to the places students need help the most. Following up with a post test enables assessment of your instructional efficacy.
  3. Destigmatize being wrong. Have students explain why a wrong answer is incorrect, or point out the instructors mistakes, intentional or not. Laud students' contributions, correct or not, for helping to move the class forward.
  4. Similarly show how science, or your field, really works. What were the events, and mistakes that lead to important discoveries? What were intermediate ideas the lead to the ground breaking ones?
  5. Have a variety of modes of interaction for students who are shy or intimidated. Discussing or presenting in small groups as apposed to large; using hands to show level of understanding, 1-5; voting on parts to present; and possibly asking students before hand which part(s) they would like to present.
  6. In general having a plethora of ways to engage with the students and material is beneficial. Mock debates, explaining fallacies, presentations, critiques of student work etc. can all work in some circumstances for some students.
  7. Model for them the behaviors you expect and desire. Show them how to ask good scientific questions. Demonstrate how to solve problems including how to monitor your own progress and assess the success of your current plan.
The discussion was stimulating and all are welcome to continue the discussion in the comments.

Friday, October 7, 2011

What makes student learn?

I found this video on YouTube. It is from a channel that discusses PER and has lots of great content. The video it self addresses some aspects of what students need to do to learn. It also clearly identifies some of the trade off that happen with learning. When students are passive recipients of information they tend to rate the experience highly saying it was "clear" and "concise" but the learning is minimal, and additionally students become more sure of their incorrect ideas. When presented with a video that first discusses some "misconceptions" before resolving a cognitive conflict, the students dislike the experience, and claim that it too more mental effort to understand the video. But they do much better in terms of content acquisition.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Technological Tool Box and Building Student Skill and Knowledge

One of my favorite analogies that came out of our discussion today was that of the technological tool kit that is available to us as instructors. Instead of having a hammer and a few nails we now have the equivalent of table saws and power sanders. Power point, clickers, blogs, social media, and even cell phones can be useful tools in the class room. So, just how do we go about using these tools when, unlike those you buy at home depot, technology doesn't always come with explicit user guides and helpful hints?

These were some great questions that came out of our technological took kit discussion:

1. Do we need to teach instructors how to use these tools, or should we just make them available and let each instructor find what is right for them? Teaching about the technology in classrooms may be valuable for instructors that have never used it before. Conversely, do we want to hamper personal style by telling instructors to use tools in a certain way?

2. What are we trying to 'build' in our classes a car or a house; which tools are appropriate? Do we really need all of the fancy tools? Would they add to the classroom experience or detract from the learning happening? Each class is different and has different goals. Use of technology should be evaluated in the context of the class to be sure it is appropriate.

3. Can technology help students with different learning styles? Does making multiple resourse increase the different ways a student can learn the material? Is it good to offer so many different ways of learning?

4. Can it increase or decrease a student's comfort with the class? Students come from different backgrounds. Some are more comfortable participating in public forums than interacting with the professor; thus, having chats or blogs increases participation. Others haven't had as much access to technology and may not be comfortable with its use. How do we work with both student types?

4. Does increasing technology potentially overburden our students? Is it possible to provide too many resources outside of class? Does having blogs, online videos, pod-casts, reading, etc. overwhelm our students and detract from their focus?

It was great to generate all of these questions. If you were not able to make the meeting, please comment and add to the discussion!

Thinking about how to utilize technology in the classroom

Universities across the United States are trying to incorporate it in a meaningful way, from creating tech-centered living and learning communities, to innovating with podcasts. However, technology can be under-utilized or misused all together: it was this under-utilization and misuse that spurred us to think about the learning opportunities made possible through technology. Some of the issues we went over today were:

- How technology is utilized depends on the subject matter to be conveyed. How might various
disciplines differ in their use of technology? Are some tools inappropriate for some subject matter straight up?

- The role of technology in the classroom may become part of or reflect a teaching philosophy.
What are the pros and cons to using new forms of media/technology (i.e., social networking tools, videos, online resources) in the teaching process? How would they affect how educators see time in the physical classroom?

- Not all uses of technology are created equal. Technology is not going to be all good or all bad.
While Teaching Naked discussed the ways in which technology, specifically PowerPoint, can
be stifling and dry, PowerPoints can also be engaging, as seen in this video of Hans Rosling
(http://youtube/jbkSRLYSojo). Should educators be encouraged to learn about and incorporate
technology (creating videos, animations, discussion forums, classroom blogs, etc), or should the
focus be on maximizing educator effectiveness, regardless of the tools used in lecture? While
PPT is a familiar model, we do not want to limit our discussion to its use.

- Sometimes, technology is seen as a better, but direct, replacement of previous methods or tools
(ie using powerpoints to replace transparencies). Are there uses for technology beyond that
replacement model? How can one use technology in an innovative way?

- Even with all of the resources on campus, would some students be put at a disadvantage with the heavy use of technology in the classroom? The groups that first come to mind are some students with disabilities, as well as students that come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.