In teaching, less is more

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Question: When you’re teaching, how much should you cover?

I propose a couple answers:

Answer A: You shouldn’t cover much, because the more you cover, the less they learn.

Answer B: Trick question! You’re not supposed to “cover” anything! If you teach a topic by just making sure it gets covered in a lecture, then you’re not really teaching it. Continue reading

Education research denialism in university STEM faculty

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Scientists regularly contend with irrational denialism of simple facts. In our classrooms, communities and the media, we hear patently absurd things like:

This is the logo of the Flat Earth Society.

This is the logo of the Flat Earth Society.

  • The world isn’t getting hotter, or even if it is, it’s not from carbon emissions.
  • Humans didn’t evolve from nonhuman ancestors.
  • Transgenic foods are unsafe.
  • Vaccines cause autism.

Any scientist who operates on the basis of evidence will regard those ideas as total bunk*.

But, as I’ve mentioned before, people aren’t rational beings. Especially when their emotions are involved (and they usually are), they’re not prone to think an expert is correct if their intuition tells them otherwise.

And scientists are people.

So I am not entirely surprised, but I am disheartened, when scientists are guilty of their own flavor of denialism: Education Research Denialism. Continue reading

Why I avoid lecturing

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Academic freedom is glorious. Despite pronouncements to the contrary, university faculty — including most contingent faculty — enjoy tremendous freedom in what we teach and how we teach it. Most professors teach however the hell they choose to teach.

Academic freedom enables change, but resists rapid change. Faculty have the liberty to stand aside as change happens. We can stand by and snark as fads wash by. We also can fossilize as the landscape truly changes. I think it’s hard, in the moment, to distinguish between a fad and a change in the landscape. Continue reading

Active learning is flexible and designed to reach the reticent

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I’ve gotten positive feedback about a post in which I explain how it’s not that much work for me to do active learning in the classroom. However, a couple entirely reasonable misgiving seem to crop up, and I’d like to give my take on those causes for reluctance to start up with active learning approaches. Continue reading

Efficient teaching: Doing active learning an easy way

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Here are a few difficult facts about education in college classrooms:

  1. Lectures don’t work well. People just don’t really learn much from hour-long lectures.
  2. People learn when they discover ideas on their own.
  3. People learn best when working with peers.
  4. It’s a hell of a lot easier to just explain something to someone than to set up a situation in which this person can figure it out for themselves
  5. It takes a lot longer for a person to figure something out than it takes for you to just explain it to them.

I suppose you can take issue with some of these facts and argue that they’re not true facts. But just as climate scientists are mighty darn sure about anthropogenic warming trends, education researchers seem to be just as sure about this these facts. I let them take my word for it about ecology and evolution, and I’ll take their word for it about education.

And this is a problem, because it means that what a lot of us have been doing appears to not just suboptimal but downright inadvisable. Continue reading

It’s nice to have administrators you can trust

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Last week, our campus had its back-to-school events. Our administrators talked about their big plans.

There was one Thing that the President talked about for a few minutes.

The Provost talked about the same Thing for a half hour.

My Dean talked about It for about twenty minutes.

When I had lunch next to my Associate Dean, the conversation was about this Thing for about fifteen minutes.

Then when my department met, the Thing was discussed for about another half hour.

So what is this Thing?  Continue reading

What do our grades measure? Academic savvy or actual learning?

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Grades are a necessary evil. I record grades because it’s a required part of my job, even though the existence of grades makes my job harder.

Grades are primarily a measure of how good students are at getting good grades, not a measure of how much they learned.

My job is to foster curiosity and independent learning. I want students to grow by fulfilling a personally motivated need to understand. Grades inhibit that process. Grades make students focus on doing what it takes to get a good grade. That’s not a good thing.

People learn far more deeply when the information is discovered through a self-directed process of inquiry. When students are studying for an exam, what they are doing is the exact opposite of self-directed inquiry. They’re working to anticipate what others might expect of them and they’re working to fulfill the external expectations. When I have to give an exam to students, the last thing I would ever want is for them to study by trying to anticipate what is going to be on the exam. Because then they’ll be studying to just cover their bases.

In other words, when we make students jump through hoops, we get in the way of genuine learning. Students working towards a grade are not looking past the final exam. If none of my students are interested in the material after the exam is over, then I have earned an F for the semester.

Students can be prepared to answer a ton of questions, on a variety of topics. They then can do what it takes to get a good grade. And then, it’s possible to not really know a damn thing about the topic months later, after the exam, when the grade is in their transcript. That’s because their relationship with the curriculum was about learning stuff to get a grade. It might have been interesting or fascinating at the time, but if the motivator is the grade, then the motivation isn’t the pressing need to understand anything.

So, when we assign grades to students, what are we really measuring? Are we measuring effort? Are we measuring the ability to memorize stuff? Are we measuring the ability to explain things eloquently? Are we measuring the ability to anticipate what will be on an exam?

I don’t like any of the preceding options. What I’d like my grades to measure is how well the students have mastered the central concepts in the course. The problem, however, is that all of the ways of measuring that – the mastery of the central concepts – get biased by the ability of students to do all of that other stuff in the preceding paragraph. When students are assigned grades, the outcome is determined more by their academic gamesmanship than how much they actually learned.

Academic gamesmanship, caused by grades, gets in the way of genuine curiosity. Far too often, students get good grades only because they know how to earn good grades in the system; just as often, students who learn earn poor grades because of poor gamesmanship. The last thing I want is for the grades in my course to reflect a student’s savvy rather than learning.

I don’t know how universal this is, but my university requires that all syllabi have clearly stated “Expected Learning Outcomes.” Grades need to reflect how well students fulfill the expected outcomes. If designed right, these outcomes can allow students the intellectual breathing room to develop their own critical thinking process about a course.

In my opinion, the best way to liberate students from academic gamesmanship is to remove every bit of mystery from the grading process. Nothing on an exam should ever come as a surprise, nor should students be in a position in which they feel like they need to interpret what you think is important about the subject. Nor should students have to worry about cramming for a laundry list of concepts.

Our grades can’t really measure genuine learning. But the less our grades reflect gamesmanship, the greater the chance our students will be genuinely engaged in the content.

Efficient teaching: Getting metacognitive

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I’ve built up a little speech that I make on the first day of class, after we’re done going over the syllabus and before we start the first lesson. It sounds something like this:

This semester, my goal is to teach you absolutely nothing.

If I do my job as well as possible, then I will not teach one single fact or concept. Instead, I will set up the circumstances for you to discover information on your own. You only really learn something if you discover it on your own. So, our classes will be set up so that you sort through and find information provided to you, to answer questions, and to go through experiences that enable you to make your own inferences and figure out concepts on your own. And you’ll be reading a lot outside class.

We learn better when we are conscious about the fact that we are learning, and when we are aware of the methods that we are using to learn. In other words, we need to study metacognitively. Cognition is what happens in your brain when you sort through things and learn. Megacognition is being cognitive about cognition.

Different kinds of facts and concepts are best learned in different ways. Lectures are pretty much the worst method for most concepts. When we do activities in this class, and when you are working on assignments, or solving problems on your own or in groups, these are designed for you to have a cognitive experience.

As you are going through your cognitive experience, it is useful to be mindful of the fact that you are having a cognitive experience. In other words, when you are solving a problem in a group, you should keep in mind that the process of solving this problem, itself, is provided so that there is something specific for you to learn and understand. When you are aware that there is a set of concepts tied to cognitive activities, that practice of metacognition will help you guide your cognitive processes towards the central question at hand.

If you wander through a maze without paying attention to your route, you may eventually get out, but it will be inefficient and probably unpleasant. However, if you are aware of the fact that you are in a maze, and you focus on the methods that you are using to get out of the maze, then you will not only get out of the maze more quickly but the process of solving the puzzle might be more fun as well.

This course has a route. We will discuss this route and there are lots of concepts that interconnect. However, if I show you a map of the maze, then you will be deprived the opportunity of truly learning the maze by building the map yourself. Don’t blindly study the concepts in this course, but be metacognitive in your approach to learning about the concepts and how they relate to each other. When you are working on a question or a problem, be sure to recognize specifically how, that your approach to studying is tied to the larger questions at hand.

You might have some classes in which you’re expected to write down notes from powerpoint during every lecture session. That won’t be happening here – we’re using our time together to interact and learn from one another and engage substantially with both the material and as a group. Metacognitively, you should be aware that this approach is not because I don’t like to lecture, but because the science of learning is unambiguous that we learn better when interacting and working in groups. Learning solitarily is lot more difficult, and learning by digesting notes from a lecture is inefficient. This may be different from the bulk of your classes, but I ask that you put some trust in me and that when your work is evaluated throughout the semester, that this approach will not only be fair but also provide you with a better opportunity to learn.

The measuring stick of how well I teach is not about my performance as a theater exercise, but how well you learn. I’m not talking about how well you do on an exam in this course — though that matters — I’m talking about what you know about this topic ten years from now. [for statistics] Do you fundamentally understand how a statistical test works, and what a p-value represents? Can you identify an experiment with solid design and can you create an experiment that isn’t pseudoreplicated? If you can’t do that ten years from now, then I will have failed. But to accomplish that goal, I need to choose ideas carefully because there are only so many topics that we can cover with such depth that they stick with you for a long time. I refuse to barrage you with information that you will soon forget, and instead I’m choosing to teach a small number of concepts, chosen carefully, that will stick with you well after this course is over.

I’m sorry to lecturing to you for so long about this. Hopefully, if I do my job well, I won’t do this much speaking again throughout the whole semester.

Among other consequences of this little speech, I’ve found that it reduces the number of students who are uncomfortable working in groups or who feel dopey when class doesn’t have lecture but has problems to be solved. How to get students to engage, especially in a larger room with more students, is a challenge for classroom management. How the tone is set on the first day goes a long way.

Class duration and time for research

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If you had total control, how would you block your teaching time?

Would you want classes to meet frequently for short periods of time, or infrequently but for a long stretch each time? What is good for your research? What is good for the students? Are the two mutually compatible?

One end of the continuum (the block system aside) is having classes meet 3-5 days per week, plus a lab. When I was in college, my intro science classes met in the mornings, 5 days per week, for an hour, over 10 weeks.

At the other end of the continuum is where I am teaching now. Most daytime classes are either MW or TTh, so they meet for 1.5 hours twice per week. There are almost no MWF classes. Since most faculty teach four courses per semester, this presents enough flexibility so that scheduling is not impossible, though I feel deep sympathy for the chairs that have to schedule.

We also have a many classes that meet in the evenings, as I teach on a commuter campus. Plenty of them meet once per week, for three hours. My teaching load has included these for the last few years.

Tonight, after my kid already gets home from school, I’m teaching for three hours. I only see these students once per week. This semester I do this on two nights per week. I miss evening activities with my kid, but it does lead to having more time with him at other moments, including my being able to pick him up from school those other days. I’ve arranged my schedule so that I’m available for parenting the evenings I’m not teaching, and my spouse sometimes has weekend commitments. I think it evens out during the semester, in terms of parental effort.

How do feel about it, in terms of my research opportunity? I’m liking it a lot. On most days, I have massive blocks of time that I can protect to allocate to time-consuming tasks. It’s great. I also don’t have to rush into campus those days, and I can take care of business at home. It also leads to an expectation that I might not be on campus in the day, if I am there in the evening.

How does it work out pedagogically? At first I was reluctant and concerned that it wouldn’t work out. After doing the same class several times, I’ve been converted to this schedule. First of all, preparing for a class is three times as much work, though that also is less frequent. That’s something to take into account. But assuming that you’re prepared, how does it affect learning? I think it’s a net gain. Actually, putting my own schedule aside, I’d structure all of my classes to meet in a 3-hour stretches on a weekly basis instead of more frequent lectures.

Why do I think this time format is better? Because active learning requires focus and depth. I was reluctant to teach these long infrequent classes because, let’s face it, after three hours of lecture your mind is pulp. You’re exhausted and parched, and the students are on overload. All lecture audiences slow down after 20 minutes.

Once I learned how to stop lecturing, and to teach using other approaches, we have time to learn much more deeply when we’re together. And I have enough experience running a classroom to keep students accountable in the intervening week, so that their brains don’t shut off during that time span. I realize that it’s nearly impossible, at least in the short term, to shift class schedules around for many political and practical reasons. This is, though, a good thought exercise to think about what’s best when you do have the choice.

Grad students in the sciences who teach for a living learn to balance their time while teaching long class sessions. Usually, grad students are teaching the lab sections. I taught three 3-hour sections per week to get my TA wage (for a wage around the poverty line) in grad school. So, that’s not that different from what I’m doing now as faculty. If grad students with TAships have time for a dissertation, then if faculty plan well they should have plenty of time for research.

If you’re lecturing, I think short classes are best, or least bad, for the students, because the human brain doesn’t have the capacity to absorb lectures for long stretches, even when they are engaging. But if you’ve abandoned the lecture, then long classes will give you the time to let students consider topics in depth and learn a lot more. And, on the plus side, having classes in big blocks will let you schedule research in big blocks, too.