Effective teaching is not standardized teaching


There was a comment on a recent post that I’ve been chewing over for the past week, that gets at the heart of what’s (I think is) ailing effective STEM teaching.

This person was explaining why they had been tenured for a decade and now are choosing to leave the professoriate. Among other reasons, they were explaining how their university is expecting them “to deliver standardized experiences to a lot of students.”

I feel like this short statement is replete with experiences, assumptions, problems, and truth that deserve some exploration. (A younger me might have said that this statement needs to be “unpacked” and thank goodness I’m not that person now.)

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Education research denialism in university STEM faculty


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


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

Efficient teaching: Doing active learning an easy way


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

Class duration and time for research


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.