Saturday, April 16, 2016

Remembering to Breathe

I found myself nodding in recognition as I read Aimée Morrison’s article in which she described how she used to teach:
When I began teaching, and for some time after, I used to try to assuage...anxieties [about not succeeding at the hard job of teaching well] by crowding them out with activity. I would prepare 15 pages of lecture notes for an 80-minute class session. I would assign 70 pages of reading for every class meeting so we wouldn’t run out of material. I would cover over any pauses in the discussion with more lecturing, more PowerPoints, more handouts. I had students write research papers and exams and bibliographies and presentations and blog posts and quizzes — just so that it would be clear that I had a plan, and I was in charge, and I was well-prepared, and I knew what I was doing.
Morrison’s article uses yoga as a metaphor, explaining how we often try so hard to teach well --the yoga term is “over-efforting”--that we forget to breathe as we go along. She makes a plea for more breathing space for both teacher and student, more time in which students can learn.  She argues for being “less busy but more mindful” in our teaching, so that our classes can be more student-centered and our students more interested and more active, covering less perhaps but learning what is covered in more depth.
That makes sense to me even if it goes against the grain of my built-in need to be 110% prepared for what will happen each moment of each class and each class of the semester.  But it seems like an appropriate note on which to end my final Teaching Matters blog. As I enter retirement and work on breathing deeply and evenly--on some nice tropical beach if there is any justice in this universe--I will be thinking of you all, comforted in the knowledge that Lincoln students are flourishing in your capable and caring hands.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Getting Engaged

The premise of Engaging Imagination: Helping Students Become Creative and Reflective Thinkers by Alison James and Stephen D. Brookfield, one of the new CETL books available in the library, is that reflective thinking is essential for learning, and engagement is essential for reflection.
The authors begin with “Three Axioms of Student Engagement” (pp. 6-7):
  1. Student learning is deepest when the content or skills being learned are personally meaningful, and this happens when students see connections and applications of learning. 
  2. Student learning “sticks” more when the same content or skills are learned through multiple methods.
  3. The most memorable critical incidents students experience in their learning are those when they are required to “come at” their learning in a new way, when they are “jerked out” of the humdrum by some unexpected challenge or unanticipated task.  We naturally remember the surprising rather that the routine, the unpredictable rather than the expected.
The rest of the book explains why and how to get students involved in the following 14 reflection-encouraging activities:
  • Check the assumptions that inform their actions and judgments;
  • Seek to open themselves to new and unfamiliar perspectives;
  • Attempt intersubjective understanding and perspective taking—trying to understand how another person reasons, understands content, or views knowledge;
  • Make their intuitions and “gut” feelings the focus of study;
  • Study the effects of their actions with a view to changing them;
  • Look for blind spots and omissions in their thinking;
  • Identify what is justified and well grounded in their thinking;
  • Accept and experiment with multiple learning modalities;
  • Value emotional dimensions of their learning as much as the purely cognitive;
  • Try to upend their  habitual ways of understanding something;
  • Connect their thinking conducted in one domain to thinking in another;
  • Become more aware of their habitual epistematic cognition—the typical ways they judge something to be true;
  • Apply reflective protocols in contextually appropriate ways;
  • Alternate cognitive analysis with an acceptance of an unregulated, unmediated flow of emotions, impulses, intuitions, and images.
What sorts of activities have you tried to encourage student reflection and engage them in multiple ways of knowing your subject matter?  Any creative teaching tips to share?

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Putting the S in the SLO

A recent thread on a faculty development listserv I belong to has been focusing on how to maximize the learning potential in those SLOs we all dutifully write, discuss the first day of class, and then often don’t think much about again until the end of the semester. Some discussion has centered on how to make SLOs more meaningful to students.  The following, quoted with permission, is from Mary Goldschmidt, Faculty Development Specialist at the University of Scranton:
“Inviting my students to set their own goals as a formal part of the course is something I’ve been doing for 5 years now – in composition courses as well as gen ed courses in literature (not something students are usually too keen to take). It’s a practice strongly supported by the scholarship on self-regulated learning and goal orientation.…To illustrate what these look like, here are a few of my students’ self-defined learning outcomes (paraphrased):
  • an electrical engineering major said that he wants to become better at listening to the perspectives of his other small group members because he knows that professionally, he will always be working in teams.
  • an occupational therapy major said that she wants to increase her ability to pay attention to detail when reading literature because she can see a parallel between this kind of reading and “reading” her clients, e.g., noticing what’s not always explicit.
  • an economics major explained that his father loves poetry and he simply wants to be able to talk more with his Dad about poetry."
Goldsmith goes on to point out that it’s not enough just to do this once on the first day of class; student engagement has to be sustained.  “Twice later in the semester, I ask students to write reflections on the actions they’re taking to work toward their goals, the progress they’re making, and what new or different things they might do to better achieve their goals. I also ask them how I can best support them in their learning.  Students are significantly more engaged in the course when they have their own intrinsic motivation for doing well – beyond just wanting a good grade.”

Have you tried anything similar with your students?  How has it worked?

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Weighing--and Weighting--our Options

As part of his workshop on problem-based learning last Thursday, Dr.  Mark Serva, a professor of information systems  at the University of Delaware, discussed a variety of issues relating to course design in general, whether using a problem-based format or not.  One question he raised that made me stop and think perhaps more than any other was, “How do we spend our class time?”
The following options were listed:  
  • Content knowledge
  • Design and creativity
  • Real-world context
  • Communication skills
  • Student intrinsic motivation
  • Hands-on skills
  • Critical thinking
  • Disciplinary integration
  • Teamwork/collaboration
  • Self-directed learning
All must be present to some degree.  The tough question is which ones are more important than others?  

For any given class, the options (developed by Jonathan Stolk and Robert Martello of Olin College) can total  no more than 100%.  So if we value critical thinking, for instance, at 20%, then we have to devalue something else to maintain the 100% total. There was rich discussion about what percentage we would give to each when designing a course, as well as what percentage we might give to them when planning any individual class session.
To me this discussion brought home the point that we often spend all, or most, of our time thinking about what content knowledge we want students to acquire, giving much less attention to the other equally--sometimes perhaps more--important nine concepts.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the items in this list.  Would you add any additional options?  Which one(s) would you weight more heavily than others? Why?

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Teaching Actively

One of the books in the “New CETL Books Available” section of our library is Mel Silberman’s Teaching Actively: Eight Steps and 32 Strategies.  Since I am always a sucker for things that promise I only have to do a specific number of things to be successful, I opened that one quickly. 

Silberman’s eight steps are logical, basically the things any good teacher tries to do: 
  1. Engage your students from the start 
  2. Be a brain-friendly teacher 
  3. Encourage lively and focused discussions 
  4. Urge students to ask questions 
  5. Let your students learn from each other 
  6. Enhance learning with experiencing and doing 
  7. Blend in technology wisely
  8. Make the end unforgettable
It was interesting, though, to consider the specific strategies described for each step and consider some new options.  For example, one of the strategies for “making the end unforgettable” --in other words, for helping students to extend their learning beyond the course itself-- was asking students to create an action plan saying how/when/where they plan to use their new skills and knowledge in the future.  Students submit these plans to the teacher, who in turn returns them to the students via email a month or so later, at which point students can revisit the plan, check which actions they have taken, and hopefully reinforce some of the course content. 

Have you ever tried something like that to reach beyond the end of the semester?  Did it work?  If you've had a chance to look at the other 31 strategies, are there any that stand out as particularly useful to you?

Saturday, March 12, 2016

It’s a Wrap

If your students are like mine, they tend to look at exams and papers for one main thing:  the grade. And that’s where the contemplation either stops or focuses in general terms on how the grade doesn’t really reflect how hard the student worked.
As I was reading Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning: Across the Disciplines, Across the Academy, one of the new books on the pedagogy shelf in the library, I found the chapter on “exam wrappers” insightful on this problem.* In that chapter, Lovett defines exam wrappers as “structured reflection activities that prompt students to practice key metacognitive skills after they get back their graded exams (p. 18).”  These reflection activities require students to respond to three kinds of questions:
  1. How they prepared for the exam
  2. What kinds of errors they made on the exam
  3. What they might do differently to prepare for the next exam
As Lovett explains, “Currently, most students seem to think of exams as the 'end' of learning.  Instead they could be opportunities to reflect, compare and adjust their strategies” (p 19).  Her point is that students, at most, look to see what facts they got wrong, when it is much more important to reflect on why they missed those particular facts and what they might do differently the next time so as not to miss them.  Requiring them to think about the study process helps build the students’ sense of metacognition, over time developing them into more self-directed learners.
Teachers benefit as well, since they get a much clearer picture of how students are performing with respect to the course learning objectives, and thus are able to make changes in their instructional plans as needed.

The article reminds us that metacognitive skills
  • are developed through practice and feedback,
  • are not automatically transferred across contexts, and
  • while extremely important for students just beginning their college experience, are NOT best learned as generic “study skills” but instead must be grounded in the course content.  
Lovett also points out that teachers can use other “wrappers”—homework wrappers, lecture wrappers, small group discussion wrappers, etc., and provides examples from a variety of disciplines in the appendix.

What do you think?  Have any of you had success with this sort of reflective assignment?  
*Note:  Other chapters were equally interesting, giving case studies of how teachers can enhance student metacognition and reflection in different disciplines, e.g., Chapter 3:  Improving Critical-Thinking Skills in Introductory Biology Through Quality Practice and Metacognition or Chapter 4:  Reflection and Metacognition in Engineering Practice.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

That 0ngoing Textbook Problem

A common complaint heard pretty much any time two faculty get together is, “My students won’t buy the textbook. What do I do?”

Might one possible solution, Professor Pettaway asked in a recent email, be to have all students purchase iPads with their textbooks already loaded?  “Since most faculty complain about students not purchasing text books,” he wrote, “I have long espoused the ideas of all freshmen being required to purchase I Pads for a fee (included in the tuition bill) that would include the text book materials for all first year courses. After the freshman year, this cohort  would pay a textbook fee only for textbooks.  In four years Lincoln’s entire student body would have all textbooks delivered electronically.”
With his permission, I am posting the issue here, along with a link he provided to an article in Inside Higher Ed  about how some other universities are using iPads.
What do you think?  Could something like this work at Lincoln?  Are there other ways (cheaper, lower tech?) to solve the “they won’t buy their textbooks” dilemma? Have you tried anything that works in your classes?