Friday, December 5, 2014

What We Assign

While working on a new syllabus for one of my spring classes, I took a break to read a Faculty Focus blog posting entitled “Could We Be Doing Better with our Assignments?  (Yes, if I were talking to a student I would identify this as procrastination…) One paragraph there made me stop and think.
Weimer writes:
 Most faculty, regardless of discipline, use a similar mix of assignments. We have our students write papers. In recent years, we have seen some movement away from the traditional, research-based, term paper. Today’s papers are shorter and more frequent, but they are still papers. We give multiple-choice or short-answer exams, which students take individually, usually within a designated time period and without access to resources or expertise. We use quizzes, assign homework problems, and maybe some sort of group project in an upper division or capstone course, but that’s about it. And we recycle assignments, using pretty much the same ones every time we teach the course and in every course we teach.
I realized that while I spend time rethinking topics for assignments, or dates for assignments, or weights for assignments, or directions for assignments, or rubrics for assignments, I really don't spend much quality time rethinking the mix and type of assignments per se. 

Help?  What kind of assignment–other than the traditional papers, homework questions, quizzes, individual timed exams, and group projects—do you assign in your courses?  What made you think of it?  How does it work?  I would love to learn some new tricks to spice up my old assignment categories.  Please share your ideas in this last Teaching Matters blog before the holiday break.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Socrates or Social Media: How Do Our Students Want to Learn?

Is higher education’s focus on learning technologies helping students to connect with each other and the subject area content so as to learn easier and better, or is it separating them from each other and from the higher order learning that occurs through interpersonal communication?  The picture below of a group of Dutch school children circa 1930, walled off from each other behind the “learning technology” of the day, made me stop and think. 

This picture, from a Nov 7, 2004 article in Vitae by Kirsten Wilcox, was used to underscore her argument that “the classroom as a space for human interaction has become a luxury in higher education,” and that it is precisely this human interaction that students today need, connected as they already are technologically by email, Facebook, Twitter, and all the others.

“Ten years ago,” Wilcox argues, “using course blogs, wikis, or online discussion forums to teach was an exciting innovation, which students embraced.” Today, she says, things are different: “Not only have these platforms lost the aura of immediacy and creativity that they once had, but students have little desire to add an intellectual online persona to the profiles that they cultivate across multiple media.”

As a long-time proponent of technology-enhanced teaching, my viewpoint has always been, “Students like technology, so they will learn more willingly and more deeply if the course offers them a chance to use those tools.” Clearly, it’s not that cut and dried.  What do you think?  Should we be trying to provide our students with the “luxury” of modern, technology-driven best practices in learning or the “luxury” of personal, face-to-face, in-class presence? And if the answer is “both,” (as it almost always is) how do you make that happen?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Elephant in the Room

This past week, Lincoln has been in the news.  Chances are, most of our students came to class much more interested in that fact than in solving math equations, fixing citations in research papers, or setting up a biology lab. How—if at all—did you handle the issue in your classroom?  When should we turn away from planned lessons to address topics of controversy, and how do we best do so?   

One useful summary of research on dealing with controversy assembled at the University of Oregon includes a section on the pros and cons of six possible responses that teachers can make when controversy comes up: 
  • Stifling discussion
  • Having no opinion
  • Refusing to take a stance
  • Refusing to take an immediate stance
  • Sharing our confusion or uncertainty
  • Taking a position of support or condemnation

Did you choose one of these options? Why? How did you resolve this matter for your own classroom and your own conscience?  

Another article,Managing Hot Issues in the Classroom,” offers a variety of suggestions and options that may be helpful as we work through this period of turmoil.  I recommend it for a general overview, and I am eager to hear your own specific approaches.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Cell Phones and Other Distractions

As we work to put together a university policy on cell phone usage, I thought it might prove useful to discuss what teachers can do--policies and bans notwithstanding-- to lessen the kinds of distractions cell phones can create in our classes. 

Mary Ellen Weimer, in a Teaching Professor blog, describes an interesting way to make the learning environment a shared responsibility.  She suggests asking students (preferably in small groups) to make two lists.  The first identifies faculty behaviors that make it difficult for them to learn.  The second identifies what other students do that makes learning in the classroom difficult.  At the same time, the faculty member lists student behaviors that make his or her best instruction difficult to deliver. Lists are then compared and discussed. As Weimer points out, “An open, free-flowing discussion reinforces the importance of the issues raised and will likely be an eye-opening exercise for some. The beauty of the strategy is how it makes clear that what the class ends up being is the result of actions taken by the teacher and the students. What individuals do matters to the class as a whole, and the behaviors on the list are things students and the teacher can avoid doing.” 

Another way to address the problem is pointing out the negative results arising from multitasking. Would sharing information on research like the following with your students make a difference?

“. . . students who use their mobile phones during class lectures tend to write down less information, recall less information, and perform worse on a multiple-choice test than those students who abstain from using their mobile phones during class.”  Kuznekoff. J. H., & Titsworth, S. (2013). The impact of mobile phone usage on student learning. Communication Education, 62 (3), 233-252.
“…students who reported regular cell phone use in class showed an average negative grade difference of 0.36 ± 0.08 on a four-point scale. Duncan, D., Hoekstra, A., & Wilcox, B. (2012). Digital devices, distraction, and student performance: Does in-class cell phone use reduce learning? Astronomy Education Review, 11, 010108-1, 10.3847/AER2012011.

“…other students are distracted when students text in class.” Tindell, D. & Bohlander, R. (2011). The use and abuse of cell phones and text messaging in the classroom: A survey of college students. College Teaching, 60, 1-9.

 What do you think? An thoughts and  tips to share on how you establish a productive, distraction-free learning culture in the classroom?