Teaching Tip #5: Homework Blues?

It’s only February 2nd and already some students are behind in their reading or other assignments.  If you mention the standard Carnegie definition of a credit hour (one hour in class plus two hours outside of class for each credit) many students look at you with horror or incredulity (the ones who don’t just laugh).  What’s a dedicated professor to do?   There are a number of strategies to try, but they all come down to one basic principle: make it matter.

  • Do NOT “cover” reading assignments during a lecture.  This makes reading completely unnecessary, and time-pressed students figure this out immediately.
  • Use class time to elaborate on the assignment, give additional examples, clarify difficult points or apply material to different problems.  Try to incorporate reading assignments and other homework into the structure of the class. Students who see their work being used, or who share it with peers, are more likely to stay current.
  • Ask students to write: a summary of their assigned reading; a question they have about an assignment; the most difficult part about the homework problem; or any question of your choice, and bring this response to class before you talk about it.  Such responses give you a sense of where students are struggling, and you can target your comments accordingly.  These types of writing assignments also can form the basis for discussion, and they are a great way to infuse “writing to learn” into any classroom.  Grading is optional.  You might choose to use these assignments as part of a class participation grade, or they can be used to document attendance.  Have students fully attended the class if they haven’t done their preparation?
  • Use technology!  Ask students to respond to questions or post the types of responses described above on the Blackboard discussion board.  You will want to have a deadline for these that allows you to review their responses in a timely manner, so you can use them as part of the class.  Students can respond to each others’ posts as well.  (Structuring this type of online activity usually needs to be worked into your course syllabus prior to the semester starting in order to be most effective.)
  • If you find that you are assigning readings or other homework that you aren’t really using in class or asking students to apply in their work, consider whether that assignment is really necessary.  Perhaps changing the reading or the task will make it more effective, or maybe it’s time to come up with something new, or spend the time on something else.
  • Make sure that you allow enough time for students to complete your assignments and really master them  –  you might ask your students how long they are spending on readings or problems and adjust your assignments accordingly.  Asking for this information can also let you know whether students are using a very superficial approach to their work or really getting into it. This is an excellent clicker question by the way – students don’t have to be embarrassed about their own answer and can see what the rest of the class is doing.
  • Discuss with students why you chose particular readings or designed particular assignments, so they have some idea of the benefits you expect them to reap from doing the work.  Then, let them know how to approach assignments effectively.  For example, students do not automatically know how to read college level texts, and they benefit from instructions that help them read more deeply.  Consider a reading guide with higher level questions that ask them to consider the author’s intention, questions they expect the author to address, their reactions to the reading, identification of the main points, etc.  Questions obviously will depend on the students’ level and your teaching goals.   For problem sets or design assignments, discuss how to attack a new problem and consider asking students to keep a journal where they record their attempts.  Reviewing students’ descriptions of their attempts to complete an assignment can give you tremendous insight into where students are going wrong.
  • Sometimes students seem to think that you just won’t notice (or care) that they are not keeping up. Then they get so far behind they become the “disappearing student”. Nip this in the bud now!  Contact students in whatever way you feel comfortable and let them know that you ARE paying attention, you HAVE noticed their absence or lack of preparation and what needs to happen NOW.  You can’t turn every student around, but research on early warning systems indicates that direct, personal intervention can be effective.  Generalized statements to the class and/or assuming the student will notice the problem and turn him or herself around generally do not work!

How do you help students stay on track in your classes?

100 Very Sensible Writing Tips

Call this list common sense in bullet points, courtesy of Online Colleges.

Teaching Tip #4: Better Lectures?

The lecture method of instruction may be the original pedagogical strategy.  Before information was readily available in print form (and now online), a lecture was the most efficient way to transmit expert knowledge to novice learners.  Now, rather than being the primary source of information, faculty experts need to help students learn to find, select, use and evaluate ideas and information from the constant high-speed flow that surrounds us.  How effective is lecturing compared to other teaching methods for today’s learners, and how can we maximize the effectiveness of our lectures?

McKeachie et al. (1990) analyzed a large body of evidence and concluded that lecture is not a particularly effective method of instruction when compared to more active approaches. Discussion methods result in superior student retention of information, transfer of knowledge, problem solving, critical thinking, attitude change and motivation.  Print sources of information are superior to lecture since students can read faster than lecturers can talk and can review printed materials easily and at their own time and pace.  Despite these findings, lecture does continue to have a place in the pedagogical toolbox.  The trick lies in understanding how and when they are most useful.

Lectures can be an effective and efficient method of instruction by:

  • Providing information that is more current than written materials
  • Summarizing or adapting material from multiple sources
  • Helping students learn by providing conceptual frameworks, key concepts, principles and ideas
  • Motivating students to consider a different point of view, a new problem or a challenge
  • Modeling how to approach a problem or question; providing examples of a “scholar in action”

Making the best use of lectures:

  • Cognitive theory shows us that lasting learning depends on mental activity – thinking about, elaborating and using information makes it more likely to be retained.  Knowledge is stored in linked networks of concepts, principles and facts.  Effective lectures help to bridge the students’ existing networks and the structures of the discipline.
  • Watch out for “conclusion oriented” lectures – lectures that strive to summarize the knowledge “covered” in the day’s readings.  Aim instead to use demonstrations, metaphors, problems, and examples that allow you to help students learn how to read and understand their assignments.
  • Break up lectures into 10 – 20 minute segments.  Research indicates that listeners have trouble maintaining attention after this amount of time and without attention, there can be no retention!  The most effective lecture breaks require students to apply or use the material just covered.
  • Some sample lecture breaks include
    • minute papers (give students one minute to write about the main points of the lecture so far)
    • muddiest point papers (write down the most confusing part of the lecture so far)
    • think-pair-share (pose a visual, a question or problem and ask students to respond, then turn to a partner and share)
    • applying the lecture content to a case study or example (individually or with a partner or small group)
    • Using multiple choice clicker questions to quickly assess student understanding of points just made

You may be thinking that taking notes is enough activity to promote learning during lectures.  The research suggests that the answer is – not usually.  The usefulness of note taking depends on several factors, including the students’ ability to maintain attention, understand what was said, and hold onto it in short term memory (not to mention fast and accurate fine motor skills).  Studies suggest that students aren’t able to write down most of what was said in lectures, and that they get some things wrong.  This is because listeners have limited information processing capability, and if the material is complex or unfamiliar, the effort of note taking can detract from the effort required to comprehend and organize the material.   The bottom line?  When material is new and/or particularly complex, students do better when you limit the number of concepts presented, and provide multiple opportunities to understand the material.  Providing extra support such as organizers (outlines, concept maps, headings, etc.) that students can use to help them begin to process information more deeply is also helpful.

Do you lecture?  Why or why not?  What do you do to make lectures more effective?

McKeachie, W.J., Pintrich, P.R., Lin, Y-G., Smith, D.A. F., & Sharma, R. (1990). Teaching and learning in the college classroom: A review of the literature (2nd Ed.). Ann Arbor: NCRIPTAL, University of Michigan.

McKeachie, W.J. & Svinicki, M. (2006).  McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. Boston, MA:Houghton Mifflin.

Teaching Tip #3: Writing is Learning

Try this experiment:  ask your students to spend 5 minutes writing about a topic before beginning class discussion on the topic. You don’t need to grade it or even collect it, although you might want to use the students’ work as a way to take attendance.   Why do this?  Research findings suggest that students who write about topics learn more than those who do not.

Drabick, Weisberg, Paul, and Bubier (2007) compared the test performance of students who either wrote or thought about a topic for 5 minutes before engaging in a 10 minute class discussion of the topic. Ungraded writing produced larger improvements in student performance on both factual and conceptual questions than did merely thinking about the topic, with a larger benefit for conceptual questions. Even when student writing is not graded, these assignments can be effective strategies for improving student learning.

Brief, in-class “process” writing has other advantages.  Students who are reluctant to contribute to class discussion are more likely to do so if they have had a few minutes to gather their thoughts and write them down.  You can avoid calling on habitual responders and randomly ask students to share what they have written.

In-class process writing can also serve to quickly assess student knowledge about a topic.  You can use it as a pre-test, to assess reading comprehension or as an application exercise.  None of these writing assignments need to take more than a few minutes of class time, they require little faculty grading time, and they enhance student thinking and learning.

How do you use writing to learn in your classes?  Please share your ideas with us!

Want to hear more about teaching content through writing?  Join us for the faculty conversation on January 27, 2010 (11:30 am, main campus dining hall) with nationally recognized writing-across-the-curriculum expert Terry Zawacki.

Terry Zawacki will also be leading two informal writing-related conversations that morning–all are welcome.
9:30-10:20 (Ballston): group vs. individual writing projects
10:30-11:30 (main campus): writing and digital/new media

Thanks to Claudia Stanny at the University of West Florida for portions of this tip.

Drabick, D. A. G., Weisberg, R., Paul, L., & Bubier, J. L. (2007). Keeping it short and sweet: Brief, ungraded writing assignments facilitate learning. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 172-176.

RSS Instructions without Video

Some folks asked for a non-video explanation of how to get an RSS feed, so here it is:
How to use RSS to get The Chocolate Box (or other web content)

First, you need a reader. These are free programs that are also called “aggregators”. Once you have one, you can subscribe to news services, blogs, etc. and the new content will be delivered to your desktop. No more remembering to check someone’s blog or your favorite news outlet.

The one I know best is  Google Reader.   However, if you use Yahoo, they have a reader that integrates into myYahoo and there are many other readers. I like web-based readers like Google and Yahoo because they can be accessed from any computer that has web access. Some readers sit on your desktop, so you would need to download them on all computers you use. Firefox has a feature called Live Bookmarks that collects just title information – you can then click on titles of interest. Most of the popular blogs seem to feed right into either Google or Yahoo.

Once you have the reader, then subscribing is easy. Just click the RSS icon (it’s usually orange but sometimes black and looks like this:

RSS icon

RSS icon

Sometimes the icon is in the address line of the webpage, other times it is on the page itself. Once you click it, you will be asked for subscription information or you’ll see an icon for Google or myYahoo. Click whatever is appropriate and enjoy.

Hello MU!

Instead of publishing our usual newsletter, the CTE and DISCOVER programs have decided to enter the world of blogging.  We will be posting news, updates, links and items of interest here regularly.   We also hope you will comment on what we post, to generate some real dialogue on what we are all trying to accomplish here.

You can visit us either by going to our web address: https://muteaches.wordpress.com OR you can take this moment to learn about RSS and have each post delivered to your computer with absolutely no effort on your part!  For a very quick visual tutorial on how to set up an RSS feed go to YouTube to view “RSS in Plain English” by Commoncraft.

You may be wondering about the name.  I didn’t want to call it something boring like “CTE News” or “DISCOVER teaching” and one of my favorite names for a teaching blog is Artichoke (because it “looks at the heart, leaves and thistles of teaching and learning”).  So, I picked Chocolate Box.  I’ll be giving you some of the reasons I think teaching is like a box of chocolates as we go on, and maybe you will suggest some too.

I hope you’ll join us on this technology adventure!