Teaching Tip: The past is always with us.

This week’s principle from the Lifelong learning at Work and at Home website focuses on prior knowledge:

New information learned depends heavily upon prior knowledge and experience.

This principle stresses the importance of getting to know our students so we can help them learn more effectively.  From infancy onward, learning is based on building new mental connections that physically change brain structure.  Our brains are not built to remember unconnected facts; if material doesn’t relate to something else that is important to us, we forget.  Not only do we need prior experiences as an anchor, but the quality of our prior assumptions, conceptual knowledge and biases can all influence what we learn, for better or worse. Despite these well known findings, most of us do little to discover what our students already know (or think they know) about our disciplines. And yet, that prior knowledge may make or break their chances for success in our classes.

Why is prior knowledge so important?  Studies comparing novices and experts in a variety of fields suggest that prior knowledge is vital to the ability to access and use what we know. For example, chess experts are able to remember meaningful patterns of chess pieces much better than novices.  However, when asked to remember the positions of randomly placed pieces, experts performed no better than novices.  When the information was meaningful, the chess experts were able to “chunk” information (i.e. organize and classify it) much more efficiently than novices and then remember those larger chunks.  Instead of seeing a certain number of pieces on the board in certain places, experts see a classic opening move and relate that information to their extensive prior experience with opening moves.

How can we help students develop more effective knowledge structures within our disciplines?  Our strategies depend on the students’ current developmental level, both generally and in the context of specific disciplines.  In introductory courses, students generally have very limited ways of understanding and organizing knowledge.  But they do have life experiences, and these are important in making those first connections.  That’s why many skilled lower level instructors spend a lot of time helping students relate what they are learning to the world around them and their existing interests.  A student may not know much about biology, but she knows that everyone wants her to use hand sanitizer all winter.  From this simple observation, a series of questions naturally presents itself that can be used to build understanding.

In introductory courses we typically don’t find (or expect) students to show a sophisticated grasp of disciplinary concepts.  Unfortunately, we often find something more difficult to change: a mental framework that’s a bit dented or missing critical pieces. Misconceptions and incorrect information can distort and limit student learning, especially at the introductory level.  Unfortunately, since this incorrect information is also anchored in prior knowledge, it can be resistant to change.  Discovering common student misconceptions and designing experiences that challenge them is a critical part of building new levels of expertise.  Experiments, demonstrations, videos and other active methods that directly challenge student misconceptions are often the most powerful since they use multiple channels and can have more emotional impact than lecture or readings.  It takes a powerful stimulus to dislodge embedded rust.  However, experience is best when it is paired with explanations and principles to help students organize their new experiences effectively.  Or, as another of the core learning principles put it: Experience alone is a poor teaching. 

As students advance in the discipline, they begin to develop their own knowledge structures. In these upper level classes it’s important to find out what students already know so that you don’t try to build on knowledge that isn’t there.  Having a good understanding of prior knowledge can also help you advise students – someone with gaps that are just too large may need to take a pre-requisite course, while others may need to be referred for tutoring in specific areas.  Other students may be able to skip some topics, or take a more in-depth approach.  There are many ways to assess prior learning.  Some faculty members assess prior knowledge using pre-tests or writing assignments that identify strengths and weaknesses. A drawback of testing or writing assignments of course is the time it takes to read and analyze them, even though they are typically ungraded.  Asking students to draw a concept map of important content is a quick way to show you what students think is important and also gives you a picture of how they organize that information.  Another approach is the Knowledge survey.  This type of survey is often quite lengthy, but students are not actually asked to answer the questions as they would be on an exam.  Instead, they rate their level of knowledge of each concept or process on a three point scale from absolute certainty to complete ignorance.  These surveys can be scored electronically and they provide a quick snapshot of the class that can guide you to focus your time in class more productively.  Administering the same survey at the end of the course provides a check up on how effectively you were able to reach your goals; ideally you will see upward movement for the class as a whole and for individual students as well.

The importance of prior knowledge is also evident when we discuss transfer of learning. Many students can repeat information or use it in similar situations but, unlike experts, they may not recognize appropriate but unfamiliar applications of a concept or procedure.  The ability to recognize when and how prior information can be used in new settings is the key behind transfer of learning and also depends on how knowledge is structured in the brain. Direct instruction in relating features of the new environment or situation to the prior one can build a path to transfer, along with a lot of guided practice. Thus, presenting students with varying situations you may have to first cue the students to apply what they know, and then help them learn to recognize cues for themselves.

Above all, it’s important to realize that students’ prior knowledge and their methods for organizing it are very dissimilar from your own.  Not only did they grow up in a different world (just check the Beloit College Mindset if you doubt that) but they have not had the wealth of training and experience in your discipline that you do.  Many of us struggle with getting our minds back to that beginner stage so that we can think like students and anticipate where they need help.  If you’d like to develop that very important sense of empathy, take a challenging class in something completely new to you.  You’ll be amazed to discover how much you attempt to use your prior knowledge to anchor new material and how many misconceptions you may have!  Plus, you will experience both the frustration and the exhilaration of making progress.

Next up:  we will finish this series with the final principles of active learning, less is more and choosing what to forget.

Teaching Tip: Variety is the spice of learning

This week’s post summarizes and comments on two closely related principles from the Life Long Learning at Work and at Home website.

Principle 2: Varying learning conditions makes learning more effortful but results in enhanced long-term retrieval.

Principle 3:  Learning is generally enhanced when learners are required to take information that is presented in one format and “re-represent” it in an alternative format.

Both of these principles emphasize how important it is to vary the conditions of learning if we want students to remember and use information once they leave the classroom.  In order to understand why variability is important, it is helpful to understand how our brains store and access the things we learn.

Essentially, humans can process information in two systems, visuospatial and auditory-verbal. Information can be stored in either one of these two systems or in both of them.  According to the most commonly accepted theory in cognitive psychology, information that has been stored in both systems is more easily recalled than information that is only stored in one system or the other, so when we ask students to process information in varied ways, they are able to use multiple cues from both systems to help them remember.

One way to vary learning conditions is to present information in both major modes. For example, a reading assignment might be paired with an exercise where students must extract information from a video, a picture or a chart.  If you are in a field that is primarily visual, asking students to read about what they are seeing provides similar variation.  One caveat here – the students have to actually use both modalities.  If the students find that they can succeed using only one method, they will naturally tend to skip the other one.  Our challenge is twofold – finding good ways to use both modes and organizing our classes so that students must use them both in order to succeed.

Varying modes of presentation has distinct advantages in a classroom with diverse learners.  We all have cognitive strengths and preferences – some of us prefer auditory learning while others are visual (and still others prefer a kinesthetic approach, but that’s another story). Research on these learning style preferences suggests that trying to personalize instruction based on individual learning style does not enhance learning, and when you consider the dual storage theory, it makes sense that using multiple presentation modes with all students will provide the kind of variability that leads to increased effort and storage in both systems.  Plus, when multiple styles are used, everyone has the chance to use both their preferred and non-preferred styles.  This can help students who are non-traditional learners since it gives them a shot at the material using their preferred style as well as practice that can improve their non-preferred skills.

Not only can you vary the presentation mode (the input channels, if you will) but you can also vary the output channels to enhance retention and learning transfer.  Asking students to draw pictures or create graphical representations such as concept or knowledge maps that summarize the main points of a reading assignment or lecture works well for this purpose.  Research suggests that graphical representations are particularly useful because they force students to think about the types of relationships between concepts and information.

Assigning a concept or knowledge map exercise is most helpful if students have some prior instruction on how to complete the task. O’Donnell, Dansereau & Hall (2002) provide a good overview of knowledge maps and how to use them.  You can ask students to construct their own knowledge maps or you can give them knowledge maps instead of or along with texts and lectures.  Research indicates that giving students knowledge maps that you have constructed can help students (especially weaker students or non-native speakers) grasp material more effectively.  Giving your students pre-constructed maps might be more appropriate for less advanced classes, while students in advanced classes can be challenged to produce their own.

In addition to concept and knowledge maps, arguments and problem solving procedures also are good candidates for visual diagramming methods.  The University of Texas Center for Teaching and Learning presents a simplified version of diagramming arguments while this pdf presents a more detailed and formal  version drawn from philosophy.

Principle 2 above also indicates the downside (at least from the student perspective) of using variable learning conditions – the need for more effort.  When students are asked to learn material under varied conditions or “re-present” material in a different format, as in Principle 3, they have to work harder. The bottom line is obvious to the point of being somewhat trite.  When learning requires more investment of effort, it is more likely to be retained

Because of the increased effort required, students may seem to learn more slowly when you vary the conditions of learning.  Don’t despair and don’t give up.  When a single modality is used (e.g. readings and lectures accompanied by exams – all verbal mechanisms) both you and the students may falsely assume that they understand the material on a deep level.  Requiring students to use different methods and media for their learning may result in poorer performance initially, but the research suggests that long term learning is enhanced.

You are likely to hear from students that multimodal work is harder than traditional single-channel methods.  Validate their correct observations!  Students need to understand why you are “doing this to them.”  Sometimes students who are very able in one modality (like most college professors) are particularly resistant to trying new and challenging modes.  And many of us are reluctant to leave our comfort zone as well.  But the research is quite clear that doing so enhances learning and transfer.

What methods do you already use to vary the conditions of learning in your classes?  What would you like to know more about? 

If you want to read further:   

The Lifelong Learning at Work and at Home website provided these summarizes and recommends these articles for additional reading

Mayer, R. E. (1993). Illustrations that instruct. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in instructional psychology (Vol. 4, pp. 254-284). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.  This book chapter explores the uses of text and illustrations as teaching aids, primarily in textbooks.  The author examines how different types of illustrations (i.e., decorative, representational, organizational, and explanative) affect cognitive processes—selecting, organizing, or integrating information—that are involved in learning.  Explanative illustrations show how elements in a system are related and underlying principles governing the system.  Although underused in textbooks, these types of illustrations best promote all three types of cognitive processing that enhances learning.

Meyer, B. J. F., & Poon, L. W. (2001). Effects of structure strategy training and signaling on recall of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 141-59.  Training older and younger adults to use textual cues that highlight conceptual relationships improved their overall recall of the text as well as recall for main ideas.  Training produced positive transfer to remembering everyday materials such that these individuals also better recalled details from informative videos, relative to individuals who were given motivational training or no training.

Wallace, D. S., West, S. W. C., Ware, A., & Dansereau, D. F. (1998). The effect of knowledge maps that incorporate gestalt principles on learning. Journal of Experimental Education, 67, 5-16.  Learning aids were presented in one of three different formats: text, unenhanced map, and enhanced map.  The enhanced map differed from the unenhanced map in that it used the gestalt principles of similarity and proximity to group related concepts.  Those who studied using enhanced maps demonstrated superior recall over those using unenhanced maps or text.

 

References

O’Donnell, A.M., Dansereau, D.F. & Hall, R. H. (2002). Knowledge maps as scaffolds for cognitive processing. Educational Psychology Review, 14 (1), 71-86

 

Coming up next:  The importance of prior knowledge to present learning.

Use Cognitive Research to Enhance Teaching: Practice at Retrieval

Welcome back!  One of my New Year’s resolutions is to get the blog up and running again, so I hope this post will be the first of several this semester.

As scholars, we are always looking for high quality research related to our disciplines and the courses we teach.  Why not apply that lens to learning?  The field of cognitive psychology has developed dramatically over the past 20 years or so, and we now have quite a large body of research describing how people learn.  I don’t want to overwhelm you with data, so I am going to create a series of posts that describe nine primary principles of learning and how they apply in our classrooms.

The nine principles and some of the examples in these posts come from the Lifelong Leaning at Work and at Home initiative website.  This initiative was started by a group of cognitive researchers dedicated to applying cognitive science research to lifelong learning and higher education.   The website has detailed links to more in-depth information and references if you would like to dig deeper.

This just means that students need multiple opportunities to recall and use information or skills that you want them to remember after your class is over.  If students merely re-read notes or books without practicing retrieving what they have heard and read, they will not retain that material for long.  My first reaction to this statement was “well, duh” but the “single most important” label made me pay more attention, as well as the mention of transfer.

If this statement is correct (and there is quite a lot of research to back it up) what does it imply for the classroom?  What can we do to help students practice retrieving important information?  Here are a few possibilities:

  • Align your classroom activities, assignments and tests so that students must repeatedly access the same information.  For example, ask students questions that require them to recall and demonstrate understanding of material from earlier in the course.  You may want to pose a probing question and have everyone write down a response before you ask for volunteers – that way the entire class gets to practice retrieving information.  Otherwise, only the individuals called on will be engaging in this important task.  This technique also allows you to correct any misunderstanding and it shows students the cumulative nature of learning.  At first, you may get blank stares but if you do this consistently students are more likely to get the message.
  • Test repeatedly on the same material.  My undergraduate self hated the cumulative final exam with great passion, but it is an excellent method for promoting long term retention and retrieval – but only if the material has already been tested earlier in the semester.   You also can get this effect by using chapter quizzes and then repeating important material on exams.  Even giving a unit exam on the last day of class and then a cumulative final a week later will help with retention of recently presented information.   Research suggests that spacing the testing out across the semester leads to better results, and that for maximum effect recall should be somewhat delayed.  As we have probably all experienced, testing or recall efforts that occur immediately after teaching or reading material tends to produce short term positive effects that disappear quickly.   So you might want to start by giving a reading quiz perhaps a week after the reading was discussed in class.  Questions on the same material could appear on a mid-term or be incorporated into a later assignment and then tested again on a comprehensive final.  For maximum effect, the student should be using recall methods like short answer questions or essays and not recognition methods such as multiple-choice, true-false or matching.
  • Encourage students to question themselves or each other instead of re-reading notes or texts.  Give a series of open-ended questions as a study guide or have students bring open-ended questions to class, exchange them, and practice answering them.  Online quizzes can work as recall practice too, although they tend to be more recognition focused.  Assign online quizzes strategically to keep the students repeatedly working with the material over the course of the semester.
  • If you do not use tests, you can still require students to recall and reuse previously learned material for projects, case studies or other activities.  Varying the method of retrieval e.g. using an in-class exercise or presentation instead of a test, enhances retention, since it gives students multiple cues for recalling information.  Material that becomes embedded in a narrative or other rich experience is more likely to be retained (but more on that later).
  • When asking students to retrieve previously learned material, try to provide as few hints (“retrieval cues” in cognitive jargon) as possible.  Thus, a free response essay or an application that requires the student to recall material is better at promoting retention than a multiple choice question that requires only recognition of the correct answer.
  • Give students immediate feedback on their answers to avoid them practicing and learning incorrect material.  When you are working on this kind of long term learning, you want to make sure it is correct!

While these ideas and suggestions can help us design courses that maximize students’ ability to remember and transfer information more effectively, we still have to decide which material needs to be emphasized in this way.  We don’t have the time to require frequent testing and recall of all or even most of the material in a typical course, so it is vital for us to distinguish between material that must be automatically available versus material that can and should be looked up as needed.  The current wealth of easily accessible online information has made this a difficult question, but looking at basic conceptual frameworks, core concepts and strategies is a good place for most of us to start. Using a cognitively informed approach asks us to be more intentional about identifying and choosing the most important material in the course and strategically requiring students to recall it multiple times in multiple ways.  It may require rethinking some aspects of your course, but the reward is longer retention and better transfer of your course’s most important concepts.

Most of this post has been summarized and paraphrased from http://psyc.memphis.edu/learning/principles/lp3.shtml

Next up:  Varying Learning Methods

Teaching Tip: Fail Early, Fail Often

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently”
Henry Ford

Your midterm grades are in (I hope) and some of your students are about to get a wake-up call about their performance in your class. You may be somewhat depressed about the number of students who are failing or close to it. But many highly successful teachers, entrepreneurs and researchers believe that failure is a critical part of the learning process. It’s what students think and do about failure that makes the difference.

Student responses to failure are shaped by several factors; one of these is their attitude toward failure. Students who come in the door believing that intellectual ability is fixed and cannot be changed (entity theorists) see failure as a confirmation of their lack of ability. If this is what you believe, why would you try again? Students who believe that intellectual ability can be increased through hard work (incremental theorists) are more open to seeing the inherent challenge in a failure.

Entity thinkers focus more on getting that A because they see it as a confirmation of their ability – how many of you have heard “but I’m an A student, how could I get a B (or C!) in this class?” Students who truly believe they can’t do math or philosophy or economics because they lack some essential mental quality are going to give up the first time they see a low score.

Our society and our schools often foster entity thinking, without necessarily intending to do so. I think it’s one example of John Tagg’s dichotomy between espoused theory (Take intellectual risks!) and theory-in-use (Do it right the first time because you won’t get another chance!).  If you’re faced with a classroom of entity theorists who play it safe to avoid failure or give up after an initial failure, how can you encourage them to embrace failure?

Tell failure stories – lots of them. Students need to hear about the failures of famous people they know and well-known people in your field. They also need to hear about the mistakes you have made, how many drafts you wrote or projects you tossed. Even better, take some risks in your class, and when one of your ideas doesn’t work, use it as an illustration. The technology doesn’t work today? Show them how to cope with failures that aren’t even your fault! Students need to see models for how to cope with failure graciously, how to analyze failure and learn from it. It’s one of the most useful life skills you’ll ever teach. Talking about the process of trying, failing and improving also normalizes failure and makes it less threatening and more of an opportunity. Sometimes talking quite directly about these types of attitudes and asking students to think about their own beliefs can help them begin to let go of these attitudes.

Help students practice learning from failures. Have students analyze their performance in your class. Why did they do poorly on a test? What made the paper they wrote a C or D instead of an A or a B? Don’t let them say “I didn’t study/work hard enough” and stop there. How did they study? How long, what did they do, when and where did they do it? How could they have improved? Who could they talk to about learning better ways to study? Have them re-write answers to test questions (for partial credit), re-submit or critique their papers. Videotape their presentations (the CTE has mini-video cameras!) and ask them to watch and analyze them.  Critiquing completed works is good, but it’s even better if there is the opportunity to apply the critique to improve the work.

Encourage failures in class. My music teachers have always said that it’s better to make a mistake confidently and loudly rather than refuse to make the commitment. This is true in class discussion, problem solving and all kinds of creative projects. Give bonus points and praise for a risk taking students even if (ESPECIALLY if) their idea goes down in flames. Encourage other students to see questioning and risk taking as admirable. And do not subtly excuse failure – “that’s a really hard one”. These kinds of statements are meant to be reassuring, but they also imply that the student can’t do hard work. Better to say something like “this one takes awhile to figure out – keep at it.” This tells the students that if they are willing to do the work, they will get there. And that it’s completely normal not to figure out a problem or answer a question on the first try. If you are feeling playful you could even have a competition for the biggest and best mistake of the day!

Now, I know that some of your students fall more easily into the category of passive failures – their motivation, their readiness for college, or maybe their personal problems are getting in the way of their success. Their attitudes towards failure may not have much to do with their current problems. Dealing with student failures, like dealing with students, is not one size fits all. But helping all students learn to embrace failure as a necessary part of learning and life is a goal well worth seeking. Think about the rest of the semester. How could you incorporate more failure in your course?

If you’re interested in further reading, Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion was written for k-12 audiences but has applications in post-secondary education and beyond.

Teaching Tip: Looking back to move forward

At this point in the semester, I’m certainly not going to suggest that you try some new approach to your teaching.   Instead, I’d like to share an idea that could help you develop your own teaching tips.

On my faculty developers’ listserv, we have been discussing the practice of writing an end of semester “case study” of one or more classes.   At one institution, every instructor is asked to critically examine each of their courses and reflect in writing on what went well, what did not go so well, potential ways to improve the course for the next offering, etc. This exercise was not part of the annual summative evaluation (although it might come in very handy), but was meant to provide a useful structure for analyzing and reviewing teaching progress.

Now, I think most of us do some kind of basic looking back at the end of the semester, but I don’t know if anyone at Marymount is doing anything quite this comprehensive (if you are, let me know!).  When I read about it, I first thought that it would take a non-trivial amount of time, particularly if taken seriously.  However, I think that the process would provide benefits that might just make that time worthwhile.  These are the benefits I see (so far anyway):

  • If you only teach a course once a year (or even less), it’s hard to remember what you intended to change unless you keep some kind of records.  While I tend to scrawl a few notes on the old syllabus and assignment sheets and throw them into the course folder, after a year these often seem incomplete and sometimes incomprehensible.  How the future me would appreciate a thoughtful analysis in complete sentences! And since the future me is the only person who gets this, I don’t have to worry about editing it for public viewing.
  • I’m pretty convinced that I would actually process more deeply and learn more from writing up my reflections than even just thinking deeply.  If there is one thing I believe in more every semester, it’s the power of writing to actually help thinking happen, not just record the thinking that occurred.  Writing is learning, and I want to learn things that will help me teach more effectively.
  • I think using this process could help me remember points I want to make about my teaching performance during the annual assessment process, for example by identifying teaching strengths and weaknesses and show how I am addressing them.  So, this process could save time while writing that document, since essentially I will have done some of the work for it in advance.
  • Finally, this process will help me identify where I want to improve as an instructor, what kind of reading I should be doing or what kind of sessions to attend at teaching conferences and what questions I want to ask my colleagues about how they handle specific teaching issues.

A couple of listserv responders suggested possible questions and formats for a course review or case study.  One is fairly structured toward the course itself and asks questions like:

  • What do I think of the course’s learning objectives?  How might they need to be changed and how hard would that be?  Do they feed into other courses or program objectives?
  • How well did students meet each objective?  What evidence am I using and is there better evidence that I could collect?  How well can I even judge how well students met each objective?  Was there an objective I really didn’t measure that well, or at all?
  • Did my assignments help students to meet my course objectives?  Do some of my assignments not really relate to any of my course objectives and goals?
  • Was the time I and my students spent on assignments and activities (e.g. completing assignments, giving feedback for and grading assignments, planning class activities) worth the academic payoff?

Another, more global approach was suggested by independent consultant Alice Cassidy and focuses on the classic paper, Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, Chickering & Gamson (1987).  Don’t be put off by the title if you teach graduate students.  The concepts are universal.

Good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students
  3. Encourages active learning,
  4. Gives prompt feedback,
  5. Emphasizes time on task,
  6. Communicates high expectations, and
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Cassidy asks instructors to reflect on how they are implementing each of the 7 principles as well as thinking about the following three questions:

* What do you do in class time, in meetings with students and through design of assignments?  How do you take part in professional development activities to explore more about these?

* In what ways do you document your work through a teaching portfolio/dossier or other material?

* When and how do you explain these to your students?

I’m definitely going to try this approach after my final grades are in.  If you already do something like this, please share your process with us, or other thoughts you have about ways we can learn from our teaching experiences.

 

Teaching Tip: Balancing Flexibility and Fairness through Course Design

This week’s teaching tip is a guest post from Mark Potter, Center for Faculty Development at Metropolitan State College of Denver. http://www.mscd.edu/cfd/

●     “Prof. Smith, I won’t be able to make it to class tonight because unfortunately my flight back from vacation has been delayed by an hour and now I won’t make it back to Denver in time for class.  Is there supposed to be a quiz today and if so is there any way I can make it up?”

●     “Hey Professor, I am terribly sorry, but I am unable to attend class this evening due to familial issues. I am writing in an attempt to ascertain what precisely we went over tonight, and what I need to review in order to not fall behind my peers.”

●     “I will not be able to make it to class today due to a conflict with work but I have attached my re-write of the last paper and will get the notes from someone who was in class. Please let me know if there are any important announcements I will miss.”

We have probably all seen emails from students like the ones above, and in fact these are probably fairly mild examples; I have received far more outrageous–and inappropriate–student emails than these.  It is understandable if we react viscerally to them.  We may want to yell at the computer, reply with a snarky email, or, more to the point, penalize the student for missing class and/or assignment deadlines.  Students should just follow the rules and then, “problem solved,” right?

Well, sort of.

Perhaps there is a place for empathy and compassion toward the student whose work schedule changes abruptly, who has (even an unspecified) family emergency, or whose family travel plans become derailed in the middle of the semester.  Like it or not, student demographics are changing as are students’ priorities and work habits (Higher Education Research Institute, 2010).  More students work to cover costs while in college, more students attend college with specific job-skills development in mind, and the range of aptitudes, study skills, and college preparedness continues to widen.  Maryellen Weimer (2006) encourages instructors to put themselves in their students’ shoes by taking a college course outside their field of expertise every few years in order to experience all the aspects of learning, including balancing course deadlines with work deadlines, figuring out what the professor “wants,” and adhering to the rules and expectations that are particular to that course alone–all of which are juggling acts that our students must do constantly.  Still, while compassion and empathy may be warranted, we want to avoid granting special treatment to individual students, and it is important for the sake of our own workload and our own time management to hold students to reasonable standards, or “lines in the sand” (Robertson, 2003)

Learner-centered course design can help us to balance these competing demands between compassion and fairness.  Learner-centeredness shifts responsibility for learning to students while granting them more opportunities, control, and options over how they demonstrate their learning (Weimer, 2002).  We can use course design both to hold students responsible and to provide allowances for when life “interrupts” their studies, all while preserving our lines in the sand and our sanity.

Some course design ideas that accomplish this include:

●     Carrots that incentivize on-time submission of assignments.  I accept late papers (up to three days late) from my students, but only those students who submit their work on time have the option to rewrite their papers and to incorporate my feedback for an improved grade.

●     Bounded flexibility.  Alternatively, a colleague at Metropolitan State College gives his students a “syllabus quiz” in the first week of the semester.  Every student who passes earns 5 credits toward turning in work late (1 credit = 1 day).  Students can cash in all of their credits at once with one assignment, or they can split them across assignments at different times in the semester.

●     Cooperative/collaborative learning.  If students have to miss a class session in a course that incorporates group learning, they have a resource–their fellow students–on whom to rely to try to catch up, rather than coming right away to the instructor to find out what they “missed.”

●     Technology.  Web-based tools, including the course Learning Management System (for example Moodle or Blackboard), Wikis (for example PBWiki), and Google Docs can reinforce cooperative learning and the sense of community within a course.  If students find unexpectedly that they need to miss a class meeting, they can turn to these online resources where they might find threaded discussions designed to supplement in-class learning or examples of student work/reflections completed in class and posted to a Wiki.  Students may also be able to use the online tool to contact their “group” for help.

Of course, students need to know that the interactions and engagement that occur in class are not replicable and that missing class means missing out on an opportunity to learn.  Still, the premise of this essay is that life sometimes gets in the way of the best of intentions, and providing some opportunity for students to learn–an opportunity that does not rely on the instructor delivering instruction twice over–is preferable to penalizing the student by doing nothing.

Additional Resources:

Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. “A Snapshot of the First Year Experience.  Accessed on July 15, 2010 at http://www.heri.ucla.edu/PDFs/pubs/briefs/HERI_ResearchBrief_OL_2009_YFCY_02_04.pdf

Robertson, D. (2003). Making Time, Making Change: Avoiding Overload in College Teaching. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Weimer, M. (2006). Enhancing Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning: Professional Literature That Makes a Difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

 

 

Going multimodal

Multimodal teaching was a hot topic on one of my listservs recently.  The question there was:  is there evidence that multimodal presentation is really helpful for student learning?  The answer:  yes.

What do I mean by multimodal teaching?  In a multimodal teaching segment, students encounter the same material in different ways.  Research from cognitive psychology tells us that people learn best when they are exposed to information multiple times using varied sensory modes.  Why?  Since information from different senses is coded and stored differently, multimodal teaching gives students’ brains several “hooks” on which to hang their learning.   While helpful for every student, multimodal teaching is particularly helpful for students from different cultures or those  with various learning weaknesses that can limit their ability to learn in traditional classrooms .

Nilson (2010) describes the primary modes used in the classroom as follows:

  • Verbal — reading and writing (formal and informal), e.g. responses, directions, instructions or outlines
  • Verbal/Oral –Auditory —  Lecture or podcast (these work best if they are in the form of stories or narratives), discussions
  • Action/Experience – role plays, simulations, case studies, service learning, physical models and demonstrations , animations, virtual worlds
  • Visual – concept maps, flowcharts, graphic metaphors, images, matrices

Many of you already combine modalities, but with a little thought, you can extend what you do into even more modes.  For example, you may already have students read for background information (verbal), watch a video (visual and auditory) and discuss it (auditory).   Follow up that experience with some kind of writing (verbal) or a concept map (visual) to add in another dimension.  To include an action experience, students could role play or solve a case study based on the video or the readings.

To enhance a lecture, consider podcasting it first (auditory, perhaps some visuals) and then using class time to engage in problem solving (action), responding to written questions, writing step by step directions for problem solving (verbal) or creating a flowchart (visual).

In a studio setting, students might first read about a particular method (verbal) create a design (visual, action) then write a description of their process (verbal) or a reflection on what went well and what did not.  Or, they could narrate a podcast to go with their works (auditory).

It is usually not hard to think of ways to add another modality to your current favorites, but is it worth the time and effort?  The research suggests that it is, in that students learn and retain material longer and better.  The benefits of multi-modal teaching also include deeper conceptual understanding and easier recall of information. The course design issue is figuring out how to move some student experiences out of the classroom so you can use class time to focus on other experiences during class.

What’s a common but not particularly helpful use of multi-modal teaching?  Assigning a reading and then lecturing “over” the reading.  While this is sort of multi-modal, it’s mostly a really good way to make sure students don’t do the reading.  Instead, give the students the lecture before class (as a podcast) and work on understanding the reading in class if it is difficult.  (Presumably the lecture content will help them with this.)  Or, give the class some easier and more engaging reading for homework and make sure that your classroom combines lecture and action that requires them to use what they read.

What are some fun ways that you are going multimodal in your classes?

For more on student learning styles and multimodal teaching, check out this powerpoint by Linda Nilson from the 2010 Lilly Conference (and think about attending a Lilly Conference on Teaching!).