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: Fire Management

I’ve been trying to put together a teaching tip for the past two weeks, but every time I think I might have time to do it, I get interrupted.  Students who need help, faculty who have a great idea to share, friends and family with important news.  How am I supposed to focus with all these interruptions?  And “just say no” is not an option – these are all GOOD interruptions; I want to be involved with all these things and people.  While searching through my emails for inspiration, I came across this Tom Robbins quote in an article by productivity guru David Allen:   “True stability results when presumed order and presumed disorder are balanced. A truly stable system expects the unexpected, is prepared to be disrupted, waits to be transformed.”  Wow, doesn’t that sound like an awesome state of being?  Allen offers up the fire department as an example of an organization that by its very nature has to achieve this kind of stability, since it must maintain order and organization but be able to drop everything immediately to perform its most important duty.   I think faculty are more like park rangers dealing with forest fires – a controlled burn is healthy for the ecosystem while both raging forest fires and complete fire suppression turn out to be unhealthy.

So, I’ve been trying to think about how we can maintain that true stability Robbins describes, or at least get closer to it.  In my personal quest, I’ve experimented with just about every type of productivity enhancing gimmick and gizmo out there.  Some work for me, some others may work for you.  If you want some specific ideas, I’m happy to share them.  But mostly what I come back to is an attitude adjustment – this IS our work.  Our job is to help students grow and develop as learners and as people.  We are the park rangers; balance is what we do.

So what are some ways that we can balance more effectively? In the classroom I find that pre-planning course activities very thoroughly and having backups for the times when the technology fails or an activity bombs gives me the confidence to try something new that might not work.  I know if the fire gets out of control, I have resources to bring it back under control.   But if I get too attached to my plan or my syllabus, then I don’t take advantage of those learning opportunities that arise unexpectedly, no spark gets lit, and my class becomes rigid, dull and overgrown with weeds.  Stopping, asking questions, listening closely to students and reading their nonverbal behaviors can tell you if they are lighting up or not.

Outside of class, maintaining a good balance between order and disorder for me means trying to find technology that makes my life easier, like using Gmail labels and stars, saving files in Dropbox so I can access them from anywhere, and using an online to do list (I use Toodledo, despite the stupid name).  It’s doing a regular “mind dump” of every single thing I am supposed to be working on and then identifying what actions need to be taken when.  It’s building in Friday afternoon reflection time to tie up the loose ends, update the list for next week, and then allowing myself some down time.  We all have different ways of maintaining balance. Some people only check their email at certain times each day.  Others prepare a week’s worth of food on the weekend and live on the leftovers.  None of these strategies always works but at least we’re acknowledging the issue and trying to figure it out.  The important part again, is not getting so rigidly organized that your life goes up in flames when a student or a colleague or a family member suddenly needs more time than you expected.  If you have systems in place, you can quickly figure out what’s most important and bookmark the rest so you can get back to it when the crisis is over.   And you can share your strategies with your students too, as you help them figure out how to structure and prepare for your course.

Sometimes though, the fire just gets out of control.  Then we often ignore, rationalize and intellectualize the situation to avoid that anxious feeling of being overwhelmed.  When students do this, we shake our heads in disbelief.  How could they not have anticipated this problem?  Didn’t they see the smoke? Then we go and do the same.   But most of them have a lot less life experience than most of us do, so why do we expect that they will know what to do?  What helps you when you’re in an overload situation?  Could that same strategy help your students?

So how is this post a “teaching tip”?  Good question.  As I write I think the message I’m getting from that big teaching tip generator in the sky is that we should have more compassion for ourselves AND our students as we juggle the demands of 21st century living.  Faculty and students alike try, succeed for awhile, get behind and then have to recover.  We hope it’s an upward spiral but it’s certainly a lifelong learning process. Could it be that one of the most important things we need to help our students learn is how to balance order and disorder in their lives? Especially for freshmen, helping students develop better life management skills is critical if they are to succeed in their classes, at the University and for life.  Some people will undoubtedly think that this should not be our problem.  Students should have learned this already, they shouldn’t need us to “hold their hands” or teach them things we learned on their own.  All I can say is – our students are where they are.  If this is what will help them learn more effectively, that’s what they need.  We have to deal with the fire in front of us, not the well-tended garden we think we ought to have.

According to Allen, “your ability to deal with surprise, elegantly and proactively, is your personal and organizational competitive edge. You just need to ensure that your systems can keep things under control from any angle, with appropriate distinctions between what’s movable and what’s not. Then turning on a dime is an effortless spin instead of a clumsy crash and burn.”

How did you develop life management skills yourself?  How can we help students develop theirs?

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: End of Semester Stories

Students can be so annoying at this time of the semester.  They wait too long to come in for help or they avoid us and hope that somehow we will fail to notice their failing grades, their absences from class, their disengagement.  Then they come in to see you, desperately hoping for a miracle.  They are, in the words of one of my students “feeling uneasy” when alarm bells should have been sounding for weeks.

I’ve spent the last day at an advising conference, which has prompted me to concentrate on the advisory role we play with students.  Whether or not they are your official advisees, giving feedback, support, suggestions and difficult doses of reality is an inescapable part of the faculty role.  How do we respond to these students appropriately, especially when we’re annoyed by their behavior?

Peter Hagen from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey  provided one perspective on this issue during his presentation on the role of narrative, metaphor and hermaneutics in advising.  While the following thoughts were inspired by his presentation, they are undoubtedly filtered through my own interpretations and certainly capture only a portion of his argument.

Narrative – every student has a story.  (So does everybody else, for that matter – we are a story-telling species.)  Sometimes we think we’ve heard them all, fiction and non-fiction alike. But how do we interpret this story?  How does the student see the arc of their life and experiences?  Is theirs a success story?  Or is it a story of redemption, overcoming odds to succeed at last?  Or a story of contamination where a good story inevitably goes bad?  Understanding how the student sees him or herself can help us understand what they expect, and how they may interpret and structure situations so that what they expect comes true.  If the student’s story shows them as members of a group to whom loyalty is more important than individual success, how will that affect their performance in your class?  Do they see themselves as agents or as buffeted helplessly by external forces?  Instead of brushing off those crazy stories, what if we tried to dig deeper and find the conflicts between their personal narratives and the norms and expectations of higher education?  What implicit assumptions do student stories contain and how can we go about making them explicit and confronting them?  This is not to excuse students from meeting the requirements of our programs, but to help them understand how their stories both help and hinder them in achieving their goals.

Metaphor – what is your metaphor for teaching?  What is your students’ metaphor for learning?  Do they expect learning to be hydraulic — you pour knowledge into their brains and they leak it out all over their final exam? (And then it’s gone!)  Do they think of courses as boxes that are unconnected to each other or to real life?  How can we shift metaphors that limit student and faculty understanding of learning, teaching and education into others that offer new meaning?  What if thought of teaching as more akin to coaching? What if student’s metaphors shifted too?  Could that affect their understanding of their responsibility for learning?  How would it change our understanding of good teaching?

Hermaneutics – how can we learn to “read” students – what is the real meaning behind their actions?  Instead of throwing up our hands at the lame excuses, can we look beneath the surface to see what is really going on?  I think this is related to both the stories they tell themselves (and us) and the metaphors that shape their thinking.  Think of the student who turns in work late, or not at all.  What is their action saying?  Is it “I know I can’t live up to expectations so I’m not going to risk failure.”  Or “I have never had to be responsible for myself before and I don’t know how to do it.”  Perhaps “My other responsibilities (or desires) are more important than my commitment to myself and my learning.”  Or even “I don’t think rules really apply to me, because they haven’t in the past.”  We can apply the same sanction to each of those students.  But will we have asked those students to really question their beliefs and assumptions, evaluated their choices and learned from them?

For some people, I am sure that this emphasis on looking beneath the surface of student behaviors sounds dangerously like counseling.  Perhaps I’m showing my own disciplinary bias here, but I believe that if we really want to educate the whole person, we need to see the whole person.

So, just what you want to hear at the end of the semester.  It’s much easier to just give an extension (or not), assign a grade and move on.  Digging deeper takes more time and effort. But pick one or two students, maybe the ones that really bug you.  See if you can see them from a different perspective.  At the very least, you may be less annoyed with them.  At best, you will make a difference in their lives.  Isn’t that why we are here?

 

Teaching Tip: April is the cruellest month (academic version)

This week, I was reading an email newsletter from Gina Hiatt, who runs online Academic Writing Clubs, and her opening line really struck me:  “It’s the time of flagging will power for every academic in the Northern Hemisphere.”  Her article goes on to talk about ways to manage the struggle to get things done as the spring semester starts to accelerate to its exhausting close. While she focuses on academic writing tasks, I think her message extends to all of our work here in academia.

What are some strategies you can use to get through the next few weeks of teaching, grading papers, keeping up with your scholarly and committee commitments, and trying to have some kind of life?

Make a master list.
Some people turn up their noses at lists, but I believe when used well, they can be a time and stress saver. Use whatever media that suits you – paper and pen, Google tasks, stand alone apps like Remember the Milk or ToodleDo.  Record every single thing you need to do between now and the end of the semester (well, not brushing your teeth).  Think of it as backing up your brain – once you have everything down on paper you won’t need to worry about forgetting something. The reason lists are sometimes less effective than they could be is that they must be complete if you’re going to get the full benefit of not worrying that you’ve forgotten something or left it off the list.   The minute you think of something new, add it to your lists.  Some people have home and work lists; I prefer one big list so I can see everything all together.  Just get it all down.

Prioritize and organize. Is there anything on your list that could possibly wait until the semester is over?  If so, put it off.  Is there anything on it that someone else could do?  Maybe you could hire a temporary helper for tasks that really don’t require your level of expertise.  For everything that’s left, establish a next step and a final due date.  Some things come with built-in due dates e.g. reports due or tests that need to be ready by test day.  For the other things, establish a reasonable due date and then order your list by dates.  If you have a big project with a due date, determine the next step, and give it a due date.  Then keep breaking down the project until you have it spread out however you would like it.  It’s completely up to you how you do this – for example a lot of experts believe strongly in daily writing, but it if doesn’t work for you, schedule it as a marathon.  Now take a deep breath, read it over and (I hope) find out that while there’s a lot of work, you know what to tackle first, and can skip the time-wasting fussing about the rest.

Lots of people don’t want to go through this process because in itself it takes some time.  But I bet you can do it in no more than an hour, and I bet it will save at least that amount of aggravation, worrying, forgetting and being late.

Monitor your progress. Once you’ve written the list, USE it.  Check it every time you have a few minutes to see if there’s something you could knock off in that time.  Sometimes this is where the process breaks down.  Perhaps you write your lists and two days later you’re not following it.  Why not?  There are several possibilities:

  • Life happens. A child got sick (or you did), the car broke down.  All you can do in these situations is regroup and reorganize your list.  Maybe look to see if there’s some way to move a few deadlines back. Just don’t throw the entire list away and go back to panic mode.
  • All work and no play. Please include at least a few minutes of down time for yourself, and try not to cut into your sleep if at all possible.  Tired, cranky people are not only unpleasant to be with, they make more mistakes and are less time efficient.  Allow yourself breaks without guilt.  Otherwise you are more likely to take a break by procrastinating but you won’t enjoy it. You’ll just Facebook your way into despair.
  • Inaccurate time estimates.  You thought you would finish grading in two hours but it took five. This is a learning experience for the future, but also look at your process to see if you can make it more efficient.  Were there a lot of breaks during that five hours?  Try the Pomodoro technique for tasks that require sustained effort like grading and writing (link).  It can help you focus your attention and has breaks built in.  It also helps you estimate how long tasks really take.
  • Fear. Procrastination often reflects a sort of performance anxiety.  If you find yourself putting off  things on your list that are important and really need to be done, ask yourself whether you are worried about somehow risking failure.  Perhaps your writing won’t be as good as you hoped, and you wonder if anyone will think you have something worth saying. Or maybe your students’ papers will be bad and you wonder if you’re really in the right profession.  We often avoid confronting unpleasant feelings by busying ourselves with soothing routines – cleaning, organizing and computer games come to mind.  So, you don’t feel the negative feelings, but they still exert a powerful influence on your behavior.  Becoming aware of this pattern can help you figure out how to handle it.

Find some support. Gina Hiatt leads writing groups for faculty who are trying to complete scholarly tasks (and by the way, MU will have a writing fellows program this summer – check the CTE website for details).  Support systems during the last weeks of the semester may include spouses and family members who take a larger share of household duties, paid help when possible and colleagues who share their grading tips or their latest jokes.  External accountability is really helpful – exchange lists with a colleague and check-in on each other’s progress.

One last thought — You might want to discuss end-of-semester crunch strategies with your students, who undoubtedly are just as snowed under as you are!

What are your end of semester survival strategies?

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!).