Friday, September 9, 2016

NEA Higher Education Advocate is actually pretty useful!

I am sure many of you get the National Education Association's little 'magazine' Higher Education Advocate. It is usually filled with either the higher education equivalent to fluff pieces on the local news, or legal/political issues that effect higher education. However, if you pull your September 2016 issue (Vol. 34, No. 4) out of the round filing cabinet, in the Thriving in Academe feature you will find an article by James M. Lang titled Small Teaching: Lessons for Faculty from the Science of Learning. Lessons for me? Based on actual science? Get out!

Really though, I feel like education today is similar to alchemy in its final stages; lore, superstition, and patterns that were not rigorously tested, and a new challenger approaches in the Enlightenment and the scientific method. Much of what I have read is based on educator's experience, and what has worked and not worked for them in the past. This is great and wonderful, and I eat it all up, but shouldn't there be an empirical way of looking at education informed by cognitive science? I know  cognition and epistemology are not everyone's cup of tea, but it seems that we have to get into it a bit to know which best practices are actually 'best'.

Lang breaks up his recommendations during four parts of the class session; right before class, opening class, the "long middle" of the class, and the ending of the class. He recommends instilling some kind of wonder or awe in the "right before class" section, which I can see working well in mathematics classes, if done correctly. Possibly a news-related result, or a classic fable like Xeno's Paradox, doubling rice grains on a chess board, etc. In the opening of the class he recommends asking students what they did in the previous class, in my mind activating prior knowledge, and building connections to that day's material. I do this in my daily Quizzes, but he seems to make it a bit more conversational. I like that, but unsure if I can squeeze it in my current setup.

During the middle of the class he recommends some notebook thing, I don't know, it didn't seem all that useful. What made an impact was his suggestion about the end of the class; a one-minute 'paper' answering one of the questions "What question remains in your mind after today's class?", and "What was the most important thing you learned today?" These reminded me of the 'Stickiest Point' question one of my tenure advisers suggested I use, and I have incorporated them into my post-class quizzes in our learning management system. The first question makes good use of a student's recall ability, points to areas an instructor could address next class, but is also broad enough that a student could ask how the ideas of that class connect to past or future classes. The second question also has students practice recall, but also asks them to summarize the content in their own words or possibly describe something new they learned about themselves.

Granted, all of the questions have a fatal flaw; a student could answer any of them with two to four words. In my post-class quizzes I award credit based on completion, and thus these students earn credit for poor answers. I do push that in these types of reflection questions you only get out what you put in; by taking the time to reflect on the question and your answer, you provide yourself another opportunity to think and learn about the material.

Coincidentally (or not) this article's title is also the title of his book, which will go on my long cobweb-collecting reading list.

What do you think? Did you read the article? Are you going to read his book? What are small things you are trying this term?

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Pre-Fall Term Psychic Exorcism: Statistics class ideas on a page

Past two weeks between summer term and the faculty work week has been spent packing (we bought a house!), cooking a lot of good food, watching Star Trek: TNG, and reading a variety of books and articles meant to 'help' my teaching. Not sure if they are helping right now, I just have a lot of ideas floating around in my head that I need to put somewhere, namely here.

  • I've been browsing Technology-Supported Mathematics Learning Environments 67th Yearbook (2005) and while focused on a K-12 audience, I have taken up a few ideas from it:
    • Teaching Strategies for Developing Judicious Technology Use by Ball and Stacey helped address my concerns of letting students run amok with calculators (mathematical totems I call them in class). They suggest, as is a common theme with many education best practices, that we have to model how to use technology tools. And not just their actual use, but whether to use them or not. I am hoping to incorporate some of the strategies below into my in-class activities, through question prompts, discussions, or demonstrations.

    • Comparing Distributions and Growing Samples by Hand and with a Computer Tool by Bakker and Frederickson focused on middle school students and their conceptual development of data, samples, population, and measures of center. This passage in particular struck me:
      • We can compare this situation (focus on calculation of measures of center) to the proverbial tip of the iceberg. It is the substance beneath the surface that makes the iceberg float. In this metaphor, mean, median, and mode are the visible tip of the iceberg. What is beneath the visible surface is the knowledge and skills that students really need to understand and sensibly use these measures of center. 
      While it is necessary to be able to do the computations, it is much more critical for students to develop an understanding of when these measures are appropriate, and then apply and use these numbers in context. This reinforces the need for students to write these numbers in context, and base decisions on them. My in-class activities should always contain summary questions that ask students to write in words what their calculations are, and what they mean.

  • Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Barkley offers a wide variety of ways to get students engaged with course material. One I found especially useful was the two-page section on "Try to rebuild the confidence of discouraged and disengaged students." Teaching statistics usually means teaching a student population that has some mathematical knowledge, but are not confident with that knowledge. Below is a list of strategies based on Motivating students to learn by Brophy (2004).

    I tried having students set goals in my summer Calculus course, asking them to describe what their study plan was for the weekend. I think this helped with planning, understanding consequences, and overall helped students understand responsibility. I will definitely incorporate these questions into post-quizzes for my statistics course.

    The entirety of Chapter 8: Tips and Strategies for Promoting Active Learning should be tattooed on my body somewhere. I know and apply a number of the strategies (Activate prior learning, clarify your role, limit and chunk information, etc.) but found the section on "Teach in ways that promote effective transfer." useful. I regularly refer to Bloom's Taxonomy in my classes, but the below table really hit home that your strategies and methods for developing those cognitive tasks should be different for each level of understanding.
So in summary, for my Fall Statistics course I will:
  • Include judicious technology use questions throughout in-class activities. 
  • Have questions that ask students to interpret their calculations, and make decisions based on them. 
  • In announcements and post-quizzes write comments or questions that have students think about what they have accomplished, set realistic goals, go to different support services, and to reflect on their own cognitive processes. 
  • During the start of the course, and during exam review sessions, share the Learning Strategies table and have students determine what a question is asking, at what level, and possibly how they should study for such a question. 
Glad I got those ideas out, and can now refer back to them after the term to keep me accountable. What ideas are floating around in your head for the upcoming term? Any exciting projects, new ways of doing things, assignments, assessments? Feel free to share below.