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?

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