Finishing Up

This past week marked finals week at Virginia State University and a close to my role as a visiting instructor there. I am really amazed at how fast the semester flew by and in many ways am sad to see this chapter close. The journey has been a ton of work, but it has been very rewarding. One of the reasons I wanted this opportunity to teach was to see if I really enjoyed as much as I had during my previous short teaching stints. The answer is a resounding ‘YES’! As I sit here on my 30th birthday I am reflecting much on what I have accomplished already during my time on this Earth but also thinking ahead to what the next 5, 10, 30, and hopefully 50 years will hold for me. I know after this semester that I want a large portion of those years to include some form of teaching and interacting with students.

This semester became difficult at times with the many responsibilities of running a class, but in the end it was worth it. I also now have a better idea of how to run certain aspects of a class more efficiently so it doesn’t feel like such an overload. I realize that running a single course is just one part of normal faculty life so in the future I would not be able to dedicate quite as much time to one course most likely. However, now that I understand the many responsibilities of leading a course I feel more prepared for future teaching ventures. I also understand better what types of information I would be interested in knowing about teaching courses when I apply for a faculty position (number of sections of a course, teaching multiple course sections instead of multiple courses, money available for lab sections, availability of teaching assistants, etc…).

Most of my best memories of this past semester relate to interactions I had with a variety of students. There always seem to be a handful of students who become really interested in the material and care alot about how they are doing in the course. Receiving in-depth questions from students who were interested in the details of the workings of the human body as well as discussions on students’ plans for the future and how this class relates to those plans were perhaps my two favorite types of interactions. I had a few students come up to me the last few weeks and tell me they were sad that I won’t be teaching any other courses there. Also, students were interested in what my future career plans looked like…talk about turning the tables.

The one thing I wish for some of my students as I calculate final grades is that they would have taken the course more seriously before the last two weeks. I made their final grade constantly updating on Blackboard so they had 24/7 access to their course progress. It is always interesting to see a student who barely attended class before the last month now pleading for a 3% or more increase in their final grade so they can either pass the class, graduate, or receive a grade that doesn’t adversely effect their GPA. These are the types of situations I find extremely difficult. Is it fair to hold a student back from graduation for a course that is well outside of their major and have them pay for another semester of schooling? There is no easy answer to that type of question, but even with difficult scenarios such as that I still look forward to teaching being a large part of my future career.

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Curving Exam Grades

dangerous curve ahead

Should we curve exam grades? It’s a question we all ask ourselves at one time or another. I recently examined the question head on after my students’ second exam of the semester.

Heading into the second exam of the semester I was worried as some students had been complaining that my quiz and homework questions were too hard. Their second exam was based completely on lectures I led and most of the questions were ones I constructed. Thus, I was very curious to see if the students would perform the same, better, or worse on my exam as it was composed of these ‘harder’ questions.

So, what happened?

Based on the class average they performed almost exactly the same as on exam 1! I”ll have to admit that while in the midst of grading the exams it seemed like scores were lower than the first exam, but that was just my mind playing tricks on me as I hit a few exams in a row with poor scores. At first I was upset by the fact that the students did not score higher on this exam, but then gave it some deeper thought. If the students had done as well as before but with ‘harder’ questions (again based on their opinions) then perhaps they had improved some. I think the other key observation for me was there were a few people able to earn an A even without a curve.

Which brings us to the idea many of us may debate after scoring an exam, should the scores be ‘curved’ or modified in any way. For many years there has been a discussion of the use of the ‘bell curve’ in determining grade distribution. Here is a great article that debunks that entire idea, at least in my opinion. In the same article there is a great discussion of a better way to ‘curve’ test grades, similar to the one I have used during my teaching externship.

I feel that the curve should be used to help account for flaws in instruction (and believe me we all have them.) For instance, if 80% of students get a specific question wrong on the test there’s a good chance you did not cover that material in an appropriate way. Who should pay the price for that?…the students? Instead I think determining if there are any ‘unfair quesions’ or questions that were not covered appropriately and then providing compensation for those bad questions might be one way to begin to curve a test. For instance this past exam we decided on a 5% curve (i.e. an 80% on the test would become an 85% after the curve). This was partially based on the fact that each question of the 40 question test was worth 2.5% of the grade, so 5% accounts for 2 bad questions. There was definitely one question I feel that fit into that category, possibly two. There were a few questions only ~ 50% of the students answered correctly. However, I know the topics were covered well in class, that I told the students would be on the test, and that they had already seen almost exactly the same question before on their homework. There is no sympathy or curve from me for answering those questions incorrectly.

Another option is to curve based on the class mean or median score. For both tests so far the class mean has been ~ 68% and the curve has boosted the class mean to ~ 73%. The problem here can be deciding what the mean for each test should be. Should it be the same for every test? Should it be a C average, and if so does that mean 70% or 75%? One could ask many questions about what a proper class average should be if there even should be one. Just another way in which grading is a subjective process…

Anyway, how do you all handle these situations? Do you curve? Why or why not? And if you do, how do you determine your curve?

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It’s Too Hard

Faux Momofuku Brussel Sprouts

It’s too hard…

I feel like those words came out of both my own mouth and my students’ mouth over the course of the past week or two.  They were referring to the most recent set of online quizzes and homework worksheets. It turns out they don’t like my versions of these documents vs. the forms they are used to from the previous semester of anatomy and earlier in this semester from my teaching mentor. I agree that they are a bit ‘harder’ to answer and require more than just memorizing lines of text. Here comes the shocker to them- that’s the point! This is one of those ‘hey it may not taste good but it is good for you’ instances (read: brussel sprouts).

Now the students are not totally correct in their assertions. People have still been doing really well on my versions of online quizzes (these are open-book on Blackboard, but timed). It seems though those who were skating by in the 70-80% range though are running into problems with these more involved questions while most who were 90% or above on the quizzes before have remained there with the new quizzes.

The difference in my questions has been for the most part that they require more than regurgitation of facts. Now I still have some pure memorization questions because when it comes to anatomy part of life is memorizing structures and their locations. My teaching mentor used questions that required application of concepts as well, though I think students were just using graded homework from previous semesters to complete the assignments. So now when faced with analysis questions that they can’t just copy from an old homework they are running into problems.

One general issue is that the students are familiar with fill-in-the-blank questions that match a sentence in their book word-for-word. When I make fill in the blank questions they must use their knowledge from reading a paragraph in the book to answer the question, but it does not match a sentence directly. This has lead to problems and confusion.

That’s when I sometimes think ‘it’s too hard.’ Both in the sense that maybe the question is too difficult for their level of knowledge and application and that it is too hard for me to write ‘harder’ questions that they can still actually answer. No one said it would be easy…

So where do I go from here? Well I have maintained a similar level of questioning in the online multiple choice Blackboard quizzes. I find the students are more likely to stay on the right track when they have only 4-5 answer choices. When I ask harder levels of fill-in-the-blank questions there is too much room for them to give me incomplete answers. So I kept the level of the quiz high but ratcheted down the level of the homework just a bit, while also becoming smarter about how I ask questions to guide them toward the type of answer I am looking for.

It’s hard- but possible.

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It’s Time to Up My Game

This past week I was able to interact with other fellows in my program who are also currently on teaching externships at a couple of universities around the Richmond area. It was good to catch up and discuss some of the problems we are facing and ways to combat those problems.

One of the major issues we all lamented is the lack of motivation of many of the students in our classrooms. This is a common lamentation of teachers from all levels of education, unfortunately. We all agreed that we should not let it bother us, but as always that is easier said than done. Even when making the class and it’s information as engaging as possible, there will always be a fraction of students that will still not be motivated. It’s good for me to write this here, just to remind myself these statements are true. This does not mean we should not try our best to make the material interesting.

One of the major areas we discussed was the use of active learning techniques during classtime. Both of my counterparts seem to be using a variety of these techniques in their classes already. One for instance has been running the course since day 1 as a flipped classroom and the other uses in-class activities and demonstrations on an almost daily basis. These truths made me reflect on my use (or lack) of activities in the classroom.

To me these discussions always come back to the question of “What is active learning?”. If it’s simply an activity that causes the students to participate more than when just passively listening to a lecture then I have a few ways in which I am already making my classroom “active.” For instance, I ask questions of the students and have selected students answer in front of the class. I also have students participate in polling questions so that everyone in the class has the opportunity to answer instead of just thinking about a question. Sometimes when students ask a question I answer with a question, which helps them answer their own original question. Are all these techniques forms of ‘active learning?’ I think so. But more importantly are they enough and are they effective?

Which leads me to the question of ‘What is the point of using active learning techniques in the classroom?’ One of the main problems in class is keeping students engaged with the material. Getting students to actively think about the material instead of just passively listen is one way to increase engagement. If this is the main purpose of using these techniques than something as simple as asking questions of the students during class should increase engagement if the student thinks about, tries to answer, and or listens to the answer to the question. Certainly making students physically perform an action during class or watch a demonstration should also enhance engagement. So what is enough use of these techniques and how fancy do they have to be to really enhance student engagement? I don’t know, but I think it’s something that we as educators should certainly consider.

One way to evaluate your classroom techniques is through the lens of Chickering and Gamson’s famous ‘7 Principles.’ (Thanks GRAD602) The version linked to is an update that discusses their ideas in light of advances in classroom technology. I’ll evaluate below how I think I am doing in relation to these principles.

1. Good Practice Encourages Contacts Between Students and Faculty: I try to have interaction during classtime by asking questions of my students and vice versa. I also talk to students before and after class and encourage them to visit my office (not many take me up on the last part). Certainly, I would like to increase student interaction with me during the rest of the semester. When I do have a conversation with a student I try to find out more about him/her outside of my single class or school in general.

2. Good Practice Develops Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students: I have not really had the students work together in class although I can tell they work together on their homework (which is good unless it just means copying another student’s work). I don’t necessarily feel a sense of community between most of the students in the room, something I need to work on (i.e. group activities in or out of class).

3. Good Practice Uses Active Learning Techniques: Again an area where I need to up my game. I am using some of the ‘simplest’ versions of these techniques but in the second half plan to design more activities for the students to work on in and out of class.

4. Good Practice Gives Prompt Feedback: I think I do fairly well here. I have been very timely getting homework and test grades back to the students along with including correct answers. Moreover, I have used polling software and question/answer sessions during class where feedback/answers are given very promptly. I am also usually prompt in responding to student e-mails.

5. Good Practice Emphasizes Time on Task: I certainly have not addressed time management much in class. I do provide my slides to the student’s via Blackboard for their personal use along with a wider variety of slides that covers topics I may not get to cover in class. I tell them areas to focus on when studying and try to align my assignments with the material and types of questions I ask on a test. These promote efficient studying in my opinion.

6. Good Practice Communicates High Expectations: Yes and no here. I go back and forth on being too hard or too easy. My mentor for class expects perfect spelling of scientific terms from students, but I am a bit more lax. I am not sure yet whether perfect spelling of unfamiliar words is a necessary ‘high expectation.’ I however do have high expectations when it comes to the types of analytical thinking and questions I expect the students to be able to answer. I try to focus on concepts that are less memorization and more ‘critical thinking skills’ (there’s my buzzword quota for the day in one sentence). That is a high expectation compared to the types of questions/knowledge they receive in other classes.

7. Good Practice Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning: I don’t really believe in a variety of learning styles. In my opinion it’s been pretty well de-bunked and the main idea I focus on is dual-processing theory. This is in line with the idea that pictures and words together are better than either alone. Moreover, the use of spoken  word may be better than written text, which ties into Mayer’s theory of multimedia learning. One thing I have spent alot of time playing with is effective use of multimedia presentation via Powerpoint. I know this is not the end-all be-all of instruction but if used effectively it is a great tool for instruction. As far as respecting diverse talents/abilities the grading system in the class is set up such that those students who are poor test takers have enough other graded activities that they can perform poorly on tests but well on other assignments and still pass the class. Those other activities are a discussion for another day.

Anyway the point here is: I NEED TO UP MY GAME the second half of this semester!

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Lifelong Learning: Just a Buzzword?

Buzzword Bingo

A recent article by James Lang in the Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the use of the term ‘lifelong learning’ in academia and the idea that it is just a pedagogical and administrative buzzword with little meaning. Both the article and the comments are worth reading.

Lang discusses that humans by nature are lifelong learners and educational institutions do not turn people into learners. Humans will learn throughout life regardless of entering a higher education institution that promotes ‘lifelong learning.’ Lang uses an example of people learning the rules of a game by watching others play the game to show that people learn throughout life regardless of education. He later says that he wants his students “to become curious, open-minded, and empathetic citizens.” I think that’s pretty close to how many define the term “lifelong learner.”

I agree that the term lifelong learning is vague and Lang’s definition seems reasonable. By remaining curious people stay motivated to learn more about topics that interest them, which may or may not be related to topics that were important during their college years. People who remain open-minded also tend to continue seeking out new information instead of believing what they already know is the whole truth. Lastly, one purpose of higher education should be to create better citizens. While all of these goals can’t be achieved in a single class, they should be promoted in various ways throughout a person’s 2-10 journey through higher education.

I think generating ‘lifelong learners’ is especially relevant in the current economy. In many ways the responsibilities of a specific job/position change over time. For instance, professors used to be viewed as having information that was not available to their students except through transmission to them by the instructor. Now, with much information freely available on the internet one responsibility of the instructor position has shifted to helping students critically analyze the sources of information to determine which ones are good or bad. Passing along knowledge is much different than showing others how to analyze resources of knowledge. So you might add ‘critical thinking skills’ to the buzzwords that help define ‘lifelong learning.’

I agree that we do have a buzzword problem in academia in general, including many scientific disciplines. This is bad in two ways. First, using some of these terms keeps the information from being understood by the general public and makes the field seem daunting or complicated to the average citizen. Secondly, many times these terms do not have an agreed upon definition. Thus, even when people in the same field are talking to each other there can be misinterpretations of the meanings of various terms. These are both communication issues. I’ve recently been reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser (a companion book to E.B. White’s ‘The Elements of Style’) and much of the discussion in his book involves trying to make your thinking and writing as simple as possible- but no simpler. Buzzwords and fancy terminology do various disciplines a disservice by making them seem unapproachable or difficult to understand. Academia would do well to heed his strategy for thinking, talking, and writing- namely keep it simple.

What’s your definition for ‘lifelong learning?’ Do you think buzzwords or fancy phrases do disciplines a disservice, especially in the eyes of the public?

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Factual Knowledge/Memorization vs. Conceptual Learning

What is Learning?

I believe one of the hardest tasks of the instructor is to find the a balance between having students learn facts or memorize the meaning of certain terms (especially relevant in the medical sciences) and trying to teach them concepts on which they can integrate their factual knowledge. There is always some overlap between these two processes. To understand certain concepts you certainly must have some factual knowledge or know the terminology used to discuss the concept. However, memorizing facts is not necessarily something that happens in the classroom. It certainly is enhanced by repetition and you can consider stating the fact in class as one repetition, but overall the memorization process largely occurs outside the classroom.

I recently found a short paper online about the idea of teaching facts vs. concepts, specifically in a human anatomy and physiology course, by Murray Jensen. The author is a anatomy and physiology instructor at the University of Minnesota, who upon further research seems very involved in reforming education and ditching the idea of lectures in the classroom. He has some great online material for anyone teaching anatomy and physiology who might come across this post.

Now the most discussed document in biology undergraduate education is the 2011 Vision and Change Report. One of the major actions called for in this report, sponsored by the AAAS and the NSF, is to move biology education towards a more concept-based learning environment. As cited in the report and heard in most classrooms, students certainly want less focus on memorization (well most of them do). I’d be happy to tell you that during my educational journey I became pretty good at memorization and I believe it was one of the reasons I was so successful. Many of my classes required a large amount of memorization and I was good at it, but it doesn’t always mean I learned everything well. I, like most students with the capability, crammed facts into my brain for tests, did well on those tests, and then promptly forgot most of the facts I did not use/need on a frequent basis after the test. I hesitate to say I am re-learning them now for my teaching venture as I’m not sure I ever really ‘learned’ some of them. I won’t get into the idea of ‘learning’ vs. ‘memorizing’ being different things here but it certainly is a point worth discussion.

This gets back to one of the points Jensen and many others have made, which is that we tend to teach others how we were taught. This can be good or bad depending on the methods of your past educators. However, a better plan may be looking to the educational literature and current educators as to the most effective pedagogy. I believe the sciences will always struggle with the teaching the facts vs. teaching concepts conundrum but the answer may lay in hybrid courses and flipped classrooms. In these setups the time spent providing factual information is pushed outside the classroom (through the use of audio or audio-visual lectures) and in class time is used for discussion/activities and answering student questions. This seems to be the direction many educators are heading. For an example of a newer instructor using the flipped/hybrid classroom check out this blog by a former GRAD602 student.

In the end most instructors have more content to cover than they can reasonably explain in class instruction hours. Therefore, it makes sense to move some of the content delivery outside of class time and focus on the important and difficult concepts when everyone is together. Effective or not…students do not always like it.

What are your thoughts on content learning vs. conceptual learning and the use of hybrid courses and flipped classrooms?

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A New Beginning

While this blog was started as part of the course requirements for a graduate course looking at the use of technology in teaching practice, for the next 15-ish weeks it will serve as documentation of my experience as a visiting instructor at a local undergraduate institution and a place to muse about topics in higher education. I hope for this blog to be interactive so I welcome insights and thoughts from the readers (family, friends, GRAD602 faculty and students, etc.).

In my first week at the new institution I attended a fair amount of meetings at the university, college, and departmental levels. While that does not sound like a very interesting way to spend one’s time, I did glean a few insights into a variety of issues within all those levels of the university and higher education at large. One of the topics discussed at the university-wide level was increasing the technology available to the students and faculty on campus, such as fast WiFi internet access throughout the campus. This certainly is a noble goal. However, the impression I left that meeting with was that one main purpose of that goal was to show that a smaller state university could compete with larger universities in the technology available on its campus. In fact, the school wants to have the fastest WiFi in the state available to its students. Awesome! I’m sure the students would be overjoyed to have that kind of access on campus.

However, my thoughts right away crept to discussions had early in my GRAD602 class the year before (oh Jeff, Britt, David and others I can’t get your voices out of my head). Certainly having technology available to students and faculty alike is a great thing, but more important is how that technology is used and if it enhances teaching and learning. Access to fast WiFi throughout the campus could certainly enable learning, allowing students to access online course content during class, at the cafeteria, in the quad, at the dorms, etc. Fantastic! There’s even been research showing that studying the same material at different locations enhances retention of that material (although I’m not sure if some of that effect is simply due to repetition). Abundant WiFi access would certainly enable students to more readily do this, especially in an age where textbooks are increasingly available and accessed online in addition to or in place of a hard copy.

But do you really need ‘the fastest WiFi this side of the Mississippi?’

Probably not. If the WiFi is fast enough to provide students with the ability to watch online video associated with their courses at a decent resolution I’d say that’s about as fast as it needs to be. Now I don’t know the exact Mb/s connection rate required to stream video, but my guess is it doesn’t require the fastest WiFi. Maybe it would be better to have a sufficient speed and use the remaining funds to enhance other technology and resources available to the university community. It may be better to have sufficient technology in a few different areas (lab equipment, WiFi speed access, online library access to textbooks/journals, classroom technology capabilities) then be the best at one.

As an instructor I think that perhaps having access for myself and the students to some publisher online content (that is behind a paywall) may be of more importance than faster internet. Certainly money allocation within a university is a point of major differences in opinion throughout institutions of higher education worldwide. However, especially at universities with lower funding levels, it seems that how that money is allocated is a very important factor. How can instructors run laboratories that have a budget of $0 for instance?

What do you think are some pieces of technology that most universities should strive to offer? What advances help both students and faculty alike? Do you think that universities are spending too much on technology as is and that money would be better spent other places?

I would love to read your opinion…

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