In this issue:
- The University as a "Learning bazaar"?
- Trying out online tutorials
- Thinking of incorporating online teaching
- TRACE receives research grants
- Inspiring students to become independent learners
- Learning styles revisited
- New teaching assistant developer
- Large class tips
- Spring TRACE events
Once in a while, an article comes along that really makes you stop and think, because it seriously questions deeply entrenched ideas. "The Case Against Teaching," by Larry D. Spence (Spence, 2001) is just such an article. Dr. Spence, a professor of political science, was the founding director of the Schreyer Institute for Innovation in Learning at Penn State University. He believes that, although the 'telling-teacher' approach works just fine one-on-one, it is disastrous with numbers such as those found in a typical university classroom, and that simply adding technology on to our traditional methods would be like "bolting an internal combustion engine on the back of a horse and buggy" (p. 18). He thinks that we need to completely abandon traditional teaching methods because they don't work - he claims that students don't seem to be able to retain the knowledge they acquire in one term in order to use it in subsequent courses the next term, or to transfer the information gained in school to address problems they encounter in the outside world. He envisions an ideal university of the future as a sort of 'learning bazaar', in which students conduct research with professors, engage in learning activities off campus, and learn on their own, making use of learning modules designed by professors in collaboration with technologists and cognitive instructional specialists. He sees faculty members as cycling "through periods of intense research, learning-environment design, and coaching." (p. 18)
What led Spence to this rather radical approach? While director of the Schreyer Institute, he was involved in more than a hundred and fifty projects designed to improve learning while simultaneously reducing costs. All of the projects ended up costing more in faculty time and support, and few of the improvements in learning lasted. This negative experience led him to reflect on the reasons for the failure and to his argument concerning the importance of learning rather than teaching. The argument involves three premises and a conclusion, and the paper is organized around these four statements:
Teaching is a human endeavor that does not and cannot improve over time.
Human beings are fantastic learners.
Humans don't learn well in the teaching-focused classroom.
We won't meet the needs for more and better higher education until professors become designers of learning experiences and not teachers. (Spence, 2001)
Spence's position is certainly extreme: I would take issue with premises 1 and 3, and with his low opinion of at least some of the capabilities of students. Sure, students forget material from one term to the next - especially if they have a co-op term in between - but those co-op terms are a fantastic preparation for them in terms of knowledge integration and application. Arguably, Waterloo could be already seen as a sort of learning
bazaar, at least for co-op students. As far as the first premise is concerned, I believe that one can learn to be a better teacher, notwithstanding the difficulties involved in lecturing to hundreds of students. Professors can master techniques that make lectures more interesting for students, and that will help to motivate them to go off and learn more on their own. That's part of what we help to facilitate here at TRACE. Premise 2: One of Spence's main points is that students learn best by doing something, not by listening to teachers. Certainly, learning by doing works well - be it in the machine shop, a laboratory, online with carefully thought out learning tasks, at one's desk working out problems or in a co-op job placement. But I also think that one can learn in the classroom, and that no matter how wonderful a computer-based learning module might be, there is no way that it could effect the same excitement in a student as can an inspired and enthusiastic academic lecturing in his or her field. Admittedly, the human contact is not as meaningful as there become more and more students in lecture halls, but at least there is some human face-to-face contact.
One issue that was not addressed well in this article was what to do about assessment in this learning-bazaar model of a university. Spence suggests that assessing learning is perhaps not as difficult as we make it. But other than stating: "We all know when we have learned. Students know whether they have learned outside the classroom and they recognize it when they are not learning inside," (p. 16) he gives us no hint of how one would go about deciding whether or not students have learned. One cannot very well give degrees based on whether students claim to have learned.
Another point worth making, I think, is that it is not enough for students to attend lectures - they must spend time going over the notes they take during lectures, reading text material and other books, and/or doing assignments or problems outside of class time. Many students do not understand this, or if they do understand it, they find it hard to do because of work commitments and/or perhaps (as Spence argues) because they are used to highly interactive, fun environments such as in computer games, in which there is an instant payoff. The 'work-commitment' explanation is real, and is a funding issue the blame for which should be put squarely in the government's lap, but that is another article. The 'concentration' explanation is probably also real, and is one we probably can't completely ignore.
This article has already stirred up a fair bit of interest in the higher-education media - a précis of it appeared in the January edition of "The Teaching Professor" this year. In spite of my reservations about the article, I found it fascinating and thought-provoking reading. If you'd like a copy of the shorter article that appeared in The Teaching Professor (check item 1), or the full-length piece from Change (check item 2), on the request sheet enclosed in this newsletter.
Spence, L.D. (2001). The case against teaching. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, November/December 2001, 11-19.
Weimer, M. (2002). The case against teaching? The Teaching Professor, 16 (1), 1-2.
When Gerry Boychuk of Waterloo's political science department considered how to increase participation from more students in his first-year Canadian Public Policy course this past term, he decided to try online tutorials. In a class of 90 students, he experimented with various options, with assistance from the Centre for Learning and Teaching Through Technology staff, to help him assess what would work best for him and his students.
Gerry had three cohorts of students in his course: those who participated solely in in-class tutorials, those who participated solely in online tutorials, and those who alternated between the two. The students chose their own tutorial type, and the types were to be comparable.
For these tutorials, students were to read articles that argued for and against public policy decisions and answer three generic questions about the strengths of the different arguments. The in-class tutorials met weekly and averaged 15 students each. The online groups were much smaller - about five students per group. They also met weekly, but their meetings were asynchronous. They had to post their answers to the generic questions by a specific date, then Gerry gave brief feedback by the next day and let the groups engage in an ongoing discussion for another couple of days. They were graded on their initial posting and their subsequent discussion postings. If they did not make the initial posting in time, they were unable to participate in the discussion. Gerry adopted this structure in order to address an issue that often arises in regular tutorials: students who are not prepared can "free ride" on the ideas of their peers.
What worked well? Overall, Gerry does feel that some students participated online more than they would have in class. He also found it easier to assign participation grades because the postings were archived. Finally, he was pleased with the quality of the postings, indicating he could "better judge the efforts of the quieter students than if they'd been in the classroom."
As for drawbacks, Gerry did experience some growing pains, and he also asked the students for their feedback. First, he felt that both he and his students had unrealistic expectations for what the online tutorials could accomplish. He would not try again to merely transfer his on-campus tutorials to the online environment. Instead, he plans to change the focus and the purpose of future online components. Next term, he plans to try alternating online discussions with in-class tutorials. The discussions will act as open venues to generate interest in the course topic areas, and the tutorials will cover key concepts and prepare the students for their assignments (those in his mixed cohort indicated that they felt better prepared for assignments after the in-class tutorials - somewhat of a surprise since their assignments were much like the postings they wrote). Gerry is also unsure how to balance his interventions in the online environment. He was hesitant to become too involved for fear of undermining the groups, but he found after this past term that more intervention up front could help all groups have more productive discussions; his online groups overwhelmingly asked for more feedback from him.
His advice for other faculty members who are considering online discussions for their courses is to "think it through fairly carefully regarding what you expect the technology can do." Consider how to mesh the technology component with the rest of the course. And don't expect to reduce your workload because it takes time both to prepare and facilitate effective online learning.
There are lots of possibilities for online teaching. TRACE held a workshop in March on integrating online assignments into your course.
After briefly discussing possible options for online assignments such as discussions, quizzes, and case studies, we discussed some reasons for putting an assignment online.
For example, online assignments, particularly discussions, can allow even the most reluctant participants to join in a discussion. Beyond encouraging participation, online assignments can often be designed to help students reach new learning levels or provide a different way to think about the material, thereby accommodating different learning styles. Another great reason to choose an online assignment is the possibility of providing students with instant feedback.
For more details from this workshop, please check item 3 for a copy of the TRACE Tips sheet.
Tracy Penny Light
TRACE recently received two research grants to help us with our work to enhance the quality of teaching and learning at Waterloo.
The first award comes from SSHRC for a joint project with the University of Manitoba entitled "Identifying Success Indicators for the Future Professoriate: An Assessment of Canadian Certification in University Teaching Program Outcomes." The principal investigator is at Manitoba, but co-investigators are Donna Ellis and Gary Griffin of Waterloo.
The second award is from the Canadian Bureau for International Education for a project involving the development of a manual that provides ways for instructors to have students with international experience become active learning resources for their courses. The principal investigator is Bruce Mitchell, associate vice-president academic, and TRACE's Barbara Bulman Fleming is co-investigator.
Perhaps one of our highest goals as instructors is to help students become independent learners. We want them to be curious about course material, challenge themselves to learn new skills, and come to class ready to learn. In essence, we want them to be motivated. Although students ultimately choose the level at which to pursue their own learning, instructors can foster an environment that effectively inspires students to become engaged and motivated learners. TRACE presented a workshop on this topic, "Motivating Students: Creating an Inspiring Environment," on February 12, 2002.
Before we can create an environment that inspires students to learn, we need to understand students' sources of motivation. Students are motivated both extrinsically (by external factors) and intrinsically (by internal factors). An extrinsically motivated student may be motivated to accomplish course tasks in order to get high grades, fulfill parents' expectations, attain scholarships, or get into graduate school. These motivators are powerful, but their effects are short-lived. Students who are intrinsically motivated, in contrast, learn because they are interested in the material, are intrigued with its relevance to their lives, and gain personal satisfaction and competence from the learning they achieve. These motivators, although intangible and developed more slowly, tend to produce longer lasting results. Ideally, we would like all our students to be intrinsically motivated, but we must also recognize and respect extrinsic motivators and try to work with them instead of ignoring them.
Another step toward creating that inspiring environment is to understand our own sources of motivation as a learner. Knowing how we are motivated can give us a better sense of ourselves as instructors and help us to be more effective with our students. For example, if grades motivated you to learn or if you believe all students are motivated by grades, you will attach grades to every aspect of the course (assignments, participation in discussions, attendance, etc.). In contrast, if grades didn't motivate you to learn or you want to downplay their importance, you may not provide your students with a clear outline of your grading scheme on the syllabus. TRACE workshop participants completed a survey called LOGO II, which tests motivation along two axes-"learning-orientation" (LO) and "grade-orientation" (GO). If you would like to complete this survey, check item (4) on the Request Sheet.
Given the contextual information about motivation, how can we foster an inspiring environment? Consider each of the following four factors:
Create or affirm a learning atmosphere in which instructors and students feel respected by and connected to one another. One excellent strategy to develop inclusion is to learn students' names and use them frequently.
Develop a favourable attitude toward learning.
Be aware of your students' attitudes toward learning and toward your course, and strive to develop their feelings of enthusiasm for course material. An effective way to help your students have a positive attitude is to model that enthusiasm yourself. Also, be student-centred, always stating course objectives from the students' perspective.
Strive to create engaging and challenging learning experiences that target your students. The more you can relate course material to your students' concerns, interests, and goals, the more meaningful it will be. For example, give students an opportunity to work in groups to solve a concrete problem.
Create or affirm an understanding that students have effectively learned something they value. Empower your students by providing encouragement at every step, and give frequent feedback.
If you would like an extensive list of motivational strategies that target each of these factors, check the TRACE tips sheet (item (5)) on the Request Sheet or visit the TRACE website.
Small changes on the part of instructors can make significant changes in students' motivational levels. For example, asking our students to help us solve a concrete problem in our field not only enhances the meaning of course material and helps students develop a positive attitude toward learning, but also helps students feel included in the classroom and develops their feelings of competence. And while many of us may already know and use various motivational strategies in our teaching, the last page of the tips sheet features questions to help you reflect on your thoughts about and uses of motivation as a teacher. Motivation is exciting because it works in a cycle. If we as instructors foster an environment in which students become better motivated, their performance and attitudes will in turn inspire us to become more enthusiastic teachers and motivate us to improve our teaching effectiveness-which will in turn inspire our students even more.
"The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be "voluntarily" reproduced and recombined. The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type."
Albert Einstein, as cited in Hadamard (1945)
Einstein, evidently, was better with images than with words. Have you ever had a student make something like the following comment to you: "Professor, I understand what you say when you're saying it, but it somehow just doesn't sink in - I think I must be a very visual learner."? My predecessor, Gary Griffin, wrote an article entitled "Learning Styles" in the fall-term 2001 issue of this newsletter. In it, he discussed problems of reliability with the questionnaires that purport to measure what a person's 'learning style' is, and commented on the lack of evidence for the improvement of instruction when one's style is matched to a particular teaching method. Notwithstanding Gary's sensible article, I thought that readers might be interested in some recent neuroscientific evidence supporting the plausibility of the existence of differences in the way people learn.
It is certainly reasonable to assume that different areas of the brains of different people are developed to different degrees. To the extent that this is true, then evidence that particular areas of brains can be reliably demonstrated to be responsible for processing different kinds of information supports the 'learning-style-differences' notion. Even stronger evidence is that the brain processes "identical" information differently depending on the medium of its entry.
Michael Balter (Balter, 2001) reported on two presentations at a conference last year to honour Jacques Mehler, founder of the journal Cognition. One of the presentations focused on the brain localization of musical appreciation, the complete absence of which results in individuals (such as Che Guevera, apparently) who can neither recognize nor sing even very familiar tunes - this despite normal cognitive functioning in other respects. Another presentation concerned the demonstration of changes in electrical activity in certain brain areas of 4-month-old babies who were exposed to changes in number patterns through various senses. This evidence, in humans, for a brain area involved in processing a general sense of numbers, has been bolstered with similar findings for a corresponding region in cotton-top tamarin monkeys. More recently, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have compared the activity of various regions of the brain while it is processing the same information, either obtained through reading, or through listening (Michael, Keller, Carpenter & Just, 2001). Their findings support the idea that there are large differences in how our brains process information, depending on the medium through which we get the information. Happily, for those of us who still feel that presenting a good lecture is a worthwhile endeavour (but cf. "The University as a 'Learning Bazaar'?", this issue), the results also indicate that there is more processing for meaning during listening comprehension than during reading. So, assuming our students come to our lectures and listen to what we say, their brains will be more active than if they had stayed home and read our lecture notes from the web!
As far as individual differences are concerned, the truth is that the vast majority of us (the 'hump' on the canonical bell-shaped curve that describes the distribution of many biological characteristics) probably aren't too different from each other in terms of the extent of development of various bits and pieces of our brains. But it certainly seems plausible to me that, for a small number of individuals, it might really matter how information gets into the brain. I can do no better than to reiterate the take-home message from the original Teaching Matters article: Be encouraged to reflect on your teaching and to vary, when possible, the way you present material to your students - it will be more interesting and motivating for everyone concerned.
Balter, M. (2001). What makes the mind dance and count. Science, 292, 1636-1637.
Hadamard, J.S. (1945). The psychology of invention in the mathematical field. New York: Dover Publications (1954, c.1945).
Michael, E.B., Keller, T.A., Carpenter, P.A., & Just, M.A. (2001). fMRI investigation of sentence comprehesion by eye and ear: Modality fingerprints on cognitive processes. Human Brain Mapping, 13, 239-252.
Jonaki Bhattacharyya is working through a master's degree in environmental studies. She has experience teaching skills and concepts to members of various species, ranging in age from childhood to adulthood. Whether working with quadrupeds or humans, she derives her enthusiasm for both teaching and learning from the active engagement between teacher and student, and the dynamic exchanges between the two. Experience so far has shown her that good teaching is closely related to being open to learning. Jonaki is enthusiastic about working within TRACE, and looks forward to learning more about different teaching skills and styles, while fostering creative initiatives and positive exchanges within the university community. You can reach Jonaki at email@example.com.
Here are two activities to increase student participation in large classes. First is a variation of brainstorming. Ask students "what they know, have heard, or have read" about a given topic. This prompt helps to decrease students' intimidation about being 'wrong' in front of such a large group as they do not have to claim ownership of the idea. Remember to use brainstorming at a strategic point in the class, such as when beginning a new topic, and avoid judging any ideas received during the activity.
The second activity, "quescussion," combines questions and discussion. To perform a quescussion, pose a question or make a statement to the class (write it on the board or overhead). Have students respond by only asking questions. By framing the discussion into questions, the responses are tentative (impossibly wrong) rather than declarative (possibly wrong), again decreasing students' intimidation about participating.
For more information on these, or any other activities for large classes, check item 6 on the request sheet or visit TRACE to speak with our staff.
Shannon Mc Kenna-Farrell
Workshops for the spring 2002 term:
|Effective Electronic Communication||May 16||12 - 1:30 p.m.|
|Developing & Maintianing Professional Relationships||June 4||12 - 1:30 p.m.|
|Assignment Design||July 10||12 - 1:30 p.m.|
|Freeing Your Voice||July OR
For more specific details, watch for notices in your department and via the Certificate listserv. To join the listserv, email trace@watserv1. Each lunchtime workshop is followed by an informal discussion group one week following the workshop.
CUT participants, please note that all of these workshops partially fulfill CUT requirements for GS 901 and 902. The teaching dossier workshop is required for the CUT.
You may register via our web site at: http://www.adm.uwaterloo.ca/infotrac/workhp.html