Tag: peer instruction

The hardest part of teaching?

Today was the faculty and staff Welcome Back BBQ at UBC Okanagan. My Centre for Teaching and Learning had an information table among 25 or so other campus organizations. Always on the lookout to inject a little interaction and teaching and learning, I set up a laptop and i>clicker gear to survey my new colleagues about teaching:

Survey question: What do you think is the hardest part of teaching? (photo: Peter Newbury)
Survey question: What do you think is the hardest part of teaching? (photo: Peter Newbury)

Lots of people stopped at our table to talk, both faculty and staff. Many had heard of clickers but this was their first time ever holding one and clicking. It was really interesting to hear people say, “All of the above!” and then struggle to select one answer. Which is the point of a good peer instruction question – to make you stop and think carefully and deliberately so you decide for yourself which answer to select.

I was pleased by the results:

Results of my survey. Most people felt connecting with students and keeping up with the marking are the hardest parts of teaching. (Photo: Peter Newbury)
Results of my survey. Most people felt connecting with students and keeping up with the marking are the hardest parts of teaching. (Photo: Peter Newbury)

Here’s what I’m thinking about the responses and how my Centre can respond:

A) knowing the material (selected by 18% of the respondents)
It’s true that the instructor needs to know the material. That’s why they were hired/selected to teach the content, after all. What my Centre can add is “pedagogical content knowledge”, that is, knowledge about how people learn the content. For example, we can let an instructor know which topics students struggle with and what are the common misconceptions. We can help the instructor see through their expert blindness.
B) preparing the lessons (21%)
No question that preparing lessons (and the bigger task of designing the course) is hard. There’s nothing my Centre can do to create time for an instructor to prep but we can help make that time productive. We promote the “backward” approach to planning a course by 1) establishing learning outcomes, 2) creating summative and formative assessments aligned to those outcomes, and 3) selecting instructional strategies and education technologies to support the outcomes and assessment. I tell anyone who’ll listen that investing your time in creating learning outcomes pays off many times over. That’s where I recommend people spend time.
C) speaking in front of a group (4%)
As important and critical as this is, public speaking isn’t something my Centre teaches. Sure, we all have experience in front of groups and can offer our own advice but we’re not experts. And, it turns out, people aren’t so concerned about this. Whew.
D) connecting and interacting with students (32%)
This is the answer I pick. There’s technology and templates and guidance for making the other answers easier. Connecting and interacting with students in a meaningful way, which to me means recognizing each student as an individual with their own strengths, that’s hard. It requires sparking a relationship the moment they walk through the door on the first day and then every day, building and maintaining that trust. I distilled some great advice from another group of colleagues about connecting with your diverse collection of students. My Centre is always ready to have conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion, and learning communities.
E) keeping up with the marking (25%)
Ahh, yes, marking. When there’s a lot to do, it’s a circle of Hell. And my Centre isn’t going to do it for you. But we’re ready to help instructors re-imagine and re-design their assessment techniques so that in the limited amount of time available, they can provide formative feedback that supports learning. Maybe that means getting the computer to autograde multiple-choice, not because multiple-choice is a such a good tool but because that could free up time to mark short- and long-answer questions. Maybe there’s a way students evaluate each others’ work. Maybe it’s better to ask fewer, but more probing, questions. My Centre’s goal isn’t to help instructors find ways to do the same marking faster but rather, to help create different assessments.

All in all, I’m really pleased with the responses I got from my colleagues today. And by the enthusiasm for, and recognition of, excellence in teaching and learning.

What do you find the hardest? And what choices should I put on the survey next year?

PI in LA

I’m excited to return to Cal State University Los Angeles (CSULA) to give a couple of workshops on peer instruction. My thanks to Beverly Bondad-Brown in the Center for Effective Teaching and Learning for the invitation.

My first workshop is about writing good peer instructions. Actually, it’s about helping students learn to think more like experts, and effective peer instruction with clickers is a versatile tool for all kinds of skills and all kinds of disciplines. The participants looked through a collection of good and bad peer instruction questions and had to judge the questions on their clarity, context, learning outcome, distractors, difficulty and if the question could stimulate thoughtful discussion (hat-tip to Stephanie Chasteen for this list of what makes a good peer instruction question.)

Effective Peer Instruction

It’s not enough to through clickers at the students, though. To get more out of peer instruction, instructors need to do everything they can so students waste no precious, cognitive load trying to figure out what to do. “Is this when we vote?” “Are we supposed to talk now?” “What is the answer, anyway?” Those questions distract them from thinking like experts.

My colleague, Beth Simon, and I have worked out a “choreography” that keeps the students focused on content, rather than the tool. These are 2 variations. One is for classes emphasizing  analytical skills like you’d typically see in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes. Here, students vote on their own, convince a neighbor they have the right answer, vote again, and the participate in a class-wide discussion. The other choreography is for classes where argumentation is more important. Here, all the choices to the question can be supported – the goal is to give students practice supporting their choice. They vote once, justify their choice to their neighbors, and then contribute to a class-wide discussion. There are no right or wrong answers so it doesn’t make sense to “convince your neighbor you’ve got the right answer.”

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