Tag: The College Classroom

Old dog, meet new trick

I’m a little scared to estimate the following number: how many times I’ve welcomed students to the first class of the term. It’s around 40, I think. Over the years, I’ve changed what I say and do in that first class. I used to spend a lot of time going over all the details of the syllabus. Yawn. After working with instructors via the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) at UBC and the Center for Teaching Development at UC San Diego, and reading these great resources, First Day of Class and Motivating Learning (both PDFs from the CWSEI), I do things differently now.

Sampo Icebreaker cruise - Kemi, Finland

Yesterday, I tried something new in my teaching and learning class, The College Classroom. For the first time ever (for me), I did an “ice breaker” activity. You know, one of those activities where the students get to know each other. I want to describe why it took me so long to do it, what I think ice breakers can (should?) do, and what I actually did yesterday.

Ice-breaker activities make me uncomfortable. I don’t like striking up conversations with strangers, in class or anywhere. I’d rather stay quiet and anonymous. And so, I never asked my students to do it.

The educator in me knows, however, that there are incredible benefits to working and learning with others. So called “social constructivism” says students need to construct their own knowledge based on their own backgrounds, skills, experiences, and motivations and that construction is a whole lot easier when you do with your peers. It’s the basis for peer instruction, the activity where the instructor poses a conceptually challenging, multiple-choice questions, students think about it and vote with a clicker, discuss their understanding with their peers, in some cases vote again, and then participate in an instructor-moderated, class-wide discussion. Peer instruction is something I use in The College Classroom (and also something I teach in The College Classroom. Sometimes that gets confusing.)

I’m also keenly aware, through my association with the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) Network, of the importance of learning communities. I want my classroom to be a learning community where people of different backgrounds and interests can come together to learn. Sparking and then maintaining that learning community is one of my responsibilities as the instructor.

Okay, the pieces are starting to come together now: social constructivism, peer instruction, sparking a learning community, the first day of class, motivating learning,…

Aha! Let’s start the class with an icebreaker activity. Not some forced and awkward activity that makes people uncomfortable. Let’s do something that’s relevant to the class and initiates the kinds of interactions I want to choreograph in every class that follows.

Here’s a slide from near the beginning of my first day’s slidedeck:

The icebreaker activity I used in my first class.
The icebreaker activity I used in my first class.

And here’s what happened: the room erupted in conversation. It was seriously loud. Okay, going great, going great, uh-oh conversations are dying off, time to do something Peter, what are you going to do Peter to make this useful, do it now before you lose them, do it now, Do It Now, DO IT NOW.

I asked for people to share a few of their stories. Good experiences and bad. I wrapped up the discussion by highlighting all the different factors that made those experiences memorable, factors like

  • student motivation
  • the instructor’s enthusiasm
  • the instructor’s skill as a teacher
  • the relationship between the student and the instructor

These are what I — we — will teach and learn in this course, and also how we’ll teach and learn in this course.

So, I’m converted. I’ll do icebreakers from now on. But not just any ol’ icebreaker. It’s got to be something that’s relevant to the class and with a purpose other than getting students to introduce themselves. It shouldn’t be this awkward, uncomfortable, artificial interaction but rather, something the students will continue to experience in every class that follows.

What about you? Do you run icebreaker activities in your class? What do you do (and why?)

Target your feedback

The other day, I was talking about assessment that support learning in my teaching and learning class. Like I do often, I started the class with a “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” picture:

on target
What do you notice? What do you wonder?

The more I heard what my students noticed and wondered and more I thought about it, the more I like the analogy between learning archery and learning calculus or history or engineering or any other class at university.

Let’s Learn Archery!

(I’ve never shot an arrow, other than the usual bendy sticks and string thing that kids do during their summer holidays, so I could be totally *ahem* off-target here. If you know about archery, please, leave me a comment!)

Let’s suppose you want to learn archery. At first, the archery instructor will give you some direct instruction to get you to a level where you’re able to safely shoot an arrow in the general direction of the target. Now it’s your turn to practice and build your skills.

But imagine this: Imagine that the archery target is just the bull’s-eye. A little red circle, what, a couple of inches across, at the other end of the archery range. What kind of assessment and feedback would you get when you practice? You’d know when you did things 100% correct and hit the bull’s-eye. Otherwise, nothing. That would be frustrating and I suspect you’d give up. (Did you try Flappy Bird? And get angry and delete it? Yeah, like that.)

What’s so cool about a real archery target, then, is the instantaneous and formative feedback it gives you. When your arrow hits the target, you know immediately how you’re preforming (how close to bull’s-eye are you?) and, more importantly for learning, what you need to do to improve your aim. Hit up and to the left? Next time, aim more down and to the right.

You know what else is cool? It’s obvious and “well, d’uh, what else could it be?” that it’s you shooting the arrows, not the instructor. Sure, it would be extremely valuable to watch an expert, especially as you learn what to look for, but in the end, you have to do it yourself.

Let’s Learn Calculus!

After all that fun at the archery range, it’s time to head home. That calculus homework’s not going to do itself, you know.  Imagine the instructor gives you a list of questions to do each week (“all the even numbered questions at the end of Chapter 7”). You work through them,  and hand them in.

Mean Mode

The teaching assistants don’t have time to mark your homework thoroughly. The most they can do is look at your answers to Questions 4, 6 and 12 and give you a check mark or an X. What kind of assessment and feedback would you get from this? That you’re 100% correct on some questions, wrong on a few others, and nothing at all on the rest.

I’m not trying to pick on math. I’ve heard students say they only feedback they get on an essay is a letter grade on the front page.

How is anyone supposed to learn from that?

The feedback helps students learn calculus and history and whatever they’re studying depends critically on the discipline. Each field, each course has its own set of skills and/or attitudes. The instructor’s job is to help the students become more expert-like. There are some underlying patterns to the practice and formative assessment that support learning, though. These are drawn from Chapter 5 of a great book, How Learning Works, by Susan Ambrose et al. (2010):

  • practice needs to be goal-directed: everything the instructor asks students to do should support one or more of the course’s learning outcomes. If the assignment doesn’t, why are the students wasting their time on it?
  • practice needs to be productive: the students need to get something out of everything they do. Do they really need to answer twenty questions at the back of Chapter 7? What about 5 representative questions from Chapter 7, plus 4 questions from Chapter 6 and 3 questions from Chapter 5 so they also get some practice at retrieving previous concepts (like they’ll have to do on, say, the final exam!)
  • feedback needs to be timely: when do I need feedback on the aim of my arrow? Right now, before I shoot another one. Not in 2 weeks when the TAs have finally been able to finish marking all the papers and entered the grades.
  • feedback needs to be at an appropriate level: A checkmark, a letter grade, or only circling the spelling mistakes are not sufficient. Neither is referring the student to the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. A good rubric, for example, lets each student know what they’re acheiving and also what success looks like at this level.

Frequent productive, goal-directed practice with timely, formative feedback at an appropriate level. That’s what an archery target gives you. We need to find the target in each course we teach.

What does the target it look like in your course?

Learning Outcomes, Instruction, Assessment: Check, check, check

I’ve spent time in that circle of Hell called “marking” (or “grading” as they call it here in the U.S.) My past is filled with stacks of math exams full of multi-step problems and  astronomy exams with essays about the nature of science. The only respite from the drudgery of marking are the answers so absurdly incorrect it makes you laugh or the answers that are exactly what you’re looking for – check, check, check-check, check, check, perfect! 10/10.

Happily, I don’t have to mark exams anymore, but I still have an chance to get the tiny squirt of adrenaline that comes from assessing those “exactly what you’re looking for” answers.

I teach a teaching and learning course in the Center for Teaching Development at UCSD called The College Classroom to graduate students and postdocs. Their last assignment is a “microteaching experience.” Traditionally,  this involves developing a lesson for a class they might teach someday, delivering that lesson to their fellow students and then getting feedback from their peers and instructors. That’s is a good way to assess the ability to lecture, maybe even the ability to orchestrate some active learning into the lecture, but that’s still only one part of “teaching.” What about all the things that happen before class and after class?

Instead, we ask the students to create lesson plan for a 50- or 80-minute class. It should contain

  • learning outcomes
  • pre-class tasks like readings, watching videos, exploring websites with clear guidance about what to focus on
  • pre-reading quiz to assess the pre-class tasks
  • a skeleton of the lesson, including 3-5 peer instruction (“clicker”) questions but excluding the PowerPoint slides with all content – I don’t want them wasting their time making pretty slides they may never use
  • several assessment questions that could appear in homework or on the exam

For their presentation, we meet in small groups — me, the TA, and 3 of them — and I ask them to pretend they’re sitting in the coffee room with a few of their colleagues, describing this awesome lesson they’ve planned. They’ve got less than 10 minutes and they should assume everyone present knows the content and can concentrate on the pedagogy. (“In other words, don’t teach us the chemistry. Assume we know it. Tell us how you’ll teach it and why that’s a good approach.”)

When I assign the microteaching task a few weeks before the end of the course, I give them a lesson plan rubric (PDF). It’s using this rubric to assess their presentations that I get those “check, check, check-check, check” moments of satisfaction.

As an alumni of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia, I adhere to Carl’s 3-pillared model of course design:

The CWSEI's 3-pillared approach to course design. (Image adapted from CWSEI by Peter Newbury CC-BY-NC)
The CWSEI’s 3-pillared approach to course design. (Image adapted from CWSEI by Peter Newbury CC-BY-NC)

Step 1.  Set the learning outcomes What should students learn? What should they be able to do to demonstrate their understanding and mastery of the concepts and skills? These outcomes are statements that complete the sentence, “By the end of this lesson/unit, you’ll  be able to…” and start with a nice, juicy verb selected from Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain.

Step 2. Decide how you’re going to teach What instructional approaches help students learn? What does the literature tell you about how people learn those skills and concepts? I’m a strong supporter of lecture…in 10-15 minute snippets, when the students are prepared to learn because you’ve primed them through student-centered activities like peer instruction, in-class worksheets and demonstrations, or pre-reading.

Step 3. Assessment What are students learning? Create formative and summative assessments that evaluate students’ mastery of the learning outcomes.

Two important things to notice about this approach:

  1. When it works, it works great. Here’s what I wanted students to know, here’s how I taught it, here’s what they did on the exam. Check, check, check.
  2. When it doesn’t work, it still works great. If students don’t perform like you’d hoped, the pillars help you diagnose the “failure mode,” as my engineering friends would say. Maybe it was a bad exam question that didn’t assess what you wanted to teach. Maybe you didn’t teach it in a way that helped them learn. Maybe you set an unrealistic learning outcome. In other words, you can re-trace through the course design cycle to find out what went wrong.

The College Classroom Microteaching Presentations

When the participants in The College Classroom present their lesson plans, it’s great when I can identify this nice, tight package of learning outcomes, instruction and assessment – check, check, check! I make sure I tell them, hoping that positive feedback will motivate them to do it again. As with marking exams, it’s the incomplete lessons that are difficult to assess. Fortunately, 3-pillared approach together with the rubric makes it easier for me to give targeted, goal-directed formative feedback.