Just what am I doing here, anyway?

Alright so I’m doing this a bit out of order… started this post and shelved it.  But in case you’re wondering why the sudden flurry of activity, it’s because I’m taking the PIDP 3260 course, officially and perhaps somewhat ominously entitled “Professional Practice”.  Several years ago now, I returned to Canada after 3 years of postdoctoral research in Europe with no job lined up, and after several months and dozens of applications to research positions with no takers I (admittedly in some desperation) started applying to strictly-teaching jobs.

And realized I had no idea what I was doing.

At least, that’s what it felt like!  As I rearranged my extensive research CV to highlight my teaching experience, I suddenly felt woefully inadequate.  I was new to the “real job” market, hadn’t taught in a classroom in several years, and had no documented teaching credentials to speak of.  From my own prior experience as a student I can attest to the fact that “merely” having a degree does not a great teacher make!  All I knew of teaching was the bits and pieces I had picked up from observation of my own instructors, some experience teaching laboratory sessions in a sort of mentoring/team environment with  other grad students but minimal direct supervision, and some private tutoring I’d been picking up as piecemeal work.  Hardly what I considered an extensive resume… so I decided if I was to go this teaching route that I would likely need some credentials to back up my bold claim that I was capable of teaching a classroom of adults!  I discovered the Provincial Instructor Diploma Program at VCC, and a student was reborn.

Thankfully, at the beginning of my PIDP journey a local college decided that I seemed a likely candidate for a bit of contract work, which turned into several solid years of work and now a full-time position.  I can’t be doing things too badly!  Nevertheless I’ve been continuing my way through the PIDP as I’ve continued to develop my teaching in practice.  So far I’ve found the resources and information and vocabulary introduced by the PIDP courses to be invaluable in developing my teaching skills, and the new challenges faced with each of my own classes help to root the PIDP course information in reality.  It’s challenging to try to do everything at once, but so far has been well worth it.  I’m hopeful that this latest addition will prove just as valuable!

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Just what kind of teacher am I, anyway?

One way to figure that out is to take one of those pesky online ‘quizzes’ or ‘surveys’… or in this case, the Teaching Perspective Inventory.  This TPI informed me that my “dominant” Teaching Perspective was for Transmission at “35”, with Developmental a close second (33) , followed by Apprenticeship (30) and Nurturing (26), with Social Reform falling in the ‘recessive’ range at “20”.  At least relative to each other, this was not really overly surprising from my perspective, knowing myself reasonably well and given that I teach mostly introductory Biology courses, where transmission of factual information (“Transmission”) as a basis and preparation for future learning (“Developmental”) is how I would summarize my primary goal.  What does all this mean?  I’ll direct readers to the Summary of Five Perspectives page to explain! (Go ahead and take a quick read, I’ll wait…)

(Welcome back!) What I found most interesting, and even encouraging, about my own results is how closely-aligned my results in most categories were in the beliefs, intentions, and actions axes.  The largest difference was a whopping 3 points in the “Developmental” perspective, where what I try to accomplish in my teaching (“intentions”) scored 3 points higher than both my beliefs (about whether it is important or justified) and actions (what I do when I’m teaching), but otherwise I seem to have little internal discrepancies in each Perspective.  I’ll take that as a sign that overall, I’m probably teaching what I think I’m teaching, and that I do perhaps understand a little bit about at least myself and my own teaching style, in that I’m not grossly misrepresenting myself to myself!  Whether my students and colleagues agree could be interesting to evaluate… in fact, I’ll be tempted to discuss these TPI results with my colleagues in my upcoming peer evaluations, in terms of whether my approach to teaching the courses I typically teach (large, introductory courses taught by multiple instructors) matches what others believe the overall goal of those courses to be.  However, given that the biggest discrepancy was in an area I do believe to be important (Developmental, i.e., building on students’ prior knowledge and helping them develop skills and knowledge to better succeed as future learners), I feel as though I might need to take a closer look at both what I’m doing in the classroom and whether I’m somehow misstating my own beliefs.  It’s possible that the questions I was answering weren’t quite the same as the questions being asked; I have had some experience making both exam and survey questions, and have gotten some… unexpected results, that may be explained as the result of different interpretations!.  It’s also admittedly possible that I have some biases that I’m not explicitly addressing, particularly in terms of taking students’ lifestyles, cultures, and/or personal histories into account, that may be pulling down my apparent belief in this Developmental perspective; I wonder if the difference isn’t picking up on my emphasis on preparing students for future work but not on their past histories?  Things to keep in mind, anyway, as I try to continue to improve my teaching for my students’ sake!

 

On “Experiencing Teaching”

So here I am again! What? I told you I was an infrequent blogger…

I’m still (!) working my way through the series of courses designed (I hope!) to help me become a better instructor, or at least to help me think about how I could become a better instructor.  So far so good, I like to think!   I’ve just been introduced to the third edition of “The Skillful Teacher”, Stephen’ Brookfield’s book “on technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom”, as the author puts it.  In this and upcoming posts here I’ll be commenting on a selection of parts of this book (most likely in amongst a variety of asides as I work my way through  my current course!), so without further ado…

The first chapter of Brookfield’s book, “Experiencing Teaching”, starts with the claim that “Our lives as teachers often boil down to our best attempts to muddle through the complex contexts and configurations that our classrooms represent” (p. 1)  He continues with this idea of ‘muddling through’ throughout the first chapter, and it certainly a phrase that could be used to sum up a lot of my teaching time to date!  I started teaching college-level courses fresh off of a three-year postdoc position in Europe, where I didn’t speak the local language fluently enough to teach class.  Prior to that, I’d had (what I perceived as) minimal experience directing lab classes as a grad student, but little formal training in teaching per se.  I’d just started working my way through a series of training courses, but felt woefully unprepared to handle upwards of 100 adult students.  But muddle though I did!  I continue to ‘muddle though’ teaching as I mess around with the courses I teach, tinkering with content and scheduling and instructional and assessment and evaluation techniques.  But as Brookfield also claims, although I don’t necessarily follow a proscribed set of rules for how to best teach a class, this ‘muddling’ “should not be though of as haphazard, nor as dishonorable” (p. 1).  Brookfield deals in his text with some more challenging dilemmas than most of what I’ve had to deal with so far – he talks about racially-motivated fistfights (p. 1-2) for example – while some of the other situations he mentions are eerily familiar: thought-provoking questions greeted by silence (p. 4), or blaming myself for a class session gone poorly (p. 7).  But in any case I haven’t hit upon a single “right” way to predict or reliably accommodate the differences I find between the success of different strategies that appear between classes, terms, or individual students within a class, and so I continue to muddle through as best I can.

Perhaps the thing I appreciate most about Brookfield’s latest edition of his book so far is that he seems to have sensed a strong need by fellow instructors for concrete suggestions.  I noticed that the claim he made in the second edition of his book, that “There are no seven habits of effective teaching, no five rules for pedagogic success” (2nd ed., p. 1) is missing from the third edition, while a list of “some of the most important truths I’ve established for myself about teaching” (3rd ed., p. 9) has now appeared at the end of the same chapter!  Skimming the second edition, I had been a bit worried that it would be heavy on personal opinion and light on concrete suggestions for how to test those opinions, but it seems Brookfield may have heard my complaints before I uttered them.  I look forward to reading through the rest of the text and seeing if it can at least help me coalesce and crystallize some of my own muddled thoughts and ideas into useful strategies and actions that I can put to use (or at least, to the test!) in my own classroom.

 

References

Brookfield, S. D. (2006) The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S. D. (2015) The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.

On being an Infrequent Blogger

Hi, nice to meet you, I’m a terrible infrequent blogger.

Alright, so I’ve been trying to complete some courses online, and one thing these courses all seem to have in common is the requirement to maintain a blog.  Don’t get me wrong, I understand the utility of a blog in this context. I’m just… Not particularly enthusiastic about it?  No, that’s not quite right, because that implies I’m not motivated to complete a blog, and I think I am.  I mean, I feel like I have things to say, and I actually Ike the blog format because it allows me to say my piece without unrestricted argument (i.e. I can moderate or forbid publically-visible comments, MUAHAHAHAHA! Ahem. Moving on…).  But I’m not sure it’s a great format for those people wanting to find out what I have to say (yeah, all those many people…), because I don’t post very frequently, as much as my classmates and colleagues and facilitators have been trying to convince me to.  I think I might be on track to figurinng out why, so I’m going to go against all my inclinations here and post – gasp! – an incomplete thought!

I’ve been trying to figure out why, despite my best intentions, I haven’t seemed to get myself to post a comment in a discussion forum every day, or a blog post at least once a week.  I often found myself starting a post and then relegating it to the ‘draft’ bin for further consideration, or previewing a comment and then deleting it, or just stopping partway through and abandoning it.  This happens to me even when considering replying to a post of a blog that I follow with a comment.  That got me to thinking about the fact that I spent longer than I probably needed to in writing my Master’s thesis, and my Doctoral thesis, and every research paper or review article I’ve ever written.  And it seems to me that I don’t like putting anything out into the public sphere that isn’t… Well, “correct” isn’t quite the right word, because I certainly don’t mind being corrected if I’m wrong (as I’ve told my students!), but I think… Well-reasoned?  Well-evidenced?  I guess I don’t mind being wrong, but I do mind being seen as… Is there a word for it?  I was going to write “stupid” but that’s not really the right word.  Naive?  No, I don’t mind just not knowing facts… As long as I’m allowed to change my mind in the face of new information.  Aargh, I spent way too much time with thesaurus.com to not be able to find a word that means what I want it to!

Let me try putting that a different way.  Whenever I’m putting something “out there” for even semi-public consumption, be it a blog or comment or thesis or anything that leaves a record anywhere other than in the squishy brain of a person or two, I  want to make sure that it makes sense objectively, that it fits with observable and evidenced reality.  I don’t mind conjecture; I was after all a research scientist where good hypothesis generation and testing is the name of the game.  But making unevidenced claims is a big no-no.

So what does all this blathering have to do with posting frequency?

Finding evidence to back up my claims takes time.  And sometimes often I find information that contradicts my claim, or seems to back it up but not really, or I get sidetracked on some vaguely related note, or… Well, you get the idea.  Between the time it takes to get through all that and the standards I try to hold myself to, it means getting things posted out in the public sphere happens infrequently.  In the context of discussion forums, it means I can have a hard time keeping up, especially when dealing with controversial topics.  I’ll happily take a couple months to work on researching a given topic, but that sort of timeline in an ‘online’ world doesn’t seem to be realistic anymore.  I don’t like feeling like I can’t stay caught up, when I know realistically I should be able to, if I could get over myself :-/

But what does all this have to do with teaching? Because you know I had to bring it back to that!

One thing to consider as an instructor is that my presentations, my quizzes, my test questions, my review materials, my textbook will never be perfect. In the courses I currently teach, our students are expected to learn about 1-3 topics per week, which means I have to present them with 1-3 topics each week.  That hardly gives me as much time as I’d like to make things “perfect” the first time around.  And yet I do it, so what’s stopping me from dealing with other things the same way?  I do worry that my students will judge me – they are adults, after all, and I’m supposed to be an ‘expert’ – but I manage to get past it in a classroom setting, with either my students or fellow classmates in courses for instructors, where I can’t seem to when I’m presenting things online…

That’s not quite it, either, though, because my presentations and review questions and things are online for my students… Not entirely “publically accessible”, but then neither are the discussion forums I try to contribute to as part of these courses I’m taking.  And here’s where I claim incompleteness of thought, because I can’t quite pin down what the issue is.

I schedule times when I try to convince my self to post something in a specific spot, but seem to either get distracted or spend so much time obsessing over some detail that I exhaust myself and can’t find the energy to do a second task.  Or I talk myself out of posting whatever I was going to say, figuring it’s irrelevant or incoherent or unclear or…well, you get the idea, right?

Actually I don’t know that “you” do.  And here I come to my resolution for this blog: from here on our, whether I’m working as an instructor or taking a training course or both (!), I’ll post at least one “incomplete” post here each week.  I’ll be tagging them as such mostly becaase it gives me a nice out for my apparently accuracy-obsessed brain.  Might work, no?  One way to find out…

One last thought: I suddenly find myself with a heck of a lot more sympathy for my students who claim feeling overwhelmed.  I Think I have an idea of how to try to help them find ways past their own hesitations as I work through mine… I’ve assigned take-home assignments in the past, and they don’t tend to go as well as I like; in speaking to students afterwards, a LOT of them leave things to the last minute either because they’re busy or just overwhelmed by the assignment or material.  This term I’ve been having students work on assignments in class, but allowing them to hand their assignments in a few days later… They seem to be doing better with that, but still not great, and I know they can do great on these assignments!  They’re designed to allow students to do great!  I’m thinking of upping the deadline so they work on their assignments in class and hand them in before leaving, more like how labs are typically run.  Since I’m there to help guide them and ask questions of and so on, I think it should help?  Worth a shot I expect; I’ll try to follow up in a few months once I figure out if it seems to help!

How can we “motivate” students?

In a recent* post I drew attention to a fantastic graphic I’d discovered illustrating the idea that for “student engagement” to occur, two main things were needed: student motivation, and active learning.

Although the “active learning” bit remains fascinating to me (and the description found in Barkley’s 2010 text of the neuroscience underlying it absolutely filled the neuroscientist in me with delight for its accessibility! In fact, I think I might just swipe quote her paragraph [on p.17] on how neurons work for my class next week…), what I’ve been finding more interesting right now is the ‘motivation’ bit.  Not that motivation is required for engagement, although articulating that is great, and not how we might understand what a student’s personal motivation might be, although asking students about that is probably a good idea. What fascinates me right now is trying to figure out what we as instructors can do to enhance motivation in our students.  

As I work my way through professional courses designed to help instructors learn to better ‘instruct’, I’ve been exposed to all sorts of activities that we can use to encourage ‘active learning’.  I’ve noticed there’s often a sidenote accompanying these activities along the line of “…plus, it’s fun for students!”, which hints at motivation but doesn’t necessarily make it an explicit goal of instruction.  When I talk with colleagues about ‘motivating’ students, I’ve noticed the conversation inevitably turns to manipulating grades, in terms of either ‘bonus marks’ or docking of marks. There seems to be a little niggle in the back of my brain that’s been suggesting that might not be as helpful as I’ve been thinking, and may even be counterproductive…

Can we as instructors hope to influence what seems to be, as Barkley suggests, “an internal state” that “differs considerably from the external manipulation of rewards and punishment”.  “Rewards” as in, for example, offering bonus marks?  “Punishment” as in, for example, docking marks?  I think we might have to look at this a bit differently, because it sounds like the good old standbys of using the promise and/or threat of grades to motivate students might not be accomplishing what we’d like.

Luckily for me, Barkley synthesizes a lovely framework to help instructors figure out how to enhance student motivation.  The first piece to this framework is expressing an”expectancy × value model” of motivation.  This model suggests that a person’s motivation to complete a task is a combination of their expectation of success in the task, how much value they place on the opportunity to do the task itself, and how much they value the rewards of successful task completion.  Makes some sense intuitively – would you be willing to attempt a task that you knew you’d never succeed in, or attempt a task you knew you could succeed in but offered no joy in the attempt and no reward after completion? – but is also backed up by research (summarized in Brophy, 1987 and Cross, 2001).

The second piece addresses what instructors can do to influence student expectations and the value they place on tasks.  Barkley has lovely explanations of things that influence both expectancy and value that I won’t repeat in full here, but wanted to mention a couple things that really stood out for me.

One is that students who don’t succeed at a task “would prefer to question – and have others question – their effort (they’re lazy) rather than their ability (they’re dumb)”.  This comment stood out for me in part because one of my colleagues has taken to including self-assessment questions on our weekly quizzes.  At the start of each quiz is a question along the lines of ‘On a scale of 1-5, where 1 is not at all prepared and 5 is totally prepared, how well do you think you prepared for this quiz?’.  At the end of each quiz is a question along the lines of ‘What will you do to help you prepare better for your next quiz?’  They’ve noticed a reduction in student complaints about their grades… and what seems to be an increased willingness to engage with the material, to do homework and prepare in advance for class.  Hardly scientific evidence, granted, and in part could be attributed to the self-reflection and meta-cognition that’s often referenced as a way to improve learning, but now I’m wondering if it doesn’t also help students shift their focus from their ability to their effort!  There might be a way to capitalize further on that, perhaps by incorporating questions that redirect students’ attention away from the idea that they can’t learn something just because they’ve “never been good at it”…

The other idea that stood out for me is that offering external rewards for something that had already been intrinsically rewarding actually diminishes intrinsic motivation as well as quality of performance.  By trying to reward students with grades, bonus marks, praise, or incentives, it seems that we’re reducing students’ intrinsic motivation, which could then reduce their overall motivation and thereby reduce student engagement. What at first blush looks like an easy way for instructors to motivate students actually seems to be counterproductive :-/ Thankfully, Wlodkowski (2008) offers some suggestions for instructors to increase intrinsic motivation without relying on a simple ‘rewards’ model that can be summarized as (1) make the goals of an activity clear, (2) provide immediate, continuous, and relevant feedback during the activity, and (3) challenge students to both use and extend their existing skills and knowledge.

Barkley (2010) expands on those ideas by providing some more specific tips & strategies to foster student motivation, along with criticisms where applicable; I won’t get into the details here other than to point out two that any instructor should be able to incorporate immediately and with relatively little time investment, and which I see as the most fundamental of all the ‘tips & strategies’ offered:

Expect engagement.

and

Expect students to succeed.

I’d add to those a note to decide in advance to not beat yourself up if those expectations aren’t met!  We’re none of us perfect either.  But motivation and by extension engagement can be contagious… in my experience having even a few engaged students in a class can make all the difference in the world to the apparent overall engagement level of a class. Starting off by assuming that students will be engaged and successful will avoid inadvertently stifling those who are already highly motivated, and give us a head start with any additional ‘enhancement’ we might wish to do.

 

*OK fine, so I’m cutting myself some slack here.  Let’s face it, by the time this post is published any self-respecting frequent-user-of-the-internet wouldn’t be using the term “recent” 😉

References

Barkley, E. F. (2010) Student Engagement Techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brophy, J. E. (1987) Synthesis of research on strategies for motivating students to learn.  Educational Leadership, 5(2) 40-48.

Cross, K. P. (2001, February) Motivation: Er… will that be on the test?  Mission Viejo, CA: League for Innovation in the Community College.

Wlodkowski, R. J. (2008) Enhancing adult motivation to learn: A comprehensive guide for teaching all adults, 3rd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Technical note…

Believe it or not, I do follow some other blogs, in the sense of “I have some blogs bookmarked and check them in the morning to see if there’s anything interesting on the front page.”  But I’ve only very recently figured out how to navigate some of them effectively; it’s different on different platforms, but one thing that a lot of folks seem to use are “tags”.  This blog for me is a place to (er, very irregularly, apparently…) post thoughts related to a few courses I’m taking and my instructional experiences and anything else I think might be related, and I’ve been struggling to keep everything straight… So I’m adding tags to all my posts!   For now I’m keeping it simple and utilitarian for me, so don’t be alarmed at the weird 4-digit numbers that will appear on each of my posts (under the title); they’re just course numbers so I can try to keep things straight and watch what I’m posting.  Maybe I’ll get around to adding useful, topic-related tags…

“Well, duh” says everyone else on the internet.

😛 , says I

My first foray into “digital design”!

…well, sort of. I mean, I’ve used PowerPoint before, so that must count for something, but usually I don’t have to worry about my presentations being BOTH (1) able to stand alone and (2) pleasant to look at.  I’ve made presentations (slide shows) where I’m there to explain the details, that can be attractive but incomplete content-wise, and I’ve made conference posters where I’m not always there to explain the details and so included a LOT of text and graphs… and, frankly, not been terribly attractive.  Trying for both at the same time was quite the challenge!

Apparently I’m a very orderly thinker… because I broke my processes down into steps, and tried to complete each one before moving on to the next!

The first step for me was selecting a topic.  That actually wasn’t too difficult; I wanted to provide myself with a handy reference for a technique for enhancing student engagement (from Barkley’s 2010 book) that I would actually like to use in my class but wasn’t already familiar with. The one I ended up picking – “Think Again!”, stood out for me in its simplicity, as it can be accomplished in a single session and has a very straightforward and clear end goal (i.e., “Disprove this statement”). But it also struck me with the wide range of skills it demands students use and develop: self-reflection, information seeking and evaluation, assembling information from different sources into a coherent whole, explaining concepts to others, working with others towards a common goal… all useful skills in my opinion!  So “Think Again!” it was 🙂

Then it was on to the creation of the infographic itself.  I first took some time hunting out websites, software and templates that could help me out; I don’t consider myself an experienced graphic designer, so I didn’t want to just start from scratch and hope for the best.  I figured starting with a template that just “looked nice” to me would be a good start!  I wanted something that looked clean but had the space I thought I’d need to include a lot of information about the technique I’d chosen.

I had some difficulty with the online tools I found, either because it didn’t look like they’d let me do as much customization as I’d like, or looked too sparse (e.g. text + graphs, no graphics or, well, pizzazz!).  I ended up downloading a collection of templates (from hubspot.com) for PowerPoint, both because they looked nice and because at least I’m already relatively familiar with that program and its limitations.  On a more technical note, I also wanted to make sure I was using something that would end up being nicely compatible across platforms (Mac vs. PC, Firefox vs. Chrome vs. Safari vs. Internet Explorer… I’ve definitely experienced problems with inter-compatability).  So making something that I knew could be easily converted to a .pdf seemed like a good idea.

I looked at the template options and tried to see how the relevant information could be inserted into each one.  Do I use a flow chart and add side-boxes for additional information outside of the details of the process itself?  Seems like that would get too cluttered.  How about a set of rectangles, each one with a different piece of the puzzle: pros, cons, process, example?  This is where my step-by-step approach started breaking down… I actually had narrowed things down to two templates – one that was very simple, and one that was a bit more busy, and started working with both simultaneously.  The very simple one became very boring for me to put together, and I figured if I was bored creating it then I and others would probably be bored looking at it later!  So I tossed that one, and ended up using a template designed as a ‘side-by-side comparison’, modified to fit the information I wanted to present.

Information on the two sides of the image is connected as you move down, but I tried to use the left side to include vital and factual information – I think it could almost work as a standalone piece – with additional, related information presented on the right side.  I have to say my biggest challenge at this point was paring my descriptions and explanations down so they would (a) fit in the space I was working with and (b) leave the finished product looking more like a picture than a “wall-o’-text”!

Once I had the text about how I wanted it, the final step was to “illustrate” it.  I tried to stick to simple, punchy symbols to emphasize each point presented.  They’re each related to the text they’re associated with in my own mind… I hope they come across as well to others!  This was another time my step-by-step approach broke down a bit, as I found myself modifying text to better suit graphics I liked.  I found all the graphics I ended up using in a combination of the original template I’d chosen to use, Powerpoint’s “Symbol” and “Shape” lists, and basic text characters.  Although they all behave differently when formatting them, I’m pretty pleased with how they all ended up working together!

All in all I’m actually pretty pleased with it as a whole, not least because the entire main body of it is all legible when shrunk to fit on a single computer screen 🙂  I had such a good time playing with everything that I actually think I want to make more for a few other techniques I’m interested in using and posting them up on my wall as inspiration…

So without further ado, here it is!  Click to see:

Barker Infographic Think Again SET

 

References

Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The importance of vocabulary II

I admit I can sympathize with people who struggle with understanding jargon terms that get used as a matter of course.  Look in the back of any biology textbook and there you’ll find a nice, concise definition of ‘species’.  A definition that serves a practical purpose as a shorthand way to communicate an enormously complex concept, and is a gross oversimplification of reality.  And it’s not alone.  Pretty much any definition in the back of a biology textbook is an oversimplification of one form or another, so that you can find examples that could be taken to either fit or not fit the term being defined.

Biology isn’t alone, of course, in its acceptance of fuzziness around the edges of definitions of terms and concepts.  Creativity is, I would argue, absolutely essential to critical thinking, as critical thinking requires considering challenges to the information presented rather than blind acceptance, but Barkley (2010) separates student engagement techniques into categories that include “Analysis and critical thinking” and “Synthesis and creative thinking” as separate techniques. I certainly don’t think that Barkley would try to argue that the two are completely unrelated, and I’m reasonably sure they’d acknowledge that there is some overlap between them. Such “fuzzy concepts”* can be accepted as useful shorthands, but when using such shorthands and oversimplifications we do need to be careful to not entirely forget the complexities that exist in the system or concept we’re trying to describe. Using such terms may risk people accepting the oversimplification as “fact”, rather than recognizing it as “an oversimplification that we’re temporarily accepting for the sake of efficiency in communication during this particular discussion”. I think it’s OK to do that, to accept fuzzy terms or imprecision for the sake of efficiency in communication when required.


(Image from http://radio.feld.cvut.cz/matlab/toolbox/fuzzy/fuzzyint.html)

*…and if you venture to read that Wikipedia entry, darned if it doesn’t look as though “fuzzy concept” as a term is itself a fuzzy concept! And that’s not even considering how mathematicians use the term ‘fuzzy’… 😛

Now let’s face it: humans generally like to communicate with each other.  If you’re face to face with someone you have the benefit of being able to use all sorts of nonverbal communication tools, whether you’re consciously aware of (or controlling) them or not. So it seems a bit easier to see (literally!) if someone you’re communicating with is misunderstanding you or not, or is puzzled by what you’re saying when you think you’re being clear. It’s not necessarily foolproof; misunderstandings definitely take place during face-to-face interactions! But the problem can become amplified if you remove the nonverbal feedback that one can receive from a discussion partner, and simply present someone with a block of text on paper or on a screen, or “lecture at” a group of people without attending to their reactions. Communication to captive audiences does at least allow the presenter the option of inserting all sorts of caveats and addendums to the main text that can help clarify their position… but will those be attended to by the audience? Will they be remembered alongside the single-sentence summary presented as “The Essential Explanation Of This Concept”? Is it unrealistic to expect an audience struggling to remember a new term they just learned, to also remember all the caveats, exceptions, and gray areas associated with that term?

I’m coming to believe that the best way to handle the fuzziness of language is to either:
(1) present any definition of a ‘fuzzy concept’ with an acknowledgement that “this is the definition we’re using for this discussion/class/moment; there are some grey areas that we can talk about at another time but for now this is the central concept”, or
(2) ask others to help define a ‘fuzzy concept’ that’s to be discussed further, to lead them through the process of categorizing things for practical purposes when those things can’t necessarily in reality be tidily categorized. The knowledge that there’s going to be some ‘fuzziness’ is therefore implied (although of course it could be made explicit as well).

References
Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The importance of vocabulary I

This is going to be a short one for now, but I want to start a line of posts talking about vocabulary.  I keep trying to think about what I’m learning as I work my way through a variety of readings and discussions related to teaching and learning and interacting with students and other instructors, and I keep coming back to “vocabulary”.  A lot of the techniques and concepts that I’m coming across aren’t exactly new to me, but I didn’t have a name for them to use when discussing these things with others, like the “jigsaw” technique.  In other cases I’m learning more about the definition of a term that I’ve only had a vague, feeling-based concept of, so I have an improved understanding of what it means to use terms like the engagement/motivation/active learning set of terms that I’ve discussed in a previous post.

Does vocabulary matter?  I think it does, although I’m (somewhat ironically perhaps) struggling to express exactly why.  I also think it’s important that we make sure we agree on what terms mean.  Do you know what the terms negative/positive in combination with punishment/reinforcement mean in the context of behavioral psychology?  It’s not necessarily intuitive, and can lead to all sorts of unfortunate misunderstandings :-/  What ‘student engagement’ or ‘digital techniques’ or ‘visible learning’ or ‘creative learning’ mean might not be as clear as one would like to think, and jargon can keep newcomers to a group from engaging with more established folks in a meaningful way.  Is there a good way to serve the need for efficient communication between experts, while making the information the experts have readily accessible to newcomers?  Standardizing training is one way, but are there any reasonable alternatives?

Here in BC it is not necessarily required that post-secondary instructors have any formal training in teaching (although typically “teaching experience” of one form or another is required); instructors may be hired because they are content experts, or as research faculty whose primary role may be to produce new information, analyses, or products.  Is it reasonable to require additional training for people who have already put in the time and effort to become experts in their field?  Is informal or on-the-job training, with or without periodic evaluations, sufficient?  Should postsecondary programs all incorporate teaching training and evaluation, to prepare students to become teachers?  Would helping students evaluate how they learn most effectively (“learn to learn”), having students think about thinking and learning (metacognition), or requiring them to teach others (tutoring? seminar presentations?) as they go through their normal course of study produce more potentially great teachers?

I don’t have the answers, but have plenty to ponder!

On Learning Styles

(Content note: I might be cheating a little here.  I’ve copied much of the text below from a post I wrote for a discussion forum on Learning Styles that I participated in for an Instructional Strategies course.  But that forum is essentially private, and I liked this stuff too much to keep it off my blog.  The text below is somewhat edited from the original post in an attempt to keep it more on-topic and at least slightly more scholarly. References here are provided in links; scholarly references are provided via links to my favourite freely-accessible source for such things, PubMed, to ensure relatively easy public access.)

Right off the bat: I reject the use of “Learning Styles”to inform and develop instructional strategies.  You’ve been warned…

To be fair, there is no doubt in my mind that individuals may prefer to learn a certain way, or prefer to learn about certain types of material.  I’m not going to dispute here the presence of “Learning Style Preferences” (even though I . However, the vast majority of studies done looking at whether adapting teaching or presentation style to an individual’s learning style clearly show no benefit to doing so.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement!  As a starting point for anyone interested in delving into all the research to date, a 2015 article in Frontiers in Psychology laments the fact that they’re still being referenced, and nicely outlines the evidence against them.

Personally, I really don’t see myself as having any one preferred (or most effective) learning style.  The ‘best’ style depends on the content/task being learned.  But for me, how well I learn something seems to me to be less related to what it is or what ‘style’ it would fit into, and more a function of (a) how interesting I find it, and (b) how many different presentation styles are used.

Some material certainly seems to lend itself to more efficient learning through one or two styles over others; learning to point to the location or identify the shape of (say) South Africa on a globe might be made unnecessarily difficult if I were to try using purely auditory information, for example.  But in reality: does anyone try to teach – or learn! – content using a single style alone, and really expect that to be maximally effective?

I happen to ride horses as a hobby, and to learn correct leg position, (1) I was told what to do, (2) I looked in a mirror at myself alongside other ‘correct’ riders, (3) I had an instructor ask me to explain what’s off about my position, and (4) I had my lower leg manipulated into position by an instructor.  Sure, I probably could learn correct position with any one of those, and if forced to identify which one would work best in isolation I’d have said the decidedly visual comparison of my own position with the ‘correct’ one.  Some would say that makes me a ‘visual learner’.  But by “Learning Styles” theories, that means I could have learned this just as well even if I had been presented with only visual information.  Somehow I rather doubt that visual information alone would have worked nearly as well (or as quickly) as having access to all those sources of information at once… and although that sounds anecdotal, the evidence backs me up on that front.

If we can get more different sensory systems (verbal, auditory, visual, motor) participating in a particular learning task, the brain ultimately ends up with more reference points from which to access and recall more information, in more detail.  I’d argue that the use of multiple sensory systems during learning is the fundamental underpinning to ‘active learning’, the efficacy of which is supported by evidence, and at least gets us partway to ‘engagement’ (the ‘motivation’ bit of that may be a whole other kettle of fish… see this post for a hint of what’s to come…).  Which (finally!) brings me to my main point: Rather than trying to identify an individual’s learning style, I’d argue instead that ANYONE will learn ANY content “best”, regardless of subject matter, if as many different ‘styles’ as possible are accessed.

I haven’t been able to come up with any cases where having (non-conflicting*) information presented using ALL those styles would actually be detrimental to learning.  I DO see potential harm in trying to target a single sensory system at the exclusion of others, which is what a strong focus on “Learning Styles” encourages.

(*As a sidenote, it is important that the information presented in different modalities be consistent, to prevent encountering memory interference.)

As a final thought, I certainly don’t want to disregard the value of the research that “Learning Styles” theories have spawned.  I WOULD like to see the focus shifted away from trying to tailor a presentation to an individual ‘learning style’, towards making use of as many different ‘styles’ as possible, for EVERY student.  Let’s give everyone a whole context that they can work within to understand a given concept or task, so everyone can learn “best”. And there is mounting evidence that presenting information in a way that seeks to access as many ‘learning styles’ as possible may be an effective instructional strategy.  Several studies (e.g.: 2015, 2014, 2009, 2007) have demonstrated that students nearly universally prefer multimodal learning over a single-style approach.  Perhaps even more promising, a recent study suggests that demonstrating the use of such a ‘mixed methods’ approach can both improve student performance and encourage students to try to look at material in different ways on their own.  What a wonderful thought!