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Category: Student Engagement

Methods for engaging students in the act of learning

Incorporating Metacognition Practices Mid-Quarter

Image result for metacognition definition

At a recent conference on departmental support of evidence-based teaching practices in Biology (PULSE), I picked up two Metacognition techniques to bring into my classrooms. These seemed so powerful and, honestly, easy to implement, that I did it the following week.

This first idea stems from work that Ricky Dooley (new colleague in Biology) developed with Scott Freeman and others at the University of Washington. In my majors’ Biology class, I have weekly quizzes over the past week’s material.  Standard in-class quizzes, mostly multiple choice (taken with iClickers) with a short answer question here and there. Student performance was mixed, and when we went over the correct answers, many students had “ah-ha” moments when ideas began to click.

Of course, these ah-ha moments were a few moments too late to help on that particular quiz. What I’ve begun doing is flipping that around. First off, I’ve moved this quiz completely onto Canvas. And rather than the usual 10 questions/10 points, they are now 20 questions, still worth 10 points. The first question is the usual question I would ask (although I’ve added more short-answer questions, reflecting questions I will ask on the exams.). This first question (and all of the odd-numbered questions) are worth zero points, so there’s no risk to the student to do their best from their memory (no reason to cheat). The second question (all of the even-numbered questions) is the same question, followed by how I would answer the question. This question then asks the student if they think they got it right, wrong, or somewhere in between. If they didn’t get it right, I ask them 1) explain why they got it wrong, 2) what the right answer is, and 3) why is the right answer correct. This question is worth 1 point, and I grade it based upon how they’ve reflected on their work. Sometimes, within their summary explanations, students will still not fully understand the material. Here, it’s very easy for me to jump in (while grading) and help them individually. An additional benefit is that these quizzes, with the addition of more short-answer questions, more closely resembles the question types I have on my midterms.

The first time I did this (in the 5th week of this quarter), my last question asked the students their opinion on this new style of testing. With the exception of the one student who was already doing exceptionally well, feedback was very positive. They appreciated the ability to correct themselves, and feel that they better understand the material. Their explanations seemed genuine to me, so I’m hopeful that they’ll perform better on our midterms.Image result for metacognition

The second idea I implemented I borrowed from another biology colleague, Hillary Kemp. This I’ve done with my non-majors Cellular Biology course, one that is typically tough for many students, as they begin their path towards an allied health degree.  Exam performance on my short-answer questions is always spotty (lots of higher-order Bloom’s Taxonomy questions).  Usually I would go over the correct answer with the class, in the hopes that they’d do better on the final. Now, rather than go over those answers, I give them their marked-up short-answer sections back, and let them correct their answers for partial credit. I stress that in their corrections I’m looking for them to explain why they got it wrong, and why the correct answer is correct. This is worth just enough to eliminate the need to curve the exam (essentially, they’re working to “earn” the curved points). In my large class (n=48), results were mixed. Many students clearly explained why they got it wrong and understand why the correct answer is correct. However, others just put down correct answers or, worse, Googled the answer and put down technically correct answers, well above the level of our course. Again, I awarded points based upon their explanations rather than the correctness of their answers. I think this exam reflection is helping those students who genuinely want to do well in class, as opposed to those who are maybe not too sure about this degree path. I’m hopeful that performance on our comprehensive final will show improvement because of this reflection exercise.

This post was generously contributed by Jeff Fennell, who teaches in the Biology department at Everett Community College.

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Why you should appear (at least sometimes) in your course videos

First, a shameless plug: EvCC instructor Joe Graber and I will be teaming up to offer a one-hour workshop on October 3 on using the EvCC lightboard, built by a team of engineering faculty, to create engaging and effective instructional videos. If you haven’t already done so, mark your calendar!

With videos on my mind recently, and with this being a time of the year when many faculty are creating new videos to share with their students, I thought it might be useful to address a couple of the myths, misperceptions, and generalizations about instructional videos that I encounter most frequently.

Students don’t need to see me in videos. All they need to see are my slides and the information I’m presenting. (Besides, I hate being on camera!)

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Storyline helps you tell stories with data

How frequently in your teaching do you use simple data to help students understand an important concept or trend, or to create opportunities for students to incorporate data into their own critical thinking around a particular subject or topic? Chances are you use data of some kind fairly frequently, even in disciplines that aren’t known for being particularly data-heavy. (As an example, in literature courses I taught I would frequently talk to students about, say, trends in literacy rates during the period we were studying, or shifts in newspaper circulation and public library memberships. In other words, I would share data that helped contextualize what we were reading in contemporary social, cultural, and economic conditions.)

All too often, when we use data in classes we treat it as something that is fairly static: a printed handout, an image on a slide, or a graph we draw on the whiteboard. There’s nothing wrong with that, exactly, but I often find myself wanting to give students a better entry point into data — and, more importantly, to help students understand the story the data can help us tell. “Teaching with data” is a broad category that can mean many things, but I take as one of its fundamental components a desire to teach students how to think with data and to construct meaning from it. So I was very excited to see that the Knight Lab recently released a tool for creating simple annotated charts. It’s called Storyline, and while its features are minimal I think it has great teaching potential.

Storyline is a web-based tool, and it’s so easy to use that if you know how to make a spreadsheet you can certainly make a Storyline. At the moment, Storyline makes it possible to generate a time-series line chart (essentially, a chart that shows a data variable over time) with up to 800 data points.

Unlike a static chart, Storyline allows you to attach brief textual annotations to individual data points. Here’s what it looks like in action:

The annotations are displayed in sequential order beneath the chart. Interaction with the chart can take two forms: clicking an annotated data point (those shown as circles on the chart) or clicking an annotation bubble beneath the chart. Go ahead — give it a try in the example above. And then keep reading to find out how to create your own…

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Why we should learn students’ names

Many of you know that one of my favorite bloggers is Maryellen Weimer, editor of The Teaching Professor newsletter. In a recent post in Faculty Focus, Weimer reminds us that learning students’ names is just good practice. However, the inability to remember the names of possibly 100 students each quarter, and remember them for long periods of times (till next quarter? next year? next decade?) plagues us all. She writes:  “Names … why do we have such trouble learning them? For those of us who struggle with names, it never gets easier, no matter how many tricks we try. It can be embarrassing—to ourselves and to others. I remember once visiting a mall while out of town and hearing someone calling my name. Soon, a vaguely familiar person was greeting me with enthusiasm. ‘I am so happy to see you! It’s been so long? How are you?’ ”

Over the next few weeks I will be writing posts about “The 4 Connections.” Here’s the back story: about 2 years ago I was at a party and saw my friend Elliot Stern. Elliot is the Vice President of Instruction (VPI) at Lake Washington Institute of Technology (LWTech). He told me that several people from LWTech had gone to an Achieving the Dream conference and one of them went to a workshop given by staff from Odessa College in Odessa, TX. Think oil wells and Friday Night Lights. By way of introduction, they shared that Odessa had a large percentage of students who were not only struggling in their classes, but were ultimately dropping out. There was also a high rate of failure and huge equity gaps. In fact, they had the highest drop rate in the country. After a lot of research and soul searching, they discovered that there were four things that all faculty who had low drop rates were doing. They presented their DRIP program (Drop Rate Improvement Plan) that ultimately not only improved persistence and retention, but closed most of the equity gaps. Today they are an Aspen Prize winning college.

My friend Sally Heilstedt, Associate Dean of Instruction at LWTech, ran with this idea, and summarized it as “The 4 Connections.” They are: Interact with Students by Name, Check-in Regularly, Schedule One-on-One meetings, and Practice Paradox.

Let’s get back to the first connection of   Interact with Students by Name. Yes, it’s difficult to learn (and remember) students’ names. I struggled with this for a long time. When I was teaching at Michigan Technological University, an engineering school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I swear every math class was populated by young men who all looked alike – 18 or 19 years old, blond, wearing a cap and Carharts. Of course we have a much more diverse population at EvCC, but remembering names is still a challenge. To address not only learning but remembering names, try this simple approach: On the first day of class, have paper and markers at each table (or easily accessible if there are desks). I like to raid the recycling bin for paper that has been printed on one side only and then discarded.  Have students make a name plate with the name that they’d like you to use. They should display it every day (for this reason I collected them at the end of class and had them available at the beginning of the next class). An added benefit was that if a name plate wasn’t picked up at the beginning of class, I knew that student was absent. Ask students to be sure to make their name legible and large enough for you to read from the front of the class. And, encourage students to address each other by name. Weimer writes, “Challenge students to learn and use each other’s name – None of this, ‘I agree with him.’ Who is he? What’s his name? Someone, please, introduce him to the rest of us. When you give students an activity like think-pair-share, always remind them to first introduce themselves to their partner.”

Two table name tags, one with the name 'Jason' and one with the name 'Debby' written on them. In the foreground are several blank sheets of paper and five markers.

Think about how this might improve the community in your classroom. Raid the recycling bin today and get ready for the start of Fall Quarter. And stay tuned for the next post on The 4 Connections.

 

 

 

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Using Zotero in the classroom

Comic-book style graphic of explosion with the word Zotero superimposed
Pow! Zotero sure is exciting!

In a previous post, I introduced Zotero–a free, open-source research tool–and suggested exploring ways to use it in classroom activities and student assignments. Zotero has been part of many librarians’ research and instructional toolkits since its early days, so the idea that it should have a place in the classroom is by no means a new one. Instructors have also been incorporating it directly into their courses for some time, often with the explicit goal of improving students’ literacies and familiarity with individual and collaborative research practices.

One of the hardest things to do in the span of a single class is to contextualize new information so that students learn to see individual facts or concepts in relation to one another. A shared Zotero collection is one way to engage students directly in that process of contextualization, helping them develop a more realistic view of the depth and breadth of a particular field of study than is often possible in an introductory or survey course. As a bonus, it happens to be useful to you as an instructor as well, since the collection created by one cohort of students can become a resource to be used in future courses or, perhaps, to provide new examples or readings you can add to the course when revising it.

Let’s say that I’m teaching an introductory environmental science course whose purpose is to give students a broad conceptual foundation for studying both the environment and the impact of human activities on it. I’ve decided that I’m going to unify the various topics we’ll cover by focusing on a common theme that we’ll return to throughout the quarter: modern agricultural practices and the challenges of mitigating their environmental consequences while also feeding a rapidly growing human population. So while the course as a whole will include units that introduce atmospheric science, ecology, biodiversity, and so on, each unit approaches those specific topics by considering their effects on some particular aspect of agriculture, and vice versa. For example, a unit that addresses freshwater ecosystems might include a discussion of the effects of nitrogen runoff resulting from industrial agriculture.

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Coming out of the cave

When I was cleaning out some papers in a desk drawer the other day I came across an article from the Community College Week magazine. I sometimes tear articles out of magazines or newspapers and keep them in a file for reference later. Of course sometimes I re-read the article and can’t remember why I thought it was important at the time, but when I saw the title of this article, Leave the Cave: Professional Development to Improve Student Success, I knew I had to share it in a blog post. The author, Christine Johnson McPhail, Managing Partner of the McPhail Group, said, “People need to come out of their caves!” She visited a community college and met with the school’s student success committee and president. The people she is encouraging to come out of their caves are faculty who teach and fulfill their contractual duties, but do little else. “They seemed disengaged from the greater strategic direction of the college. Their pedagogical practices were all over the map. They appeared to embody little commitment to tweaking classroom practices to improve student outcomes…the result was a cave-dwelling environment with a ‘do your own thing’ mindset.”

Note that there is light at the entrance to the cave image at the left. That suggests that it is possible for those reluctant colleagues to leave the cave – but there is no quick fix to this problem. Whose responsibility is it to help our colleagues see the light and move towards it?

McPhail suggests that we must first “assess the operative culture and climate in order to define student success and the existing professional development issues.” Do we all agree what student success means? Are we willing to have a conversation about our professional development needs? How are we going to answer these questions in light of our Guided Pathways work? What is it that all faculty need to know in order for us to have a shared vision of student success?

Let’s assume that all faculty (and staff) sign on for the work and vision of Guided Pathways (or just student success)? There are three areas that we must avoid as identified by McPhail:

  • The “That’s above my pay grade” mentality.
    • We all know that teachers are are poorly paid. Why should I work harder than I have to? I already spend hours grading and prepping!
  • The “This is my space” syndrome.
    • I have academic freedom. What happens in my classroom is my business!
  • The “That’s not in my job description” discussion.
    • My job is to teach. I shouldn’t have to serve on so many committees. Besides, that’s what administrators are for!

My guess is that we have all heard someone say at least one of these things. In fact, perhaps you have said something like this yourself (I think I am guilty of that at some point, especially when we seem to be adding one initiative after another, or at the end of the academic year when we are all hoping the quarter ends soon!). So here’s my question for all of you: How do those of us responsible for professional development on our campus help our colleagues venture towards the light at the entrance to the cave? Remember that the motto of the CTT (Center for Transformative Teaching) is Exploring Innovations in Teaching and Learning. How can we help you explore new ways to help students be successful?

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Active Learning and Actively Learning

Do you remember your first year as a teacher?

I have (not so fond) memories of staying mostly one step ahead of my students that year, prepping the material I was supposed to cover the next day. Despite the fact that I had just graduated from college and thought I was fully prepared to stand in front of students and share my “wisdom,” it wasn’t until I was teaching the material that I really began to get a deep understanding of it!  You could say that I was actively learning that year. And actually several years after that as I taught more and different math courses, and when I began teaching college math courses it started all over again!

I just read an article by Neil Haave, Associate Professor of Biology at The University of Alberta Augustana Campus, who was considering the issue of actively learning after he implemented an activity in a class that required very little of him and quite a lot of his students. In other words, he had them do active learning in his class. All of the important facts had been covered in previous classes, and now it was time for students to begin synthesizing; he was pleased that students were really actively engaged in the material. Haave says, “This (activity) produced a fairly lively classroom with students trying to understand the flow of both carbons and energy through the cycle. While they worked, I walked around commenting here and there as needed or when I saw a misconception arising. Clearly, learning was happening. But the weird thing was . . . I didn’t feel like I was teaching.”

A podium in a spot light on stage.

So there’s the rub. So many of us prefer the Sage on the Stage  approach rather than the Guide on the Side position. When we are teaching/lecturing, we begin to know and understand the material differently (and deeply) from when we were students ourselves, and that feels good. At some point we are no longer a step or two ahead of the students. But when we move away from the podium (literal or figurative) and let the students have a larger role in their learning, it does begin to feel a bit like we aren’t teaching. Coincidentally, students may report that they think you aren’t teaching anymore either! Perhaps you’ve even had student comments like that on your end-of-course evaluations, similar to what Haave did:  “Haave didn’t teach us! We had to learn it ourselves!

So how has Haave’s view of what’s happening in the classroom changed since he became an active learning instructor?  He writes that, “I am now learning which concepts trip up my students and how I can guide them through those bottlenecks. I’m also learning how to help them reflect on the misconceptions that prevent them from grasping the material at a deep level.”

Have you tried active learning techniques in your classes? What was the outcome? Many times I have tried new things and have experienced some degree of failure, only to discover that my directions were not clear or I hadn’t adequately prepared students for the work I anticipated they would be able to do. In reflecting on what went well and what didn’t, I recognize that most of the time I didn’t adequately prepare. Now, however, I have a few “back pocket techniques” (remember James Lang telling us in Small Teaching that we should always have a couple of activities that we can pull out of our back pocket when we want to turn things around without a complete overhaul?) that I like to use. Case studies is one, presenting students with “wicked problems” that often have no right answer. I also use Pass the Problem when I want students to get up and move while they are working together. At the conclusion of both of these activities I ask students to reflect on what they’ve learned. We’ve mentioned helping students to reflect on their learning in this blog before, and will continue to think of it as one of the most important ways to help students actively learn the material.

If you want to learn more techniques for bringing active learning to your classroom, be sure to let us know.

 

 

 

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Mid-Quarter Feedback

Student voice matters.

I think there is no way we can dispute this. If we wait until the end of the quarter and expect students to provide valuable information on their learning experiences in our class, chances are the disgruntled students (and aren’t there always a few?) will let us know what went wrong. Why don’t students tell us earlier if they want changes made in the course (and I’m talking about classroom activities, not course content)?

Because we didn’t ask them.

Mid-quarter check-ins are perfect opportunities to get feedback on how things are going. You may be familiar with my all-time favorite, PLUS/DELTA. A simple grid with 4 spaces for students to reflect on not only what the teacher is doing to help them learn (PLUS) and what the teacher can change to help learning (DELTA), it also includes spaces for students to identify their own behaviors that are helpful and those that should be improved upon.

The most important part of this process is reading and reviewing the anonymous (and I believe it should be anonymous) feedback from students, and then responding, closing the feedback loop.

Here’s the story of the first time I used PLUS/DELTA: I gave each student in the class a copy of the grid and assigned it as a reflective assignment for that evening. The following class period I asked students to team up in groups of 3-5 and to look for trends in the areas related to me, the teacher. I gave each small group another copy of the grid, and in about 10 minutes each group had 3-5 items in both columns, PLUS and DELTA. That night I read over the small stack of papers – only 1 from each team – and formulated my response. It started something like this: “Thank you all for your thoughtful responses. Let me share with you the things that you’d like me to continue doing in the class that are helping you to learn (and I put that list on the teaching station to share). Now let me share with you the things you’ve suggested I change (and I put that list on the teaching station). As you know, I can’t stop giving exams, but I can change the day of the week.” And so on. Interestingly, the class became much more engaged after that exercise! Before the end-of-quarter evaluations that quarter, I reminded students that their feedback helped make this a better class and me a better teacher, and I reminded them of the changes that were made because of their feedback. The next quarter when I was reviewing my IDEA results, I was pleased to read this student comment: “No one ever asked me before how I would change the class. Thank you!”

If you want to get feedback on a more regular basis, here’s one I found by a copy machine recently (I can’t give credit because there was no information on the handout!)

Directions: Please fill out one or both squares and drop in the basket up front before you leave. NO NAMES PLEASE! This is anonymous!

MURKY

This week, what part of the lesson, or what point is still a bit unclear to you? What are you struggling with? And what could I, your instructor, have done/can do to make your learning easier?

CLEAR

This week what part of the lesson, or what point, was finally made clear to you? What was your “ah ha!” moment? And/or what did YOU do this week that made your learning easier?

 

Do you have favorite anonymous feedback examples you’d like to share? Let us know!

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Does feedback enhance learning?

Each month I meet with a group of faculty in the New Faculty Academy to discuss chapters in the book How Learning Works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching (Susan Ambrose, Michael Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha Lovette, Marie Norman). Our discussions allow us to do a deep dive into our classroom practices, and because the faculty come from different disciplines and teaching experiences, there are always rich conversations that enhance our own learning.

Recently we discussed the chapter “What kinds of practice and feedback enhance learning?” There are 2 kinds of feedback that we tend to give students: formative and summative. Many of us rely solely on summative feedback, such as exams, projects, or papers. I recently heard someone describe the case of relying on exams alone as doing an “autopsy” on student work. Formative assessment is a way, as the authors state, to focus on ways to help students “work smarter.” The authors believe that “feedback plays” a critical role in “keeping learners’ practice moving toward improvement.”  Formative feedback that you might be familiar with would include things like the minute paper or the PLUS/DELTA mid-quarter feedback. Both of these address student learning and allow the instructor to make changes in their classroom practice in real time. Using the minute paper at the end of a class asking students to summarize the main ideas of the day allows an instructor to reflect on whether they were successful in getting those main ideas across. A PLUS/DELTA mid-quarter assessment allows students to comment on what’s working in the class to promote their learning (PLUS) and what changes they’d like to see in the class to help them learn better (DELTA).

Here is a short list of the strategies that the authors suggest for targeted feedback:

  • Look for patterns of errors in student work
  • Prioritize your feedback
  • Provide feedback at the group level
  • Design frequent opportunities to give feedback
  • Require students to specify how they used feedback in subsequent work

Of these, I am most interested in knowing whether you have ever used the last type of feedback. Would this be valuable to you, the instructor, and to students? Do you think it would help students to connect the dots between different assignments?

If you’d like to learn more about other kinds of formative assessments, please connect with me!

 

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Shared Expectations

During a casual conversation with a faculty member, we were talking about the then upcoming quarter and the planning she was doing (along with her department colleagues) to get ready for the beginning of classes. Coincidentally, an email from the Faculty Focus blog (written by my all time favorite blogger, Dr. Maryellen Weimer, showed up in my email inbox:  What Happens in a Course is a Shared Responsibility. Weimer says, “Early in my teaching career, I heard a wise colleague tell students, ‘It’s not my class. It’s not your class. It’s our class, and together we will make it a good or not-so-good learning experience.’ ” I looked back at some of my old syllabi and realized I made some of the same mistakes that many faculty commonly make. I outlined the expectations I had for students, including things like punctuality, adherence to class rules, and the cell phone prohibition. Where, I wondered, was my statement about what students could expect from me? I did all the things that Weimer talks about: “We can carefully prepare and organize course materials, design effective activities, treat all students fairly, offer clear explanations, and establish policies that promote learning.” But did I explicitly state what they could expect? Probably not.

Weimer’s article talks mostly about how to create a classroom with shared responsibility for students’ learning. Here are the three things she suggests will be contributing factors in their success:

  1. Students will take responsibility for their own learning.
  2. Students will support the efforts that the teacher makes to help them learn.
  3. Individual students can contribute to the learning experience of other students in the classroom.

One of the activities that we use in the 5-Star Consortium Best Practices orientation for new associate faculty each quarter is “Developing Shared Expectations.” This activity right at the beginning of the orientation helps us build community with a large group of faculty from all levels of experience (some from previous academic institutions and some from industry and some with no prior experience at all!) and helps them build community within the group. We ask, “what can we as facilitators do to make this a rich learning experience?” and “what will you do to make this a rich learning experience?” We encourage the new faculty to try this on the first day of class, and to post it in their Canvas class or even on the wall of the classroom so that it can be referenced throughout the quarter. We have found that when it is regularly reinforced in conversations in the class that students will generally meet the factors set out by Weimer in her article.

Are there activities that you use in the classroom that help to build shared responsibility? Let us know! We are always looking for topics to write about, and look forward to hearing from you!

 

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