“Desirable Difficulties”, Part 2 (or a retroactive Part 1?)

Not much to add from yesterday’s post, except to point you toward another great discussion of the pedagogical opportunities provided by “desirable difficulties.” This time, David Gooblar, blogger for Pedagogy Unbound (and an instructor at Augustana College, yesssss!) provides some additional details for the kinds of moves you can make to provide opportunities for students to develop their storage memory for deeper learning. So, if you haven’t read Maryellen Weimer’s piece on desirable difficulties that I reblogged yesterday, great!  Read this one first, and then check out how Weimer recommends approaches to approaching student buy-in for a teaching approach that causes students to struggle (productively) on purpose.



September 10, 2014

Browse the Pedagogy Unbound archives or share more teaching tips in our new group.

Last spring, a new study showed that students who took notes in longhand did substantially better on conceptual questions than those who took notes on a laptop. The results were, perhaps, not that surprising—until you consider that the laptops in the study had Internet access disabled.

It wasn’t that the laptop note-takers were more distracted. That may indeed be a valid concern with personal technology in the classroom, but it was not what Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California at Los Angeles set out to measure. Rather, their study suggests there are real differences between the utility of taking notes by hand and on a computer.

When students take notes on a laptop, the study concluded, the ease of data entry makes them more likely to transcribe everything the professor is saying. Students who take notes in longhand, in contrast, cannot write fast enough to get everything down and so must be selective. It is precisely that process—of summarizing, thinking about what’s most important, predicting what might be useful down the road—that helps those who take notes on paper. Students who use laptops end up with neater, more easily searchable notes, but they may be denying themselves the opportunity to do the upfront processing that is a crucial factor, it seems, in long-term retention of class material.

The study’s results illustrate an example of what UCLA cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork has termed “desirable difficulties”–learning tasks that make students’ brains work a little bit harder in the name of better long-term memory. Our brains don’t function like audio recorders, saving everything we perceive. Instead, memories are cemented through frequent neural activity, and repeated encoding and retrieval processes. That’s what underlies the so-called “testing effect,” which I wrote about back in February. When we give our students frequent tests on important material, we force them to work to recall information. It is that mental work that makes for better long-term retention of whatever it is we want students to retain.

All of which means we should be giving our students frequent tests and quizzes on facts and concepts we want them to remember, and providing opportunities for students to do the mental work that will serve them down the line.

I suppose we could ban laptops from our classrooms to encourage longhand note-taking, though there are good reasons why such a policy may be unwise. But how else can we introduce desirable difficulties into our classrooms? I’ve summarized a few ways below, taken from the work of Bjork and his wife, Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, also a UCLA professor of psychology:

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“Desirable difficulties?” Try telling that to students…

"This teacher is getting on my last nerve..."
In the John Hughes ’80s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, we see why Ferris ditches school: his history teacher (played with deadpan brilliance by Ben Stein) stymies, bores and infuriates a classroom full of students through a mind-numbingly repetitive and monotone lecture, punctuated with the worst attempts at coaxing student involvement ever.  Ironically, we know that students in the early stages of their college education actually prefer to receive information passively, served up by teachers with expertise. This is largely due to their less-developed stage of learning, and increasingly aggravated by public high school teaching that is designed to move through required content quickly and efficiently. However, to move students to higher orders of thinking and learning — application, critical analysis, creative synthesis — we need to get them to take more ownership of their learning process. Which is hard — especially when students are first faced with this demand in areas of study new to them.

As you might be aware, the benefits of student struggle in the learning process has a sound basis in cognitive psychology. Robert Bjork of UCLA, who studies processes of learning and forgetting, distinguishes between “retrieval memory,” or the easy, immediate accessibility of information, and “storage memory,” or the longer-term ability to retain and recall information. Since the latter is the product of deeper learning, the objective becomes facilitating learning that boosts storage strength as well as retrieval strength. Bjork’s research developed the concept of “desirable difficulties,” beneficial struggles in the learning process that can result in deeper learning.

For instance, pedagogical moves such as frequent quizzes and tests, active problem-solving, and varying the locations where learning takes place are examples of desirable difficulties that prior research links to effective learning.

Of course, as the video statement from Bjork above points out (did you skip it??? go ahead, watch it… I’ll wait…), there is a bit of a dilemma here: students enjoy a rapid, easy improvement in performance (due to the triggering of retrieval memory), but the slower, more troublesome learning process that actually leads to optimal learning can be frustrating to students.

The Teaching Professor Blog‘s Maryellen Weimer discusses how we might respond to this dilemma: how do we help students get beyond “teach me, and make it easy!” to accept the desirable difficulties of student-driven learning? In brief, the way we frame these experiences for students is key to their success.


SEPTEMBER 10, 2014

“She Didn’t Teach. We Had to Learn it Ourselves.”

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

Yesterday I got an email from a faculty member who had just received her spring semester student ratings (yes, in August, but that’s a topic for another post). She’d gotten one of those blistering student comments. “This teacher should not be paid. We had to teach ourselves in this course.” I remember another faculty member telling me about similar feedback, which was followed later with a comment about how the course “really made me think.”

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The four-question path to critical thinking. Really? Really!

Thinking is hard — just ask Christopher Robin’s friend, who observes that even valiant efforts at problem solving can suffer from underdeveloped critical thinking skills:

Even harder is to figure out approaches to engage students in critical thinking — a central goal embraced, at least philosophically, by most all college and university teachers — in ways that can actually lead to observable outcome gains.  It’s a tricky business.  The VALUE rubric developed by AAC&U for assessing student development in critical thinking defines it as  “a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion.” The rubric is a useful tool, largely because it lays out stages of critical thinking development from initial benchmark to capstone in a variety of important areas: explanation of issues, use of evidence, considering assumptions and contents, establishing a position, drawing conclusions.

So we’ve got some guidance on assessing what students do… but how can we provide them explicit practice in doing it, in ways applicable to a broad range of learning contexts?

Coming to our rescue again,  from the Teaching Professor Blog shares what appears to be a too-simple pattern of four question prompts that guide students through four important paths to critical thinking: analysis of concepts, reflection on the relevance of concepts, application of concepts to other situations, and continued questioning about concepts.  The four-question plan comes from Dietz-Uhler and Lanter (2009), whose SOTL research on the use of this question set revealed significant effects on student performance!

So you don’t have to bruise the side of your head like poor little Pooh to think of ways to get your students to think. When in a pinch, just take them down the four-question path!  And stop for some hunny on the way, silly old bear.


AUGUST 28, 2013

Prompts That Get Students to Analyze, Reflect, Relate, and Question

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

A simple teaching technique that helps students learn; now there’s something few teachers would pass up! This particular technique involves a four-question set that gets students actively responding to the material they are studying. They analyze, reflect, relate, and question via these four prompts:

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Can we move our students from consumers to realistic achievers?

The scenario is a painfully familiar one…

For the last two decades the scholarly study of “academic entitlement” and its relationship to the higher education experience has yielded some important insights. While defining the concept is tricky, Singleton-Jackson et al. (2011, p. 232) identify the following facets of the phenomenon:

a) a belief that some reward is deserved that is not justified based on one’s actual academic achievement; 2) that a high academic entitlement disposition implies a diminished role for personal responsibility in actual academic achievement; and, 3) that a high academic entitlement disposition also implies expectations about the role of instructors that are above and beyond their obligation of providing educational opportunities and effective, quality instruction.

These tendencies should come as no surprise to us, as we have been and will continue to teach the Millennial generation — and their expectations based in part on an educational consumerist perspective — for the next six years. First year college students, in particular, are vulnerable to experiencing a system shock as the work patterns that yielded high achievement in their K-12 past don’t seem to cut it in the bigs. So is the answer to provide toughlove and get them used to lowered expectations?

We don’t want our students to be demoralized, and to settle for lower expectations for their performance in our classes.  Indeed, a healthy body of research confirms that establishing high expectations for students can be a powerful means of achieving effective student learning outcomes.

Maryellen Weimer of The Teaching Professor Blog addresses an important dilemma we all face as college teachers:

Unrealistic expectations present teachers with a conundrum. We want students to believe in themselves. We want them committed to doing well. But we need them to be realistic about what success demands.

Her useful recommendations bear some attention as we start our courses this year — how can we use the first day, the first week of class to set expectations that are both realistic and aspirational for students? How can we use the first few weeks of the term to provide formative feedback that helps students adjust their expectations while maintaining their morale? And how should we respond to the first big exam or essay to help keep students motivated and on the right track? Your suggestions and conversation are welcome in the comments below!

Singleton-Jackson, J.A., Jackson, D.L., and Reinhardt, J. (2011). Academic entitlement: Exploring definitions and dimensions of entitled students. The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, 5(9), 229-236.


AUGUST 20, 2014

Reality Check: Helping to Manage Student Expectations

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

It’s not until the day of the test, as they’re confronted by a number of questions they can’t answer, that the anxiety sets in. They will sit staring at the questions and guessing at far too many answers, before turning in the test and then persuading themselves that chances are still pretty good for a B. Most students begin college, the academic year, and new courses motivated and optimistic. Many first-year students expect to do well because they were successful in high school. Some are right, but others will only find similar success if they work much harder than they did in high school. Yet most start out expending the same level of effort. They will talk with their classmates and convince each other that an exam covering three chapters can’t be that hard, so they put off studying and then “look over” the chapters the night before—happily dealing with any and all interruptions and distractions.

A lot of students continue to hold unrealistic expectations throughout the course even in the presence of mounting evidence to the contrary. A student can be going into a cumulative final exam with a solid C, but she believes she is going to ace that final and come out of the course with a high B. That may be possible in a few courses, but it’s a long shot in others and is simply not going to happen in most courses.

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Free MOOC on Undergraduate STEM Teaching!

Colleagues in STEM fields, have I got some helpful news for you (thanks to my Augie colleague Jon Clauss, who gave me the heads-up):
Starting in early October, the  Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) is offering a free 7 week MOOC on “An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching.” Targeted especially at grad students, postdocs, and new STEM faculty, the MOOC seems potentially valuable for experienced faculty looking to sharpen and shake things up as well.

I’ve pasted a description from their website below, and attached their introductory video. The seven weeks include:
Week 1 – Principles of Learning
Week 2 – Learning Objectives, Assessment of Learning
Week 3 – Cooperative Learning, Peer Instruction, Lecturing
Week 4 – Inquiry-Based Labs, Problem-Based Learning, Writing to Learn
Week 5 – Diversity in the Classroom, Student Motivation
Week 6 – Lesson Planning
Week 7 – Conclusion

An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching

This seven-week course explores effective teaching strategies for college or university STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) classrooms

This course will provide graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) who are planning college and university faculty careers with an introduction to evidence-based teaching practices. Participants will learn about effective teaching strategies and the research that supports them, and they will apply what they learn to the design of lessons and assignments they can use in future teaching opportunities. Those who complete the course will be more informed and confident teachers, equipped for greater success in the undergraduate classroom.

The course will draw on the expertise of experienced STEM faculty, educational researchers, and staff from university teaching centers, many of them affiliated with the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL), a network of 22 research universities collaborating in the preparation of STEM graduate students and post-docs as future faculty members. The seven-week course will be highly interactive, with many opportunities for peer-to-peer learning. Learning communities are at the heart of CIRTL’s activities, and this open, online course is intended to foster a large, healthy learning community of those interested in undergraduate STEM teaching–including current STEM faculty.

“An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching” has been developed by faculty, staff, and students at Vanderbilt UniversityMichigan State UniversityBoston University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of Colorado-Boulder. The course is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1347605.

Suggestions for your summer reading list

How's this for a summer agenda?

As I prepare to take on a new role at Augie as the Director of the Center for Faculty Enrichment, I’m starting to look into the possibility of building a professional development library for my colleagues, as well as locating some good options for faculty reading groups. So once summer school is over at the end of June, I’m looking forward to a good month and a half of reading. (Actually, this will get to extend into the next school year, as my new post corresponds with a fall sabbatical. Good books instead of student essays for a couple of months? Yes please!) So this blog post from James M. Lang in the Chronicle of Higher Education has fortuitous timing… for you as well as for me, I expect.

Summer is a good time for catching up on the reading we might not enjoy as frequently during the academic year — rich literary texts to nourish us, pulpy beach reads for a tasty fix of mental junk food.  And lots of us read to advance our scholarly project, of course. But this is also a great opportunity to take in some fascinating research and useful advice on teaching and learning… because course prep in August will hit us before we know it, and why not kick off the next year by trying something new?

A few of these books have been featured in previous Augustana faculty retreats and reading groups — so I can recommend the volumes by Ken Bain and Susan A. Ambrose et al. For myself, after taking a great webinar with him, I can’t wait to dig into José Bowen’s Teaching Naked (no, I’m not a pervert).

If you have any suggestions for good reading on the scholarship and practice of teaching and learning, please share them in the comments below. I’m always looking for another addition to the library!


Top 10 Books on Teaching

Spend some time this summer with at least one book about improving your college classroom

Pile of Books.jpg

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Raoul Luoar.]

IThe Vocation of a Teacher, Wayne Booth, the literary critic and longtime English professor, posed a question that floats into my mind every May: “Why, if I claim to love teaching so much, am I so relieved when it’s over?”

I was especially glad this May because I will be on sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities for the 2014-15 academic year. I have two book projects I hope to complete over the course of the next 15 months. That might sound like an overly ambitious agenda, but the last time I was on leave, my wife and I couldn’t afford full-time child care for our 2-year-old twins on my reduced sabbatical salary. Now that all of our children are in school, I am counting on a major increase in my productive writing time.

Before diving into those writing projects, though, I will spend a little time reflecting on the semester that has come and gone, and looking to discover at least one great new book on teaching and learning in higher education. As much as I love what I do, and seek ways to improve the learning experiences I shape for my students, I find little or no time for substantial professional reading during the academic year. The summer offers me the opportunity to catch up.

I have been trying to stay current in small doses. Colleagues on Twitterhave been especially useful in pointing me to articles, blogs, and resources that are worth my attention for the first 10 or 15 minutes of my working day. And I will confess that, as a result of that reading, I have been suffering from some revolution fatigue this year. I’m not sure I can stand to read one more warning about how the entire system of higher education is about to collapse, or yet another celebration of the fact that it has begun collapsing already and we should help it along.

Big changes are both coming and necessary, no doubt about it—especially in terms of the financial model of higher education, and its increasing exploitation of adjunct labor. But in the meantime, the work of teaching our students, as many of us do on heavy teaching loads, has to continue. And I firmly believe that if every teaching faculty member could carve out the time to read one or two great books on teaching and learning every year, we would collectively serve our students much better than we do already.

In service to that conviction, I offer below the top 10 books on teaching and learning in higher education that I have encountered over the course of my teaching career. Each of these books has shaped—or reshaped—my teaching in some substantive and practical way: the construction of my syllabus, the nature of my assignments, the way I conduct class,the feedback I give to students. All of these books deserve a wide readership among faculty members, and any one of them represents a great place to start or continue your professional development.

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How should your students study? Not by re-reading!

For those of you already past final exams for the year, kudos!  For others of us on the home stretch, we have a few remaining opportunities to counsel our students on how best to study for exams (thereby potentially inoculating against crappy final exam outcomes we have to grade???).

boymeetsworldfreakoutLet’s face it — many of our students really don’t know how to study effectively, because they’ve never really been taught. And, sadly, they often take the path of least resistance, thinking that learning happens when it’s easy. While we have an opportunity, let’s give them some helpful tips, shall we?

Maryellen Weimer of The Teaching Professor Blog wrote the following for Faculty Focus (have you subscribed to their free pedagogical advice updates yet? you should!). Might be common sense to some of us, but it will be news to — and potentially welcome advice for — our students stressing out over the home stretch.


Is Rereading the Material a Good Study Strategy?

By:  in Teaching Professor Blog

Lots of good writing on the science of learning is coming out now and it’s needed. For too long we have known too little about learning—I won’t digress into the reasons why. We need to take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about this science.

Here’s a case in point. Most students (about 80% according to survey data) “study” textbooks and other assigned reading materials by rereading them. Yes, I know. It’s a huge struggle to get some students to do any reading. We have addressed that problem here previously and you’ll find another good way to get students reading in the June/July issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter. But for this post, let’s consider those students who’ve done the reading and are now “studying” it to prepare for an exam. Most students do that by simply rereading the material.

“Rereading has three strikes against it. It is time consuming. It doesn’t result in durable memory. And it often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the material.” (p. 10) I was a bit taken back when I first read that. But part of the argument made sense immediately. I remembered all those earnest students who’d done poorly on an exam and were upset because they’d spent so much time studying. They’d open their texts and the extensive (often glowing) highlighting bore witness to the fact they had read and reread the material. But their exam scores told another story: they did not understand what they’d read.

I also recalled that when I asked students how they planned to study, most announced that they’d “go over” their notes.” I glibly suggested that “getting into” notes might be a more productive approach. Students want studying to be easy. As one writer noted, they think they’re doing the reading if their eyes touch the words in their books or notes, repeatedly touching eyes and words, means they’re really studying hard.

Cognitive scientists say that rereading isn’t a particularly good study strategy if it doesn’t involve retrieval, what they call the testing effect. “We’ve long known that the act of retrieving knowledge from memory has the effect of making that knowledge easier to call up again in the future.” (p. 28) Scores of studies document that if students read material and then take a test on it, they recall way more on the second test than students who prepare by simply rereading the material.

So, instead of rereading the material, students need to be testing themselves on it. Can you imagine the enthusiasm that would greet that recommendation? I wish those writing about the testing effect would come up with a different name. For students, tests are high-stakes, high-stress assessments, and the last thing they want is more of them. But the kind of retrieval that enhances long-term memory and understanding involves asking questions and coming up with answers. Think flashcards with a question that must be answered before checking the back of the card. Yes, answers to flashcards can be memorized and yet still not understood. But testing for understanding can come with more questions: And why is this answer important? What does it relate to? How does this answer connect with what I already know? Can I elaborate this answer? Can I illustrate it with an example?

You can see why a touch-and-go reread is the preferred option for students. Interrogating the text to test for understanding is hard work. It takes effort and persistence. “We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier, but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better. The greater the effort to retrieve learning, provided that you succeed, the more that learning is strengthened by retrieval.” (p. 43)

I expect disavowing students of the rereading strategy will not be easy. But do most students study effectively? If they don’t, we need to start asking questions and suggesting alternatives.

Reference: Here’s another new, well written book on the science of learning—great for summer reading. It makes the case against rereading in chapters one and two.

Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., and McDaniel, M. A. Making it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.

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