“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.

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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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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.

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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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Total Recall? Maybe not, but good enough?

OK, maybe I’ve got summer movies on the brain this month… but Total Recall was one year before I graduated college (yes, that means 1990 — I refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Colin Farrell remake). Loved it.

For all of it’s cheese-covered popcorn empty calories, the film raises some provocative questions about the nature of the mind, memory, and reality. As educators, we know that the capacity to aid our students in deep learning that endures beyond the final exam is a powerful opportunity. We’re not always — or even frequently? — able to tap into this opportunity. But shouldn’t this be our aspiration?

 from BYU contributed this brief piece on enabling long-term learning and memory to Faculty Focus. Griffin emphasizes the role of relevance and memory cues in achieving learning that sticks. Maybe our students won’t achieve Total Recall, but they might be more satisfied with the course, and you might be more gratified by the results.

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JULY 14, 2014

Learning That Lasts: Helping Students Remember and Use What You Teach

By:  in Effective Teaching Strategies

How often do you hear the following sentiments from students?

  • “I won’t ever use anything I am learning in this class, but I have to take it to graduate.”
  • “I don’t care about this class. I just need a passing grade.”
  • “I can’t remember anything I learned in that class.”

Granted, not all classes cover interesting material all the time. While we can’t change what needs to be taught, we can change how we deliver it. If we make the right adjustments to our course design and teaching methodologies, we will hear less complaining in our classes. So, what can we do to achieve higher levels of student satisfaction and long-term learning that lasts far beyond the end of our class?

Begin by realizing that you don’t usually need a complete course re-design to teach more students at higher levels of engagement and retention. You can start making simple yet strategic changes that improve learning right away in the courses you already teach. Here are two simple yet effective techniques you can use in your courses to improve learning and retention: frontload the relevance and engage their memory.

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How to stop lamenting our students’ critical thinking and do something about it.

"If I read one more bad argument my head will explode... What to do?!? OK, going into my mind palace..."

Been there, right?

As a long-time teacher at a liberal arts college, and as a friend and colleague of loads of teachers at colleges and universities, I’m pretty sure I’m not going out on a limb here when I assert three truisms about the tension between the typical teaching philosophy and the typical teaching practice:

  1. Teaching students to think critically is central to our mission;
  2. We lament that our students frequently demonstrate that they can’t do it;
  3. However, most of us frequently wonder (and even worry) that we’re not actually teaching them to think critically.

This, clearly, is a quandary.  Some of our fields have built-in  or disciplinary practices or pedagogies that center on critical thinking. Others may not. And the related and growing emphasis on “creative thinking” can be even more elusive… can creativity actually be taught?

This brief yet helpful piece recently shared on the tomorrows-professor e-mail list (have you subscribed yet???) might be useful for you to start tackling this quandary. Rebecca Brent from the ASEE National Effective Teaching Institute and Richard M. Felder from North Carolina State University (2014) published this piece in Chemical Engineering Education, 48(2), 113-114.  Rick Reis from tomorrows-professor also suggests that you check out Felder’s website at http://www.ncsu.edu/effective_teaching.

So, let’s stop lamenting and start these folks thinking!

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Thinking Creatively and Critically

Want Your Students to Think Creatively and Critically?  How About Teaching Them?

 

Ever hear a conversation like this in your department?

Professor X: “All these students can do is plug numbers into formulas-give them a problem a little different from the one in the text and they’re helpless.”

Professor Y: “Yeah, and they’re also functionally illiterate-most of them couldn’t write a coherent grocery list. On a quiz last month I asked for a clear and grammatically correct definition of vapor pressure, and a bunch of the students stomped me for it on the midterm evals. “I went into engineering to get away from this crap,” one of them said.

Professor Z: “It’s this whole spoiled generation-they want the grades but don’t want to do anything for them!”

If you haven’t heard anything like that, you haven’t been listening.

Two popular targets on the list of Things These Students Can’t Do are creative thinking (coming up with innovative ideas) and critical thinking (making judgments or choices and backing them up with evidence and logic). When our colleagues complain to us that their students can’t do them, after we make appropriate sympathetic noises we ask, “Where were they supposed to learn to do it?” The answers may vary, but one we rarely hear is “In my class.”

Leaving aside anomalous prodigies like Mozart and Gauss, people develop skills of any kind — musical performance or composition, math or physics, critical or creative thinking — through practice and feedback. That’s how you acquired your skills. You were either given or voluntarily took on tasks, and with someone else’s help or on your own you learned how to do them. The more you did them, the better you got. Unfortunately, creative and critical thinking are not routinely taught in our schools, nor are they activities that students eagerly learn on their own. It shouldn’t surprise us when our students can’t magically do them on our assignments and exams.

Let’s suppose you decide to take on the job of helping your students learn to think creatively or critically. Can you equip all of them to be brilliant at it? No, any more than you or anyone else can turn them all into brilliant scientists and engineers-they don’t all have the talent. How about the ones who have it-can you do it for all of them? Probably not — some lack the motivation to do the required work. Well then, can you help the talented and motivated students become much better at creative and critical thinking than they were at the beginning of the course? Definitely!  How? Easy — show them examples of the kind of thinking you have in mind; ask them in class and in assignments to complete tasks that require that kind of thinking; give them feedback; and repeat.

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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!

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Top 10 Books on Teaching

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

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[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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“Fear and Trembling in the Face of Creativity”

We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams. (Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy… also, Willy Wonka)

Augustana College is one of countless institutions that identifies “creative thinking” as a key student learning outcome. But this goal has been a tricky one to foster — largely because most of us are unclear on how to foster it, and likely because the notion of “creativity” has largely been squeezed out of our line of sight by “critical thinking” (which is, of course, hugely important). How did this happen?

Maybe because “creativity” is a scary concept — or at least has been, historically. Charlie Sweet, Hal Blythe, and Rusty Carpenter at Eastern Kentucky University wrote the following piece for The National Teaching & Learning Forum (Wiley Publications), which I found through my e-mail subscription to the tomorrows-professor e-mail list (which I highly recommend).

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Fear and Trembling in the Face of Creativity

At the conclusion of “Kubla Khan,” Coleridge describes what many interpret as the reaction of the public to the poet: Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair! Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes with holy dread, For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Mockingly exhorting his audience to treat the poet, who somehow has channeled creativity, as a demon that must be confined, the nineteenth-century English poet expresses a common phobia: we fear that which we don’t understand, and creativity is not something everyone grasps. If Sir Ken Robinson is correct and the majority of us lose 98% of our creativity by adulthood, perhaps most people grow up and into a distrust of the creative approach to problem-solving in inverse proportion to their increasing reliance upon critical thinking.

But not all creative thinkers. Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution when the French peasants stuck their wooden shoes, sabots (hence the term sabotage) into the gears of the new machines, society has tended to revere Thomas Edison and his thousand light bulbs as well as the inventors of Post-It notes, Velcro, and iPads. So why does Shakespeare proclaim that “The lunatic, the lover and the poet. Are of imagination all compact”? And by extension, why is the idea of teaching creative thinking often distrusted?

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