lacing up running shoes. May 1

Lessons from Expertise, Decoding, and a Quest for the Five-Minute Mile

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A recent issue of Outside magazine recounts Charles Bethea’s attempt to run a sub-five-minute mile. At age 35 and fit, though not an elite athlete, Bethea’s goal is far short of the world record of 3:43. And although many runners break the five-minute barrier, it’s still a feat well beyond the vast majority of adults. After a respectable benchmark mile of 6:19, Bethea flounders aimlessly. A former college runner advises him to aim for quarter-mile splits of 74 seconds, which Bethea learns he can do, one at a time and with rest in between. But he can’t figure out how to string the four fast intervals together. It’s not until he gets coaching from a world-class miler that Bethea realistically approaches his goal. He quickly learns two things: first, he needs to ramp up his weekly mileage dramatically, and second, he must vary his training to include a prescribed mix of slow runs, hill intervals, and sprints. The road ahead isn’t going to be easy.

Bethea’s progression from mindless, ineffective training to purposeful, measured workouts serves as an entry point to Anders Ericsson’s recent book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (2016). A professor of psychology at Florida State who has studied experts for much of his career, Ericsson offers fascinating insights applicable to college-level teaching and learning. Although most of our students won’t go on to become experts in our fields, we often aspire to instill the practices and habits of mind which undergird our domains. The question is, how do we do that effectively?

Like Bethea’s initial efforts, most of us, argues Ericsson, go about improving ourselves in ineffective ways. Want to be an elite chess player? Play lots and lots of chess. No less a visionary than Ben Franklin took that route, but he failed miserably in his pursuit of excellence. Why? Because getting better in chess requires not playing more, but carefully studying the matches of chess masters, systematically building up a huge database of positions and possible moves, and having that knowledge stored for ready use in long-term memory. Lacking access to the games of the European chess champions of his day, Franklin never developed the deep understanding of chess he so desired.

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student studying late at night November 9, 2016

Courses That Are Hard, but Not Too Hard: Finding the Sweet Spot

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I have been doing some reading and thinking about hard courses. Courses need to be challenging, but when they become too hard, students stop trying and little learning results. So how do we find that sweet spot between hard and not too hard? More importantly, how do we create that sweet spot in our own courses through the decisions we make about content, assignments, and exams?


November 4, 2013

Teaching Unprepared Students: The Importance of Increasing Relevance

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It is difficult to teach if students are unprepared to learn. In a 2013 Faculty Focus reader survey, faculty were asked to rank their biggest day-to-day challenges. “Students who are not prepared for the rigors of college” and “Students who come to class unprepared” finished in a statistical dead heat as the #1 challenge; roughly 30% of the respondees rated both challenges as “very problematic.”


October 11, 2013

Do Students Work Less in Courses Offered in Compressed Time Frames?

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This is an important question because so many institutions now offer regular courses in shorter time frames. It might be a course offered in a monthlong summer session or one taught in January between regular-length semesters. It’s also important because there is a perception among students that shorter courses are easier. How could you possibly do as much work in a four-week course as in a 15-week one?


November 7, 2012

Why is it Difficult for Students to Learn the Content in Your Field?

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There’s no hidden agenda here: Asking the question of what makes learning difficult doesn’t imply that the objective is to make the content easy. Material can be so watered down that its basic integrity is compromised. In the same vein, there’s no justification for making material harder than it needs to be, but the right balance between difficult and easy is not the subject of this post.


September 28, 2012

An Approach that Decreases Failure Rates in Introductory Courses

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This study begins with some pretty bleak facts. It lists other research documenting the failure rates for introductory courses in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and physics. Some are as high as 85 percent; only two are less than 30 percent. “Failure has grave consequences. In addition to the emotional and financial toll that failing students bear, they may take longer to graduate, leave the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] disciplines or drop out of school entirely.” (p. 175) The question is whether there might be approaches to teaching these courses (and others at the introductory level) that reduce failure rates without decreasing course rigor.


May 21, 2012

Academic Rigor: Lessons from Room 10

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Room 10 was often an uncomfortable place. I dreaded having to walk in there. Room 10 felt a bit like Hell’s Kitchen and my teacher, Mrs. H, was the Gordon Ramsey of chemistry teachers, to use a current analogy. Was the teacher really that mean and the course that tough? Yes, she was mean and AP chemistry was one difficult course. Mrs. H’s handwriting was atrocious, and by today’s standards, she didn’t create a supportive learning environment. Despite all this, I noticed that the best students at my school signed up for AP chemistry with Mrs. H. I hesitated before signing up for the course, but something drew me to the experience.


April 11, 2011

What Can Be Done to Boost Academic Rigor?

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When it comes to college students and studying, the general rule most first-year students hear goes something like this. “For every one credit hour in which you enroll, you will spend approximately two to three hours outside of class studying and working on assignments for the course.” For a full-time student carrying 12 credits that equals at least 24 hours of studying per week.