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 blogging April 28

Ten Concierge ‘Keys’ for Supporting Individualized Online Course Development

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Large group training workshops to facilitate online course design can be a mechanistic experience and a nightmare to schedule given perpetually busy faculty with overloaded calendars. Equally ineffective static, “self-serve” online materials only go so far and can leave faculty disengaged or confused (Riegle 1987; Howland and Wedmen 2004). Personal support services modeled on the hotel concierge are used successfully in health care and private industry and, to a lesser extent, in higher education (Michelau and Lane 2010). They hold promise as an approach for supporting online course development.


old-style lecture hall March 7

A Different Take on “Did I Miss Anything Important?”

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When students ask us, as they occasionally do, “I wasn’t in class yesterday. Did I miss anything important?” most of us feel at least a bit of disrespect and some aggravation. If we take the question at face value, it implies that the student thinks at least some of what we do in class might not actually be important. Judging from a search of online forums, instructors’ responses range from genuine interest in helping students understand what they missed and how to make up for it, to contempt exemplified by sarcastic comments such as, “No, since you weren’t present we just filled time until the class was over.” The former response was illustrated in a 2014 article in The Teaching Professor,by Rocky Dailey, who also noted that some absences may be considered more legitimate than others (e.g., due to a student’s participating in an institution-sanctioned activity rather than just deciding not to show up). In those cases, I may feel more inclined to give the student some of my time and effort to help make up for the absence.

My focus here is neither on deciding how to respond to the student nor on the plethora of reasons that students give for missing a class. Instead, I want to turn the question around. Why do students ask this question and, more important, what does it say about my course when they do? I’m particularly concerned about students who still ask the question even after they’ve attended several class for sessions. By that time students have experienced what goes on in my classes, and I take asking whether anything important happened in class as a sign of one or all of the following:

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students at blackboard February 3

Attacking Problems as a Novice Learner

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My wiper blades needed to be replaced. I hate these kinds of tasks; they make me feel completely inadequate. But I was doing a lot of reading about learning, and I was looking for concrete examples in my own life to help me better understand the theory and practice of learning. Knowledge transfer, constructivism, scaffolding, and making thinking visible were all pretty new ideas to me.

So, I approached the task as a learning opportunity. I gave myself every advantage—no rain, moderate temps, a Saturday morning with no commitments. I prepared deliberately—a full stomach, empty bladder, and the entire toolbox next to the car. But my resolve was shaken with the very first task. Packaging these days requires the jaws of life. After struggling with the pliers and breaking a fingernail, I went inside for the heavy-duty scissors and was once again ready to get started.

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young professor in lecture hall January 18, 2016

The Rhythms of the Semester: Implications for Practice, Persona

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We recognize that in the march of the semester we begin on a different note than we end on. The early weeks hold promise and high hopes, both often curtailed when the first assignments are graded. The final weeks find us somewhere between being reluctant or relieved to see a class move on. There is an inexplicable but evident interaction between our teaching persona and the persona a class develops throughout a semester. Some structural factors influence both: among them—the type and level of a course, the discipline, the time of day, and whether the students are a cohort or a unique collection of individuals.


faculty development June 1, 2015

Flexible Faculty Development Opportunities

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One of the most persistent challenges for instructional designers is finding a convenient time to schedule faculty development training sessions. If scheduled during the summer, the workshop is subject to poor attendance because faculty are preparing for the fall. If it is scheduled in the fall, teaching responsibilities and committee work can impede professional development attendance. The same holds true for the spring semester.


October 29, 2014

A Few Concerns about the Rush to Flip

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I have some concerns about flipping courses. Maybe I’m just hung up on the name—flipping is what we do with pancakes. It’s a quick, fluid motion and looks easy to those of us waiting at the breakfast table. I’m not sure those connotations are good when associated with courses and that leads to what centers my concerns. I keep hearing what sounds to me like “flippant” attitudes about what’s involved.


March 6, 2014

Show the Learner Visible Signs of Their Learning

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One of the strengths of gamification is that it provides visible milestones of the student’s mastery of content in real time (when it is well designed). Too often in an instructional setting, the learner doesn’t know whether or not he or she really understands or can apply the knowledge they are learning. There is often no visible sign of mastery of the content or application of the content.


February 7, 2014

Thinking of Collaborative Teaching? A Few Things to Consider

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It used to be called team teaching, but that term is now used less often to describe the collaboration of colleagues when they jointly teach the same course. Multiple instructors may be involved in the course, each delivering a freestanding module; or two instructors may do the course together, each in class every day with all course activities and assignments integrated. And there are variations of each of these models.