What does it mean. Questions about research. December 3

The Questions to Ask about Research on Teaching and Learning

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Faculty have access to more information about college teaching than ever before. Researchers have studied a host of instructional approaches and published results in myriad journals. Educators have shared summaries of and links to such studies informally on websites and through Twitter feeds. This is good news for those of us who want to learn more about a particular instructional method or technique before we try it in our own courses.

Not all of us are educational researchers, however, and that brings some challenges for making sense of these studies. The research questions and methods may not be as familiar to us as those in our home disciplines. Unfamiliar research approaches can make it challenging to determine how much stock to place in study findings. This challenge increases when different studies report mixed or contradictory results.

How can we assess the research quality? How can we determine whether a given instructional method is something worth trying in our courses? What follows is a set of questions that you can use when evaluating individual studies and collections of them. The goal of these questions is to help you glean information from research to consider whether or how to implement a pedagogical approach.

Is the research question one you want to know the answer to? Education researchers ask and answer questions that may or may not have practical application for our teaching. For example, although hundreds of researchers have asked whether active learning is superior to lecture, some of us are not particularly interested the answer. We don’t see lecture and active learning as an either/or proposition and instead believe that we can use both approaches together. What we might want to know instead are the combinations or particular features of lectures or active learning methods that make them more or less effective.

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Students collaborating in class. November 2

Understanding Student Resistance to Active Learning

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Fear of student resistance prevents many college teachers from adopting active learning strategies. That’s unfortunate, because these strategies have been shown to significantly increase student learning, improve retention in academic programs, and provide especially strong benefits to traditionally underrepresented student groups. Addressing two key questions may reduce instructors’ fears and increase the adoption of active learning strategies:

  1. Are instructors’ fears of student resistance to active learning well-founded?
  2. Are there effective ways to minimize that resistance?

What is student resistance and is it widespread?
From a practical standpoint, student resistance can be defined as any observable student behavior that makes an instructor less likely to use an instructional strategy. Resistance-related behaviors include passively refusing to participate in an activity, actively complaining or disrupting groups during an activity, or giving low course evaluations to the instructors who use active learning. Some authors define resistance as an affective outcome, describing it in terms of student motivation or whether students like or value the activity. But while student attitudes drive their behaviors, it’s the behaviors that faculty see. It might therefore be more accurate to think of student attitudes as a mediator of resistant behavior.

How much do students actually resist active learning strategies in practice? As with most interesting questions, the answer begins with “It depends.” How much students resist active learning sometimes depends on the type of active learning used. Active learning is not a single technique but an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of instructional practices. Some of those practices, such as “minute papers,” in which the instructor asks students to take a minute and anonymously write down the most confusing point from that day’s lecture, aren’t likely to generate much student resistance. On the other hand, active learning approaches like problem-based learning that significantly increase expectations for student ownership of their learning generate more resistance (Woods, 1994).

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brief moments of inquiry in college classroom October 1

Using Brief Moments of Inquiry to Enrich Student Learning

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Who discovered Pluto?

 A colleague described this brief exchange he had with his young daughter as they crossed Tombaugh Street in Flagstaff, Arizona. My colleague, ever the professor, pointed out that the street was named for local astronomer Clyde Tombaugh who had discovered Pluto in 1930. His daughter promptly informed him, “Walt Disney discovered Pluto.”

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College professor with students. September 7

Learning to Teach: Are We More Like Our Students Than We Think?

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How did you learn how to teach? By trying to teach like those who taught you? Through trial and error? By looking for feedback on course evaluations? As an experienced educator, what methods do you now rely to continue your growth as a teacher? Do you read articles and blogs? Talk to colleagues? Attend workshops?

Let’s get specific about some of these approaches to developing ourselves as teachers. Say you’re attending a workshop on some new pedagogical approach. The presenter moves through the slides quickly and you don’t quite see how the examples could work in your field or large intro course. Some concepts are familiar; others aren’t. Some of the central ideas—metacognition or pedagogical content knowledge—are new and it’s not clear how they relate to each other. A group activity is announced but what you really want is time to think on your own. You were looking back through your notes and not listening to the instructions, so you aren’t exactly sure what the group is supposed to do. Someone in your group tells a long story. The discussion wanders around. The presenter’s debrief doesn’t really clear up your confusion. In the end, you learned a thing or two but you leave the session disappointed.

Or perhaps you’re not big on workshops and prefer to stay current and learn new approaches by reading. An article with an intriguing idea captures your attention. Maybe it’s on using clickers to check conceptual understanding, cold calling to increase student participation in discussion, or some other teaching technique that the author swears is nearly foolproof. You skim the piece during a lunch break. It gives you the germ of an idea, which grows into an outline of an activity. You spend some extra time to prep the details. You’re enthused about what you’ve put together but worry about how much content won’t get covered. You think about asking a colleague, but you’ve left the prep to the eleventh hour and there’s no time to bounce ideas off someone. Besides, sharing a new strategy before you use it feels rather risky, so you test it out in class. The activity goes pretty well. Students don’t jump in with great enthusiasm but by the end they’re engaged, even your most quiet ones. You tell yourself to remember to give clearer instructions in the future and persuade yourself the other rough spots will smooth out the second time around.

Or here’s one of my learning experiences. I was working with two younger colleagues who suggested modifying a course the three of us teach. We all thought we could be more intentional in teaching students how to use primary literature. My colleagues were eager to try something they’d read about; I was eager to support them. However, committee assignments kept me from participating as fully as I would have liked. After several meetings, one of which I missed, my colleagues presented a model for the project. I didn’t entirely understand it, but since I missed a meeting I simply went along. I expected that with my long-time experience I could make it work. I couldn’t. My students were confused; I was confused. Conversations with my colleagues helped me figure it out, but I still wasn’t happy with the quality of my students’ work. In the end, I wished I’d understood the proposed model more deeply before launching the assignment.

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Professor helping students August 1

Civility is Needed in the College Classroom—Now More than Ever

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The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”
(Attributed to Socrates, 469–399 BC, by Plato)

My grandmother often told me to “treat others as you would like to be treated.” I just assumed parents and grandparents told all children this variation of the Golden Rule. I was also certain well-meaning teachers, coaches, clergy members reinforced it. Yet what has happened to common decency and basic civility in society these days? Have they just become signs from days gone by? Do we no longer teach or practice the Golden Rule? I’ve actually heard this alternative interpretation of the Golden Rule: “He or she with the most gold makes the rules.” As faculty members, I believe we need to step up and start teaching civility and compassion in our classrooms.

“You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar”—another of my grandmother’s favorite expressions. As a child I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I understand it now and often pass on this same sage advice. There is a related education quote that goes something like, "Students don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." I wholeheartedly agree. Students of any age benefit when they have teachers who care.

Who Most Needs to Model Civility?

Although each college has its own policies for both student and faculty conduct, as college professors “the buck stops” with us when it comes to controlling the climate and establishing the expectations for civil discourse in our classrooms. Professors need to model civility, and by that I mean much more than proper manners and etiquette, such as regularly saying “please” and “thank you.” I mean feeling actual empathy toward students. A syllabus, even if it’s posted online, says a lot about us before the course even begins. The same could be said about an introductory welcome letter for an online course. First impressions are important. That very first class should clearly set the expectations. Too often faculty miss this opportunity and just dive into their academic content without any attention paid to the culture that needs to be established in that course. We should all be good stewards, heed our grandparents’ advice, and foster a caring learning community imbued with mutual respect. If we don’t practice civility, empathy, and respect, how can we expect meaningful conversations to occur in our courses?

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faculty mentoring June 13

A Case for Coaching in Faculty Development

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I recently spent a rainy afternoon watching the semi-finals of the Madrid Open and noticed how often one of the players looked to his coaching box for reassurance about his strategy. Coaches are not just for players trying to make it into the big leagues; “even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every elite tennis player in the world does. Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be.” (Gawande, 2011)

If coaching is a proven strategy for ensuring that athletes perform at their best and is used at the highest levels in the business world, why shouldn’t faculty turn to coaching to ensure continued growth and peak performance? In a piece in The New Yorker magazine, renowned surgeon Atwal Gawande recounts his experiences in hiring a retired surgeon to coach him to even higher degrees of professional excellence than he had achieved on his own. Rather than coasting at mid-career on his accomplishments, Gawande stretched his skills further, reduced his complication rates, and concluded that “coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” (Gawande, 2011)

Coaching as a professional development strategy is beginning to take hold in the education sector. In the preface to his text, “Instructional Coaching” Jim Knight recounts an experience all too familiar to those of us working in faculty development in higher education. At the conclusion of a workshop, he invited participants to send him an update after they’ve had a chance to experiment with some of the evidence-based instructional strategies discussed during the session. “At the end of 2 years, I had not received one postcard. The reality was, I suspected, that inservice sessions just did not provide enough support for most people to implement what they had learned.” (Knight, 2007)

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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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University students study in classroom with female lecturer April 1

Facilitation Skills: The Way to Better Student Discussions

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Most faculty aspire to engage and involve students in interesting and insightful discussions. But these in-class and online exchanges frequently disappoint faculty. Students come to them unprepared. They engage reluctantly. Their individual and unrelated comments take the discussion in different directions. There can be awkward silences that force faculty to rephrase questions or make statements in an effort to restart the discussion. Unprepared students tend to deal with discussion topics superficially, and they don’t delve deeply into the issues. Teachers soon feel compelled to add content depth and detail, and the more teachers talk, the less students contribute. Unfortunately, in many cases, discussions morph into lectures and students seem just fine with that.

Are faculty aspirations for discussion unjustified? Are they unrealistic, given today’s college students? No. Discussion remains a powerful instructional tool. It affords students the opportunity to learn from and with each other. Students phrase ideas in ways that help other students understand. One student’s question often asks something many students would like to know. Different perspectives are shared, and students come to realize that not everyone understands or experiences things in the same way. Discussions can be stimulating, provocative even. They can cultivate critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Students learn to craft arguments and to refute them. Discussions can model civil discourse. For all these reasons and more, good discussions promote significant learning experiences.

At the crossroads between what discussion can be, and often is, stands the teacher whose challenge is easy to understand yet complicated to execute: lead and guide the exchange, but without controlling and directing it. What makes discussions engaging is the free flow of ideas, but these ideas stop flowing freely when teacher talk dominates. As teachers, there are several factors that make it easy for us to assume a commanding position in discussions. We have content expertise. We are in charge of the course and who gets to talk. We wield grading power. It’s not surprising that students direct their comments to the teacher during discussion and not to each other.

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international students March 1

Students’ Use of Their Own Language: Breaking Down Barriers

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“Language influences thought and action. The words we use to describe things—to ourselves and others—affect how we and they think and act.” (Weimer, 2015).

Learners can be empowered or suppressed by the language(s) used in our classrooms and other learning spaces. Given the increasingly divisive rhetoric stemming from the caustic nature of the U.S. presidential election, ill-informed statements such as “this is a country where we speak English, not Spanish,” or “while we’re in this nation, we should be speaking English . . . whether people like it or not, that’s how we assimilate” (Waldman, 2016), cannot be taken lightly. Many of our students may feel that their “own language” and, by extension, their identity, is under threat. The term “own language” is defined as “a language which the students already know and through which (if allowed), they can approach [learning]” (cited in Hall, 2015, n.p.). It’s a term now preferred by scholars and researchers to minimize inaccurate or imprecise usages, such as “native language,” “first language,” or “mother tongue.”

Additionally, educational institutions must confront the reality of a changing demographic stemming from increased international student enrollment, growing numbers of immigrants, generation 1.5 students, and, in Canada, the participation of First Nations communities. For students who speak English as an additional language (EAL), the sense of exclusion is not just a feeling, but a reality with consequences for learning and outcomes.

In this article, I’d like to focus specifically on learners’ use of their own language. For those readers whose professional work involves teaching or supporting EAL students, regardless of field or discipline, have you considered the role your students’ own language plays in the learning process?

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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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