Syndicated from Teaching with Classroom Response Systems
This is final (planned) post reflecting on my experiences this fall teaching a first-year writing seminar on the history and mathematics of cryptography. In this post, I’d like to reflect on what I’ve learned about teaching writing in this context. What follows is a list of observations, each followed by an idea for the next time I teach this course.
Now that I’ve read 15 final papers, I’m starting to get a better big picture of how argumentative papers can (and perhaps should) be constructed. Arguments support a thesis, and evidence supports an argument. I put together a Prezi to map this out:
Here’s an example:
- Thesis: If you break your enemy’s codes, keep that a secret as long as you can, even after hostilities have ended.
- Argument: If the Germans hadn’t learned that their codes were broken during WW1, they wouldn’t have developed the more secure Enigma Machine.
- Evidence: Singh notes that the Germans were “unenthusiastic” about Arthur Scherbius’ proposed Enigma Machine because “they were oblivious to the damage caused by their insecure ciphers during the Great War.” (p. 138)
Next time: Revise the rubric to reflect this distinction between argument and evidence. Also, show the Prezi to students and have them outline a mock paper using this model.
Several students included way too many details about particular examples in their final papers, details that didn’t help them make their arguments. Some may have been just trying to pad their page count, but others seemed to think that sharing all these details was important. They didn’t seem to realize that they needed to share only those descriptive details that help the readers understand and buy their arguments. Next time: Spend some time addressing this issue during class, perhaps by having students practice their summarization skills.
Some students included appropriate amounts of detail, but didn’t make explicit the connections between their examples and anecdotes and their theses. The reader shouldn’t have to work that hard to understand why a particular story is included in the paper. Next time: Focus on this, too, at some point, perhaps by having students revise a mock paper in which these connections are not made explicit.
The student feedback on the course supports the idea of more learning activities focused on various aspects of the writing process. For instance, here’s a comment on the course feedback survey:
“One thing I would suggest is adding a few short writing assignments throughout the year that can help the student see what they need to work on the most and help improve their writing skills. These can serve as ways to adjust the student to college writing without necessarily killing their grade on a major essay right off the bat.”
And here’s another comment:
“I would have liked to have a greater amount of emphasis placed on writing, as it is first and foremost a writing seminar. The peer editing in class was helpful, but I would have also liked to have some discussions of grammar and general writing mechanics as well.”
Next time: More class time spent on writing instruction. Now that I’ve taught the course once, I have more concrete ideas about activities that would be beneficial to students.
The students seemed to have different expectations regarding the nature of an argumentative paper. Clarifying the structure of such a paper (as described above) will help, but the paper assignment itself is a bit artificial, particularly in contrast with the earlier, expository paper assignment. For that assignment, students had an authentic audience: each other and the open Web since the papers were posted on the course blog. Next time: Retool the final assignment so that it’s a bit more authentic. Perhaps show students students some argumentative articles in magazines like Wired or Scientific American and have them write their papers as if they were magazine articles (but with explicit references and citations).
I let students use whichever citation style (MLA, APA, and so on) they wished, telling them that they needed to be internally consistent in their papers with whatever style they selected. I did this because I don’t think any one style is particularly better than another, and I didn’t want to force students to learn a new style if they already had one mastered. However, as it turned out, very few students in the course had any style mastered! Many students had problems using their selected styles correctly. For instance, I saw many Internet citations that lacked authors. While I know authors of websites are sometimes hard to identify, almost every Internet citation can be given an appropriate author if you look hard enough. Next time: Bite the bullet and have students use the same citation style. I’m thinking APA, since that’s the one I used for my book and know best. Sticking to one citation style would mean that I could become more of an expert with that style myself and, more importantly, get better at teaching it to my students.
Finally, I was advised by a colleague in the math department here that even if I have students write about things other than pure mathematics (which is definitely the case in this course), I should still have them write like mathematicians. How do mathematicians write? They are typically very precise in their use of ideas and arguments, and I’m glad to help my students learn to be more precise in their writing.
However, mathematicians are also typically very concise, providing the minimal amount of information to state their case but no more. Since mathematics is so cumulative, anytime one writes a mathematics research paper, one has to decide how much to explain about one’s work. Do you explain your ideas from first principles that you can be sure all of your readers know? Or do you assume your reader has some greater knowledge of your domain that you can leverage to avoid having to spell out in detail every step in your argument? Most mathematicians go with the latter approach, making many math papers, at least in my opinion, very difficult to read. Conciseness is prioritized over clarity, and I’m hesitant to teach my students to make that same choice.
So here’s my question for you: Should I teach my students next time to write like mathematicians, even if I think most mathematicians are poor communicators? Or am I off-base in my assessment of how mathematicians write?
Image: “Writing Sample: Lamy Vista,” Churl Han, Flickr (CC)
My latest guest ProfHacker guest post went live last week. After heading up the “Twitter Teams” at the POD Network and Lilly Conferences this fall, I thought others might be interested in some of the lessons I learned about organizing conference backchannels. My post, “Encouraging a Conference Backchannel on Twitter,” outlines some of the strategies I used to help generate a healthy conference backchannel and help conference participants, particularly those not already on Twitter, to dip into that backchannel.
Shortly after my post went live on ProfHacker, they switched to a new commenting platform, which meant that comments are no longer allowed on my post. So feel free to comment here! What’s your experience with participating in or organizing a conference backchannel?
While visiting Georgetown University last week, I participated in a discussion about social pedagogies with Randy Bass, director of the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS). Randy and his colleague Heidi Elmendorf use the term “social pedagogies” to describe a cluster of teaching practices that “engage students with… an ‘authentic audience’ (other than the teacher) where the representation of knowledge for an audience is absolutely central to the construction of knowledge in a course.” Randy is writing a white paper on this topic drawing on the experiences and experiments of instructors in a range of disciplines. Although the white paper isn’t finished, the proposal for the paper is available online. After reading that proposal, I prepared some opening remarks for the discussion at Georgetown, and I thought I would share an edited version of those remarks here on the blog.
In one of my first teaching assignments, I inherited an applied linear algebra course from a colleague. He suggested that I have students complete application projects at the end of the semester, giving them a chance to apply the mathematical techniques we had studied to “real world” problems of their choosing. This was a great suggestion, and the quality of the student papers was impressive. However, I felt it was a loss that I was the only one to ever see my students’ good work. So the next semester, I had students design posters to accompany their papers. The last day of class was a poster fair in which students learned about each other’s work and voted on the best posters—most mathematically sophisticated, most interesting application, most attractive poster. This was a fun way to end the semester, and I suspected at the time that the students put more effort into the projects because they knew their peers would see their posters.
My suspicion was affirmed while reading Richard Light’s Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds. Light’s research indicates that students take their writing more seriously when they write for their peers than when they write for their professors. His argument, as I recall it, was that a student can turn in a paper to a professor in which something isn’t explained very clearly, assuming that the professor will fill in the gaps. Students know their peers can’t fill in those gaps, so they have to work a little harder to explain themselves if they want their peers to understand them. And since they generally want to share their ideas with their peers, they put forth that effort.
After reading Light’s book, I asked my students in subsequent applied math courses to write their papers “as if to a fellow student,” hoping to tap into this phenomenon. I didn’t, however, actually have them share their papers with each other, just their project posters. I think this helped improve the clarity of my students’ writing since they had a more concrete audience in mind, but it didn’t tap into the full effect of the idea of an authentic audience.
A few years later while mowing the yard, I listened via podcast to a talk by Gardner Campbell, then at the University of Mary Washington. In the talk he described his use of course blogs in his English courses. He had each student start his or her own blog and post regular reflections about the course material. Students were asked to tag their course-related blog posts with a particular tag, and the “mother blog” that Gardner managed then aggregated those posts in a single course blog. This meant it was easy for students to see and comment on each other’s writings, yet each student had his or her own digital space to customize and inhabit.
Gardner discovered that in the students’ final papers, instead of just drawing on their own writing from earlier in the course (which was common in past iterations of the course), they also drew on each other’s writings, even citing their peers’ blog posts! Moreover, students from past offerings of the course sometimes left comments on the blog in response to current students posts, and on rare occasions the authors they were studying left comments, too! Gardner talked about making public and permanent the kind of student knowledge production that was once private and temporary and that doing so led to the creation of a thriving learning community.
Gardner’s talk was the first time it occurred to me how powerful a motivator it can be to have an authentic audience for student work. The importance of knowing one’s audience has long been a part of the teaching of writing, but even in writing courses, there’s historically not been an authentic audience, just a pretend audience. I’ve seen this in efforts to add more writing to math courses by giving students assignments in which they pretend they are consultants solving some mathematical problem posed by a client (say, a small business or a local government). Although one can’t write well without some knowledge of one’s audience, if the audience is merely a pretend one, then the motivational power of an authentic audience is absent. I think that’s why students see so much of their course work as “busywork.” There’s no authentic audience for the work. Students write papers, instructors read and grade those papers, and then the papers go in the physical or virtual recycle bin. What’s motivating about that?
Why is “busywork” a problem? Because when students see their learning experiences as just a series of hoops to jump through on their way to a career, most of their motivation for engaging in those learning experiences is external. They suffer through all their colleges classes because they know they’ll need a transcript (with a healthy amount of A’s, of course) to land that grad school spot or high-paying job. Unfortunately, external motivations don’t lead to deep learning, just surface learning or strategic learning. (Students who are more risk-averse tend to be surface learners, while more competitive students tend to be strategic learners, just doing enough to get that A.) Deep learning is hard work, and external motivations just aren’t strong enough for students facing that difficulty. If we want our students to engage in deep learning, we need find ways to connect that learning with their internal motivations. Conventional wisdom says we should try to convince students of the value or beauty or merit of our field, so that they develop an intrinsic interest in the subject. That’s a valuable approach, but the idea of an authentic audience opens up a different set of approaches to foster intrinsic motivation in the learning process.
I read Clay Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus, over the summer, and he cited some research on motivation that has given me a better understanding of the tools I have as a teacher to motivate my students. In the book, Shirky examines the ideas that we as a society have more free time on our hands than we did in decades past and that social and collaborative technologies allow us to spend that free time together doing impressive things. Think about the open-source software movement, or the Ushahidi crisis mapping service, or even LOLcats. These are all activities in which contributors receive no external rewards (such as income or jobs), yet they spend lots of time and energy in making them happen. Why do they do so?
Shirky points to Deci’s classic work on motivation, noting that everyone has a desire to be autonomous and a desire to be competent. The autonomy condition is satisfied in these kinds of projects because people opt in to participating. The competency condition is satisfied when people contribute something they find worthwhile—even if that’s a particularly funny LOLcat that no on else ever sees. As educators, we can leverage these personal motivations, too, by giving students choices over how they complete their learning experiences (satisfying their desire for autonomy) and by pitching our courses at that Goldilocks level—not too hard and not too easy (satisfying their desire for competency). A student might still “hate math” but feel autonomous and competent in a well-designed math course.
I was already familiar with Deci’s work, but Shirky pointed to some research on motivation that was new to me, research done by Benkler and Nissenbaum on social motivations. It’s this work that helps to explain why having an authentic audience can be so motivating for students. In addition to their desires for autonomy and competency, people also have desires to connect (to join communities) and to share (to share themselves with their communities). Having students write for each other on a blog, as Gardner Campbell did, taps into these social motivations. Doing so helps the students feel like they’re in a community (satisfying their desire to connect) and gives them a platform to contribute to that learning community (satisfying their desire to share). Even if the students don’t have any prior interest in the course material, they can still be motivated to participate meaningfully in a learning community because of these social motivations.
Consider this non-academic example: This summer, media artist and writer A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz gave a talk about the Farmville phenomenon. Farmville is a silly little Facebook game in which players grow virtual vegetables and share them with each other. Liskziewicz writes: “If Farmville is laborious to play and aesthetically boring, why are so many people playing it? The answer is disarmingly simple: people are playing Farmville because people are playing Farmville.” There’s really nothing much to the game other than social motivations, but that’s enough to make the game very, very popular.
The diagram that accompanies Randy Bass’ white paper proposal includes a component that reads “connect the affective and cognitive.” The role of the affective domain in learning, that is, what students feel about learning, what motivates them to learn, is significant. I see great potential for what Randy calls social pedagogies for tapping into the affective domain by leveraging students’ social motivations (their desires to connect and to share).
For example, last fall I posted my students’ expository essays to my course blog and required students to read and comment on two of their peers’ papers. This gave the students an authentic audience for their writing—each other. Moreover, some of the students Googled their paper topics and found out that their papers are now on the first page of results for those topics! One student said about this, “Some high school student is going to cite my paper!” I told him that’s why I wanted him to write a good one! Even more exciting was the long comment left on the blog by one of the authors cited by one of my students in his paper! Given Gardner Campbell’s experiences, I had hoped something like this would happen, but I didn’t really expect it to. My students were somewhat awed that someone from their bibliographies was reading their work!
Another experiment in social pedagogies of mine last fall was the use of social bookmarking. I let my students contribute to their class participation grade by bookmarking and tagging resources relevant to the course material on Delicious. By asking students to use a common tag for their bookmarks (“fywscrypto”), I was able to aggregate their bookmarks and share them on the course blog. I made sure to spend at least ten minutes during class each week having students share their finds with the class. This kept the work from becoming “busy work” by integrating it in our class discussions, and it tapped into my students’ desires to share what they were learning with their community. The bookmarking itself was easy enough technically for the students and leveraged their not inconsiderable skill in surfing the Web!
In both of these examples, my students were sharing their work with what I think were authentic audiences. That seems to be a key aspect of leveraging students’ social motivations, their desires to connect and to share. Since those motivations are intrinsic ones, they have the potential to lead to deep learning, which is, after all, the end goal of teaching. Thanks to CNDLS and Randy Bass for the opportunity to explore these ideas together, and I’m looking forward to Randy’s white paper and future conversations.
Finally, here are a few questions about social pedagogies that occurred to me as I was preparing the above remarks:
- The Grade Inflation Question – Here’s one that I’ve been dealing with the last few weeks: When you have a well-designed course with well-motivated students engaged in deep learning, it’s hard not to end up with a lot of A’s in the course! What’s the relationship between social pedagogies and summative assessment?
- The Faculty Development Question – I’m still getting a lot of oohs and aahs in consultations with faculty when I share with the idea of a think-pair-share. If that’s where many faculty are in terms of their own knowledge of teaching and learning, how on earth can I help them get to the point where they employ a variety of social pedagogies?
- The Digital Native Question – Randy argues in his proposal that social pedagogies need not feature educational technologies. But given how “kids these days” use technology, might there be an imperative for faculty to use social tech to enact social pedagogies?
Your comments are welcome!
Image: “The Calm after the Show,” Thomas Hawk, Flickr (CC)
Syndicated from Teaching with Classroom Response Systems
Syndicated from Teaching with Classroom Response Systems
Earlier today I gave my third talk of the week, this one at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Today’s talk was titled “Teaching with Clickers for Deep Learning.” Here’s the abstract:
Classroom response systems (“clickers”) are technologies that enable teachers to rapidly collect and analyze student responses to multiple-choice questions during class. Although clickers can be used to ask students the kinds of multiple-choice questions you might put on a test, other kinds of questions can often promote deeper learning. In this talk, we’ll explore ways to craft clicker questions that help students to engage more meaningfully with course content, including questions designed to address student misconceptions, surface student opinions and experiences, and foster critical thinking skills. We’ll also discuss strategies for leading class discussions using clicker questions that frame and motivate those discussions.
And here’s the Prezi:
(Yes, I busted out the traxoline for this talk!)
Thanks to Linda Hodges, director of faculty development at UMBC, for hosting me.
Syndicated from Teaching with Classroom Response Systems
Today is day two of my visit to Georgetown University thanks to the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS). My talk this afternoon is titled “Connecting with Participatory Culture: Clickers and Deep Learning.” In the talk I argue that teaching with clickers resonates with students who are growing up in a culture in which they not only consume media, but comment, share, and create media, as well. I share several types of clicker questions that can lead to deep learning, and map these question types onto different ways in which people contribute to our participatory culture.
For a bit more on the idea of participatory culture, check out my post from the summer about Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus.
Thanks again to CNDLS for having me on campus!
I’m at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, today and tomorrow thanks to the good people at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS). I’m giving a talk here in about an hour titled “Class Time Reconsidered: Motivating Student Participation and Engagement.” My goal is to share some frameworks and strategies for engaging students in the classroom by taking a few common assumptions about teaching and learning and flipping them on their heads. Here’s my Prezi, complete with one well-timed flip:
Many of my references are embedded in the Prezi itself, so feel free to click the links you see there.
Thanks to Georgetown University and CNDLS for bringing me here. I’m looking forward to the talk today and to tomorrow’s talk on clickers and participatory culture.
Syndicated from Teaching with Classroom Response Systems
I’m glad to announce that I’m now hosting the Tomorrow’s Professor Blog, a blog that mirrors the content of the Tomorrow’s Professor Mailing List. For more than a decade, the Tomorrow’s Professor Mailing List has provided “desktop faculty development, one hundred times a year.” The mailing list features essays and articles on a variety aspects of the faculty career. It’s edited by Richard Reis of Stanford University and sponsored by the Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning. More than 1,000 archived posts are available on the Tomorrow’s Professor website.
I recently discovered that the Tomorrow’s Professor Blog hosted by MIT was shut down. Some time ago, I ended my email subscription to the mailing list (a subscription I started during my grad school days) in favor of following the posts via the RSS feed provided by the blog. With the blog shut down, my RSS connection was gone, too. Moreover, there was no longer a way to comment on posts since the mailing list isn’t structured for discussion.
I emailed Rick Reis to ask about the blog, and he said that the funding that had supported it had ended. I’m not sure how that funding was used, but I knew that (a) Web server space is cheap, (b) WordPress is free, and (c) it wouldn’t be hard to maintain the Tomorrow’s Professor Blog if there were a way to automatically post items from the mailing list. It turns out that there’s a plugin for that! I figured there might be since there’s a WordPress plugin for just about anything. That’s one of the advantages of using an open platform like WordPress: You get to tap into the collective contributions of thousands of other users. The Postie plugin ended up being just what I needed.
Setting up Postie wasn’t blindingly easy, but it wasn’t too difficult, either. I had to set up an email address that allowed POP3 access without using SSL connections. I couldn’t figure out how to do so via Gmail, so I explored the options my Web host, GoDaddy, provides. After a little trial and error, I set up a dedicated email address using my derekbruff.com domain and subscribed that email address to the TP mailing list. Then I had to give Postie the right information so that it could access my new email account to check for new messages. Again, that took some trial and error, but I finally got everything working. Now new TP mailing list posts go to this dedicated email address and, within an hour, Postie pulls those new emails into the TP blog.
I shared the blog with Rick Reis, and he was glad to give readers more access to the mailing list. With his blessing, I’m now going public with the new Tomorrow’s Professor Blog. This means that you can now follow the Tomorrow’s Professor Mailing List via RSS and that you can comment on individual posts. I’m glad to help this valuable mailing list return to the blogosphere!
Update: I’ve just set up a Twitter account, @tomprofblog, for the blog. New posts will be tweeted automatically, giving you another option for following the mailing list.
Image: “Binoculars,” Vestman, Flickr (CC)