Thursday, January 29, 2015

Are Quiet Students Really a Problem?

On February 3, 2015 we will have our first CTL-sponsored event, a Teaching Roundtable focused on a challenge (or is it?) that many of us experience in the classroom: introverted/quiet students. Inspired by an article that appeared in the Times Higher Education (see link below), Susan Wilson and Lyn Ishikawa have agreed to lead us in a conversation about the perception and reality of introverted students. Lunch will be provided.



Monday, January 26, 2015

Beliefs and Brilliance

NEW PhDs in maths and physics are earned mostly by men, while—in America at least—half of those in molecular biology and neuroscience are awarded to women. In the social sciences and humanities, art history and psychology are dominated by women, and economics and philosophy by men. A new paper thinks prejudice is to blame. The paper’s authors, led by Sarah-Jane Leslie of Princeton university and Andrei Cimpian of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, hypothesize that the crucial variable is something they call field-specific ability (basically, innate talent)—or, rather, a belief in this quality by those already entrenched in a discipline. They have found that the more existing professors think some special talent, beyond intelligence and hard work, is required to do their subject well, the lower will be the percentage of PhD students in that subject who are women.

Read the article Beliefs and Brilliance here.

All You Need to Know About the "Learning Styles" Myth, in Two Minutes

On a sunny hike along a Madeiran levada a couple of years ago, I got chatting to a retired school teacher and I told him about the brain myths book I was writing. An affable chap, he listened with interest about the 10 percent myth and other classic misconceptions, but his mood changed when I mentioned learning styles. This is the mistaken idea that we learn better when the instruction we receive is tailored to our preferred way of learning. The friendly teacher was passionate about the concept’s merit – his own preferred style, he said, was to learn “by doing” and no-one would ever convince him otherwise.
How widely believed is the myth?
The teacher I met in Madeira is far from alone in endorsing the myth. It is propagated not only in hundreds of popular books, but also through international conferences and associations, by commercial companies who sell ways of measuring learning styles, and in teacher training programs. The TeachingEnglish website published by the British Council and the BBC states boldly “Your students will be more successful if you match your teaching style to their learning styles” – this includes, they claim, being: right- or left-brained, analytic vs. dynamic, and visual vs. auditory. A recent international survey of teachers from the UK, China and elsewhere found that 96 percent believed in the idea of preferred learning styles.
Why is the idea so popular?
Parents, understandably, like to think that their children are receiving a tailored education. Teachers, also understandably, like to think that they are sensitive to each child’s needs and many are clearly motivated to find out more about how to fulfill this ideal. Also, no-one likes to think of themselves as low in ability. It’s more comforting to my ego to think that a class was difficult because of a teaching style I didn’t like than because I wasn’t concentrating or because I’m simply not clever or motivated enough.
Is there any evidence to support the learning styles concept?
Yes there is a little, but experts on the topic like Harold Pashler and Doug Rohrer point out that most of this evidence is weak. Convincing evidence for learning styles would show that people of one preferred learning style learned better when taught material in their favored way, whereas a different group with a different preference learned the same material better when taught in their favored fashion. Yet surprisingly few studies of this format have produced supporting evidence for learning styles; far more evidence (such as this study) runs counter to the myth. What often happens is that both groups perform better when taught by one particular style. This makes sense because although each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally.

Read the article All You Need to Know About the ‘Learning Styles’ Myth, in Two Minutes here.

How to Maintain Your Digital Identity as an Academic

In 2009, anyone who searched my name on the web would first encounter the opinions of a disgruntled Midwestern undergraduate who lambasted me for being an unfair, unprofessional, and essentially ignorant professor.

Oddly enough, the student was angry because I had begun incorporating Twitter into the classroom. I was among the early advocates of using the social-media site in teaching, especially in large lecture-based courses. While many of the 120 students in my introductory film course embraced the Twitter assignments I devised, a handful revolted, including this particular student. He took to the Internet to express his belief that social media had no place in the college classroom, and any professor who thought otherwise was not only oblivious to Twitter’s intent (It’s for socializing, not learning!), but also graded her students unreasonably. In his diatribe, he called out my name, school affiliation, and the classes I taught.

Because I attended a graduate school focused on technology and digital media (even for those of us in the humanities), I’ve had an Internet presence since 1999. Teaching assistants in my Ph.D. program were required to, at the very least, post their syllabi online. Our advisers also encouraged us to have our own websites (or pages), which we rudimentarily made via software like Microsoft FrontPage (1996) and Netscape Composer (1997). So I’ve been aware of the need to shape one’s digital identity or online persona for quite a while now.

But of course, the Internet changed significantly between when I left graduate school in 1999 and my student’s public critique of me in 2009—see, for example: Google rankings, social media, sitemaps, shifts in search algorithms, robots, crawlers, and search-engine optimization in general. The Internet has changed even from 2009 to today. Suffice it to say, that undergraduate’s tirade is now buried deep in the web. Nowadays, the first item to appear when anyone plugs my name into a search engine is my personal website, followed by my social-media presence, and then direct links to the mainstream publications for which I’ve written.

Read the article How to Maintain Your Digital Identity As An Academic here.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology

The current issue of the Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology includes articles on deeper learning through flipping the classroom, among other means, gamification in an advanced interdisciplinary course, and audio feedback for writing assignments.

Read the issue here...

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What Are They Learning? And How?

In my previous column, I wrote about the importance of tailoring your teaching to your students. In particular, I advocated listening to students, canvassing them to learn about their prior knowledge, their misconceptions, their associations. As a few readers pointed out in the article’s comments, such advice is perhaps more easily offered than followed.

The idea of starting a discussion by asking students what they know, and don’t know, about a topic gets more and more difficult as class sizes go up. In a lecture hall with 200 students, opening class by asking, “now what do you all know about pre-industrial America?” may not be the most effective strategy. Class time, as well, is an issue. Most instructors have a lot of ground to cover over the semester, and not enough time to handle it all. Adding in time for informal chats about students’ prior knowledge and current understanding may feel impossible.

So how do we respond to our students’ needs in a way that leaves room for other pedagogical priorities? What we’re looking for here are practical ways to elicit and make use of quality student feedback. We want to learn from students the information—about what they knew beforehand, what they've learned from us, and what they still don’t understand—that will help us teach more effectively. Providing students with ways to give us that information not only helps us tailor our teaching, it helps them become more aware of themselves as learners. That, in turn, can help them better achieve their goals.

Read the article What Are They Learning? And How?

For help with implementing these strategies, please contact

How Rural Schools Paid for Students' Home Internet to Transform Learning

Like many districts serving low-income populations, it was fairly easy for Piedmont City School District officials in Alabama to find funds for devices. District officials wanted to leverage technology to open up opportunities for the 1,240 students in this rural community, so they started sending devices home with kids in grades 4-12 in 2009 through a program they call mPower Piedmont. However, lack of access to the Internet after school and in kids’ homes became a major obstacle to learning with those devices.

At first, teachers tried to work around Internet limitations, letting students download what they’d need for work at home before they left school. Teachers also helped students find places in the community that had free Internet, like restaurants. Downloading content worked for some things, but it didn't allow students to truly take advantage of digital tools, like interacting with peers, accessing flipped instruction or conducting online research, said Matt Akin, Piedmont’s superintendent, in an edWeb webinar.

“It was really not fair to say this homework requires Internet access, and if you don’t have it, go to McDonald’s,” Akin said. “But it was the only option that we had.”

At first, to compensate for disparities in Internet connections, many local businesses cooperated with the district and allowed students to use the Internet at their establishments. However, it was difficult for students without independent transportation to get themselves around town. Late one night, when Akin was leaving the middle school, he saw students sitting on the steps of the school trying to use its Internet. That’s when he knew they needed to devise another solution.

Read the article How Rural Schools Paid for Students’ Home Internet to Transform Learning.