Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Barbara Walvoord's assessment advice

This week Barbara Walvoord lead a couple of workshops at the Augustana Campus on program assessment and how to make grading more efficient. What I found interesting is that she advocated for teaching and learning strategies that are embedded in team-based learning (TBL): have the students engage with the material before coming to class; use class time for students to practice applying the material and providing feedback to them on their progress. This describes the Readiness Assurance Process and Application portions of TBL. It is also a version of the flipped classroom. Here is one description of the flipped classroom from Educause, however, it views flipping narrowly involving replacing a traditional face-to-face didactic lecture with an online lecture. In contrast, I consider required readings to be superior to supplying video recorded lectures and a technique to flip the classroom (old-fashioned but effective). As I have been learning for the past couple of years from Bligh's book What's the Use of Lectures?, Weimer's book Learner-Centered Teaching, and How Learning Works by Ambrose et al, student learning increases when students become engaged with the material and are held accountable for being responsible for learning the material for discussion and application in class. The evidence suggests that the traditional lecture is not quite as good as reading the textbook for information transfer (Bligh 1998) and that for students to become engaged in the material and their own learning processes, they must be given time in a safe environment where they are able to practice applying the material under the guidance of an instructor and with the support of their peers (Weimer 2013Michael 2006Prince 2004)Basically the research supports what Dr. Walvoord was telling us for the last couple of days in her workshops. Students learn better/deeper if they attend to the rote learning outside of class before class, are held accountable for that learning during class, and class-time is used for student practice of applying their learning under their supervision and guidance of their instructors and in collaboration with their peers. There are many different teaching and learning strategies that would fall under the category of active learning. TBL is but one example; here is how it is developing in my classroom.

One of the reasons that Dr. Walvoord was promoting active learning strategies and flipping our classrooms was that this would decrease the amount of individual grading that faculty must do to provide feedback to our students. We still need to provide feedback, but if done within the classroom, it will decrease the amount of out of class grading that we, as instructors need to do. Kimberly Tanner recently published an article describing the history of grading and some alternatives to traditional grading that support the ideas Dr. Walvoord was promoting in her workshops.

In addition to encouraging faculty to use active learning strategies in our classrooms, Dr. Walvoord additionally emphasized the importance of developing students' metacognitive abilities. Instructors can aid student engagement with course material leading to deeper learning by helping students ask critical questions about their own learning process. We need to prompt our students to help them think about their thinking - we need to help them consider how they learn and how they might improve their learning. This is what I learned from Augustana's eportfolio pilot a couple of years ago and lead me to write a short piece for the Teaching Professor on developing students' learning philosophies. A couple of articles that delve into how to promote metacognition and the evidence suggesting that this promotes student learning may be found in this article by Kimberly Tanner and a book chapter by John Girash.

Finally, assessment is not something that we should fear and avoid. The more I learn about program assessment, the more I understand that it is about gathering evidence of how well our students are learning what we teach them so that we are able to adjust our teaching practice such that our students' learning outcomes improve. Something that we discussed at my workshop table was the value of gathering different kinds of evidence: that students' self-reports were interesting from the point of view of learning what students thought they had learned, but that we also needed to compare that with instructors' assessment of students' performance of the skills we purport to inculcate in our students. We need to understand what students think they are learning to ensure they align with what we intend to teach our students. If those two are different, then we have a problem - students' expectations of their learning outcomes will not match instructors' expectations and that will lead to disappointment for everyone involved: students, teachers, and administrators. Gathering evidence of students perceptions of their own learning and comparing that to their performance of the skills learned will enable us, as educators to revise our teaching practices, whether that be what or how we teach, such that student learning is improved.

And that is in everyone's best interests.


Ambrose SA, Bridges MW, DiPietro M, Lovett MC, Norman MK. 2010. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. San Francisco, CA. [UofA faculty, staff and students may access this as an e-book through our library's EZProxy here]

Bligh, Donald. 1998. What's the Use of Lectures?, 5/e. Exeter (UK): Intellect. [UofA faculty, staff and students may access this as an e-book through our library's EZProxy here]

Girash J. 2014. Metacognition and instruction. In: Benassi VA, Overson CE, Hakala CM, editors. Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum. Society for the Teaching of Psychology. p. 152–168.

Haave N. 2014. Team-based learning: A high-impact educational strategy. National Teaching and Learning Forum 23(4):1–5. [UofA faculty, staff and students may access this article through our library's EZProxy here]

Haave N. 2014. Developing students’ learning philosophies. The Teaching Professor 28(4):1,4.

Michael J. 2006. Where's the evidence that active learning works? Advances in Physiology Education 30(4): 159-167.

Prince M. 2004. Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education 93(3): 223-331. [UofA faculty, staff and students may access this article through our library's EZProxy here]

Schinske J, Tanner K. 2014. Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE-Life Sciences Education 13(2):159–166. 

Tanner KD. 2012. Promoting student metacognition. CBE-Life Sciences Educaction 11(2):113–120.

Walvoord BE. 2015.How to Make Grading Time-efficient and Useful for Learning. Augustana Faculty Fall Workshop. Camrose, AB. [podcast]

Walvoord BE. 2005 July. Explaining the reasons for criticisms of students’ academic performance. IDEA Item #7.

Walvoord BE. 2005 July. Giving tests and projects that cover the most important points of the course. IDEA Item #12. 

Walvoord BEF & Anderson VJ. 2010. Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment in college, 2/e. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Weimer M. 2013. Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, 2/e. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

relevance vs meaning

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with Leslie Lindballe (an Augustana alum), Bill Hackborn (Augustana faculty member), and Hans Asfeldt (President of the Augustana Students' Association) about deep learning, student engagement, the role of assessment, and the role of the instructor in promoting student learning. One of the ideas that struck me was raised by Hans which tried to make a distinction between making learning relevant to students vs learning giving meaning to students. It came about when Bill and I responded to Hans' desire for courses to have room for students to consider why they were learning. Both Bill and I gave examples from the courses we teach: how rates in math are important to most things in life (Bill being the mathematician) and I gave the example of how it is critical that the biochemistry of diabetes be understood so that people suffering a diabetic episode are not mistaken for alcoholics, placed in a cell and found dead the next morning. Hans nodded his head saying he understood how that supplied relevance for what was being learned, but that it did not necessarily provide meaning to the student. What did it mean to the student? Why was the student learning the material?

I am not sure I understand the distinction that Hans was trying to make, but I suspect that it goes to the heart of what I am trying to understand about student learning and what I want to change for students' learning. I want students to learn deeply so that what they learn in my biochemistry courses integrates with what students are learning elsewhere - both in the sciences and the arts. But supplying relevance of content for students may be insufficient to accomplish that. I think it helps, I think it gets students part way there, but I am not sure it gets to the depth of learning that I aspire for my students and I don't think it entirely speaks to Hans' desire for learning to be meaningful for students, not just relevant.

I am sure that this speaks to Weimer's advocacy for learner-centered teaching and to Ambrose et als understanding for how learning works. Both assert that for learning to be deep, students must engage with the material and make their own meaning. Students must integrate what they are learning with what they have previously learned. Students must construct their own knowledge and conceptual structure for learning to be meaningful. I think this speaks to both the cognitive and affective domain of Bloom's taxonomy of learning. Students must make a meaningful connection to what is being taught. Providing relevance is one way. But is it enough? Part of the problem for me, I think, is that I can encourage students to develop meaning but ultimately, students have to do it for themselves. As a teacher I cannot do it for them - I can only facilitate.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Memorize - Regurgitate - Purge

Yesterday I joined oCUBE in their online journal club to discuss a paper from CBE-LSE that discussed biology students' misconceptions about the central dogma of DNA being transcribed into RNA which is then translated into protein. It was rather shocking to read the confusion that many students displayed despite using the molecular jargon in the correct context. It seemed to me to be another case of students memorizing without understanding or memorize/regurgitate/purge which seems to be the typical learning cycle of many current students. What was interesting in the paper was students' misunderstanding that rather than DNA directing the synthesis of RNA, DNA was either chemically changed to RNA or that RNA existed before being transcribed and somehow interacted with DNA to produce protein. And that as biological educators we may be assuming too much when we use the notation of our discipline. Specifically, students confuse the meanings of arrows in chemistry and concept maps with the arrows used to indicate biological information transfer.

So, there is some biological jargon up there that will be of interest to the biology teachers reading this blog post. However, there are some observations here that are of interest to educators in general. One, is that before I teach, I need to assess what my students think they know about what I am about to teach. A number of teaching strategies do this, such as Just in Time Teaching and Team-Based Learning. I know this, but it was still eye-opening for me to consider how wrong I can be about what I assume from students' use of disciplinary jargon.

The other thing that I thought about during the discussion, was the need to decrease the amount of information we shovel down students throats without completely understanding the underlying concepts. This is something I have been thinking about this summer since reading Maryellen Weimer's 2013 edition of Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. In there, Weimer advocates for a change in how we view the content we teach in our classes. She doesn't want to do away with the content of our courses but she does want us to change our relationship with it as educators. Rather than teaching the content for the sake of the content, use the teaching of the disciplinary content as a vehicle to teach students transferable general education skills. For example, at the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta, thinking, researching, and communicating are the underlying gen ed skills implicit in our programs. How to make them explicit will be a future post.

I have long advocated that we cannot do away with the content in our courses and still do believe that - students need to know the language in order to think in the discipline. But I wonder if we need to give students the time, practice and guidance to also learn how to think and speak with the language of the content we teach them. This is what so attracts me to flipping the classroom using educational strategies such as Team-Based Learning. These teaching approaches have students interact with the content before coming to class where they can then practice using that language to solve problems while we guide them in their thinking. This doesn't mean we won't still need to explain some things to a class to clear up common misconceptions. But if what we desire is that our students will be able to think in the discipline then I think we need to construct a supportive educational environment in which students can practice rather than always leaving them on their own to do it as homework outside of class.

The other idea that came up for me was that perhaps we can pare back on the amount of content we deliver to our students by focusing on the threshold concepts of the discipline. The list of concepts list in the Vision and Change document may represent biological threshold concepts but I haven't heard of that list discussed in those terms. Here is one article that discusses evolution as a threshold concept. I'll have to investigate more and post back here what I find.

Finally, we also discussed during the journal club what may have changed since we were students. None of us ever remembered having this sort of difficulty when introduced to the central dogma of biology. Some of us suggested that we were simply particularly brilliant as students :) . Others thought, maybe we simply have bad memories of what it was like to learn this the first time. I wondered if maybe the way we assess is contributing to students' superficial learning. The prevalence of multiple choice exams may contribute to the memorize-regurgitate-purge learning cycle because in an effort to construct objective assessments, we construct our exams to test the lowest level of Bloom's learning taxanomy which is memory. This is something I struggle with. I appreciated hearing Eric Mazur speak at the STLHE conference in Kingston this past June and understand the need to make our assessments authentic and better mirror how students will use the knowledge after graduation. However, I still struggle to move past constructing an assessment that is easy to objectively grade by focusing on memory. But that is one of my challenges in becoming a better teacher.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

starting to blog

I have been trying to use Google+ as my blogging platform but have found that when I am reading blogs I prefer how they are presented in WordPress or Blogger. Since I already have a gmail account, I figured I would use the Google blogging platform. Over the next few days I will be copying my Google+ posts from the past year here into my blog.

Back to actively learning how to teach.....