Best Teaching Practices

Happy Easter holiday to all. The Easter Bunny in the form of our provost recently informed faculty about an an online guide to best teaching practices, published by the Office of Academic Affairs at the City University of New York. The document is also available as a PDF download at the same webpage.

The guide consists of recommendations broken down into three categories: presentation of materials, student assignment and testing, and strategies that students can use to enhance learning. Clicking on any single recommendation brings up a corresponding description of practices and relevant references. It’s all very user-friendly, concise, and practical.

Rocket Pitch

I’ve decided to use an exercise that I witnessed at the NEGMA conference on innovation — the rocket pitch. At the conference, competitors for venture capital had three minutes each to sell their ideas to the audience, who voted for their favorites using play Monopoly money.

I’m going to try this in my comparative politics course. Students have already given three group presentations in class. They’ve gone fairly well but sometimes their content has been fairly similar and I can sense students losing interest. For the remaining three presentations required of each group, there will be an element of competition. On days that presentations are scheduled, each student will be given a $10, a $20, and a $50 bill. Each group will have four minutes to present, with three minutes to respond to questions. After all groups have presented, I will call members of each group to the front of the room to individually vote on their favorites using the money (I’m thinking of simply laying down sheets of paper on a table, labeled “Group 1,” “Group 2,” etc., so students can see money piling up.)

I’ve informed students that they can distribute the money however they want, except that voting for their own group is prohibited. Members of the group that receives the largest sum of money will have two points added to their final average.

For those who are interested, this webpage has links to free print-your-own money.

Live from the 1st Annual NEGMA Conference @ MIT Media Lab

I’m sitting in a large 6th floor room of the MIT Media Lab at the 1st Annual NEGMA Conference, “Innovative Solutions for a Brighter Egypt.” The conference is an application of active learning principles.

The conference is in part designed to support entrepreneurship, innovation, and social development in Egypt. Ten finalists, selected through an outside expert review process, are competing to have their projects funded by NEGMA’s supporters. Project proposals range from equipping small digital fabrication labs to vocational training for the disabled.

So far I’ve gotten three main lessons from the conference. First, when large sums of money are at stake, presentation skills are crucial. Earlier today competitors were required to pitch their proposals to conference attendees, who then voted on their favorites. People who botched their presentations were left at a distinct disadvantage.

Second, collaboration with peers has value. After the presentations, projects were workshopped among conference participants in small groups — in a process that’s very similar to what happens at the APSA’s Teaching and Learning Conference. The finalists’ project proposals were strengthened for tomorrow’s presentations before judges.

The third lesson is that the unbundling of higher education will continue apace, whether we like or not. The traditional four-year, full-time, residential model of undergraduate education is dead. The technology of the internet is indeed making it possible for anyone to learn anything at anytime from anyone. As stated this morning by Wael Fakharany, Google’s regional director for Egypt and North Africa, every minute sixty hours of video are uploaded onto YouTube. Every day, 30 million devices connect to the internet in Egypt alone. Globally, Google handles 4 billion searches daily. This digital landscape is how people around the world will be accessing affordable and effective education — even in areas like vocational training.

Project-Based Learning

While stumbling around the interweb yesterday, I happened upon an excellent teacher’s guide to project-based learning.  This guide developed out of a partnership between High Tech High (a network of non-selective public charter schools in San Diego), the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and the UK’s Innovation Unit.

The guide explains in step-by-step fashion how students can execute a project tailored to most any learning outcome established by the instructor. Because the project has relevance to the students, they become invested in both the process and the outcome, and they take more “ownership” of their learning than they otherwise would.

Projects are scaffolded around multiple drafts, critiques, and a public exhibition. Most importantly, the instructor begins the design process by identifying what he or she expects students to learn from doing the project before determining whether or not each student has actually learned. To determine whether students are meeting intended learning goals, assessment occurs at several points throughout the project, rather than at only at the end after the project has been completed. The guide recommends that students’ work be  assessed in different ways:

  • by the student, in exercises of self-reflection,
  • by peers, to foster effective collaboration and to make it easier for the instructor to assess individuals within a group,
  • by the instructor, using the same methods that an instructor uses in in any other context,
  • by an outside expert or audience, as part of the project’s public exhibition.

Crowd-Sourced Studying

Similar to Simon’s experience with the MCQ exam, students typically formed groups and divided the questions among members when doing my take-out quizzes and the connections exercise last semester, but they failed to verify that each other’s answers were correct. This semester, students in my comparative politics course are forming study groups on their own time but blindly accepting their peers’ output, because I can see the same incorrect answers propagating across the exams of multiple students.

To me this is extremely inefficient, especially considering the extrinsic grade-based motivation of most of my students, and I wonder why it happens.  Are students using a rational choice model in which the cost of verifying that an answer is correct is higher than the chance that the answer they’ve been given is wrong? Would reducing the exam to a single question, where students would either score 100 or 0, alter their behavior?

I’m reminded of what I just read in Revolution 2.0, by Wael Ghonim. A Facebook page that he created was instrumental in launching the Egyptian revolution. As part of his strategy to build a sense of community among readers and get them to participate in events, he frequently conducted online polls. Perhaps getting students to survey themselves — across the entire class rather than just within a study circle — would enable them to detect erroneous answers.

I’m also reminded that the organizational behavior of many universities is often not a good model for the kind of collaboration we want to promote among students. It can be very difficult to get faculty, staff, and administrators to communicate across institutional units and exchange information.

More Thoughts On Presentations

If students are presenting on a text, I require them to at minimum identify:

– the topic of the text.

– the thesis of the text, and locate where in the text it is stated by the text’s author.

– how the author uses sources, not simply in the manner of copy and paste, but as part of a dialogue with others.

Students usually meet the first two requirements fairly easily, but occasionally stumble on the third. I advise students to try to answer the question “What message is the author trying to get across about her or his work in relations to that of others?”

If the historical or academic setting of a text is unfamiliar to students (and most are), I ask them to include some type of dramatis personae in their presentations. I want them to elaborate on how the people or ideas discussed in the text connect to each other and to specific places and/or times that may be implicitly or explicitly referenced within it.

Presentations in the Inverted Classroom

Interesting that the subject of student presentations has come up. Despite providing students with detailed instructions, exemplars, and advice, presentations were usually so excruciating that I simply stopped making them part of my courses.

This semester I’ve reintroduced them in my comparative politics course, which, accidentally-by-design, became an inverted classroom. I’m assuming many readers of this blog have heard of inverted classrooms — substituting activities in which student critique their own reasoning and that of others for the traditional “me talk, you listen” lecture. My problem was figuring out activities that would consume enough class time. So I decided to turn the close reading of texts, which I had used before as an individual activity, into group presentations.

Here are the directions for the presentations, somewhat condensed:

You and your group will be examining texts in detail and presenting your findings to the rest of the class. These close reading exercises are opportunities to train yourself to be a more thoughtful and efficient reader and to improve your communication skills. For each presentation, at least two members of the group will need to:  

1. Select a paragraph from the reading assignment and analyze its structure as follows:

    1. Identify the paragraph’s topic statement
    2. Explain the topic statement
    3. Identify ideas/evidence used by the author to support the topic statement 

2. Make references to the following characteristics of the paragraph being analyzed:

    1. WHO is the author addressing? WHO does the author imply he or she is, and who readers are?
    2. In both literal (the physical and historical universe) and textual (the storyline) terms, WHERE and WHEN is the paragraph set? Is there a difference between the literal and textual settings? If so, what is the effect of this difference?
    3. WHY did the author construct the paragraph in the particular way that it is constructed?
    4. WHAT mathematical or logical patterns exist in the paragraph? WHAT are the meanings conveyed by these relationships?

Because the class has seven groups of four students each, and each group presents a total five times during the semester. I get to completely avoid lecturing on the days that presentations are scheduled. Instead there is a fairly rapid sequence of different people talking at the front of the room interspersed with Q & A discussions between presenters, the rest of  the class, and myself. Students get multiple, low-stakes opportunities to practice their presentation skills, and I get to avoid a week or two of torture at the end of the semester.  

I can email the complete directions for the above exercise to anyone who wants them.

Waffle Shopping and James Franco

Two minor personal takeaways from this year’s Simulations & Role Play II track at the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference:

The James Franco Effect:

When students fail to demonstrate as much learning as expected because the instructor is not James Franco.

Waffle Shopping:

Deliberately engaging in an activity or behavior in which the outcome is unpredictable and the risk of failure exists.

While the James Franco Effect is fairly self-explanatory, Waffle Shopping is not. As readers of this blog know, I believe being able to make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of knowledge is fundamental to learning. I personally find that I am most often able to make connections when I am cognitively prepared to encounter the unexpected. Since I started attending Teaching and Learning Conferences several years ago, I’ve made a point of sampling local restaurants that are often off the beaten track. This entails embracing a certain level of risk — any restaurant might be much worse than expected, and I might fail myself and others by choosing an obscure restaurant that is obscure for a very good reason.

This year I ate breakfast at the Waffle Shop, a nearby diner located by Dr. Amanda Rosen. While walking there, hoping for a plate of tasty waffles but ready to encounter a horrible meal, I noticed a building with an ornate facade containing a retail clothing store. I continued round the corner, and saw a “Woodward & Lothrop” sign on the side of the building. I realized that this was the site of the now-defunct Woodward & Lothrop that my father worked at a half-century ago, on the day that JFK was assassinated. Continuing down the street, I noticed that I was passing Ford’s Theater, made famous by John Wilkes Booth.

This is a simple illustration of the fact that opportunities for creative thinking often involve embracing risk, and that failure — whether as a possibility or an actual outcome — is a useful learning tool.

Pain: The Ultimate Teacher

My father, a former drill instructor in the USMC, once told me that he’d stomp on a recruit’s foot to teach him right from left — “your right foot is the one that hurts.” Last night in an aikido class I accidentally got hit in the throat. Today I can talk, but it hurts. I can’t project my voice like I usually do. So in class this morning I decided not to talk at all.

Students had already generated a list questions on the course’s website from reflecting in writing on previous class discussions, and I wanted the next exam to be an exercise in learning in addition to the usual one of evaluation. At the beginning of class, I displayed the following instructions on the big screen:

  1. Form groups of 4.
  2. Choose the question from the list that your group thinks is most interesting.
  3. Revise it if needed so that it is concise and can be applied to the readings.
  4. Prepare an explanation for why the question should be included on the next exam.
  5. Each group will briefly present its question and explanation.
  6. The class will vote on whether each question should be on the next exam.

I expected discussion to break out between groups on the relative merits of each group’s question, but this didn’t happen — perhaps because students felt that voting gave them sufficient influence over the outcome. I was pleased though that a couple of the questions that I thought were most perceptive received high numbers of votes. This means part of the work in creating the next exam is already done.

You will actively learn . . .

Multi-Tasking With Reflection

Most of us would agree that reflection is an important part of the learning process. The hard part about reflective exercises is making students think about course content rather than their feelings about it.

One of my colleagues in philosophy uses an exercise that I’ve adapted for a course I’m teaching now. Five times during the semester students write a one-page reflection on previous reading assignments and class discussions. Students can attempt to clarify a particular point made in class, critique someone else’s point, wonder about the implications of a particular idea, or consider the relationship between one author’s writing and another. Students must raise a question (or questions) as part of each paper.  These questions can go in the direction of the individual student’s choosing, but they should be clear, concise, and original.

Here’s where things get interesting: students post their questions online for review by their peers. The questions that are regarded as the “best” (however defined) by the students are used for additional classroom debate. The process of reflection moves from being solely internal (where I am the only other person who learns what a student is thinking) to being shared and evaluated among peers. At the same time, students are generating a bank of exam questions that I can draw from. If the questions I include on an exam have already been discussed, there’s no need for me to set aside additional class time for an exam review session.

Perseus prepares to engage Medusa in a self-reflection exercise . . .