Friday, July 8, 2016

The Teaching Methodology Hamster Wheel. A Friday Thirsty From Pissed Pumpkin.

Every batch of students is different, right? So the thing that worked last semester might not work this time 'round. And I've been at the job less than four years, so I'm still looking for that magical style which will enable the largest number of students to learn while not turning me prematurely gray.

During my first summer my department sent me to a week-long workshop on using the newest, research supported techniques in Quantitative Hamsterology Education Research (QHER). This was after a couple of mentors pointed me at some books on the subject, so I didn't go in totally unprepared.

I cast a cynical eye over the offerings, compared the preparations needed to the time available in my week and cobbled together a combination of old-fashioned delivery and a sprinkling of QHER techniques and waded back into the fray.

The first semester was a little rocky, but after some tuning the next semester and the following summer went pretty well. I felt like I had my feet under me, and could fine-tune my way to tenure.

By the sixth week last fall it was clear that things had gone horribly wrong. Two-thirds of the class failed the third test (high-frequency evaluation and rapid feedback are a QHER technique, y'all!). From the few who came to my office hours and the exam responses I knew where I had lost them.
  • I re-arranged the rest of the semester to give some class time to the recovery.
  • I scheduled two out-of-class study sessions per week for three weeks to provide a structured time for re-teaching.
  • I wrote extensive worksheets to use at the study sessions and made them available via email for students who couldn't come due to scheduling conflicts.
And, for the most part we made up the lost ground. The coverage of the second half of the semester was a little weak owing to a lack of time, but they had gotten the really important stuff from the first third. And I took a possible lesson from this: treating them like primary school students can help with core skills.

The next semester I used some worksheets to hammer home certain lessons that I knew to be stumbling blocks, and it worked. So, for this summer I decided to make more extensive use of structured practice activities to teach core skills; I had a worksheet (or two!) for almost every one of our long summer classes. I roamed the classroom spotting places where a group was going astray here, shoring up weak comprehension there, helping them to generalize in another place.

The first three exams were disastrous.

The students haven't been mastering the skills on the worksheets. They appear to have been treating them as busy work to be gotten out of the way and of no importance to the course. So, once again I am scrambling to re-organize emphasis for the rest of the term. More practice on those core skills for the next few weeks, which means for the rest of the term I'll have to devote more time to the principles that we're suppose to be mastering during these weeks, which means the second half is going to be a little weak. Again.

New lesson: the students have to <i>care</i> about the worksheets before they get enough out of them. It worked that first time because the class was scared by their performance on the first exams and they were grateful for a chance to catch up. It worked the second time because these were many of the same students from the first time. Going forward I need to make more sparing use of in-class practice tasks and really lean on their importance. Maybe provide some examples at the end of the worksheets?

Q: What is your single best method for helping them learn?


  1. Pumpkin, it sounds like you're not only doing the right things, you're going above and beyond. But there's only so much we can do. Just in case you're not feeling powerless enough, have a look at this study (non-paywalled summary), on the relationship between genetic variants and life outcomes, including college completion. Cassandra brought up the Parable of the Sower, which I thought was (as always) wise and apt.

    But I'm rambling now, and not addressing your question. So here's my answer: Like you, I do the frequent testing and feedback. When I have a manageable-sized class I can do weekly scaffolded writing assignments. I still use big words, but I translate myself as I go. And because management is a very applied subject, I can keep bringing the discussion back to "here's why this matters to you," "here's why you should care about this," and "here's how you can avoid getting fired/sued/arrested."

    1. I know you're not advocating this genetic study, Frankie, but Jeez Louise, am I starting to loathe the 21st century. We were supposed to have cool stuff, like Moon colonies and jet belts, but this genetic study looks like something Cecil Rhodes would have thought up.

  2. Pumpkin: Your experience sounds like what happened with teaching machines in the ‘60s, programmed instruction in the '70s, educational television in the '80s, peer instruction in the ‘90s, and online instruction and MOOCs more recently, not to mention correspondence courses by postal mail decades earlier. All these new, revolutionary techniques were loudly proclaimed (often by vendors) to make teaching so much more effective and so easy—and yet, the students just don’t seem to take them seriously. It’s as if the students are waiting for the real course to begin.

    This is why I stick with teacher-centered instruction, as advocated by Jeanne S. Chall in “The Academic Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom.” I make it a point to keep current in what I’m teaching, put some life into it (some would call that “convey enthusiasm,” but then that’s not hard for me), always bring carefully prepared notes, go in there, tell them what I know. I don’t allow electronics in the classroom, other than calculators: I remind my students to copy everything I write on the board onto paper, since that way one can’t help have it go through one’s brain at least once. I then assign weekly reading assignments, and problem sets, to be written down on paper and turned in to me next week.

    Keep in mind, I teach physics, the mathematical nature of which lends itself to this approach. I often bring physical demos to class, not all of which help students learn, but one gets a sense of this through trial and error. I also desperately wish I could be more effective—I dearly wish my students could learn more—but now, 18 years in, I am reasonably sure I am doing the best I possibly can do. I know for CERTAIN it is a WHOLE lot better than what I got as a student, but that was rather a low bar to clear.

    Some subjects can be taught better by discussion. Those literature and philosophy classes I took at the quasi-Ivy I attended as an undergrad were great, but almost all the students there did the readings , sometimes even before class. My students at Fresno State simply will not, no matter what the carrot or the stick. It’s scandalous that it took me so many years to figure this out: if there’s anything the education school does well, it is convey optimism, even when blatantly conflicts with reality.

    Still, this is why I say: if you can make these “new” techniques work (which aren’t so new: Bertrand Russell’s teachers took to lying to him, when the workload of implementing student-centered techniques became too time-consuming), more power to you. I never could, though. Don’t forget to be active in research, meaning bring in external funding and publish, preferably with student co-authors: that’s more important for tenure nearly everywhere, one reason being it’s easier for higher-ups to measure.

  3. I'll have to think about my "single best method" (there's lots of scaffolding, and I think it works, though sometimes I wonder, and I'm also drowning in grading; as Frankie points out, a lot of best practices are dependent on reasonable class sizes/course loads).

    But your experience points to something I'm *not* very good at: the whole business of scripting/shaping the social experience of the class. I, too, would start doing something that worked one semester earlier the next semester, but it seems that sometimes you have to let them work without a net for a while, and fall, before they appreciate the net. I both resent and am not good at that kind of "shaping the experience" stuff. I much prefer transparency. But sometimes manipulation (within reasonable limits) works. Ugh.

  4. Although they are technically adults, they are not very good at it (they just started, after all). Your comment about treating them like primary school students is appropriate. The skills used to teach children apply to all people, more or less.

    Keep in mind that students in spring, summer, and fall are different, even when you teach the same class. Summer students may have failed the class or its pre-reqs so they are of a lower quality than students who take the course at its regularly scheduled term.

  5. I offer to pay them five dollars if they find an error in my grading. Not so amazingly, this leads many more students to actually reevaluate what they've written on tests and other assignments, rather than just look at the grade. And a few times when students have discovered that I gave them credit for wrong stuff, they got to engage in a debate with me (and themselves) about whether they should sacrifice the higher grade for the $5. For some students, $5 isn't much; for others, it is food for a day. In either case, they mainly appreciate being able to brag that they got $5 out of me because they were right and I was wrong.