Previous month:
February 2019
Next month:
April 2019

March 2019

How-To: Orchestrating Active Learning in a Less-Than-Ideal Environment


By Stacy Palen

Somehow or other, classroom architects in the 1960s, 1970s, and as far along as the 2010s did not get the memo that instructors would sometimes want students to work together on projects. It’s a mystery. Even in our two-year-old science building, the lecture halls are set up for presenting to large groups. This is fine, but presents a challenge when I want to have students collaborate.

Often, I’ll put students in groups of two for brief discussion on things such as clicker questions or to work through a worksheet. “Groups” of two are easy to accomplish. But sometimes, we just need more room, either to work in groups of three or four, or to work with “manipulables” like paper moons or large maps.

When this happens, I need an advance plan. Typically, I will need about twice as much space as I have in the seating area of the lecture hall. I’ll look for space in the front or back of the lecture hall, and down the stairs on either side of banks of chairs, and estimate how many groups of 3–4 I can fit in those areas. I will scout out nearby alternative locations for students to work, like a stairwell, outdoor retaining wall, or atrium. Sometimes there are groups of chairs at the end of a hallway, or benches outside the classroom.

At the beginning of class, I’ll spend a few minutes on the typical introduction to the activity and the material, and then I’ll invite the students to spread themselves out to work in the spaces I’ve designated. About a third of them stay in the seating area of the lecture hall, turning backwards and kneeling in their chairs to work with the people behind them. The rest move out into the larger spaces and form into small groups.

I spend the rest of the time walking through those spaces: interrupting groups who’ve gone off track, or who aren’t making progress, gently nudging students to ask better questions and suggesting that student X take a turn holding the paper “Moon.”

It sounds like chaos, but it actually works out very well. One unexpected benefit is that I am harder to find. This means that students must struggle on their own a bit longer before they can ask me for help. Often, that little bit of “extra” time lets them solve their own problem.

I’ve never had a student complain about this, nor have I heard from the professors teaching in neighboring classrooms that it has been in any way disruptive. Sometimes, they just shut their door.

I have, on occasion, had students who are wheelchair users or whose mobility is restricted in some other way, and so I make certain to keep an eye out for any obstacles to group inclusion, physical or otherwise. Most always find a group without issue, but I do keep an eye on the situation, just in case.

Possibly the most common question I get asked about active learning is, “How can I do this in a lecture hall?” Depending on the individual situation, it may be difficult. But take a look around—often you might find you can “rent” a little space outside the confines of the lecture hall for the fun activities you want to do!

How-to: Learning is a Social Phenomenon

Books-classroom-close-up-289737 (1)

By Stacy Palen

As I mentioned in the last post, David Brooks recently collated several different studies of teaching and learning into an Op-Ed for the New York Times titled “Students Learn From People They Love.” Two paragraphs of this article particularly caught my attention; one about brain activity in a group, which I discussed in my last post, and the subject of this week’s post about in-person vs video teaching.

Brooks states in his article:

Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington has shown that the social brain pervades every learning process. She gave infants Chinese lessons. Some infants took face-to-face lessons with a tutor. Their social brain was activated through direct eye contact and such, and they learned Chinese sounds at an amazing clip. Others watched the same lessons through a video screen. They paid rapt attention, but learned nothing.

This study reminded me of a welding course I took last year, in which the welding instructors were testing two different ways to teach welding.

The first method used real-time feedback from a computer/robot setup, which had lights and sounds to let you know when you moved the welding tip too fast or too slow. The second used a more traditional combination of videos and live instruction. I was in the second group.

I found that I could watch the instructor do something once, and then feel competent to try it myself. While my hand-eye coordination needed development, and I couldn’t necessarily make the weld as smoothly as I wanted, I easily remembered the series of steps required.

But if I was learning by video, I had to watch the video multiple times, and once I even had to stop in the middle of a weld to remember how to do what came next (turn a corner, as I recall).

I did not get to participate with the “robot teacher” but heard later that it was not as effective as the live instruction.

Students came to rely on the robot feedback rather than actually training their own eye. They made great welds as long as the robot was there to continuously correct them. But the students did not make the next step to being able to determine on their own that a correction was needed.

That’s interesting, it implies that correction alone will not help a student to identify their mistakes, even in real time; something more is required.

In another recent experience at a “meet the candidate” event for people running for local school board, a member of the public asked me why public education has not taken greater advantage of internet-based learning to keep costs down. His premise was, in my opinion, faulty in two ways.

First, education has taken advantage of the internet more than most fields.

Second, as I stated at the time, if the internet was going to replace teachers, then books would have done so, or television, or DVDs.

But we’ve all had the experience of watching the TV show or the video, and then being completely unable to repeat the task on our own. In fact, there’s a whole new series of “nailed it” shows that poke fun at this very human experience.

Clearly, some things can be learned from watching, and some by reading. But other things need to be learned by doing, and they are learned faster and more effectively with a person who can show you how. Research into learning and neuroscience is beginning to figure out why, and it’s fascinating!

How-to: Learning Relies on Soft Skills


By Stacy Palen

David Brooks recently collated several different studies of teaching and learning into an Op-Ed for the New York Times titled “Students Learn From People They Love.” Two paragraphs of this article particularly caught my attention, one about in-person vs video teaching, and one about brain activity in a group. I’ll talk about each one separately, in this and the next post.

In the article, Brooks writes, “Suzanne Dikker of New York University has shown that when classes are going well, the student brain activity synchronizes with the teacher’s brain activity. In good times and bad, good teachers and good students co-regulate each other.”

This one caught my attention because I’m not at all sure what “synchronized brain activity” means. It sounds a little…unscientific.

But when I think about it more, I’m pretty sure I have a guess about what it feels like. I bet you do too.

We’ve all been in a classroom where the professor and the students were all working toward a common purpose, and we felt like the professor knew our questions before we could articulate them. Even hard things seemed approachable, because the professor was keyed in to our confusions. We would work extra-hard to please those teachers, and it paid off with faster and deeper learning.

On the other side of the desk, we’ve all had those students who helped clarify for us the confusion in the classroom. For better or worse, there’s sometimes that one kid who seems to respond to what we are saying just a little bit quicker. And when her eyebrows furrow, we pause and back up and try to explain again.

This sometimes extends to an entire classroom of students. I’ve had back-to-back classes in which the classroom vibe was completely different. In one hour, the group was chatty and involved and asked questions and was prepared each day. And the next hour, it felt like pulling teeth just to get them to actually push a button to answer clicker questions.

But all of this is very “fuzzy,” and that makes us uncomfortable. We would love to have a concrete set of steps to take so that if we want to improve student outcomes by 7.3%, we can simply invoke 20% more clicker questions in the classroom, and the student outcomes would improve accordingly. But if that were true, we would all be teaching perfectly already. It cannot possibly be so formulaic or teaching astronomy would be done by reading the cookbook.

Be reassured by the burgeoning research that learning is a social experience. It’s an interaction and therefore, each teacher-student pair does it differently. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you. And what works for you with student X won’t necessarily work with student Y. And even what works with student X for topic A won’t necessarily work for topic B!

This can be frustrating, but it also makes teaching fun and exciting. Teaching is a giant research experiment, where you are always trying something new, to see how it works. Not because there is one right answer, but because there are a hundred right answers, and matching up the method to the topic and the interaction is a subtle art.

The elephant in the room, of course, is evaluation. Brooks points out:

The bottom line is this, a defining question for any school or company is: What is the quality of the emotional relationships here?

And yet think about your own school or organization. Do you have a metric for measuring relationship quality? Do you have teams reviewing relationship quality? Do you know where relationships are good and where they are bad? How many recent ed reform trends have been about relationship-building?

In my experience, the answer to all of these questions is no because it’s really hard to measure these “soft skills,” like relationship building and communication. It’s much easier to measure changes in learning that are made by a change of specific instructional techniques than those that rely on interpersonal relationships between a teacher and their students.

So then the very best answer is to try things, all the time, to find the set of techniques that work best for you in your classroom with your students. And then sit down at the end of term and write down your thoughts for your evaluation file.

Explain what you tried, and why you think it worked or didn’t work, whether you’d try it again, and what you’d change. Your teaching will only benefit from the moment of reflection, and I suspect the committee that evaluates your work will too.

Classroom Resources: Astronomy in Action- Angular Momentum

Stacy Palen has created 23 videos on key topics to accompany her textbooks, Understanding Our Universe and 21st Century Astronomy, that instructors can assign as pre-class activities or show in class. A mixture of live demos and mini lectures, these videos explain key concepts in an understandable and compelling way. In the angular momentum video, Stacy stands on the “rotating platform of doom” and is given a small shove with outstretched arms, and then brings those arms in close to her body to demonstrate the conservation of angular momentum. Watch the video below and let us know what types of live demos you do in class!

How-To: Confronting Gender Bias in the Sciences

Girl Stars1

By Stacy Palen

The article from Nature Ecology & Evolution, How the Entire Scientific Community Can Confront Gender Bias in the Workplace, came across my screen recently, and it occurred to me that many astronomy professors might not see it…

I find that while evidence of gender bias is well-documented, approaches to changing that bias are harder to come by. Near the end, this article provides some scientifically-minded suggestions for tackling the gender bias problem that we may all find helpful. It’s important to note that this article is coming from the biological sciences, which statistically have a smaller gender bias problem than the physical sciences.

As I read the piece, I was reminded of a particularly formative interaction I had as a young scientist. When I interviewed at graduate schools, I talked to lots of professors of both physics and astronomy, since I hadn’t yet decided how I would specialize.

As an undergraduate, I had taken one subpar introductory astronomy course which didn’t make the field seem very appealing—the class primarily focused on memorizing which stars were in which constellations that were visible at what times of the year. (There was also a lot of talk about epicycles, which took me nearly two years to eradicate from my brain, in order to make room for ellipses.) So astronomy was on my radar, but only peripherally. At the time, it seemed to me that something closer to industry might be a wiser choice.

During a visit, one professor made an off-hand comment that would alter the trajectory of my life: “Of course,” he said, “there are lots of women heroes in astronomy…” And that was it. In that moment, I decided I wanted to find out more about those women heroes, and the obvious way to do that was to specialize in astronomy and astrophysics.

Go figure. Sometimes the smallest, most insignificant interactions can change a life…

I’m positive that this professor doesn’t remember the interaction. I know this because I later asked if he remembered my visit (for another reason), and he didn’t recall it. I don’t blame him—I too have had former students say to me, “You said this one thing, one time, that changed my life…” and had absolutely no recollection of it. It’s difficult to know how our most off-hand interactions affect other people.

Lately, I’ve been trying an experiment in which I include more women and minority scientists in my classes but do NOT make a big deal of pointing them out; instead, I just mention them casually, as though it happens all the time. I’m interested to see how this affects my students in the future.

I'll have the luxury of interacting with some of these students again in later years, both in other classes in the department and across campus. And I’ll probably devise some sneaky way of asking a question on a homework or exam to find out if they noticed. I’ll let you know how it goes…