By Stacy Palen
I remember when I was in school, things would occasionally go badly, or at least unexpectedly, and a teacher would often say “It’s a learning experience; it builds character!”
Well. Here we are in the midst of a global pandemic, building character all over the place!
My university is in finals week, and I’ve just finished grading my astronomy exams for both Astro101 and the Junior level cosmology class.
It’s a good time to reflect on a few things.
First, I started with the driving directive that I would “do no harm.” I took note of the scores for each student when we were all sent home and decided that this would be the lowest grade that the student could earn. I felt that this was only fair since an online class is not the same experience at all. If they had wanted an online class, they would have signed up for one!
As it turns out, about 75% of the students improved their score (some only slightly), while 15% of their scores dropped only slightly—not enough to matter in the final letter grade. That left me with a handful of students (10%) who reverted to their earlier score. These were clearly students who eventually stopped handing things in altogether; a couple of them let me know their very good reasons for doing so.
I think those results are interesting and would love to know if others had similar results in their classes!
Second, what an amazing opportunity this is to identify which things students can learn just by reading, and which things students need real live instruction in order to learn! Maybe I would call this “learning by conversation” to distinguish it from Learning by Doing. We were sent home right at the transition from the Solar System to stars, so all of stars, galaxies, and cosmology was carried out by asynchronous online instruction. I noticed the following in my Astro101 exams:
- My students basically understand the H-R diagram; they can add new stars to it and identify regions and stellar properties like temperature. However, they do not understand evolutionary tracks, and the misconception about stars evolving ALONG the main sequence remains, even though it is explicitly addressed in the text. I do not have this problem when I teach the topic “live.”
- Special and general relativity are full of misconceptions. It seems as though reading about it reinforces what they already think is true, even if what they are reading is actually saying the opposite of what they already think. They miss the subtleties and re-interpret the text to match what’s already in their heads from Star Trek or wherever. For these topics, they absolutely need to have someone see their foreheads crinkle in confusion and give them the chance to ask questions as they have them.
- Every misconception about the expanding universe is still there, even though the text tries hard to counter this. And the videos. And the simulations. This is fascinating. These misconceptions persist in part because we didn’t get to do the hands-on “balloon universe” activity (can your students find balloons in their house? I don’t have any). But partly, it’s because they don’t get to hear someone ask the question “but if everything’s going away, doesn’t that mean there has to be a center?” and get the answer 8 or 10 times in a class period.
I’m sure there will be more examples as I process, and think about how to learn what I can from this unplanned experiment. I’d love to hear what you are noticing about this idea of “learning by conversation.” It will help me think about tools to develop over the summer in case we are all teaching and learning online again in the Fall.