By Doug Ward

If you want to find a quick answer to a question, where do you go?

Google, most likely.

If you want to help students from half a dozen disciplines understand how the elements of linear algebra apply to them, where do you go?

Again, Google. But this time, think outside the search box.

That’s one of the tricks Erik Van Vleck, a professor of math at KU, uses to help students learn linear algebra. Students in all disciplines use Google to search for information. Van Vleck pushes them to look at the search engine in mathematical terms, though, asking: “What does Google do when you put in search terms?”

Eigenvectors
The matrix transforms its eigenvectors (represented by the blue and violet arrows) to vectors pointing in the same direction. “Eigen” translates to “characteristic.” Interestingly, for a while after WWII, the use of “eigen” was replaced by “characteristic” in the British scientific literature. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

This semester, Van Vleck coordinates two dozen sections of Calculus I and teaches a freshman seminar in the computer age and computational mathematics. Students in the classes come from majors like biology, physics, engineering, computer science and, of course, mathematics. Each of those disciplines applies math to its own types of problems, but students need the same basic understanding of concepts like derivatives, matrices and eigenvectors.

To help students grasp those abstract concepts, Van Vleck looks for problems and examples that apply across disciplines.

“I’m trying to give them examples that everybody knows,” Van Vleck said.

That’s where Google comes in.

He gives students an article that explains how Google’s bots troll the web, gathering information about pages and determining how they are connected to one another. From there, Google’s computers construct matrices and eigenvectors that ultimately determine what shows up on the results page of a search.

Only Google’s engineers and computer scientists know all the elements of the company’s search algorithm. But by relating those abstractions to everyday life, Van Vleck not only engages students in problem solving but helps them learn better, as well.

“Part of my belief is that if people are comfortable with context, it’s easier to understand things,” Van Vleck said. “Abstraction is great, but often we map back to context we’re comfortable with or familiar with.”

Van Vleck learned this firsthand when he was a new faculty member. He and other recent mathematics Ph.D.s attended a seminar where they received equivalent mathematical problems. One of the problems was phrased abstractly, the other in terms of drinking beer.

You can guess where this is going.

“All the math Ph.D.s did better in the beer example because we could see how to solve the problem even though it was the same as the abstract problem,” Van Vleck said.

Van Vleck uses other techniques to help students learn, including a flipped approach in which he gives students pre-class assignments, builds on those assignments in class, and then has students follow up with related assignments out of class.

He has also boiled down a 400-page textbook to 20 pages of notes with hyperlinks to additional information for students who want to go beyond the essentials.

“If students can master those 20 pages,” he said, “they can pass the class.”

All of Van Vleck’s strategies are part of a pedagogical approach known as “just-in-time teaching,” which aims to make the most of classroom time by focusing on what students need most.

Here’s a link with more information about the just-in-time strategy.

You can also search Google, as long as you’ve done your math homework first.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Here’s my challenge for the week: Rearrange the furniture in your classroom.

Go ahead. Have students help you. Some may look at you quizzically, but they will soon understand.

If the room has tables, push them together and create collaborative clusters or arrange them in a U shape. If it has individual seats, get rid of the rows. Make it easier for students to see one another and to talk to one another. Make it easy for you to sit among them. Break down the hierarchies. Break down the barriers.

Classroom, no credit needed, sxc.hu
Photo via sxc.hu. Illustration by Doug Ward.

Are you with me? If not, ask yourself why. Yes, I know that some classrooms – especially the large ones – have fixed seats. I can’t help you there. But for everyone else, changing the layout of a room to promote learning should be part of the routine.

I’m not suggesting that everyone teach in the same way. I am asking whether you are teaching in a way that gives students the best opportunity to learn. I’m also asking whether you are letting the room determine how you teach. If so, how much is room design getting in your way? And why aren’t you doing something about it?

Surprises from a classroom

I’ve always been quick to rearrange the furniture in classrooms, sometimes to the annoyance of colleagues. Last semester, though, I found out just how big a difference room design can make.

I taught two sections of a 300-level lass called Infomania. For one section, I was lucky enough to teach in The Commons, a fabulous space in Spooner Hall with high ceilings, lots of windows, hardwood floors, and tables and chairs on wheels. Emily Ryan, coordinator of The Commons, helped create clusters of tables. Students brought their laptops and tablets, and they had lots of room to spread out and create their own learning spaces.

The other section of the class was in the Dole Human Development Center. It was a traditional classroom with rows of individual desks. It was crowded, stuffy and oppressive. Most of the students came into the room to sit and endure, not to learn. I had the students move their desks together, but that didn’t help much. The small room allowed little maneuverability, and the individual seats created a sense of isolation.

So I tried something. I talked with Emily and arranged for the class to meet three times in Spooner Hall. The change in student behavior was almost instantaneous. Those who had sat passively became engaged. Collaboration thrived. Conversations flowed. Ideas spilled out.

The dramatic change the room brought about surprised me, but it seemed to surprise the students even more. We talked about how a room configuration can lead to passivity, and how students have been trained to come to class, find a seat as far back as possible, and wait for someone at the front of the room to start talking to them – or at them.

Rethinking teaching as well as room design

The room isn’t the only guilty party in this pervasive passivity. Pedagogy plays a huge role. For far too long, instruction has focused on a one-way transmission of information. Teachers speak. Students listen and take notes. Change classes. Repeat. And yet room construction is an accomplice in all this, one that sets the scene and often sets the tone of a class.

Once my students realized this last semester, they repeatedly asked to move from the crowded classroom in Dole. I wasn’t able to find a substitute room at midsemester, so I began meeting with groups of students in Watson, Anschutz and Spencer libraries, in the Union and at the Underground instead. We still met occasionally for full-class discussion in the assigned classroom, but no more than we had to. The students and I recognized that the classroom was impeding their learning. It was best to stay away.

So back to my challenge: Rearrange the furniture in your classroom this week. It may not transform your class, but it will change the atmosphere. If that doesn’t work, try meeting somewhere else. Break the routine and eliminate the built-in passivity of traditional rows. It can make an enormous difference in learning.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

A session from an education conference I listened in on last week reminded me of the parallels between teaching and editing.

That might seem strange, but bear with me.

I used to commute on Amtrak between Philadelphia and New York City, where I worked at The New York Times. One afternoon, I sat next to a chatty woman who wanted to know all about my job as an editor. As the train sped through central New Jersey, I explained how editors scrutinize the work of others, raising questions, fixing errors, working out the kinks in articles, pushing reporters to provide better context and better phrasing, writing headlines, and completing innumerable other tasks that lead to the publication of a newspaper.

Clker.com
Clker.com

As the train pulled into Penn Station, she thanked me and said, “I’ll watch for your byline.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she wouldn’t find one. Editors work behind the scenes. They don’t get bylines.

That’s what I started to think about during the remote session from the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Those of us who teach know the myriad components that go into our jobs. Most people don’t realize that, though. They equate teaching with standing in front of a room just as they equate journalism with writing articles that get bylines.

Of course, ISSOTL, as the organization is known, has worked for the last decade to not only open up the teaching process, but to promote the importance of a scholarly approach to reflective teaching in higher education. Dan Bernstein, the director of CTE, has been at the forefront of using teaching portfolios to do that.

As participants at the conference made clear, though, we still have a long way to go. At research universities, especially, scholarly reflection on teaching has yet to achieve a meaningful place in the promotion and tenure process. Some professors see teaching as a necessary evil they must endure so they can concentrate on their research. Many faculty members who do value teaching find it difficult to open their work to scrutiny. Without a doubt, teaching is a far more personal activity than research, and the setbacks and failures feel far more personal.

Christina Hendricks, a senior instructor in philosophy at the University of British Columbia, raised that point in her session at ISSOTL. “Sometimes people don’t want to open up their teaching to discussion or peer evaluation,” she said. “It’s as if it’s OK to open up your research to peer review but not your teaching.”

She had been keeping a journal to reflect on teaching and learning, she said, and at one point thought, ” ‘Why not do it in a way that other people can see?’ ” The result was a blog called You’re the Teacher, in which she reflects on her teaching of undergraduates, and writes about issues related to the scholarship of teaching and learning, among other things.

We’re hoping to do similar things with Bloom’s Sixth. We see enormous value in discussing our successes and failures in the classroom, sharing ideas about teaching and learning, raising the profile of high-quality teaching in higher education, and approaching teaching in the same reflective, meaningful way we do scholarship.

Another ISSOTL speaker, whose name was lost in the remote connection last week, offered a useful challenge, saying, “We don’t talk enough about the exciting things we do. We need to turn the narrative of teaching into a narrative of growth.”

Without a doubt, we need to do a better job of explaining what we do and of encouraging colleagues to join us in a journey of scholarly reflection and a deeper understanding of what helps our students learn.

As I discovered in trying to explain editing, though, true understanding will require far more than a single conversation.

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward
Several faculty members and graduate students from KU attended this year’s conference of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. I wasn’t able to go, though I did listen in on a few of the sessions remotely. I’ve collected tweets and videos into a Storify presentation that shows some of the thinking, conversations and approaches of the convention and the society.

By Doug Ward

Lecturing as an educational form emerged at a time of scarce information and oral culture. It’s a top-down method of conveying information that under the right circumstances can be quite effective, especially at motivating listeners.Teaching matters cover_Page_1

For many students, though, the lecture can seem like more of an endurance test than a learning experience. In a world of abundant information, lecturing is usually not the best method to help students learn. Many faculty members have long suspected as much, and research has been bearing that out.

The latest edition of Teaching Matters from the Center for Teaching Excellence looks at a movement at KU to shift away from traditional lecture. Among the articles you’ll find:

  • Judy Eddy on KU’s efforts to provide deeper learning for students
  • Dan Bernstein on the challenges of changing the culture of teaching
  • Bob Goldstein and Ann Martinez on a new program that is using post-doctoral researchers to help faculty members transform gateway courses
  • Andrea Greenhoot on a new community of faculty members, graduate assistants and postdocs working across disciplines to improve KU courses

Look for Teaching Matters in your campus mailbox. You can also find it online at the CTE website.

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.