By Doug Ward

Bozenna Pasik-Duncan specializes in a branch of probability theory called stochastic systems, which views problems through a lens of randomness.

She teaches courses in that area, as well as in subjects like applied statistics, linear algebra and optimization theory.

When faced with a high dropout and failure rate among students in a large 100-level calculus class, though, Pasik-Duncan found a solution in a distinctively humanistic equation: She created a sense of community.

Her methods offer an excellent example of how cooperation among students and instructors can improve learning – and help everyone make friends along the way.

The calculus class that posed the challenge for Pasik-Duncan was Math 121, a 500-person class with several lab sections. In a typical semester, 30 percent or more of the students who enroll eventually withdraw or receive a D or an F. In university parlance, that’s known as the DFW rate, a statistic that administrators follow closely.

individuals gathered around globe representing community
Colinda, Open Clip Art Library

To address that problem, Pasik-Duncan urged collaboration from the first day of class. Everyone was expected to collaborate: the instructor, the teaching assistants and the students.

Collaboration was just the beginning, though. She promoted the idea of “C to the power of five”: collaboration, community, connection, curiosity, and connectivity.

“Always interpret,” she told students. “Always question. Why, why, why, why do I need to know that?”

About a quarter of the students in the class struggled with concepts like derivatives, domains, integrals and arc lengths. A quarter of the students, many of them from outside the United States, excelled at calculus. So Pasik-Duncan struck a deal. She asked for volunteers to help the struggling students and said she would write letters explaining their role in helping others succeed.

“We’re a community. Let’s help each other,” Pasik-Duncan told students. “At this moment, you need my help. Next semester, I may need your help.”

Students loved it, she said. Not only did they make connections among concepts in the classroom, but they made connections with other students. The DFW rate in her class fell to less than 14 percent, less than half the typical rate.

And not only did the struggling students improve in math, but the international students who struggled with English found that the one-on-one interactions with fellow students helped them improve their language skills.

“I consider this a beautiful thing,” Pasik-Duncan said. “On top of teaching and learning, we also have this community service.”

And the power of community.


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

Angelique Kobler offered an uncomfortable question about education last week.

Kobler, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at the Lawrence school district, met with the KU Task Force on Course Redesign and explained the steady expansion of blended learning in Lawrence public schools.

To illustrate the need for new ways of engaging students, she said, she asks her staff a question that can make even the most experienced teacher squirm: Has teaching occurred if learning hasn’t?

Education is never that cut and dried, of course. Learning depends on a wide range of factors that have nothing to do with an individual teacher. Kobler knows that. She uses the question to spur discussion about the need for change.

blended learning graphic
Wikimedia Commons

Today’s students are different from those a generation ago, as are their needs in an era when laptops and smartphones offer access to nearly unlimited amounts of information.

Fifteen years ago, Luc E. Weber, a professor of public economics at the University of Geneva, made an observation that has grown only more apparent today: “Teachers will have to accept that their role is changing,” Weber wrote in Challenges Facing Higher Education at the Millennium. “They will be decreasingly information providers and increasingly animators and commentators in charge of giving context and in-depth understanding of an area.” (p. 10)

Blended classrooms force teachers to heed that call for change. Many teachers are responding. Lawrence public schools started with a pilot program of eight blended classrooms in Spring 2013. By fall of this year, the district plans to expand that number to 150.

Kobler defines blended as “somewhere between traditional and virtual.” Students in blended classes can use whatever means help them learn: Some choose textbooks. Others work through assignments online. Sometimes students work alone. Other times, they reach out to peers to help them understand a topic or a concept.

In all those scenarios, the teacher keeps tabs on students and meets with them individually or in groups to keep them on track.

This approach isn’t easy to pull off. Teachers have to be willing to experiment, to make mistakes in front of students, and to talk with students about those mistake, Kobler said. Blended classrooms can seem chaotic as students go in several different directions at once, something that doesn’t also sit well with teachers who demand order.

Parents, on the other hand, have been enthusiastic about the blended approach, sometimes asking that their children continue in a blended classroom because the approach works well for them.

On the other hand, high-achieving students sometimes struggle in a blended environment, something I’ve found in my own classes. High achievers often thrive within a tightly structured, traditional model of “tell me what I need to know and I’ll tell it back to you on a test.” A blended, flipped or hybrid environment strips away this neat order and pushes students to find their own structure and to pace their own learning. That’s a far more difficult task, but it’s also far more meaningful in the long run.

Let me put a twist on Kobler’s earlier question: Can education survive if educators don’t adapt to the needs of students?

That question may make us squirm as well, though it’s also a bit easier to answer.

“If we don’t keep up, we will become irrelevant,” Kobler said.

 


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

Thoughts from two speakers I’ve listened to in the last week have been bouncing around my brain.

At Journalism Interactive last week, Richard Hernandez of the University of California, Berkeley, pressed conference participants to experiment with technology that allows new forms of expression. To illustrate his point, he held up a smartphone and said: “You have more information in your pocket than Ronald Reagan had as president.”

Last night in a speech in Lawrence, the columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. used his smartphone as a prop, as well, after an audience member asked him about effecting change. His response went something like this:

In the 1950s, the civil rights movement started among concerned people who used rotary dial phones and mimeograph machines to mobilize citizens and end American apartheid. Today, he said, with smartphones that give us access to infinite amounts of information and an ability to communicate with nearly anyone, anywhere, anytime, why can’t we seem to steer society in an inclusive direction?

Thom Weerd, Unsplash
Thom Weerd, Unsplash

The take-away is that technology alone can’t solve problems. Simply having access to infinite amounts of information does us no good unless we know how to find the information we need. Having the information we need means nothing if we don’t know how to interpret it, to synthesize it, and to present it in meaningful ways. And even if we do that, new information is meaningless unless others have the context and the means to learn from it, use it, and act upon it.

I’m a big fan of technology, and I’ve written more about Journalism Interactive on one of my websites, JournalismTech.com.

Listening to Hernandez and Pitts speak, though, reminded me how important the human element of technology is. I continually push my students to experiment with new digital tools and new techniques of storytelling. Technology can give us superpowers, of sorts, abilities to make sense of things we once could only dream about. It can make us look smart (or dumb), and can shrink the world to the size of a smartphone screen.

Technology means nothing, though, unless we apply it to meaningful questions and problems at a human level.

I hope you’ll let that idea bounce around in your head this weekend.


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

Evidence is growing about the need to change the design of classrooms.

In a previous post, I wrote about my experiences with room design, student behavior and learning. I found that students were far more engaged when I moved class to a collaborative space, and that they reverted to passive behavior when class returned to the traditional space we were assigned.

The March issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning takes on that very issue in a series of essays that looks at the research on active learning spaces and instructors’ experiences with those types of classrooms. All of the contributors to the issue are from universities or organizations that have led the way in redesigning classrooms, including North Carolina State, Minnesota and Indiana, as well as the nonprofit association Educause.

desks and chairs in The Commons at Spooner Hall
The Commons at Spooner Hall set up for an active learning class.

In their introduction to the issue, the editors, D. Christopher Brooks, J.D. Walker and Paul Baepler, summarize the dominant theories about learning spaces. Those theories include the idea that “a space does not determine behavior, but influences how we act and relate within it in ways that may not be readily observable.” This applies to both students and instructors.

“In large measure, how we configure our new brick and mortar classrooms will set the agenda for how face-to-face teaching continues to change and transform student learning,” the editors write.

Robert J. Beichner, a professor at North Carolina State, offers a brief history of classroom design and pedagogy, from lectures to labs to studios to large classrooms that use an approach called Scale-Up, or student-centered activities for large enrollment undergraduate programs, which Beichner pioneered.

In the introduction to his essay, Beichner addresses an important question about classrooms: Why do we need to change them? His answer: An information-rich, technology-rich society has changed the way students live and think, making it harder for them “to learn from the kind of patient, orderly presentation that their teachers prefer.”

In other words, if today’s instructors expect to connect with students, they have to move beyond the passivity of lecture. A different style of classroom is one way to help with that.

In a concluding essay, Aimee Whiteside of the University of Tampa, mentions the challenges of transforming classrooms and other learning spaces, citing cost and resistance to change, among other elements. She suggests a “read and lead” approach for those of us interested in changing learning environments: researching, sharing ideas, and keeping administrators apprised of the “immense educational value of active learning spaces.”

I’ll write more soon about my experiences with a new style of classroom and about the university’s efforts to make more active learning classrooms available. Meantime, I’d recommend the essays from New Directions for Teaching and Learning, as well as some other recent articles about classrooms and learning.

Among the essays in New Directions for Teaching and Learning 137 (Spring 2014) are these:

  • “History and Evolution of Active Learning Spaces,” 9-16, by Robert J. Beichner.
  • “Coffeehouse as Classroom: Examination of a New Style of Active Learning Environment,” 41-51, by Anastasia S. Morrone, et. al.
  • “Strategies to Address Challenges When Teaching in an Active Learning Classroom,” 63-70, by Christina I. Petersen and Kristen S. Gorman.
  • “Conclusion: Advancing Active Learning Spaces,” 95-98, by Aimee L. Whiteside.

Other recent research on classrooms:


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