By Doug Ward

The note cards I handed out to students in my hybrid class last week drew astonished looks.

Each contained a hand-written list of three things: events, people, animals, objects, locations, movies, songs, television shows. All were random, created one evening in a stream of consciousness. For instance:notecards showing groupings of items for the class exercise

“Eye of the Tiger”

Eye of a needle

Arctic Ocean

and

Fire alarms

Fairy tales

Calvin Klein

“Here’s the fun part,” I told students. “Find a connection among the three things.”

That’s where the astonishment came in.

The main goal of the exercise was to help students synthesize, to open their eyes to connections they might not otherwise see and to creative solutions they might not otherwise consider. They worked in pairs, and once they got beyond the initial “I can’t do this” shock, they generally came up with excellent answers.

After the exercise, one student asked a question that surprised me, even though it shouldn’t have.

“What’s the right answer?” she asked.

After wincing, I said there was no right answer to any of the postcard triads. Then I recited one of my educational mantras to all the students:

“There are no right answers in this class,” I said. “There are better answers. But there are no right answers.”

That’s a hard concept to grasp for students who focus far too much on a grade and a diploma rather than on learning. Ambiguity and uncertainty make them uncomfortable, and many have been taught that there are indeed right answers in their classes.

In some disciplines there are, of course, though even in those the understanding of the process is more important than any single answer.

I teach a class called Infomania, which is intended to help students become better researchers and to help them learn to solve problems with information and digital tools. I also try to help students work their way through ambiguity. Pushing them to find a link between fire alarms, fairy tales and Calvin Klein is part of that. So is working in groups, developing individual and group projects, and other approaches that emphasize active learning.

I thought about sharing some of the students’ creative responses to my nonsensical challenge but decided that wouldn’t be fair. You, dear reader, must work through that ambiguity on your own.

Remember, there are no right answers.


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

By Doug Ward

A new study suggests that all students gain when a lecture moves to an active learning format but that black students show even larger gains than white students, Ainissa Ramirez explains in an article for Edutopia.

Empty lecture hall
Photo by Doug Ward

The study examined results from a 400-person biology class at the University of North Carolina over six semesters. It found that black students scored better on tests after working in the active learning format. It also found that they were more likely to ask questions when a class used that format, which involved guided reading and pre-class exercises, team assignments in class, and discussion.

We’ve known for decades that lecture is the least effective means of helping students learn. The study’s authors suggest that lecture falls especially short for black students, saying that it is part of an educational system that has long catered to students who are primarily white and upper middle class. Edutopia goes as far as to ask, “Is Lecturing Culturally Biased?”

Drawing sweeping conclusions from a single study would be foolish. The North Carolina study, which you’ll find here, certainly raises intriguing questions, though, and offers yet another reason to move away from lecture.

Making online course materials easier to find

Well-designed courses are worthless if students can’t find the materials and information they need for learning.

That seems like a no-brainer, but far too many instructors don’t pay attention to how students will look for course material. As Karla Gutierrez of the Shift eLearning Blog explains, effective communication in a course makes all the difference in success or failure.

Gutierrez offers these tips for cutting down on confusion:

  • Keep things clear and simple. That applies to both the design and the instructions.
  • Make the technology invisible. That is, design course materials so that students can find them intuitively and don’t have to do lots of searching. Or, as Gutierrez puts it, “don’t make learners think.”
  • Focus attention. That can be done with images, color, text and other means. The key is to use course design to lead students to the proper material.

I’d add one important element to that list: Ask students. Their feedback can prove invaluable.

Briefly …

Edudemic offers 15 lesson plans intended to help students become better online researchers. … Educational Technology and Mobile Learning offers a list of operators for refining Twitter searches. … Richard Byrne of Free Technology for Teachers offers a useful chart comparing 11 mindmapping tools.Time magazine writes about a survey in which college graduates said their biggest regret was not doing a better job of planning and managing debt. … The Hechinger Report and U.S. News & World Report write about the only two states that have increased per-student spending on higher education in the last few years: North Dakota and Alaska.


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

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

Using technology to help students take risks

Rather than use technology to make education more efficient, why not use it to help students take more risks in learning? That’s the question that Greg Toppo poses in an article for The Hechinger Report. “Good teaching is not about playing it safe,” Toppo writes. “It’s about getting kids to ask questions, argue a point, confront failure and try again.” He’s exactly right. By helping students push boundaries, we help them learn to think more critically, understand themselves more fully, and solve problems more effectively. Technology can indeed help with that. I’ve found that demonstrating and having students try new types of hardware or software often opens up thinking and sparks surprising creativity. My advice: Subvert away.

A good message about learning and doing, eventually

Wired magazine jumped on the sky-is-falling bandwagon last week, declaring, “American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist.” Amid the alarmist words and some self-promotion, though, the article, by David Edwards of Harvard, makes some good points. Edwards argues that students need more opportunities to work in loosely structured environments like innovation labs and culture labs, which give them hands-on experience in using their own ideas to tackle big problems. “Learning and doing have become inseparable in the face of conditions that invite us to discover,” Edwards writes.

statue of child reading a book
Statue at Bibliothèque Saint-Jean-Baptistein, Quebec City, Doug Ward

When new ways of teaching aren’t so new
Buzzwords permeate education as much as any other profession. Often those buzzwords are just repackaged versions of tried-and-true techniques. Katrina Schwartz reminds us of that in an article for MindShift, writing about how school administrators and non-profits push “new” approaches onto teachers even though the teachers have used those same approaches for years. That can be especially disheartening when teachers adopt new techniques, only to have impatient administrators pull back financing. “To avoid that kind of disillusionment many teachers have decided the best policy is to keep their heads down and continue to do what works — using trial and error to figure out how to reach kids, sticking to the textbook, and focusing on building strong relationships with students,” Schwartz writes.

Briefly …

In the Tomorrow’s Professor eNewsletter, Roben Torosyan writes about a book so useful to his teaching that it took him 10 years to finish. … Diverse: Issues in Higher Education writes about the trend of requiring undergraduates to take 15 credit hours a semester to help them graduate in a reasonable time. … The Chronicle of Higher Education writes about a professor’s idea to have researchers explain their work in the style of BuzzFeed.

Tech tools

The message scheduling service Buffer offers a list of useful tools for creating images for social media.DesignSkilz offers a substantial list of sites for downloading free photos.

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
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

An organization called Reclaim Open Learning held its first symposium last week. The organization promotes innovation in higher education through the use of technology, online resources and open learning in unconventional ways.

The approach and goals of Reclaim Open Learning aren’t for everyone, though I embrace most of the same principles in my course Infomania. I found the comments emerging from the symposium thought-provoking and useful. I created a Storify compilation of some of the tweets on learning, innovation, promoting change, and the role of education in a digital age. You’ll find that compilation on another site, Teaching with Technology. I’ve provided a taste of some of those tweets here.

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

I got a reminder this week of the value of collaboration.

In my 300-level hybrid class Infomania, I asked students to critique a hierarchical model of information and information processing explained by Gene Bellinger, Durval Castro and Anthony Mills.

The model, originally proposed by the organizational theorist Russell Ackoff, is often portrayed as a pyramid with data at the bottom and wisdom at the top. The model has come under criticism for being too simplistic, and yet I find it useful in helping students consider the complexities of information.

Image: clker.com

In Infomania, students work in one of five groups online and in person. We generally have one class period each week devoted to discussion and another devoted to project work.

At the start of discussion this week, I gave each group a different question related to the readings and then had students explain what their groups talked about and what conclusions they had reached.

I was reluctant to assign the question about information hierarchy, fearing that it would be too difficult. I was curious, though, so I asked students to consider this: What, if anything, is missing from Ackoff’s hierarchy of information?

When it was their turn, the students who had that question didn’t hesitate. They said the model needed a better explanation of how one moves from understanding to wisdom, the top two layers of the hierarchy. To truly gain wisdom, they said, you have to apply your understanding.

I was blown away. They had altered an established theory of information, making it not only more meaningful but more useful.

I asked another group to explain the components and importance of digital literacy, the focus of an article by Howard Rheingold. One of those components is collaboration. At one point in the discussion, I asked: What’s the value of collaboration?

One student replied: “Two heads are better than one.”

True, I said. But those two have to listen to each other, engage each other and share meaningful ideas.

That’s the real value of collaboration.

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