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

Why a phone book isn’t a good learning tool

Daniel J. Klionsky of the Life Sciences Institute at the University of Michigan asks why so many instructors or programs continue to teach facts that students don’t need to know. In an article in Faculty Focus, he uses the telephone book as an example. No one needs to memorize all the numbers in a phone book. The idea is absurd. And yet, many instructors in science courses insist that students memorize facts they can easily look up, just as they would with a phone book. To help weed out the essential from the nonessential, he says that instructors should approach their courses with these questions:

  • How much of the information in our courses do the students really need to know?
  • How much time do we devote to making sure students know when they need a fact and how to look it up?
  • Do our students know what to do with the facts once they find them?

Dropout rates hit record lows

Pew Research reports that the high school dropout rates have reached a record low, 7 percent, continuing a decline that started in the mid-1990s. The dropout rate among Hispanics has declined by more than half since 1993, and the rate among blacks has been cut in half. Even with the declines, though, the number of high school dropouts is more than 2.2 million.

Those gaps that speak volumes

Matthew E. May writes about the creative power of empty space in attracting attention and intriguing audiences. His piece in the Harvard Business Review is aimed at marketers, but it applies equally as well to educators.

Digital technology for education 

Jane Hart has released her annual list of the top 100 tools for learning. The top of the list offers no surprises – Twitter, Google Drive, YouTube, PowerPoint – but the latter part is a good place to look for new tools you might try. It includes some that I’ve found useful, including Explain Everything and Powtoon.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on an app under development at Dartmouth that helps measure students’ mental health.

By Doug Ward

There’s no shortage of ideas for remaking higher education.

Consider a few recent ones:

Margaret Rhodes at Wired is among the latest to report on ideas for remaking an antiquated educational format that rewards students for taking notes, memorizing facts, and then checking boxes on tests.

“Students don’t need information,” Rhodes writes. “They need to learn how to process and use it.”

Bravo!

Rhodes offers four ways to help higher education become more creative, based on ideas from the Stanford School of Design:

  • Revamp the timeframe. Substitute the four-year degree for a six-year program that allows students to move in an out as their needs change.
  • Eliminate class designations. Rather than designating students as freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors, let them range across the curriculum, learning and then applying and then learning something new.
  • Ditch the transcript. Rather than focusing on GPAs, focus on skill building and portfolio development.
  • Forget majors. Rather, have students declare goals or missions and let them take classes that help them meet those goals.
barn-raising
Thinking about education as a barn raising offers many possibilities as we move toward changing teaching and learning.

Cathy Davidson of City University of New York immediately added two other ideas to the list: eliminate tuition, and provide better pay for high-quality instructors.

Davidson is spot-on in her argument that radical changes will have little effect unless we’re willing to change the underlying problems. That is, we say we want high-quality education but still fail to provide the incentives and rewards that would make that happen.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Forham University, explains perhaps the central difficulty of elevating teaching in the research-driven culture of higher education. “It’s not that teaching doesn’t matter,” Cassuto writes, “but even many community colleges are looking for publication these days. It’s the only credential that crosses institutional boundaries, so it’s the easiest one for institutions to brag on.”

Cassuto is right, but even in higher education’s research-driven culture, we brush aside teaching as impossible to measure. So we send research packets out for external review when a professor goes up for tenure or promotion, but to evaluate teaching, we generally resort to student evaluations and observations of a single class. We shrug our shoulders and move on.

We can change that. The Provost’s Task Force on Course Redesign, of which I was a member, offered several solutions to improving teaching at KU. The solutions apply to every university, though. They aren’t particularly radical, and there’s nothing as eye-popping as the ones from the Stanford School of Design. Rather, the ideas are intended to help change the culture of teaching and the systemic problems that hold good teachers back. They include these:

  • Create community. We need to identify faculty who want to improve or change their courses and provide opportunities for them to network with similar-minded instructors to share ideas that will lead to additional change.
  • Encourage collaboration. This means within departments but also among departments and universities to share ideas and approaches to improving education. It also applies to faculty members who teach different sections of the same course.
  • Provide support. We need to expand programs that provide support for faculty members interested in changing their courses. In our case, that includes the C21 Consortium and the teaching fellows program, both of which help faculty members and departments improve active learning.
  • Recognize and reward effective teaching. Until we truly reward innovative, high-quality teaching in the same way we reward innovative, high-quality research, we have little hope of wide-scale change.
  • Increase funds for remaking classrooms. Classrooms alone won’t change anything, but as I’ve written previously, classroom design can indeed improve student engagement and motivation.
  • Make better use of digital technology for learning. Good teaching starts with sound pedagogy, but digital technology provides the means for reaching students in new ways, making courses more engaging, and time-shifting assignments so we can make better use of class time to address areas where students struggle.

Whether radical or not-so radical, the ideas for improving higher education offer no magic powers. Rather, they provide blueprints we can follow and frameworks on which we can build.

Think of an old-fashioned barn-raising, which provides a lens for looking at many aspects of education. By joining our forces and applying our expertise, we can create something that none of us could accomplish individually. And yet, to effect change we need individuals to step up and join the community.


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.

Participants in the Best Practices Institute work at the Spahr Engineering Classroom.
Participants in the Best Practices Institute work on a backward design exercise at the Spahr Engineering Classroom.

By Doug Ward

I’m always surprised at the common themes that emerge when faculty members talk about teaching.

Goals and challenges transcend disciplinary boundaries, allowing for robust discussions about learning; class design and preparation; assessment; the struggles of students, and other areas of teaching.

In discussions Tuesday at CTE’s Best Practices Institute, faculty members from a dozen disciplines shared aspirations and strategies for improving their classes. Among the speakers was Meagan Patterson, associate professor of psychology, who explained the key elements of backward design and then asked participants to write down goals they hoped to achieve in their classes.

My table included instructors from pharmacy, philosophy, journalism, and health, sports and exercise science. The overlap among the group was remarkable. As I wrote the goals on a whiteboard, nearly everyone in the group nodded in agreement. They, too, had essentially the same goals. Here’s a distilled list:

  • Learn basic course concepts (as in science or philosophy)
  • Learn basic definitions and moral principles and apply those to specific situations
  • Demonstrate a big picture view of a subject
  • Apply knowledge to real world problems
  • Demonstrate good persuasive writing and an ability to refute opposing positions
  • Make connections to other disciplines and ideas
  • Demonstrate an ability to synthesize and explain discrete specialty topics learned in a course.

Identification of goals is only the first step of creating or remaking a class. The bigger challenge comes when a faculty members starts to envision ways for students to learn material and to demonstrate their learning.

That’s part of what makes teaching so enjoyable, though, no matter the discipline.


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 Caroline Bennett

So, I’ve decided to flip a class.  [File this blog post under ‘Confessions’.]  Specifically, I’m going to flip a course this Spring semester, titled “Design of Steel Structures.”  It’s a fourth-year design class taken by civil and architectural engineers.

This is an undertaking that I’m both excited and nervous to tackle.  The part that I’m really looking forward to the most is really, really focusing in on “what should students be able to do” when they’re done with the course.  This is also the part that I am the most nervous about.

When I’ve taught this course in the past (seven or eight times), I have tried to keep this end-game in focus.  However, I have found that it is far too easy to let “what do I need to cover” take front stage under the pressures of any given semester.  I am expecting that flipping this class will pretty much make that recurring ‘slide’ impossible.  Which is great, and a 100% worthy goal.  And also a little terrifying.

I’m starting to think about how I am going to restructure the course for this spring.  The class is three credit hours, and meets for “lecture” sessions twice a week for 75 minutes and once a week for a two and a half hour “lab” sessions.  In the past, I’ve used the lecture sessions for presenting the theory and concepts behind designing steel structures.  I don’t think these lecture sessions have been particularly bad; in fact, I am proud of many of them.  We spend a lot of time in class working through examples — many of them I lead, and many of them students work through in small groups.

I am planning to move approximately 75% of this content outside of the class time.  Instead of working through this material in-class, I am going to create a series of online videos that students will be asked to view before class periods.  This is going to free up a lot of in-class time.  This newly-freed class time presents a great opportunity to focus deeply on higher-order learning objectives.  The question that this begs is “what is the best way to meet those objectives?”  The answer to this question should drive how we spend our in-class time.

This is my first foray into flipping, and I promise to keep you posted on my progress — my thought exercises and implementation.  I’m going to be wrestling with a host of new questions and challenges, and I would appreciate engaging in discussion with you on this forum!

Caroline Bennett is an associate professor of civil engineering and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. 

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.