Small Teaching Tip 3: The first five minutes of class should be devoted to engaging students' attention, setting goals for the class period, and activating prior knowledge.
Best Practices, Pedagogy, Small Teaching Tip, Teaching Advice

Small Teaching Tip #3: The First Five Minutes of Class

The crux of a class period, and perhaps the most challenging to plan, are the beginning and ending.  Unfortunately, these are the two parts of a lesson that faculty typically devote the least amount of attention.  Often, the first few minutes of class are spent taking attendance, setting up technology, or rattling off reminders.  This type of housekeeping is necessary, but it shouldn’t be the only way you begin class.  As Kate Sussman, Professor of Biology at Vassar College, points out, we all need time to “warm up”:

“Maybe they just woke up. Maybe they rushed over from their previous class. Maybe they just finished a big paper or assignment. Whatever the cause, it’s most likely that your students are distracted and not really mentally ready to be in your classroom when they first get there. We need to add a little transition time to the beginning of class to help our students get mentally ready to focus.”

To prepare students for learning, the beginning of a lesson should prioritize engaging students’ attention, setting goals for the class period, and activating students’ prior knowledge.  Here are a few simple methods to accomplish these aims:

Incorporate teasers

Teasers are provocative statements, sometimes called “hooks,” that serve to grab students’ attention and draw them into the upcoming lesson.  To be most effective, the teaser must clearly relate to the subject matter and it must deliver.  If you use a teaser that makes students wonder what the heck you’re talking about, it will simply confuse rather than pique curiosity.  And if your lessons don’t live up to the hype you’ve built, the anticlimax will eventually cause students to tune out.

A classic way to begin class is to ask a question that creates a compelling need for students to know the answer, appealing to what Carnegie Melon University professor George Loewenstein calls the “curiosity gap.”  You could also begin with an unusual photo, humorous video clip, perplexing statement, or a shocking statistic.  I once had a professor who began each class with a promise, such as “by the end of class today, I promise you will be equipped with three strategies for handling passive-aggressive people.”  He told me that making such promises gives students confidence that they will leave each class with something useful and it also holds him accountable for reaching those objectives.

Close the circle

You are probably much more organized than I am, but I sometimes feel like my lectures lack enough structure and, therefore, veer off course.  One strategy to address this comes from James Lang, author of Small Teaching.  He suggests providing students with a few questions to guide their homework and asks them to bring their responses to class.  Ideally, the questions you ask cannot be answered by simply looking up a definition in the textbook and also require students to connect the current topic with those you’ve discussed previously.

At the beginning of the next class, display those questions so students can refer to them as they enter the classroom and get settled.  As you take attendance and complete other housekeeping tasks, ask students to turn to a neighbor and share their responses.  Then, towards the end of the period, return to the questions and ask if students’ responses have changed since listening to your lecture.  This could spark discussion or serve as an exit ticket.  Using these questions at the beginning and end of class metaphorically “closes the circle” and reminds students that each session has a clear purpose and structure.   

Activate prior knowledge

According to James Lang, research suggests that whatever knowledge students bring into a course has a major influence on what they take away from it.  Thus, student learning can be improved by consistently revisiting, not just what they learned in the previous class, but what they already know about the subject matter.  So at the beginning of class, you could say something like: “Today we are going to focus on _____. What do you know about _____ already? What have you heard about it in the media, or learned in a previous class?”  

Another memory recall strategy is to simply ask students to remind you of the key points from the previous class period.  But rather than calling on a single student, consider asking all students to participate such as prompting them to complete a “minute paper,” draw a process, create a diagram, or illustrate a main point.  Any effort students make to recall course content — without the help of notes or textbooks — benefits their learning.  

No matter the strategy you choose, I challenge you to put more thought into how each of your class periods begin.  Those few minutes offer us a fertile opportunity to build anticipation and prepare students for learning.  How do you start class?  Please share!

 


This post is part of a series which will present low risk, high reward teaching ideas.  Inspired by James Lang’s book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, this series will inspire you to implement small but powerful changes to your teaching.

Small Teaching Tip: get to class early and engage your students right away. Consider posting a class outline, a thought-provoking image, or play some music.
Small Teaching Tip, Teaching Advice

Small Teaching Tip #2: The Minutes Before Class Begins

Many of us arrive to our classrooms without time to spare.  We then concentrate on taking attendance, turning on the computer and projector, or reviewing our lecture notes. Meanwhile, our students sit silently, gazing at their phones.  We may not consider the minutes before class begins as consequential, but they offer a fertile opportunity to get to know your students better and build a more positive classroom environment.  So make it a goal to arrive to your classroom early and use those extra few minutes to chat with your students and set the stage for the rest of the class period.  Here are a few ideas:

Display a class agenda or outline.  This is a simple way to help students see how the class period will be organized and understand how the information they learn today relates to what they learned last week.  As an expert in your field, you have a clear understanding of the framework of your discipline and how concepts are interconnected.  But novice learners tend to see facts, concepts, and skills as discrete pieces of knowledge, without much awareness of the connections that join them.  Thus, a simple outline can help students to better organize information in their memories.

Display a thought-provoking image.  Encourage your students to start thinking about the class content, rather than staring at their phones, by displaying something that will pique their curiosity such as a political cartoon, quote, or video clip.  For example, Peter Newbury posts NASA’s “pic of the day” for his students to look at as they file into the classroom.  On each image, he types two questions:  “What do you notice? What do you wonder?”  This simple visual prompt serves multiple purposes: it grabs his students’ attention, serves as a conversation-starter, and provides an opportunity to discuss how the images connect to previous course material.

Play some music.  Playing music is a great way to “warm up” the room and create a less stuffy environment.  Music can be used strategically to establish a particular atmosphere, such as energizing your lethargic students or calming them before an exam.  Steve Volk creates playlists themed for each class and encourages students to bring their own music.  He then shares the playlists with his students at the end of the semester.  This strategy is not relevant only to those who teach in the arts.  Think creatively about how music might relate to your course content, such as playing protest songs, Renaissance madrigals, or Native Andean flute music.

If these ideas aren’t appealing, I challenge you to identify a strategy that works with your teaching style and course content.  Both instructors and students need a little transition time at the beginning of class to get mentally prepared to learn and engage.  So don’t waste those precious few minutes!

 


This post is part of a series which will present low risk, high reward teaching ideas.  Inspired by James Lang’s book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, this series will inspire you to implement small but powerful changes to your teaching.

To read Tip #1 about encouraging student voice, click on this link: tlt.cofc.edu/2016/08/09/small-teaching-tips

 

Best Practices, Distance Ed, Events, Pedagogy, Training Opportunities

Wanted! CofC DE Instructors Interested in Professional Development

TLT is proud to announce the start of a new training opportunity for online faculty!

DE 2.0 is a series of immersive workshops that will be delivered largely asynchronously online. These sessions will be focused on topic specific items for faculty who are currently teaching online and want to dig a little deeper into updated technology and pedagogy for online learning.Now that you’ve taken the DE Readiness Course and taught online, what do you want to learn more about?

2.0 Deuces wild flyer

One workshop will be offered each semester starting Fall 2016.

Here are some examples of faculty nominated workshop topics that will be offered:

2.0 Card table

More information about these workshops will be available on TLT’s DE Readiness Blog by August 15th.

Do you have a session topic you’d like to suggest for the future? Or a resource that you’d like to see?

Visit http://blogs.cofc.edu/dereadiness/de-2-0/ and fill out the suggestion form.
Small Teaching Tip: Give students more control of their learning and allow more opportunities for students to voice their ideas.
Small Teaching Tip, Teaching Advice

Introducing TLT’s Small Teaching Tips!

Have you ever uttered these words (perhaps after attending a TLT training)?

“I’d love to try that new tech tool or teaching strategy, but I just don’t have the time to research it or make the necessary changes in my classes.”

We hear you.  Making dramatic changes to your classes requires a lot of time and energy that you don’t typically have.  But that doesn’t mean your classes have to remain the same semester after semester.  Powerful pedagogical improvements can be made by implementing small, incremental changes.

To get you started, TLT is introducing a new series called “Small Teaching Tips” which will present low risk, high reward teaching ideas.  Inspired by James Lang’s book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, this series will inspire you to experiment with pedagogical strategies without becoming overwhelmed.

So keep an eye on our blog (as well as Twitter, Pinterest, and Yammer) for new tips!


Small Teaching Tip #1

One way instructors can build a positive learning environment and encourage students to take more responsibility for their learning is to give them greater control, such as seeking more input from them or allowing them to choose among options based upon their own goals and interests.

Small Teaching Tip: Give students more control of their learning and allow more opportunities for students to voice their ideas.

Giving students more control does not mean we are giving away all control or that we are allowing them to cherry-pick only the content that interests them.  Instead, it simply means giving students greater voice.  Instructors can do this in small ways.  Here are a few options:

Allow students to contribute to the syllabus:

Hand out a draft syllabus on the first day of class, then present the areas you want students to contribute to (You can obviously set limits and define certain rules that are non-negotiable for you). For example, leave open 10 percent of the grade for an undetermined assignment and have students decide together what that assignment will be (such as a multimedia project instead of a research paper).  Or, leave a few class periods open on the course schedule and allow the students to vote on which topics will be discussed on those days.

Create a class constitution with your students:

In groups, ask students to brainstorm a set of rules to govern the class.  Ask them to think of behaviors, attitudes, and policies that have helped or hindered their learning in other classes. Use this information to create a set of “do’s and don’ts.”  I’m often surprised by the high expectations students set for themselves and one another when we complete this activity.  They often discuss being distracted by the classmates who show up late or online shop on their laptops, so they set rules about these behaviors.  

It’s important that the class constitution also includes expectations of the professor.  The rules don’t just apply to the students.  I often divide the whiteboard into two columns and write “expectations of the instructor” on one side and “expectations of peers” on the other.  This demonstrates that I view our class as a community and that I am not “above” the rules.

Allow students to generate exam questions:

Take 30 minutes of class time and ask students to work in groups to generate exam questions.  Then tell them 10% of the exam questions will come from the list they generated.  This will not only give them some sense of control over the test, but also will serve as an excellent review activity.

What are ways you encourage student voice in your classes?  Please share!

Accessibility, Best Practices, Distance Ed, Pedagogy, Productivity, Teaching Advice, TLT

TLT’s Top Tips for Time Management

What are instructors spending time on?

Below are the five most mentioned teaching behaviors identified in the research and from the feedback of online instructors. The ranking begins with the teaching activity that involved the highest time commitment, and descends from there. This is not a scientific analysis, but I included the list to provide an overview of the most prevalent online teaching activities (Van de Vord & Pogue, 2012).

  • Interacting with students: moderating discussion forums, responding to student emails
  • Evaluating student work: assignments, papers, discussion forums
  • Recording grades
  • Modifying and making changes to course materials and/or course home page
  • Addressing technical issues/course administration (not including grading)

 

Tips for Time Management

  1. Handle it once.

Following the principles of the GTD (Getting Things Done) Methodology, manage items as soon as you can.  For online teaching, this means doing things in a regimented format.  When emails come in, if an answer or action can be done in less than 5 minutes…do it now.  If It needs deeper thinking and reflection, mark it in a follow up folder or category before closing it.  While reading discussion boards, keep a spreadsheet open so that you can grade as you go and make notes while reading to help keep your students straight. Grade as items arrive and space out due dates to cut down on last minute or end of term grading.  Create blocks of time during each day to work on a particular item.  For example, Mondays from 10-11 am I work on items strictly for the mentors.  Everyday from 830-930 am I answer emails from participants about course related issues.  Thursdays from 1-4 are spend grading specified assignments.  Making this set schedule for yourself will make sure that you are allowing ample time to focus.

 

2.   Respond to students efficiently.

If a student asks a great question via email, reply to them and ask them to post their question and the response to the class, but if more than one student has emailed about the same issue or set of instructions, then address the group as a whole with a news item, whole class email, or something else that will make sure that all students see the information.  For example, if there is a procedural problem (students not knowing how to do something in a class) create a short video or screencast to walk them through the process.

 

3.   Make Time Count.

If it’s something that a student won’t notice…don’t do it!  If it’s something the students can do for themselves or with each other…delegate or provide opportunity to do it.  For example, a Course Lounge or question forum will allow students the ability to answer each other.  You can back this up by adding an “ask 3 before me” type policy so that you know they’ve tried to find help on their own first.  To make this efficient, you need to mindfully not engage in what one professor called “Whack a Mole” facilitation, where as soon as a discussion post or a question comes up the professor logs in to answer it or replies immediately.  Make sure you give your students that time to help each other or they will become accustomed to that immediate feedback and you’ll spend all your time responding to email.

 

4. Get Organized:  Location, Location Location

Have your course follow a logical path so that not only you but your students also know exactly where to go and what to do.  The easier it is to find something, the less time you spend looking for it!  This is especially applicable to the syllabus.  The more text heavy and exhaustive your syllabus, the less likely your students will be able to find what they need in the process.  Try breaking your syllabus up into sections and bulleting information rather than using paragraph texts.  Have your students engage in a scavenger hunt or quiz to show that they understand the key pieces of the document before the class gets too far underway.  This will lead to less questions and less time emailing “it’s in the syllabus”.

5. Get Organized: Me, Myself, and I

Make sure that your workspace is organized and ready to go.  This includes your computer!  If you have a hard time finding files or folders on your machine, take some time to organize your files so that you can easily grab an item when it is needed.  Keep a list handy of places you can go to for help.  Obviously TLT is going to be number one (:)) but make sure that you add your librarian, CDS, CSL, and other campus resources and how to contact them.

 

6. Develop a routine and electronic minions

There are a lot of moving parts in an online classroom.  Some can be automated, some cannot.  First, make a list of all items that you need to do (that you know of) and due dates prior to the course starting. Identify any weekly activities and blocks of time you’ll need to answer emails, grade, respond to discussions, etc.  If an item can be automated (for example, a news item reminder about a test that you want to go out on a certain date) go ahead and create the wording and release conditions before the class starts.  In the immortal words of Ronco…set it and forget it!  For those items that can’t be automated, create calendar reminders or use a task management tool that contains reminders like Asana.

 

7. #Unplugged

In honor of the TLT Lifetime DE Mentor award recipient Lancie Affonso, we bring you this most important tip.  Unplug every now and again!  Take some time away from the screen and technology to engage in the world.  It is tempting to want to be logged in 24/7 when your students are in session, but taking some time to take care of yourself (and your eyes, back, and wrists) will benefit you in the long run as an instructor.

 

8.  Use the right tools for the job.

Technology can do so much to help with time and task management, as well as automating parts of your responses without losing that personal touch.  Talk to your instructional technologist about some of the options to help you with time, task, grading, and communication management for your online class.  Check out this article on how to go about choosing the right tool for your situation:  http://blogs.cofc.edu/tlt/2014/03/05/plan-attack-implementing-technology-instruction/

 

9.  To Thine Own Self Be True

“Each person has a daily cycle when he or she is most alert; schedule that time for online work. Determine the best time of day to check and respond to email. Flag and prioritize emails.  Realize that what is an overload for some instructors is not for others. Before accepting teaching assignments, look at the other assignments already accepted for that semester and consider whether the workload is too heavy. Factor in family obligations and planned vacations when considering personal work capacity.  When planning for the future record notes each week in a teaching journal identifying thoughts about revisions for the next semester. Some fixes like broken links can be done on the fly during the current run, but others, like the rewriting of a section, need to wait until the students are no longer present. At the end of the semester, reflect on the notes and adjust as needed.”

 

10.  Practice your online writing

Because writing is a major channel of communication in an online class, the importance of clear and concise writing of the course materials cannot be over-emphasized. If one student finds a sentence unclear, the instructor will need to spend valuable additional time responding to clarify. Five or ten minutes of additional time for polishing a message or task instructions before distributing or publishing may save hours in clarifying later.  Have someone who is not familiar with an assignment read the instructions and see if it makes sense or if they could do the assignment with the information you provided.  Keep a list of frequently asked questions and your responses.  You can then copy and paste your responses or keep a running list published in a Google Doc that would get updated in real time for your students and would be easy to search for keywords.

 

11.  Design with Accessibility in Mind

Too often faculty members will design an online course and then realise a semester later that they have a student with a disability in their courses that require accommodations (screen readers, subtitles, alternative formats, etc.)  While it may take more time as you build the course, designing your course to be as accessible as possible from the start will save you more time (and you will reach more students) than trying to scramble after you get an accommodation request letter.  Remember, it is easier to construct than to retrofit a class!

 

Assessment, Best Practices, instructional technology, TLT

Padagogy Wheel

At the 2015 Teaching Professor Conference one of the sessions I attended was Topping Out on Bloom:Technology for Student Projects led by Ike Shibley. I found it to be very helpful when thinking about a technology assignment that encourages students to use Bloom’s.  Below is a link to Dr. Shibley’s Obstacles/Opportunities table, questions for analysis of your course and the Padagogy Wheel which aligns Blooms with iPad apps.

TPC Shibley Topping Out on Bloom

EXAMPLE MC ITEM WITH FLAWS
Faculty Technology Institute, Pedagogy

Reworking multiple choice exams for clarity

Multiple choice question creation is challenging and time-consuming. While question banks from the publisher can certainly benefit students by providing opportunities for practice, I prefer to create my own questions for exams to make sure they align with my learning objectives and the material I emphasized in class. While one of the main benefits of using multiple choice questions is the ease and speed of grading, one of the drawbacks is the amount of time invested in the development of each question. Various sources report that professional test item writers spend 30 minutes to 1 hour on just the first draft of a multiple choice question (1, 2). In some ways these numbers are reassuring as I know I am not alone in my occasional struggle with creating plausible distractors (choices) and targeting higher level thinking and reasoning.

During last week’s Faculty Technology Institute, TLT offered a session on best practices to improve multiple choice questions and exams. A number of tips resonated with the participants and led to a vibrant discussion. With multiple choice questions being so common, I thought the rest of the college community might gain new ideas from some of these discussion points. The summer is the perfect time to look back on exams from the past year and evaluate their effectiveness at measuring student learning. You might consider carrying out an item analysis on some of your questions to evaluate the difficulty and discrimination (3). Here are a few practical things to consider if you plan on revising your multiple choice questions:

 

3 options are optimal (in most cases).

A meta-analysis of over 80 years of research concluded that 3 options, or choices, are optimal for multiple choice questions (4). The analysis examined item difficulty, discrimination, and reliability and concluded that 3 options is best in most settings. I found this paper fascinating, and I was pleased to find out that I can spend less time trying to come up with plausible distractors for each question, while at the same time reducing the reading burden for students. Wahoo!

MC Question
Parts of a multiple choice question.

 

Question order does not influence performance or completion time.

The majority of research on this topic indicates that question order has no effect on performance or completion time (5). This is great news as scrambling question order is one strategy adopted by many instructors to prevent cheating. Interestingly, students may perceive exams with randomly ordered questions as more difficult than chronologically ordered exam questions (5). This might be something to keep in mind if you often hear from students that your exams are really difficult.


 

Following all the item writing recommendations is really hard.

  • Avoid absolutes (always, never, all, none, all of the above, none of the above, etc).
  • Avoid negatives (all of the following except, which of the following is not true, etc.).
  • Avoid imprecise terms (usually, sometimes, rarely, etc.).
  • Keep the stem of the question succinct.
  • Keep distractor length consistent.

I know my past exams have included “none of the above” or “all of the above” as options. Faculty attending TLT’s sessions on writing multiple choice questions have commented that these recommendations can be hard, sometimes impossible, to follow. I am hoping to reduce my item flaws by cutting question options down to three.

 

Poorly constructed questions and exams negatively affect students, and they interfere with interpretations of the exam results. As an instructor, I want to make sure that my questions are reliable and valid. In addition to wanting my exams to align with my learning objectives, I want my exams to be a reflection of student learning in my course and not a measure of reading ability or test-taking savviness. The recommendations listed above have led me to rethink my exam format and reconsider some of my test questions. I hope they are useful to you too!

 

(1) Van Hoozer, H.L. (1987). The teaching process: theory and practice in nursing. Norwalk, Connecticut: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

(2) http://www.getyardstick.com/how-long-does-it-take-to-create-a-multiple-choice-question

(3) http://www.thinkgate.com/improving-multiple-choice-questions-through-item-analysis

(4) Rodriguez, M.C. (2005). Three options are optimal for multiple-choice items: a meta-analysis of 80 years of research. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 24, 3-13.

(5) Pettijohn, T.F. and Sacco, M.F. (2007). Multiple-choice exam question order influences on student performance, completion time, and perceptions. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 34, 142-149.

 

Clearing a Path for People with Special Needs Clears the Path for Everyone
Accessibility, Assessment, Best Practices, instructional technology, Pedagogy, Teaching Advice

Designing with Accessibility in Mind, Part 1: The Theory

We have reached that glorious time of year when students are starting to plan for the future (i.e. – register for Fall semester).  As we wrap up the current academic year, you may start thinking about the future yourself.  What courses will I be teaching next year? How will I do that? What assessments am I going to use? What am I going to change up?  Wouldn’t it be cool if {insert innovative idea here}?  While TLT is here to help you with all of your planning needs this summer, there are a few things to keep in mind while you make plans for your future courses, especially in terms of meeting the needs of all learners.

College of Charleston currently has approximately 900 students with various disabilities on campus who are registered with the Center for Disability Services. [1]  Some of you may have already worked with students with disabilities in your courses and have a working knowledge of accommodations.  For others, this concept may be new and foreign to you.  In any case, as you look to prepare your courses for future semesters, here are some overall tips that will help you to design with accessibility in mind:

  • Think about the whole process more as Accessibility rather than Compliance. When you hear someone bring up the topic of working with students with disabilities, you often hear it referred to as ADA Compliance.  Just that phrase can conjure up images of lawsuits, courtrooms, and “early retirement”…but it doesn’t have to be that way!  True, there are federal requirements that are outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act, reauthored in 2010.  What it all boils down to is making sure that each student in your course has equitable access to the information and participation.  When you think about it, that just makes sense!  Why would a student be in our courses?  To learn.  How can we help them learn? By giving them the opportunity to do so.  To learn more about what this means, check out this video on Web Accessibility as it pertains to College of Charleston.

 

  • It is much easier and less time consuming to design a course to be accessible from the ground up than to try and retrofit it later. Sometimes, you’ll hear a faculty member say “I’ll worry about that IF I have a student who needs a disability in my class”.  However, as one professor who recently had a student with visual impairments in her class put it, “I realized at that point it was too late.  I had to struggle to get all of my material together and put into a format that the student could use.  Add that on top of not knowing what that meant or looked like and all of the responsibilities of the semester.  I was stressed out, the student was falling behind, and it wasn’t really their fault! I just hadn’t thought about it.” Many of us will be teaching courses that we’ve taught before, so how can we start looking at accessibility issues and fitting in pieces that fit?  Which leads us to…
  • Consider using Universal Design for Learning principles as you redesign parts of your course. “Universal design for learning (UDL) is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn,” (CAST 2015)[2].   Structured to help all learners in your courses, not just students with disabilities, this framework for curriculum design is based off of three primary principles:
    • Multiple Means of Representation: Present information in different ways so that all learners can access the information.  Look for flexible ways to present what you teach and what you want the students to learn.  Consider using visual and auditory elements, experiential learning, and kinesthetic opportunities to engage with content.
    • Multiple Means of Expression: Provide ways for students to show what they know and what they can do using multiple modalities. Project Based Learning is a great way to do this by giving students a forced choice menu of final product options and adding in a reflection piece.
    • Multiple Means of Engagement: Consider using different “hooks” or “activators” to capture your students’ attention to the content and hold it. Remember, relevance is key!

Universal Design for Learning is a vast and useful framework for reaching all learners and to individualize the learning process to meet their needs and your course goals.  I would suggest checking out some of the additional resources below if you are interested in learning more about the theory.

To learn more about HOW to do this, including examples from current faculty, stay tuned for Designing with Accessibility in Mind, Part 2: The Practice (Coming in May…debuting just in time for your summer course planning!)

Additional Resources

When using these principles there are a variety of resources available to help you out.  Here on College of Charleston’s campus the Center for Disability Services is a wonderful resource for faculty.  TLT can also help you differentiate your instruction and research academic-related technology solutions to implement.  Here are some other resources to help you out:


 

[1] Mihal, Deborah. “Our Role.” Center for Disability Services. College of Charleston, Aug. 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

[2] Poller, Lisa. “About Universal Design for Learning.” About Universal Design. CAST, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

1-1-1, Faculty Technology Institute, TLT

Incorporating student interaction and peer instruction in math courses

Our guest blogger is Stephane Lafortune, a professor in the Department of Mathematics. Dr. Lafortune attended the 2014 Summer FTI. This post is a report and reflection on incorporating a new learning strategy in his math courses.


I participated in the 2014 Summer FTI. My goal was to become more familiar and comfortable with the technology that can be incorporated in my work as a teacher. Below, I will first talk about my general experience as a participant and then focus on one aspect of the workshop that I used in class.

The commitment of participating in an FTI involves being there eight hours a day for a week. This is quite a commitment from both you and the organizers who have to come up with activities and material to entertain all these professors (we were about 25 people). Well, let me tell you that the staff of TLT filled this week with so many workshops, activities, and games where we could win stuff (I did win a TLT umbrella) that really there were no dull moments. In addition to that, the people at TLT truly were enthusiastic about the FTI and really cared about the participants. As a direct consequence of that, there was really a good spirit of camaraderie among the participants. As a human experience, I have a fond memory of the week I spent with the TLT people.

My primary goal was to learn about technology. However, I had not noticed that there was going to be a section of the FTI devoted to the topic of “interactive teaching.” For that section, we were using the guide entitled “The Interactive Lecture” written by Silver and Perini. As part of our activities, we had a block of time (about 2 hours) when we had to come up with a specific way to implement the strategies outlined in the guide. To do so, we were guided in a very specific way as the steps we had to follow were written in a Google document. Our “job” was to write our plan by following each step carefully. Admittedly, I was not initially very enthusiastic about the idea but, given that I was sitting there with nothing else to do, I went to work and decided to apply this technique to my Math 103 course.

One of the topics that most of the students have difficulty to grasp in Math 103 concerns the analysis of arguments (this is part of the mathematical theory of logic). During that session, I created activities where the students would be forced to collaborate with a neighbor to come up with their own arguments and then share their ideas as to how the argument can be analyzed.  I did use those ideas in my summer Math103 course right after the FTI. To do so, I shortened the time spent on lecturing by going over less examples on the board. The idea was to have the students make their own examples and have them explain to each other how to apply the concepts to their cases.  It went magnificently as the students enthusiastically exchanged ideas once I had told them to start. As a direct consequence of that, the students had a better understanding of the topic and their exam scores on that particular topic were much higher than usual. In addition, being “forced” to work on interactive lectures gave me other ideas of activities, which I also incorporated in that summer Math 103 course.

To conclude, this FTI was a wonderful experience on a personal level as it was very pleasant and enabled me to get to know some of my colleagues. In addition, I was pleasantly surprised by the impact what I learned had on my teaching style.

Kool Kats Photo of school bus reflection
Pedagogy, TLT, Training Opportunities

Reflecting on the Fall Semester

Your course is over and grades are submitted! Whew, you have time to take a deep breath and kick those feet up on your desk…well maybe. The spring semester is not so far away, and this is a great time to reflect on your teaching and courses. Here are 10 questions to think about:

  1. Review your course goals, objectives, outcomes, etc. Did the course meet your expectations?

  1. When were students most engaged? When were they distracted? Can you determine why?

  1. Did you cover all of the material you had hoped to discuss? Was anything extraneous?

  1. Should you consider re-sequencing any topics?

  1. When were students most confused?

  1. Which topics, discussions, and assignments were most relevant to your course learning goals and objectives? Are there any assessments that should be re-tailored?

  1. Did students come to class prepared? What could be adjusted to improve student preparation?

  1. What were the best and worst moments in the course? Was anything different, unique, or surprising about this semester?

  1. What would you change in future iterations of this course? What could you improve?

  1. Did your student course evaluations surprise you?

Other than reflecting and taking notes on areas to adjust for the upcoming semester, there are a handful of other tasks you can get started on. First, it’s always helpful to have examples of student work. If there’s a project or piece of work from this fall semester that you would like to share with future students, make sure you seek written permission from that student. It’s better to do it now while you still have the contact information for all of your students.

Have you reviewed your teaching evaluations? It’s OK to wait – ProfHacker actually recommends reading teaching evaluations at a later time. Regardless of when you read them, they can sometimes be difficult to interpret. Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching has an excellent page with resources and thoughts about student evaluations. If you don’t feel like you can use the information from the standard evaluations for reworking your course, you might consider creating your own course evaluation with specific questions about your course. This reflection period is the perfect time to prepare a questionnaire or survey for your future students. You could even create a survey to hand out around midterms.

Lastly, if there is a particular topic or area of teaching that you are struggling with, come up with a strategy for how to address it. Consider attending a TLT Training Session to hear about best practices, setting up an appointment with your instructional technologist, or reaching out to your peers for a discussion about teaching. There are also some great resources available online to help with your teaching – contact your instructional technologist if you need help navigating them. In the long term, you may consider attending an FTI or checking out TLT’s brand new Spring Training initiative. Remember that there are a lot of instructors on campus with a passion for teaching – they are great for ideas and feedback. You could even invite a colleague to sit in on one of your classes to get some honest and constructive evaluations. If that doesn’t sound appealing, as an alternative you could plan to record a class period or lecture to watch on your own. This can be a very enlightening process, and it may give you ideas to keep in mind for future lectures. If this is something you would like to pursue,TLT has equipment you can borrow.

There’s so much that can be done in preparation for your 2015 courses! But, don’t forget to take a break so you come back energized and refreshed for a new group of students.