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Reflections on Teaching and Learning and Research

School starts next week at Temple. This week is when Temple has its annual teaching-learning conference, and I am attending a training session on Atlas.ti a comprehensive qualitative analysis software package.

The teaching conference was better than usual. The featured speaker was Ken Bain, who wrote a book with a stupid title: What the Best College Teachers Do. I have to say, tho, I enjoyed his presentation.

Bains had two main ideas that I took away with me: First, most students can be viewed as either surface learners, strategic learners or deep learners. Surface learners tend to take in just the basic information, just enough to get by, and usually are not "in" to the material, do not think about it deeply, do not learn on the conceptual level. Strategic learners go a little more deeply, with the goal of getting good grades. They tend to memorize the material and try to figure out what the professor "wants" on assignments in order to get good grades. They may have a better grasp of the material, but do not often make connections independently of what the teacher has told them. The deep learners are in to the material, strive to grasp the concepts, and make the deeper connections. They tend to get the most out of learning, although sometimes they take risks and apply concepts in ways that are sometimes right and sometimes miss the mark. Deep learners do not always make As.

Second, Baines suggested that, when it comes to large lecture classes, it is probably better to teach less, more deeply, than to cram a ton of material through at a surface level. After five years of teaching large lectures, I think I agree, and I think that is the kind of teaching I have evolved to. In the Design course, for example, we focus on the basics of design theory in the lecture during the first half of the semester. I pick specific models and concepts and explore them with the class and ask the students to apply them to image or page or layout or Web designs.

Meanwhile, today in my research training seminar I attended a presentation of a research project that is studying why students drop out of science majors. The project is an excellent one, a lot of people are working on it, and I am sure it will gain the recognition it deserves. I had to do a double-take, tho, when one of the investigators described a "surprising" response she heard in a student interview. When asked how she studied for her intro to chemistry class, one student confessed she had not read the book - because she had not bought the book. "My goodness," the researcher exclaimed, "I have never heard of students not buying the book! Maybe we need to add another question to the survey." At this I had to raise my hand and reveal that most of the journalism students rarely bought the required textbooks. Apparently this is not the case in the hard sciences, or, what is more likely, the professors think that this is not the case. It turns out that the chemistry textbook cost four hundred dollars, that the class consisted of a giant lecture plus labs taught by graduate students, and that some of the students in the study said that the lecture rarely had anything to to with the labs.

Once again, I had to reflect on how much I have improved my style of teaching large lecture courses. I am not perfect, and I certainly have my issues. But I am pretty sure that most of the students leave with a grasp of the core design concepts and how to apply them. That my lectures, at least during the first half of the class, fully relate to the production projects they are doing in lab. (The second half of the class is a little more speculative and still evolving.) That the two textbooks together cost less than $100, and that they supplement the work in class, they don't substitute for it. Remember, I'm going for less stuff with deeper understanding. The researcher is now considering interviewing the lecture professor (but not the graduate students leading the labs), to see whether there is a disconnect between the teaching and the learning, and whether this is affecting dropout rates in science.

Good luck, brave researcher. Methinks you will open a can of worms related to the teaching and learning practices of the hard sciences.

I do love attending these sessions on research techniques and tools. NYU had very little support for graduate students and research methods. (I took a class in Content Analysis, one in Historical Research and one in Aesthetic Analysis. Only the Content Analysis was useful in the sense of teaching me a recognized method outside of NYU.) I would love to use this Atlas.ti, but it's expensive, which means I won't be getting it on my laptop any time soon, and Temple only has an older version lots of limitations available in the computer labs.

Speaking of research, I am waiting to hear whether my paper was accepted to ICA in Singapore. They are scheduled to send out notifications on Friday, but conference notifications are often late. I have been trolling the blogs and the academic lists for news of any ICA acceptances, but the only one I saw was dated yesterday. A US university announced on its Web page that one of its doctoral students had her paper accepted - the sole ICA acceptance announcement I found anywhere on the InterWebs. Upon further investigation it turns out that chair of the division that this woman's paper was accepted in is a faculty member at that very US university....

Comments

This is really interesting. I'd love to hear more about the research on why students drop out of the science classes.

I want to be a deep learner. I'm in college for a degree, I realize, but I just want to learn as much as possible while I'm there. However, my first "science class," this soil class I'm taking, is geared much more toward strategic learners. If I want an A in this class, I can't focus on learning the concepts involved. We're nearly half-way through and I still haven't really developed a "feel" for the class, which seems strange to me because it's a fascinating topic. But it's all about terminology and formulas and the format of the testing pretty much guarantees that I'm going to cram a bunch of terms that I'll forget a month after the class ends. It's unfortunate. I find myself re-thinking the idea of studying geology or plant sciences along with anthropology, because anthropology and the humanities seem like they'll teach me more. I'll remember the concepts from my introductory anthro class long after the ones from this soil class fade from my mind. =/

Anyway, godspeed to that researcher - definitely a disconnect there if people don't think a textbook with a prohibitively high cost will make students think twice about buying it. Textbook cost is one of the first things I check out when considering a new class. I also read up on the professor and if students say that they never used the class, I delay buying the textbook and skip it if I don't think I need it.

Let us know about paper. Sounds exciting!

Sounds like an interesting conference. I wonder if the blending of disciplines in some classes would help the learning process in some cases.

I hope your paper is accepted, it sounds interesting as well.
atkins diet

June 2011

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