Archive for the ‘Future Faculty’ Category

Often times the largest barriers to learning are the preconceived ideas or mis-conceptions that we as learners bring into the classroom. While this is true for many subject areas, it seems most pervasive in learning science and mathematics. Given this knowledge, it is important to address these misconceptions and provide the students with the opportunity to unlearn and relearn these concepts.

During the February 9th Teaching Sciences Seminar in DCAL, Professor Chandrasekhar Ramanathan presented on the active learning teaching practices he was exposed to during the American Association of Physics Teachers workshop for new physics and astronomy faculty. In keeping true to the topic, those in attendance at this TSS were not passive recipients of the knowledge but active participants in the session.

After reviewing the philosophy behind Active Learning, Sekhar engaged the group in the practice of Peer Instruction. Made notable by Harvard Professor Eric Mazur, Peer Instruction involves students in their own learning during lecture by focusing their attention on underlying concepts.  In modeling Peer Instruction, Sekhar presented the group with a variety of common Physics questions and first asked the participants to answer as individuals. After answering individually, we broke off in groups of two to three to discuss the reasoning/thinking behind our answers. The group was then re-polled and the answer revealed with explanation/clarification as necessary. Not only was it fun to learn this way, but it allowed each individual to share their knowledge and become active participants in their learning. Find one of those who attended the session and ask them about the Car vs the Train.

Professor Ramanathan then discussed to the technique of Interactive Lecture Demonstration (ILD).  During ILD students first make predictions about the results of the demonstration. Once the demonstration is completed, the students discuss the results compared to their predictions. Reflection is key as it is through reflection that we can work through our misconceptions. Unfortunately, as noted by many in attendance, often times the traditional lab does not allow for reflection and that a standard “solution set” while often reproducible with that same set, does not afford students with the opportunity to reflect upon the process of solving the problem set and then applying the knowledge to other solution sets/situations.

The third active learning technique presented in the session was that of JITT or Just In Time Teaching. JITT engages students in learning activities before a class meeting. The type of activities can vary but may include video tutorials, simulations, and problem sets. The goal is to have students engage in the content and concepts outside of class and submit questions or reflections about the assignment to the instructor before class. This practice allows the instructor to focus on the knowledge gap and potential misconceptions the students bring to the content as he/she prepares for the next class meeting.

The session was fun, informative, and full of important takeaways. While incorporating Active Learning practices into the teaching and learning experience are extremely valuable; implementation is key.

  • Align Outcomes with Assessments, Assessments with Activities, and Activities with Outcomes.
  • Provide a supportive environment within the active learning classroom.
  • Explain to the students what you are doing and why.
  • Meet students where they are; don’t try to predict what they will have problems with.
  • Recognize that students may feel that their intelligence is being questioned when their understanding (misunderstanding) is challenged.
  • Provide opportunities for reflection for both the students and for yourself.
  • Consider how you will evaluate the success of the teaching techniques.

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Michael Chaney (English) and Leslie Butler (History) led a discussion packed with advice and information for anyone looking down the road toward getting tenure at Dartmouth or any other research university that values teaching. Michael had fifteen specific points of advice, but he began by reviewing the language in Dartmouth’s Faculty Handbook from the section on “promotion and tenure”:

Specific evidence of outstanding performance in scholarship and teaching is essential…. It is difficult to define outstanding teaching in specific terms. Comparative judgment by current and former students and by faculty colleagues is a necessary part of weighing the candidate’s performance against the standards of the College. Consideration will be given primarily to classroom instruction, but work with individual students and a creative role in course and program development will be fully recognized. (Faculty Handbook 35-36 )

In a brief analysis, Michael made a few observations about teaching and the tenure process as described in the Handbook. It appears that

  • Scholarship and teaching are the two most important components to a tenure decision
  • The handbook declines to define “outstanding teaching in specific terms”
  • The teaching activities that count for tenure are primarily those one can observe in the classroom

These observations give rise to familiar questions, like

  • Which is more important in a tenure decision, scholarship or teaching?
  • Why do we tend to assume these are competing rather than integrated activities?
  • If outstanding teaching is “difficult to define,” then against what standards to students and colleagues make the judgments that determine who gets tenure?
  • Why is classroom performance rather than other evidence like course design, assignments and assessments the focus of evaluation?

These questions prompted energetic discussion amongst the dozen or so participants, most of whom this year were graduate students. (I wondered why so few assistant professors showed up for such an important discussion.)

Some of the helpful recommendations Leslie and Mike advanced include the following:

  • Identify and use the resources that support your teaching: DCAL, Educational technologists, librarians and colleagues.
  • Share your ideas with colleagues and borrow from them.
  • Limit the time you devote to preparing for each class; stop worrying so much about what you are going to do or say in class and concentrate on what you plan to ask students to do.
  • Listen to your students, even their course evaluations; ask for feedback in the middle of term, not just at the end.
  • Tell students frequently why you do what you do, assign what you assign and evaluate it the way you do; this will help them write more intelligent and useful course evaluations.
  • Manage your teaching schedule to allow maximum time for scholarship; repeat courses; avoid trying to teach two new courses at once.
  • Teach outside your area of expertise when you can; it helps you reflect on how you learn.
  • Teach students how you do your scholarship; focus on methods and skills more than content. (That does not mean ignore content!)
  • Make sure you know what your department and division expects from you regarding teaching; how many courses, how often, what levels; these vary widely across the university.
  • Figure out your strengths and play to them. Do more not with less, but with what you already do.
  • Explain to your students that strong criticism of their work is meant as a sign of respect and an invitation to engage with you; otherwise they might take it the wrong way; all praise all the time leads to vacuous evaluations, however positive.
  • No one will be promoted and tenured without a strong record of recognized scholarship, but many department committees consider a candidate’s teaching evidence first and it can color how they look at the scholarship.
  • Like winter in northern New England (do winter or it will do you), embrace the high expectations for teaching at Dartmouth and the satisfaction you get can energize your scholarship.

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As part of the ongoing training for Dartmouth’s GK-12 Fellows, participants in a session open to all grad students and postdocs gathered to discuss the questions we ask in class or during science outreach with public audiences.  We generated a list of questions, experienced either as teachers or students, that silenced the room rather than promoted discussion.  After reading “The Right Question at the Right Time,” by Joe Elstgeest (Chapter 3 in Primary Science: Taking the Plunge),  we explored why questions ranging from “why is methylmercury toxic?” to “are there any questions?” didn’t elicit the desired response and how we could revise them to better achieve the goal of the question in the first place.

Suggestions included breaking a big question down into smaller parts, revising the language to better match the knowledge level of our students, finding a related common experience, being more specific (or more general), creating a safe space, and recognizing when the question asked was not leading to the intended learning objective.  We talked about the importance of timing both in terms of allowing enough wait time to generate a response and how a question will be more productive when asked at an appropriate time.  Using the improv acting technique of “yes, and” to give a positive response to an answer that wasn’t expected and building from there was mentioned as another way to create an environment where people want to participate.

Nancy Serrell and Cindy Tobery, who were facilitating the workshop, concluded by using a summary of productive questioning strategies to focus on a specific example from our participants: how to engage the visitors to Dartmouth’s polar ice core exhibit during the upcoming USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington DC on Oct 24-25.

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yeah, it's long -- I didn't have time to make it shorter

Feral Librarian

Research libraries & higher education. Sometimes music, sports, & other stuff.