One New York Times Sunday Review

When I opened the September 13th NY Times Sunday Review recently, I found not only  a print version of Annie Paul’s blog featured in my last post,  Is There a Lecture Learning Gap?,  but three other articles on higher education as well. While Paul suggested we replace the Western cultural lecture that favors privileged white males with activity-based learning benefiting everyone, the others took an unquestioning view of American college culture.

In What the Privileged Poor Can Teach Us?, sociologist Anthony Abraham Jack talks about his research on black students in elite colleges. He compared the success of low-income black students who attended private schools (the privileged poor) with poor blacks who hadn’t. He found that the privileged poor had a great advantage because they were comfortable in the dominant American culture that permeates our elite colleges. For example, while the privileged poor will ask, even demand, extra help when they are confused or behind, non-privileged blacks are too embarrassed or uncomfortable to reach out to instructors so they will continue on a downward spiral.

Nicholas Kristof’s piece, From Somaliland to Harvard, is in sync with Jack’s observations.  Kristof highlights the journey of Abdisamad Adan, a poor African, to Harvard this year. Abdisamad attended a private boarding school run by an American, Jonathan Starr, in Somaliland. Forty-five students from that high school have already graduated from top US colleges. Kristof’s point in the article is that access to schools like Starr’s is the key to success for children like Abdisamad.

This “if you can’t fight them, join them” attitude when it comes to the prevailing culture in American colleges is assumed by Frank Bruni in his article, Measuring a College’s Value. He looked at data from the Gallup-Purdue Index which surveyed 30,000 college graduates. According to Bruni, the research shows that

….graduates fared better if, during college, they did any of these: developed a relationship with a mentor; took on a project that lasted a semester or more; did a job or internship directly connected to their chosen field; or became deeply involved in a campus organization or activity….

Developing a relationship with a mentor? Applying for an internship? Plunging into an extracurricular activity? It sounds like you would have to have the cultural confidence of the privileged poor to take advantage of those opportunities.

Bruni concludes that “what college gives you hinges almost entirely on what you give it.” “What you give it” isn’t neutral. It depends on who you are, the circumstances of your childhood, what culture is familiar to you. So is the student to blame or should we take a look at American college culture?

Before we give more support to elite schools mimicking a biased dominant Western perspective, before we try to make everyone conform to a culture that hasn’t always done the best for everyone, shouldn’t we question what exists and find solutions for change that support and encourage all students including those who bring diversity to the college campus?

Is There a Lecture Learning Gap?

Originally posted by Rochelle Diogenes on Acrobatiq.

Annie Murphy Paul’s recent blog, Are College Lectures Unfair?  gives us another look at the weaknesses of the lecture format as a teaching method. She reminds us that teaching through lecture is a cultural phenomenon.

According to Norm Friesen’s, The Lecture as a Transmedial Pedagogical Form: A Historical Analysis, the education lecture originated in the early Middle Ages to transmit the written word, first, literally, as lecturers read to their audiences many of whom copied down exactly what they heard so they would have the material in written form. After the Gutenberg press made books available to the public, lecturers also included well-respected commentaries in their presentations.

It wasn’t until the Renaissance, that lecturers started giving original talks reflecting their own ideas. By the 20th century, when audio and video came into play, lectures started evolving into multimedia presentations. Guides on how to give effective lectures including tips on speech delivery, engaging students, and multimedia integration continue to advise instructors on best lecture practices.

As Paul points out, not only are lectures the mainstay of higher education, they are also embedded in online courses such as MOOCs. There is a lot of contradiction on the place of lectures in education. Friesen notes that you can even watch TED talks on the ineffectiveness of lectures. Even if the speaker isn’t behind a podium, it’s still a lecture. How many lectures on pedagogy have you attended that tell you that’s not the best way to teach?

Friesen supports the continued use of the lecture format. He sees lectures as “bridging oral communication with writing and newer media technologies, rather than as being superseded by newer electronic and digital forms.”

In contrast, Paul questions whether the lecture format meets the learning needs of all students. She reviews studies on how lecture courses affect women, minorities, and first-generation and low-income students (non-dominants) who haven’t historically come from or participated equally in the dominant Western culture of well-off white males (dominants).

Paul found that non-dominants do more poorly than dominants when a course is lecture-centered. In the studies she reviewed, professors engaged students with active pedagogical approaches such as questions, exercises, and collaborative work, that required students to engage with the subject matter more than they would with lectures.

All groups did well with activity-based learning. And, non-dominants benefited even more than dominants. In one study, the achievement gap between white and black students decreased by 50% and the divide between first-generation college students and those with a family history of college disappeared.

Paul ends her article with this question:

Given that active-learning approaches benefit all students, but especially those who are female, minority, low-income and first-generation, shouldn’t all universities be teaching this way?

Education technology advocates are responding to Paul’s question with robust digital programs in which students learn through activities such as participating in simulations, completing exercises, drawing diagrams, initiating peer communication, and problem-solving. As higher education institutions and instructors integrate these programs into their courses, they will write the next chapter on how higher education courses are taught.

Formative Assessment in a World of Learning Outcomes

Consider this scenario: You’re teaching language arts to a middle school special ed class. The learning objective is to write a story about making something. While you go through the provided writing sample about children building a clubhouse, your students get more excited about the clubhouse than writing a story. They ask to build a clubhouse. Do you make them write the story or do you let them build a clubhouse first?

If you go with the clubhouse, you’re delaying writing the story and you may not have time to fulfill all the learning objectives embedded in your curriculum. On the other hand, if you decide, as I did, to build your lesson on your students’ spontaneous enthusiasm, you are choosing to write in additional learning objectives involving commitment, collaboration, and problem-solving before writing the story. And, you must alter your teaching plans to achieve them.

My decision was based on formative assessment or assessment for learning. Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam wrote the classic definition of formative assessment in 1998:

….the term ‘assessment’ refers to all those activities undertaken by teachers, and by their students in assessing themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged. Such assessment becomes ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet the needs.

This definition holds true for higher education even though Wiliam’s continuing work is with teachers in K-12. He emphasizes that many strategies can be successful as long as we remember “the big idea is to use evidence-based learning to adapt instruction to meet student needs.”  I encourage you to watch his exceptional talk, Assessment for Learning, below:

Education technology offers us valuable tools for assessment. Evidence-based programs can quickly adapt instruction based on feedback from student learning. These programs also help instructors alter their class instruction because aggregate data is available in real time. (see my earlier blog, What’s a Seventeen-Year-Old to Do?).

But there is a downside. Since, like all effective formative assessment, adaptive learning programs tie instruction and feedback to learning outcomes, the learning outcomes in adaptive programs are predetermined Formative assessment means changing student learning pathways–more material for a struggling student; less for an excelling student. But all pathways lead to the same goal.

The movement for student competencies and consistency in higher education also rests on predetermined learning outcomes. While these trends have merit, we need to be cautious and not allow them to get us entrenched in rigid practices, deterring instructors from going “off-script” and tapping into students’ enthusiasm and innovative ideas–these, too, are worthwhile in the learning environment. (When you look back, isn’t it the off-script instructors who influenced you the most?)

As we develop and use technology to get more precise evidence-based snapshots of student progress, we need to build in flexibility so that formative assessment based on student feedback can modify learning outcomes as well as learning pathways.

If You Give a Student a Cell Phone…

Originally posted by Rochelle Diogenes on Acrobatiq.

With the increase in digital distractions, interest in how we pay attention has grown. Although researchers continue to delineate definitions, most agree with the early psychologist, William James:

Everyone knows what attention is. It is taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.

Attention is really selective attention.  We consciously or automatically choose which things to ignore and which to focus on. You are more likely to pay attention to something that affects you, interests you, or has deep meaning.

What we pay attention to is contextual and subjective. At a play, we think it’s important to focus on what’s happening on the stage without distraction. If an 8-year-old points out that there’s a man behaving oddly in the next row, he will probably get shushed. But these days, if he makes the same observation as his mother rushes him to catch a train or plane, Mom will probably pay attention and report it to security personnel.

Attention is the gateway to learning, to remembering and processing information. Instructors competing for student attention isn’t new. Remember when we thought all students were taking notes, but many were doodling, or writing love letters, or passing notes to other students? Remember when daydreaming was a common class distraction?

Cell phones may just be a more efficient way of channeling wandering attention. Researchers have shown that students texting/posting on their cell phones while watching a video lecture tested more than a grade level below their phoneless counterparts. They suggested that instructors discuss cell phone use policies with their students. That’s a start, but it doesn’t get to contextual factors that may contribute to cell phone distractions.

If, as the Pew Research Center reports, 93% of 18-29 year old smartphone owners use their phones to avoid being bored, maybe we should consider that having students listen to long lectures is not the best way to hold their attention. Even I’ve been known to check my cell phone during the most inspirational TED Talk.

Distraction can work in the opposite way as well.  A student who tunes out biology to check Instagram, may also avoid the boredom of waiting on line at Chipotle by accessing their course online. And, with Acrobatiq, the professor standing behind them can evaluate how their students’ progress.

While helping students think about how and when they use cell phones, educators need to expand opportunities for students to accomplish a wide variety of goals from communication to graduation with mobile devices. Formats such as blended or hybrid classes using digital learning platforms can lessen student distraction. Some instructors are already incorporating education apps into class time as part of the curriculum.

Mobile device programs will not replace all forms of teaching. They are meant as an active way to promote student learning by using the technology around us.

The Last 20%

Originally posted by Rochelle Diogenes on Acrobatiq.

When Pittsburgh Steelers’ James Harrison wrote on Instagram (#harrisonfamilyvalues) that he was returning his sons’ participation trophies because they were awarded “for nothing,” he probably wasn’t aware that his values about the feedback his sons got resonate with the views of an educator halfway around the world.

Australian professor John Hattie found teacher feedback to be one of the top factors helping students bridge the gap between trying and achievement. His findings are based on meta-analyses of 50,000 studies involving over 200 million students.

What does high-quality feedback look like? It’s clear, dynamic, and specific so that students can address their weaknesses to attain their goals. A trophy for participation doesn’t do that. According to Hattie, worthwhile feedback  answers these questions:

Where am I going? Students need to have a clear understanding of what the goal is, how to achieve it, and its benefits. For Harrison’s sons, participation was a means of reaching the goal of excelling or winning in athletics. Getting a trophy before you reach your goal could actually undermine working towards achievement.

How am I going? Feedback should give students a realistic picture of their progress, what they have accomplished, and what they need to work on.

If Harrison’s sons had gotten productive feedback, it would have included acknowledgment of the skills they acquired and evaluation of specific skills they need to improve. Not having that kind of feedback robbed Harrison of the opportunity to discuss and practice skills with his sons. This type of progress report is extremely successful in moving students forward.

Where to next? This feedback illuminates learning pathways for students. When teachers outline specific steps such as engaging in new activities, working with peers, or just plain practice, they are showing faith in the student to do better. In this context, “I am not good at math” doesn’t hold. Instead, it’s “I didn’t understand this problem today.”  This approach leads students to forget they “failed” and focus on how to do better.

Notice that there is no mention of raising student self-esteem. It’s all about the task. According to Hattie, confidence and pride grow from achievement. Productive feedback is not personal; it’s individualized.

If, as Woody Allen says, “eighty percent of success is showing up,” then it’s the last 20% that gets you significant achievement.  Hattie reveals that any program or method of teaching can show some success—students will show some improvement from the beginning to the end of the year. But that doesn’t mean the program is the best one for your students.

Technology can offer the types of feedback Hattie advocates to help students conquer the challenges in that last 20%. To help your students reach the trophy level in their endeavors, here’s some questions on feedback to keep in mind when you evaluate a digital learning program:

  • Does it include pedagogically sound learning objectives?
  • Is there targeted feedback specific to skills throughout the program?
  • Is the program adaptive, providing new varied content pathways tailored to each student?
  • Does it share learning data with students and instructors in real time?