I have always hated workshops where you had to do “active stuff”, moving around to music and the like, because the facilitator wanted to “get everybody active!”. But recently I’ve come to appreciate the value in that (better late than never, right?).
So what I occasionally do these days, sometimes after a break or when the workshop starts early in the morning or right in my post-lunch-I-need-a-nap-time and participants seem to have low energy levels, but mainly when I realize that I’ve been talking for too long and need to re-focus everybody’s attention, are two small activities.
I forget where I first learned about the first one (I was talking to a friend, but can’t remember who that was! If it was you, let me know and I will happily credit you here!), but this is what I started out using: I asked participants to put two fingers towards the camera and move them up and down, drawing lines. When they are doing that, I ask them to move on to the next level of difficulty: Drawing triangles. Then squares. Then … no, not pentagons! … one hand does the triangle while the other one does the square. At this point people try, struggle, laugh, and are awake again so I can move on to some engaging activity related to the actual topic of my class.
(In my teaching prep, this method is called |Δ▢ , in case you need a name for it :-D)
The second method I learned from Kjersti when talking about liking the first one. In this method, you are drawing circles with your fingers in front of your chest, with the axis of those cicles parallel to your shoulders. But: the hands are drawing the circles in the opposite directions! When the fingers move apart at the top of the circle, one hand moves towards you while the other hand moves away from you. They meet up at the bottom of the circle, where then the other hand moves towards you and away from you. Sounds complicated? Try doing it! The effect is the same as in method one.
What other methods are you using when you need to “wake people up” so you can re-engage with them?
I am currently teaching a lot of workshops on higher education topics where participants (who previously didn’t know each other, or me) spend 1-1.5 days talking about topics that can feel emotional and intimate and where I want to create an environment that is open and full of trust, and where connections form that last beyond the time of the workshop and help participants build a supportive network. So a big challenge for me is to make sure that paticipants quickly feel comfortable with each other and me.
As I am not a big fan of introductory games and that sort of things, for a long time I just asked them to introduce themselves and mention the “one question they need answered at the end of the workshop to feel like their time was well invested” (way to put a lot of pressure on the instructor! But I really like that question and in any case, it’s better to know the answer than to be constantly guessing…).
For the last couple of workshops, I have added another question, and that is to ask participants to quickly introduce us to their “nerd topic”*, which we define as the topic that they like to spend their free time on, wish they could talk about at any time and with anyone, and that just makes them happy. For me, that’s obviously kitchen oceanography!
Introductions in my workshops usually work like this: I go first and introduce myself. I make sure to not talk about myself in more detail than I want them to talk about themselves and to not include a lot of orga info at this point so I am not building a hierarchy of me being the instructor who gets to talk all the time, and then them being the participants who only get to say a brief statement each when I call on them. I model the kind of introduction I am hoping for to make it clear what I am hoping for from them. Then I call on people in the order they appear on my zoom screen and they introduce themselves. (I hate the “everybody pass the word on to someone who hasn’t spoken yet!” thing because it’s hugely stressful to me and making sure I call on someone who really hasn’t spoken yet and don’t forget anyone binds all my mental capacities if I am a participant. So when I am the workshop lead, I do call people myself and check off a list who has spoken already).
Including the “nerd topic” question has worked really well for me. Firstly, I LOVE talking about kitchen oceanography, and getting to talk about it (albeit really briefly) in the beginning of a workshop (when I am usually a little stressed and flustered) makes me happy and relaxes me. My excitement for kitchen oceanography shows in the way I speak, and I get positive feedback from participants right away. Even if kitchen oceanography isn’t necessarily their cup of tea, they can relate to the fascination I feel for a specific topic that not many other people care for.
And the same happens when, one after the other, the other participants introduce themselves. Nerd topics can be anything, and in the recent workshops topics ranging from children’s books to reading about social justice, from handcrafts to gardening, from cooking beetroots with spices to taste like chocolate to fermenting all kinds of foods, from TV series to computer games, from pets to children, from dance to making music. People might not come forward with their nerdiest nerd topics or they might make them sound nerdier than they actually are (who knows?), but so far for every nerd topic, there have been nods and smiles and positive reactions in the group and it is very endearing to see people light up when they talk about their favorite things. Participants very quickly start referencing other people’s nerd topics and relating them to their own, and a feeling of shared interests (or at least shared nerdiness) and of community forms.
Since they fit so well with the content of my workshops, I like to come back to nerd topics throughout the workshops. When speaking about motivation, they are great to reflect on our own motivation (what makes you wanting to spend your Saturday afternoons and a lot of money on this specific topic?). When speaking about the importance of showing enthusiasm in teaching, they were a perfect demonstration of how people’s expressions changed from when they talked about their job title and affiliation to talking about their nerd topic. Also practicing designing intriguing questions is easier when the subject is something you are really passionate about. Nerd topics are also great as examples to discuss the difference between personal and private — sharing personal information, showing personality, is a great way to connect with other people, but it does not mean that we need to share private information, too. And if participants are thinking about their USP when networking online, connecting their field of study with their nerd topic always adds an interesting, personal, unique touch.
Maybe “nerd topics” are especially useful for the kind of workshops I teach and not universally the best icebreaker question. In any case, for my purposes they work super well! But no matter what the nature of the workshop: Self-disclosure has been shown to lead to social validation and formation of professional relationships, both in online professional communities (Kou & Gray, 2018) and in classrooms (Goldstein & Benassi, 1994) and other settings. Listening to others disclosing information about themselves makes people like the other party better. But there is some reciprociticy in this: openness fosters openness, and as soon as the roles are reversed, the second person disclosing information can catch up on being liked, and the more is disclosed from both sides, the more the liking and other positive emotions like closeness and enjoyment grow (Sprecher et al. 2013). So maybe asking about participants’ “nerd topics” is a good icebreaker question for your classes, too?
*While I really like the longer form of the question, I’m actually not super happy with the term “nerd topic” itself. But I don’t have a good and less charged alternative. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them!
Goldstein, G. S., & Benassi, V. A. (1994). The relation between teacher self-disclosure and student classroom participation. Teaching of psychology, 21(4), 212-217.
Kou, Y., & Gray, C. M. (2018). ” What do you recommend a complete beginner like me to practice?” Professional Self-Disclosure in an Online Community. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 2(CSCW), 1-24.
Sprecher, S., Treger, S., & Wondra, J. D. (2013). Effects of self-disclosure role on liking, closeness, and other impressions in get-acquainted interactions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(4), 497-514.
For many people it has been (and still is!) a huge hassle to quickly figure out ways to teach field courses in a covid-19 world, and I can relate so much! But I’m also getting more and more excited about the possibilities that are opening up when we think about fieldwork in a new way. And as I’ve been researching and teaching workshops for university teaching staff on how to transition field courses into a socially-distanced world, I have seen many exciting examples. In this blogpost, I want to share what I think is important to consider when transitioning field courses online, and some really amazing ways I’ve seen it done in the second half of the post.
Most importantly: Don’t despair, and don’t undermine whatever you end up doing!
Yes, we’d all prefer to be outside for our field courses, and not stuck to our home office, looking at our students’ faces in tiny moving stamps on a video call (at best) or talking into the wide, quiet void (at worst). There are many ways to bring fieldwork to life even in socially-distant settings, and even small “interventions” might have a large effect.
There are a couple of things we need to keep in mind:
Students might actually learn better in an unconventional setting
While we like to think that field courses are taught a certain way because they have been optimized for the specific learning outcomes, that might not actually always be the case. In many cases, they are just following a tradition without actually questioning it (and I’ll talk a little about why that is bad further down). And there are studies that show that sometimes virtual learning environments work better than traditional ones: Finkelstein (2005) showed for a direct current circuit laboratory that students who used simulated equipment outperformed students who went through a conventional lab course, both on a conceptual survey of the domain and in the coordinated tasks of assembling a real circuit and describing how it worked. So why would we assume that similar things might also be true for virtual field courses?
Virtual science is real science, too
Honestly, how many scientists do we know who are in the field every day or even only most of the time? Very very few. Most science these days happens virtually, whether data is acquired remotely, or whether scientists are using datasets that other people measured, or scientists working with numerical models. Virtual science is real science, too, and therefore even though it is not the only kind of science, maybe it’s helpful to convey to the students that while they are missing out on a fun experience (and certainly on some learning outcomes that we wish they had), they are still able to do real science.
Don’t accidentally undermine your virtual field work
That said, while I think it’s important to be honest about what is lost — the travel to an exciting destination, the experience of being on a research ship, the smell of a certain weather pattern, the feeling of different temperatures and humidities than at home — we need to be super careful to not undermine whatever we end up teaching virtually. It’s maybe not our first choice to do it this way, and we might not have spent as much time preparing it as we would have liked, but constantly telling students what they are missing out on is not going to increase their motivation in a time that is already taxing on everybody.
What are field courses?
When I’m speaking about field courses here, what I envision are the kind of field courses I am familiar with in STEM education: Excursions where biologists investigate an ecosystem, sea practicals where oceanographer spend time on a research ship, trips where engineering students look at structures for coastal protection in situ — basically outdoor teaching.
Following the classification by Fedesco et al. (2020), those would all either fall into the categories of
“collecting primary data/visiting primary sources”, where students enter an authentic, new-to-them research setting in order to do open-ended investigations on data that they generate while in the field, and where learning outcomes (partly — I would argue that many learning outcomes don’t) depend on the results of that data. Students are creating new knowledge and are actively participating in authentic research processes;
“guided discovery of a site”, where the instructor is familiar with the site and plans activities that help students discover things, leading to pre-defined learning outcomes, because students are working with skills and concepts that they learned earlier in the course and apply them to a setting that is known in advance; or maybe
“backstage access”, where students visit a site that people usually don’t have access to, for example a wave power plant (or, when I was teaching the intro to oceanography a looong time ago back in Bergen, a company that makes oceanographic instrumentation, thanks Ailin!).
Learning outcomes in field courses
While field courses might have very specific, subject- and location-specific content, there are many learning outcomes that are common to most field courses, e.g.
observation and perception skills
giving meaning to learning
providing first-hand experience
stimulating interest and motivation
(Compare Larsen et al., 2017, and others)
I think it is super helpful (always, but especially in this case) to look closely at learning outcomes, and to see how interconnected they really are. When I did this for the courses I am currently involved in, it turned out that surprisingly many of the learning outcomes can very easily be done virtually. Anything that is to do with planning of experiments, data analysis, learning of concepts could be disconnected from practicing observational skills or team working. And once they are disconnected, they can be practiced in different exercises which don’t have to rely on the same method of instruction. This makes it much easier to, for example, practice some parts in online discussions, while other parts required students to be outside and observe something themselves. The more things become modular in your mind, the easier it is to implement them.
What motivates students in field courses
When we think about field courses, we usually remember (and envision) them as extremely motivating because typically they are the occasions where students get super excited and want to dig deep and really understand the material. But why is that?
One explanation can be found in the self-determination theory by Deci & Ryan, where three basic psychological needs that need to be fulfilled in order for people to feel instrinsic motivation are described: autonomy, competence and relatedness.
Autonomy in the context of a field course means that students typically get to decide more when they are out and about doing fieldwork than when they are passively sitting in a lecture, just consuming whatever someone else decided to talk about. They might or might not get to decide what kind of questions they work on, but even if they don’t they are a lot more free in how they structure their work, how they interact with peers during that time, …
Interacting with peers is an important component for the second basic psychological need: Relatedness. In field courses, students and instructors typically spend informal time together: sitting in a bus, waiting for a boat, during the actual fieldwork. This provides opportunities for conversations that might otherwise not happen, to relate to peers and instructors on a more personal level, to also experience instructors as role models.
Lastly, field courses help students feel competence in a way they usually don’t get to in normal university settings. They work long days, potentially under challenging physical conditions, on the kind of question that they feel is more authentic than the exercises they typically do. So this might be one of the few times where they feel competent in the identity they are trying to develop: as a professional in their chosen field.
Barriers to fieldwork
But all the benefits of fieldwork come at a price (Giles et al., 2020). And those costs are not to be underestimated, especially because the barriers to fieldwork are especially felt by disabled students and those from racial and ethnic minorities, all of whom are critically underrepresented in the geosciences anyway.
Barriers include for example
the financial burden of travel / equipment / functional clothing
the emotional burden of dealing with daunting practical aspects of being outdoors (toilet breaks, periods)
the physical burden of accessibility issues (the physically challenging aspects of fieldwork that are satisfying and fun for some can on the other hand completely exclude others)
the logistical and financial burden (and emotional!) of finding a replacement for caring responsibilities
the mental burden of dealing with previous or expected harassment and inappropriate behavior
In the light of all these burdens, there is an urgent need to consider what can be done to make traditional field courses more accessible! And I think having to reinvent so many things now is a great opportunity to make sure those barriers are taken down.
Things to consider when filming for virtual field courses
Virtual field courses seems to often mean “videos of the instructor talking”, whether in their office or in the field. When filming instructional videos, for me the most important points to consider are the viewers’ attention spans, and what might keep a viewer engaged.
As for the attention span, there are many different studies that find that the shorter, the better. Of course it always depends on the video and the material and lots of other things, but the best advice would be to really think about whether anything needs to be longer than 15 minutes in one go (unless it is extremely well produced).
In order to keep viewers engaged, it’s really important to not only keep students in the role of “viewers”, but to engage them more actively. But for the periods where they are “just” watching, it seems that it is helpful to have the instructor visible and make them relatable as an authentic person. Especially having more than one instructor that interact with oneanother makes it more engaging and also provides more potential role models to students.
A list of best practices for creating engagement in educational videos is given in Choe et al., 2019; my take-away from that here.
How to motivate students in virtual field courses
Haha, you were hoping for an easy answer here? I think keeping in mind the three basic psychological needs of students that I described in the framework of the self-determination theory (autonomy, competence and relatedness) is extremely important. The better we can find ways to give students opportunities to feel any and all of those, the more motivated they’ll be.
Good-practice examples of virtual field courses
(This section was first called “best-practice”, but then I noticed that I am showing quite a lot of my own work and decided I’d rather take it down a notch ;-))
There are many categorizations possible for the examples I’m showing below, but I went for the continuum from “fully virtual” on the one hand and then “fully synchronous outside” on the other.
If you are doing a fully virtual field course, no matter whether it is video-based or text based, it’s really helpful to integrate activities that aren’t related to listening or reading, for example:
Working with pictures of real examples
Providing students with a picture of a field site, or some example of a process, or some instrumentation that they’ve just learnt about, and asking them to annotate the picture is a quick and easy activity that also helps you gauge the students’ level of understanding. This works well if you just want students doing something else than listening to you for 15 minutes.
Working with simulations
It’s fascinating how many really nice virtual representations exist online on all kinds of topics once one starts looking!
I was very impressed with this virtual arboretum I came across recently. If you were teaching about plants, this might be a neat tool for example when you want students to practice drawing plant features, for example.
Investigating a compilation of media
At the recent #FieldWorkFix conference, we were shown this platform for a virtual site assessment which I found super impressive: It’s basically “only” 360° pictures, movies and audio files that are located on a map, so students can do a virtual walk through a park that they would otherwise have visited. But the way this is done, by for example also including a picture of the parking spot and visitors center, makes it feel very real and relatable, and the other pictures, movies and audio files of the park make it possible to do the real assessment.
Another example that I find extremely inspiring is not of a whole site, but it’s a study guide on ID-ing different kinds of rocks. There is a large visual bank of rocks, each combined with the data that students need to make an ID, for example a scale so one can estimate the real size of the rocks, responses to different acids that give clues about the chemical composition, etc.. It seems incredibly comprehensive and like a lot of fun!
Investigating real data
There are of course also many amazing datasets compiled for different regions, for example Svalbox.no for Svalbard, where students can use gis-systems to access many different kinds of data in a geo-referenced frame. Combined with for example google Earth this can be used for free exploration into many different questions.
Creating the features you want to investigate
Last not least, if you want students to do some practical work at home in a virtual course, there is always kitchen oceanography, which in this context means hands-on activities that can be done solely with materials that students typically have at home already. It can mean investigating ocean currents in plastic cups with water, ice and black tea (for 24 easy ideas check out my advent calendar), or it can mean using bread or chocolate bars to simulate an investigation into how rocks behave under pressure. Or if you wanted to get fancy, you could even send out materials (e.g. sand samples in small zip lock bags to get a feel of different grain sizes). Doing small hands-on stuff at home can be a great way to change up long days of sitting in front of a computer…
With “remotely controlled kitchen oceanography” we’ve shown how small, hands-on stuff that students do at home can be combined with experiments with more complicated setups, that are streamed from my kitchen. We were all in a video conference and could therefore all see each others’ experiments while being able to really closely look at our own. Doing something similar with an instructor in the field should be easy enough (if the network and weather cooperate).
Virtual with “outdoor” aspects
As much fun as kitchen oceanography breaks are, sometimes it might be even better to get students out the door with a purpose.
Observe something related to your field right outside your door
But how to implement it in a virtual field course?
One way to take the pressure off students when doing local fieldwork tasks was shown to us at the #FieldWorkFix conference in this super best practice example that I got to experience myself during a fairly intensive virtual conference day: During the one hour lunch break, we not only had to eat lunch, but were asked to go outside and follow the wandering cards on here. Those are cards that give you instructions for your short walk: “Follow something yellow”, “sit for 2 minutes and observe things around you”, “take a right turn”, that kind of things (I, of course, didn’t follow the instructions because I wanted to see some water during my lunch break). We were also instructed to take pictures of something related to our field course, upload it on a website and write a short description (which I did).
And it was a great experience: Within this one hour, I did manage to eat lunch, go outside, take a picture, upload it, and add a description. This let me get some exercise and oxygen, gave me a purpose for my walk, and also proved how easy and fast these kinds of tasks can be if you don’t feel that you need to go to The Best wave watching spot, see the most exciting plant, whatever, but instead just have to find anything related to the course. And it was great to see all the different pictures of participants coming together! This is a way to introduce the local excursions that I will definitely be using in the future to give students that feeling of competence but also a glimpse of one of the typical feelings of fieldwork: That time is precious and every minute and every observation counts. But that a lot can be gained in a really short time, too!
If one of the learning outcomes is to practice observation and classification skills, working with citizen science apps like iNaturalist or the german Naturgucker are great. Both are parts of citizen science projects where everybody can upload pictures and other observations (e.g. audio files) that are then classified either by that person directly or through discussions on the platform. Here students contribute to “real science” by collecting data that is relevant for a larger purpose, and they interact with specialists and thus get feedback and feel part of a bigger community. I don’t know anything like that for my own topics, but in biology those are great tools.
One tool that I really want to use in asynchronous outdoor teaching myself are geocaches. Geocaching is a virtual treasure hunt: small “treasures” (often tiny plastic boxes) are hidden and can be found using an app tht gives clues where to look. Geocaches can also be virtual, and are already used for educational purposes for example as “EarthCaches“. This special form of geocaches has been developed by the Geological Society of America and the goal is to bring people to geologically interesting sites and teach them something related to that site. Wouldn’t it be awesome to do something like that for your class?
Geocaches are peer-reviewed before they appear on the app, so a lower threshold version of the same idea could be QR-codes that you hide in the area you want your students to investigate, and have the QR-codes link to websites that you can easily adapt with the seasons, or update from year to year, or have full and easy control over. Of course you might need to check the QR-codes are still there before you run the class the next year, but this is fairly low-key if you are working close to home. (Close to home being an important caveat: in fully virtual semesters, students might actually not be where you are. Please consider ways to accommodate them!)
In the last workshop I ran on virtual field courses, a participant told us about a tour guide system his institute had just bought in order to be able to do in-person excursions. The devil is in the detail, of course (how do you make sure all students can see while still maintaining the necessary distance from each other?), but that sounded like a great idea.
In my experience, writing for a different audience than just one overwhelmed instructor is very motivating to students, both because they can use it to show their friends and family what they are doing all day long, and because social media provides the potential for super positive feedback (check out Robert’s tweet about one of my kitchen oceanography experiments that just received its 330th “like” today!). An assignment like that helps on all three psychological basic needs that help foster intrinsic motivation: feeling autonomous, competent and related. So why not give it a shot?
What is your experience with virtual field courses? Do you have best practice examples to add to this? Please share!
Ronny C. Choe, Zorica Scuric, Ethan Eshkol, Sean Cruser, Ava Arndt, Robert Cox, Shannon P. Toma, Casey Shapiro, Marc Levis-Fitzgerald, Greg Barnes, and H. Crosbie (2019). “Student Satisfaction and Learning Outcomes in Asynchronous Online Lecture Videos”, CBE—Life Sciences Education, Vol. 18, No. 4. Published Online: 1 Nov 2019 https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.18-08-0171
Fedesco, H. N., Cavin, D., Henares, R. (2020). Field-based Learning in Higher Education: Exploring the Benefits and Possibilities. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 20, No. 1, April 2020, pp.65-84. doi: 10.14434/josotl.v20i1.24877
Finkelstein, N. D., Adams, W. K., Keller, C. J., Kohl, P. B., Perkins, K. K., Podolefsky, N. S., Reid S., LeMaster. R. (2005). When learning about the real world is better done virtually: A study of substituting computer simulations for laboratory equipment. Physical review special topics – Physics education research 1, 010103
I am completely in love with my new tablet. I love drawing on it and even though the results are not quite up to my standards yet, I am too excited to not share. So here I drew what (I think) you need to know about instructional videos, in a nutshell:
They should be short!
Attention spans are short. Students are listening to you blabber on on the same devices they usually watch youtube or whatever else entertaining they watch. It is very difficult to stay focussed if the noise of someone talking is coming from the same device that you usually don’t pay full attention to, but just have on in the background for company. Don’t you sometimes realize with a start that you would kinda like to replay that thing someone just said in a video meeting that you missed because you kinda dozed off? Yeah, like that. No matter how tempting it is to just record a regular 45 min lecture (or 90min or whatever), just don’t do it!
I’ve seen advice from online course providers that have access to data on user engagement, and we know we prefer youtube videos under 10ish minutes of length, and there is a reason TED talks are short and sweet. The typical recommendations I read are between 2 and 10 minutes length! That’s shockingly short.
And be authentic! The other day I talked to someone who felt like he needed to be super formal in the videos because his humor is so quirky that not everybody might find it funny, but him playing a role makes it really difficult to connect to him. Especially when students have very little or no in-person instruction these days, it is really important for them to get to see “a real oceanographer” (or whatever else your field may be) they can identify with. And if there is two of you, chances are twice as good they find someone who can act as a role model for them (when choosing your buddy, don’t forget that representation matters…). Also, especially when reporting from the field or the lab (which is the context I am most concerned with right now), videos are a lot more entertaining to watch if there are two or more people interacting than if it’s just a monologue! Plus the second person can be great to elicit misconceptions that you can then confront and resolve…
Bring in active phases!
If you are only “allowed” a couple of minutes of instructional video in one piece anyway, what a great opportunity to do active learning in between! :-)
set the videos up in a “choose your own adventure” style, e.g. asking students to pick what step they want to conduct next in a lab, and if they end up in a dead end, they have to retrace their steps to find a better way to do things
give them small hands-on home experiments (kitchen oceanography ftw) that they do, that you then discuss on a video call or submit their answers to you, before they watch the next video
For me, it’s at the same time super stressful and extremely exciting to be designing a lot of new content in these new-to-me virtual formats, but mainly I see it as an enormous opportunity to deliver teaching in a way that helps students cope in really difficult times, and that might also be useful afterwards (at least in parts). What are your thoughts on instructional videos?
I’m currently preparing a couple of workshops on higher education topics, and of course it is always important to talk about learning outcomes. I had a faint memory of having developed some materials (when still working at ZLL together with one of my all time favourite colleagues, Timo Lüth) to help instructors work with the modified Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001), and when I looked it up, I realized I had not blogged about it. But since I was surprised at how helpful I still find the materials, here we go! :-)
The idea is that instructors are often told to ask specific types of questions (usually “concept” questions), but that it is really difficult to know what that means and how to do it.
So we developed a decision tree that gives an overview over all different kinds of questions. The decision tree can support you in
constructing questions that provoke specific cognitive processes in your students,
checking what exactly you are asking your students to do when posing existing questions, and
modifying existing questions to better match your purpose.
The nitty gritty details and the theoretical foundation are written up in Glessmer & Lüth (2016), unfortunately in german. But check out the decision trees below, I think they work pretty well on their own! We have four different versions of that decision tree, that guide you through both the cognitive and knowledge dimension until you reach the sweet spot you wanted to reach. Have fun!
Here is one example, links to the others below.
Abstract decision tree (most helpful for getting familiar with the general concept) [pdf English | pdf German]
Decision tree with example questions (most helpful for constructing, or classifying, or changing questions) [pdf English | pdf German]
Decision tree with example multiple-choice questions (most helpful as inspiration when working with multiple-choice questions) [pdf English | pdf German]
Comparison of our decision tree with “conventional” types of questions (if you want to find out what a “concept question” really is when classified in the Bloom taxonomy) [pdf English | pdf German]
Any comments, feedback, suggestions? Please do get in touch!
Glessmer, M. S., & Lüth, T. (2016). Lernzieltaxonomische Klassifizierung und gezielte Gestaltung von Fragen. Zeitschrift für Hochschulentwicklung, 11 (5) doi: 10.3217/zfhe-11-05/12
My friend’s university recently decided that “excursion week” (a week in May during which there are no lectures or exercises or anything happening at university to make time for field courses during the semester) is cancelled this year. Which is, of course, not surprising given the current situation, but it isn’t cancelled as in “go have a week of vacation”, it’s cancelled as in “one more week of lectures”. Which is putting even more of a burden on people who are already struggling to provide students with the best teaching they can in a new, online setting. To help my friend out (as well as anybody else who might be teaching intro to oceanography classes right now), I’ve collected a couple of ideas of how to fill this week in a way that’s keeping at least a bit of the spirit of exploration alive.
Learning about concepts, observations, experimentation
Of course I can’t give you a solution that perfectly replaces a field course by something that isn’t a fieldcourse. But that doesn’t mean that many of the learning outcomes usually associated with field courses can’t be had in non-fieldcourse settings.
What are the learning outcomes that you care about most? Understanding of specific concepts? Then maybe those concepts, even though most impressively seen at the location where you typically go for your field course, can be observed in other places, too, if students are guided to find them. Or learning to observe following a specific protocol? Then maybe this protocol can be followed (or mostly followed) while collecting a different type of data than it is usually used on. Here are a couple of suggestions of ways to do this:
A: Field course at home
There are two different scenarios that I think can work well here: Having students explore the world right outside their home with a focus on topics from their course, or having them explore the enormous amount of available datasets on the internet.
A.1: Exploring the neighbourhood
Assuming students are able to walk around outside their homes (as they currently are where I’m at), having them explore the neighbourhood. There are different kinds of tasks that could work depending on your learning outcomes:
This is just a quick side note, but of course there are TONS of data available on the internet. From observations of salinity, temperature, pressure mounted on seals in Antarctica, to winds and waves observed from satellites. Many of them even come with interfaces ready to do easy plots. And I’ve been a big fan of the lovely people on Twitter (shoutout to @aida_alvera and @remi_wnd particularly, I always love your posts!) that post interesting features from recent satellite images. So much to discover! Trying that for myself has been on my to do list for quite a while. You’d think I would find time for it during Corona isolation, wouldn’t you?
A.3: Ask others for observations that students can work with
Kinda like what I do with #friendlywaves where people send me pictures of waves and I try to explain the physics I see (while dreaming that it’s me on that ship in Lofoten…). This would be so much fun if students took pictures of interesting features they saw (or went through their old pics) and then shared them and asked each other for ideas what might have happened there. Or if you asked people to take pictures for you, or accessed webcams (like this one, looking at Saltstraumen, the strongest tidal current!), took screenshots and analysed those. I’d totally be in!
Of course, #KitchenOceanography is my solution to everything. Need to make a class more interesting? Bring some #KitchenOceanography to the classroom! Can’t teach in-person classes but want people to still have hands-on experiences? Let them do #KitchenOceanography at home! Feel down in isolation and need something to cheer you up? Do some #KitchenOceanography!
So here are a couple of ways to have students do #KitchenOceanography while physically distancing.
B.1: Following my 24 days of #KitchenOceanography
If you haven’t seen my 24 days of #KitchenOceanography yet, you might want to check it out. If you want to give your students a recipe for kitchen oceanography, there is probably something in there that works with your Oceanography 101 class! You could ask them to do one experiment that you find most relevant to your class, or pick one they find most interesting, or distribute all 24 experiments over all the students and have them report back.
And even though I’m so depriciatingly talking about “recipes” and structured activities, be assured that for most students things won’t end after they’ve done the experiment. There is ALWAYS something they observe that they still want to figure out, so there will be more experimentation going on than you expect!
This is the most fun way to do kitchen oceanography, but depending on whether students have ever done these kinds of experiments before or not, it might be worth starting with a more guided kitchen oceanography experiment. But ultimately, this is where you ask students to figure things out in their kitchens. Currently on the list of things I want to try when I get the time (again, how is Corona isolation not the time for this kind of stuff? But somehow it isn’t): Can I actually see a change in the refraction of a spoon in a glass of very cold salt water as compared to warm fresh water? How big is that density effect? Would I be able to see the spoon bend where it goes through a density stratification in my glass? I bet you, once I start playing with this, that’s that for that evening!
C: Bonus idea: Ocean podcasts & books
There are two oceanography-themed podcasts that I really enjoy listening to (and I’m not a podcast person!): Climate Scientists and Treibholz. Both would be great to listen to interviews with super cool scientists while dreaming yourself away to expeditions to the Arctic or Antarctica. There is so much to learn from other people’s experiences in the field — why not ask students to listen to other people’s experiences with a focus on either the science, or the methods, or anything else?
And of course there are tons of books that would lend themselves to that, too, for example xplorer’s diaries. Nansen’s “Farthest North” (1897) for example fits super well if you wanted to talk about the discovery of dead water…
Bringing it all together
The big question is: Once your students have done the tasks of finding/producing and describing phenomena, what do they do with that? It might not come as a surprise, but I think that they should be encouraged to publicly share them on the internet. Both because it’s a good opportunity for them to build their scicomm profile, but also because there are surpisingly many people who get really excited about (read here how Prof. Tessa M Hill‘s student Robert Dellinger posted a video of an overturning circulation on his 70-ish follower Twitter account, and the video has, as of April 16th, 70 retweets and 309 likes!) and that’s such a motivating feedback for them!
Of course, the sharing and excited reactions could also happen within your university’s learning management system, but honestly … no. Ask them to share it via social media! I, for one, am definitely more than happy to comment and ask questions and share my excitement there! :-)
Kjersti, Steffi, Elin and I recently discussed ways to better integrate the GEOF105 student cruise into the course. Right now, even though students write a report about their work on the student cruise, it’s pretty much a one-off event with little connection to what happens before and after, which is a pity. Having a whole research ship for a whole day for a group of 6-8 students (or possibly 10 next year) is such an amazing opportunity! We want to help students make the most of it by attempting to foster a curious mindset before they board the ship.
One idea is to ask the students to observe things throughout the whole duration of the semester, and then have them relate their own “time series” of those observations with what they observe on the student cruise. Ideally, students will be observing their chosen topic for a couple of weeks before the cruise, then go on the cruise looking at everything there with a focus on that topic, and then continue to observe it in their daily lives after the cruise. But even if it’s not connected to the student cruise or this specific class, I think giving students the task to make regular observations over the course of a whole semester would be a really good way to connect their studies better with their regular lives outside of university.
Do I have ideas of what the topics could be? Of course! And I have scheduled posts over the next two months, in which my ideas will be presented one by one. But today, I want to talk about what I think what purpose this assignment would serve.
The goal is not to collect data that will advance science or to work on original research questions. It is rather to help students get into the practice of focussing on details in the world around them that might otherwise go unnoticed. To collect observations using only minimal resources (like for example stopping on their commute for seconds only, taking pictures with their smartphones, using the readily available weather forecast for context). To try and explain pattern they observe using their theoretical background from university. I want to help students get into the habit of actively observing what is going on around them, to become fascinated with discovering things related to their studies in their everyday lives.
I myself, for example, am absolutely fascinated with waves, and I notice them anywhere (read more about that on my blog, if you are interested). On the most recent GEOF105 student cruise, there was a bucket that was used to bring seawater up on the deck for salinity to be measured. And what jumped out on me? The standing waves in that bucket! You see them in the picture below, but what struck me was that most people really didn’t seem to notice what was going on there, and how FASCINATING it was. Someone even commented to the effect that they would have never noticed the waves in the bucket if I hadn’t pointed them out to them, even though they were sticking probes right into the waves. And while I spent the better part of two days moving the bucket around to see all the different wave pattern that occurred on different spots on deck, most other people didn’t even seem curious to find out why myself and a handful of other people were staring into a blue plastic bucket. And that makes me sad. Does everybody need to find waves fascinating? Of course not. But should students at least be a little curious about science topics that clearly fascinate their instructors? Yes, I believe so.
So my mission with this series of blog posts is to give examples of where you can easily observe oceanography-related phenomena in and around Bergen, hoping that you might start looking at those spots with different eyes. And maybe you will find a specific topic that you become fascinated with. Because once you start focussing on something that seems random and rare, the very thing seems to appear everywhere in your daily life. Like for example hydraulic jumps. As shown in the picture below — once you start focussing on those, you see them appear everywhere as if out of thin air.
This kind of curiosity around physics phenomena is — in my opinion — absolutely desirable, especially in students. It makes dry theory or seemingly obscure topics become more relevant. As you start noticing phenomena, you also start noticing more about them, for example understanding the conditions under which the appear. And you also start anticipating where they might occur, so you will look to see whether your prediction is correct. It’s a vicious circle, but one that I would encourage you — and especially students — to enter. To me, it’s part of my identity as a scientist — to use my initial understanding of processes to continuously want to learn more and more about them.
Wave watching has definitely become a part of my life that I don’t want to miss. What will you start seeing everywhere? Or what is it that you are maybe already seeing everywhere that most people don’t? I am anticipating that my suggestions in this #BergenWaveWatching series will be strongly biased towards #wavewatching, so if you have any other suggestions (maybe even with pictures already?), I would love to hear about them! :-)
Guest posts, take-overs and interviews are a great alternative to maintaining social media channels for every scientist / project / institution individually, if that isn’t what you want to be doing (or — as in my case — a great addition)
As I am preparing a workshop on online science communication, I have been thinking about how maintaining a quality social media presence requires high levels of dedication and commitment, as it requires a lot of work and time. And sometimes, for whatever reasons, committing that sort of time to online scicomm just can’t be the priority, and that is ok. So what do I want to recommend to people who are interested in principle, but who have concerns that it will be too expensive to maintain in the long run in terms of time or energy or ideas or motivation, or whatever else the limiting factor might be?
I think there are ways to do cool and impact-ful online scicomm without building and maintaining a personal social media presence (or focussing on one specific channel and audience and not feeling bad about not doing all the things that one could possibly do).
But first, I believe it is super important to get clear on why we want to appear on social media in the first place.
What are your objectives?
Being clear about what you are trying to achieve is always really good advice, for science communication on social media, outside of social media, for life in general. But especially if we are trying to minimize effort and maximise effects of online scicomm, it helps to be really clear about what the goal is.
If you want to build a community or regularly update a group of people on your project’s progress, having your own social media channels might be the way to go. And I am in no way trying to dissuade you from having your own social media channels! All my suggestions below also apply if you do this in addition to maintaining a regular presence on social media.
If you wanted to, for example,
convey a message without necessarily becoming visible as a person
create short-term visibility for a specific project / result / event
be highlighted to a specific audience that isn’t one you regularly (want to) engage with
brush up your CV on the online scicomm side (without too much regular work)
prepare content occasionally, but not regularly
dip your toes into doing scicomm in a specific format to see how it works for you,
below are some options worth considering.
Who is your audience?
Depending on your goals, you might want to address audiences as specific as, for example,
students at a specific university
young adults living in a specific country (or reading in a specific language)
PhD students working on polar sciences.
And you might want to reach all of them at different points in time, for different reasons and with different messages. For each audience you might want to reach, there are likely accounts already targeting that exact same group of people. The clearer you are about who your audience is, the easier it is to find accounts that have build already that audience to collaborate with.
What is your message?
And does conveying your message include interaction with your audience?
Once you are clear on all this, here are a couple of options worth considering.
Take-overs of rotating accounts
For many communities, rotating accounts on Twitter and Instagram exist. Those are accounts that are focussed on specific topics but are run by different people each week. The benefit of taking over those accounts is that there is a large established audience interested in your kind of content already, that you are instantly exposed to once you take over the account.
Take-overs typically require you to commit to posting on the channel a couple of times throughout the course of a week, and, depending on the size of the channel, it can be quite scary especially if you don’t have a lot of experience using social media beforehand. And, since those channels typically have quite a large following, you should not underestimate the time it will take to prepare content, overthink it, post it, agonize over it and regularly check how it is being received, and respond to people’s comments. But my experience with doing this has been very positive indeed.
For example, last year I took over @GeoSciTweeps (an account with, at that time, 4.6k followers, where each week a different person working in gesosciences presents what they do) and @IAmScicomm (where people working in/on/with science communication present themselves) with then 18.6k followers. Both weeks were great experiences that led to me making super interesting new connections and friendships. Depending on which community you want to interact with during your take-over week, there are many many more rotating accounts and it is definitely worth taking a moment to figure out which is the right account for your purposes.
My plan for my takeover of @IAmScicomm in October 2018
Instead of doing a take over on a rotating account, you could also do one for an institution like your university. I was asked to take over Kiel university’s Instagram @kieluni for a couple of days, and it was fun!
Caution — “take over” for an institution might mean something different than for rotating accounts. In case of Kiel uni it means you have to pre-produce content, and they will post it themselves. Which is actually very convenient (if you realize this early enough, which I did not. But you live and learn ;-)).
This take over had unexpected effects: Before our first session using 4 rotating tables simultaneously, one of the students approached and asked me if it was me who did this takeover with the cool tank experiments on @kieluni weeks ago! Glad to prove to Torge, who was part of that conversation, that Social. Media. Works! :-)
Sometimes there are blogs that cater to your intended audience that are happy to accept guest posts.
A while back, I wrote a guest post at Sci/Why, a blog for Canadian science writers for kids. They invited me to write the guest post, and why not? It was fun!
Screenshot of the Sci/Why website
A really good example for a very successful guest posts is one I recently hosted on my blog: Dan’s post on an analogue activity to understand how machine learning works. This post received a lot of attention on Twitter and I am excited to provide my platform to give visibility to such a great project! If you are interested in writing about anything related to “Adventures in Oceanography and Teaching”, please get in touch and I am happy to host a guest post!
Another example of a guest post I did is on my friend Alice’s blog and Instagram for her #experimentalfridays series.
What makes guest posts really convenient is that you can write them whenever it suits you, edit them as often as you might like, talk to your host about how to make them the best fit for their audience, etc.. So in a way it might feel like it is the “safest” way to do online scicomm, because it’s the slowest, most familiar way.
Being featured on accounts
There are also a lot of accounts that are happy to feature you and/or your work because their goal is community building.
For example, I was recently featured on @WeAreCAU on Instagram. Their goal is to feature people with a connection to Christian Albrechts University Kiel (CAU — hence “We are CAU”), and as an alumna I thought this was a great opportunity to connect with people at this university.
Being featured this way was also a super easy thing to do, all that was needed was a picture of myself and a short text, which I wrote when it suited me, and which they then posted when it worked with their schedule.
Providing information to other accounts
Sometimes, the goal is just to get a message out there without necessarily becoming visible as the person / project / institution behind the message. I recently met the person behind @doktorwissenschaft, a very popular german Instagram account, “Dr. Science”, who posts two science facts every day. He was happy to receive a list of ocean facts (complete with references ;-)). And using his account with 38k followers (and 3k “likes” on my most recent post on his profile) gives my content so much more visibility than I could achieve with my own channels, so I am really happy about this collaboration. Win win!
The popular Instagram-profile “Doktor Wissenschaft” posts twice daily facts in physics, chemistry and biology!
Again, this is a super easy collaboration, as both parties can work on their own schedule.
This might actually be the most conventional way of reaching new audiences. And in a way it might also be the easiest way, because you are interacting with a host that will help you tailor your message to their audience, that they know a lot better than you do.
My experience doing these guest posts, take overs, etc.
Depending on the kind of collaboration you choose, you need to be aware of how much work it will bring with it. I did the two twitter takeovers mentioned above while being a visiting scientist in Bergen, thinking that then at least I would have something to talk about. But trying to work on other things at the same time and going on student cruises, and that was actually a little overwhelming. Maybe also because it was the first time I tried doing something like this, but I would definitely recommend doing such takeovers on a slow week at home rather than a week where you want to make the most of visiting a place, chatting with people you don’t get to see regularly, go on cruises, etc.. Also do it during a week / in a place where you know you will have good internet access. So being on a ship might not be ideal.
On the other hand, if you choose to work with pre-produced content on channels that you will not be administering yourself when your content is being posted, this is something that you can prepare over as much time as you like and thus fit it around your schedule. So this might actually be something worth considering for a really busy and important week, on a field trip, a conference, whatever, the week your big event is taking place, to raise awareness for whatever you are up to that week without actually having to do anything about it during those busy times, and without depending on having good internet access. Provided everything is prepared beforehand…
Would I do it again?
Yes!!! As I was writing this post, more and more examples of where I have contributed to other people’s online scicomm came to my mind. I didn’t realize I had been doing it so much. And it was fun, I enjoy looking back at each individual interaction and all the different products that came out. It was also work. Of course, being suddenly able to reach audiences that I wasn’t familiar with and some that were so much larger than my usual audience was also both exciting and terrifying. I would totally do it again and I would totally recommend trying it!
And also if you are thinking about taking up a new-to-you form of scicomm, doing a guest appearance somewhere is a great way to test the waters. The coolest scicomm idea doesn’t actually carry very far if it turns out that you HATE the app you need to work with in order to communicate on a specific social media channel, you really can’t find a lot to say on a specific topic, or you find it annoying to write for a specific kind of audience. So this is a really great way to see what it would be like to do this kind of scicomm and get some reactions!
I’m actually at a loss for words. Amazing? Spectacular? So much fun? All of that!
Today was the first time Torge and I tried our four DIYnamics-inspired rotating tables in teaching. (Remember? We want to use 4 rotating tables simultaneously so students can work in small groups rather than watching us present experiments, and also so we could quickly see how slightly different conditions might lead to different results. Having 4 tanks running at the same time cuts down on a lot of spin-up wait time! And we wanted affordable rotating tables so a) we could afford them and b) students would really just be able to play without them, or us, being afraid that they might break something). And it went even better than we had hoped, and we were already pretty convinced that it would be awesome!
It all started out, even before class started, with one of the students asking if it was me who had done the recent takeover of Kiel University’s Instagram account with the awesome tank experiments in Bergen. Yep, that was me, and it was great that she remembered she had seen the experiments and even recognized me! Made me very happy. If I had needed convincing that social media is awesome, here it was!
But then the students started playing, and they got really into it. We started out with just tanks filled with water on the Lazy Susans, and the students moved them by hand to get a feel for how water behaves under rotation. We looked at deformation of surfaces, how confetti as tracers behaved on the surface and on the bottom, all the good stuff. Already with such simple experiments there is so much physics to discuss!
And then we moved on to turbulence in the rotating system. Our final tanks haven’t arrived yet, so we made do with whatever we had at hand (see the green bowl as tank below…). Students also started improvising to include a topography and other modifications that we hadn’t planned for. This is so great if students are so keen to figure things out that they take the initiative to make it happen themselves!
Judging from what I could observe, students were really enjoying themselves and got into deep discussions, trying to connect their observations to the theory they had learned. Additionally, there were lots of “oh wow!”s and “coooool”s everywhere. And I overheard this one exchange between two students: “careful, don’t drop the phone into the tank!” “oh, it’s ok, it’s waterproof” “I don’t care about the phone, I don’t want you to mess up the experiment!” :-D
Btw, note below the small Lego motor that drives the Lazy Susan. That’s really the whole setup. Speaking of affordable and easy. And portable. And all-around awesome!
And it was great fun for Torge and me, too, to observe what the students were up to, and to discuss with them. There were already several curious questions as to what experiments we are planning to do throughout the course. The next sessions, Torge will connect the experiments we did today to theory, and start on the theory we need for the next set of experiments we are planning to run, but I can’t wait to continue working with the tank experiments with such a motivated group of students! :-)
My friend Pierré and I started working on this article when both of us were still working at the Geophysical Institute in Bergen. It took forever to get published, mainly because both of us had moved on to different jobs with other foci, so maybe it’s not a big deal that it took me over a year to blog it? Anyway, I still think it is very important to introduce any kind of rotating experiments by first making sure people don’t harbour misconceptions about the Coriolis effect, and this is the best way we came up with to do so. But I am happy to hear any suggestions you might have on how to improve it :-)
Supporting Conceptual Understanding of the Coriolis Force Through Laboratory Experiments
By Dr. Mirjam S. Glessmer and Pierré D. de Wet
Published in Current: The Journal of Marine Education, Volume 31, No 2, Winter 2018
Do intriguing phenomena sometimes capture your attention to the extent that you haveto figure out why they work differently than you expected? What if you could get your students hooked on your topic in a similar way?
Wanting to comprehend a central phenomenon is how learning works best, whether you are a student in a laboratory course or a researcher going through the scientific process. However, this is not how introductory classes are commonly taught. At university, explanations are often presented or developed quickly with a focus on mathematical derivations and manipulations of equations. Room is seldom given to move from isolated knowledge to understanding where this knowledge fits in the bigger picture formed of prior knowledge and experiences. Therefore, after attending lectures and even laboratories, students are frequently able to give standard explanations and manipulate equations to solve problems, but lack conceptual understanding (Kirschner & Meester, 1988): Students might be able to answer questions on the laws of reflection, yet not understand how a mirror works, i.e. why it swaps left-right but not upside-down (Bertamini et al., 2003).
Laboratory courses are well suited to address and mitigate this disconnect between theoretical knowledge and practical application. However, to meet this goal, they need to be designed to focus specifically on conceptual understanding rather than other, equally important, learning outcomes, like scientific observation as a skill or arguing from evidence (NGSS, 2013), calculations of error propagations, application of specific techniques, or verifying existing knowledge, i.e. illustrating the lecture (Kirschner & Meester, 1988).
Based on experience and empirical evidence, students have difficulties with the concept of frames of reference, and especially with fictitious forces that are the result of using a different frame of reference. We here present how a standard experiment on the Coriolis force can support conceptual understanding, and discuss the function of employing individual design elements to maximize conceptual understanding.
HOW STUDENTS LEARN FROM LABORATORY EXPERIMENTS
In introductory-level college courses in most STEM disciplines, especially in physics-based ones like oceanography or meteorology and all marine sciences, laboratory courses featuring demonstrations and hands-on experiments are traditionally part of the curriculum.
Laboratory courses can serve many different and valuable learning outcomes: learning about the scientific process or understanding the nature of science, practicing experimental skills like observation, communicating about scientific content and arguing from evidence, and changing attitudes (e.g. Feisel & Rosa, 2005; NGSS, 2013; Kirschner & Meester, 1988; White, 1996). One learning outcome is often desired, yet for many years it is known that it is seldomly achieved: increasing conceptual understanding (Kirschner & Meester, 1988, Milner-Bolotin et al., 2007). Under general dispute is whether students actually learn from watching demonstrations and conducting lab experiments, and how learning can be best supported (Kirschner & Meester, 1988; Hart et al., 2000).
There are many reasons why students fail to learn from demonstrations (Roth et al., 1997). For example, in many cases separating the signal to be observed from the inevitably measured noise can be difficult, and inference from other demonstrations might hinder interpretation of a specific experiment. Sometimes students even “remember” witnessing outcomes of experiments that were not there (Milner-Bolotin et al., 2007). Even if students’ and instructors’ observations were the same, this does not guarantee congruent conceptual understanding and conceptual dissimilarity may persist unless specifically addressed. However, helping students overcome deeply rooted notions is not simply a matter of telling them which mistakes to avoid. Often, students are unaware of the discrepancy between the instructors’ words and their own thoughts, and hear statements by the instructor as confirmation of their own thoughts, even though they might in fact be conflicting (Milner-Bolotin et al., 2007).
Prior knowledge can sometimes stand in the way of understanding new scientific information when the framework in which the prior knowledge is organized does not seem to organically integrate the new knowledge (Vosniadou, 2013).The goal is, however, to integrate new knowledge with pre-existing conceptions, not build parallel structures that are activated in context of this class but dormant or inaccessible otherwise. Instruction is more successful when in addition to having students observe an experiment, they are also asked to predict the outcome before the experiment, and discuss their observations afterwards (Crouch et al., 2004). Similarly, Muller et al. (2007) find that even learning from watching science videos is improved if those videos present and discuss common misconceptions, rather than just presenting the material textbook-style. Dissatisfaction with existing conceptions and the awareness of a lack of an answer to a posed question are necessary for students to make major changes in their concepts (Kornell, 2009, Piaget, 1985; Posner et al., 1982). When instruction does not provide explanations that answer students’ problems of understanding the scientific point of view from the students’ perspective, it can lead to fragmentation and the formation of synthetic models (Vosniadou, 2013).
One operationalization of a teaching approach to support conceptual change is the elicit-confront-resolve approach (McDermott, 1991), which consists of three steps: Eliciting a lingering misconception by asking students to predict an experiment’s outcome and to explain their reasons for the prediction, confronting students with an unexpected observation which is conflicting with their prediction, and finally resolving the matter by having students come to a correct explanation of their observation.
HOW STUDENTS TRADITIONALLY LEARN ABOUT THE CORIOLIS FORCE
The Coriolis force is essential in explaining formation and behavior of ocean currents and weather systems we observe on Earth. It thus forms an important part of any instruction on oceanography, meteorology or climate sciences. When describing objects moving on the rotating Earth, the most commonly used frame of reference would be fixed on the Earth, so that the motion of the object is described relative to the rotating Earth. The moving object seems to be under the influence of a deflecting force – the Coriolis force – when viewed from the co-rotating reference frame. Even though the movement of an object is independent of the frame of reference (the set of coordinate axes relative to which the position and movement of an object is described is arbitrary and usually made such as to simplify the descriptive equations of the object), this is not immediately apparent.
Temporal and spatial frames of reference have been described as thresholds to student understanding (Baillie et al., 2012, James, 1966; Steinberg et al., 1990). Ever since its first mathematical description in 1835 (Coriolis, 1835), this concept is most often taught as a matter of coordinate transformation, rather than focusing on its physical relevance (Persson, 1998). Most contemporary introductory books on oceanography present the Coriolis force in that form (cf. e.g. Cushman-Roisin, 1994; Gill, 1982; Pinet, 2009; Pond and Pickard, 1983; Talley et al., 2001; Tomczak and Godfrey, 2003; Trujillo and Thurman, 2013). The Coriolis force is therefore often perceived as “a ‘mysterious’ force resulting from a series of ‘formal manipulations’” (Persson, 2010). Its unintuitive and seemingly un-physical character makes it difficult to integrate into existing knowledge and understanding, and “even for those with considerable sophistication in physical concepts, one’s first introduction to the consequences of the Coriolis force often produces something analogous to intellectual trauma” (Knauss, 1978).
In many courses, helping students gain a deeper understanding of rotating systems and especially the Coriolis force, is approached by presenting demonstrations, typically of a ball being thrown on a merry-go-round, showing the movement simultaneously from a rotating and a non-rotating frame (Urbano & Houghton, 2006), either in the form of movies or simulations, or in the lab as demonstration, or as a hands-on experiment[i]. After conventional instruction that exposed students to discussions and simulations, students are able to do calculations related to the Coriolis force.
Nevertheless, when confronted with a real-life situation where they themselves are not part of the rotating system, students show difficulty in anticipating the movement of an object on a rotating body. In a traditional Coriolis experiment (Figure1), for example, a student launches a marble from a ramp on a rotating table (Figure 2A, B) and the motion of the marble is observed from two vantage points: where they are standing in the room, i.e. outside of the rotating system of the table; and on a screen that displays the table, as captured by a co-rotating camera mounted above it. When asked, before that experiment, what path the marble on the rotating surface will take, students report that they anticipate observing a deflection, its radius depending on the rotation’s direction and rate. After having observed the experiment, students report that they saw what they expected to see even though it never happened. Contextually triggered, knowledge elements are invalidly applied to seemingly similar circumstances and lead to incorrect conclusions (DiSessa & Sherin, 1988; Newcomer, 2010). This synthetic model of always expecting to see a deflection of an object moving on a rotating body, no matter which system of reference it is observed from, needs to be modified for students to productively work with the concept of the Coriolis force.
Figure 1: Details of the Coriolis experiment
Despite these difficulties in interpreting the observations and understanding the underlying concepts, rotating tables recently experienced a rise in popularity in undergraduate oceanography instruction (Mackin et al., 2012) as well as outreach to illustrate features of the oceanic and atmospheric circulation(see for example Marshall and Plumb, 2007). This makes it even more important to consider what students are intended to learn from such demonstrations or experiments, and how these learning outcomes can be achieved.
Figure 2A: View of the rotating table including the video camera on the scaffolding above the table. B: Sketch of the rotating table, the mounted (co-rotating) camera, and the marble on the table. C: Student tracing the curved trajectory of the marble on a transparency. On the screen, the experiment is shown as captured by the co-rotating camera, hence in the rotating frame of reference.
A RE-DESIGNED HANDS-ON INTRODUCTION TO THE CORIOLIS FORCE
The traditional Coriolis experiment, featuring a body on a rotating table[ii], observed both from within and from outside the rotating system, can be easily modified to support conceptual understanding.
When students of oceanography are asked to do a “dry” experiment (in contrast to a “wet” one with water in a tank on the rotating table) on the Coriolis force, at first, this does not seem like a particularly interesting phenomenon to students because they believe they know all about it from the lecture already. The experiment quickly becomes intriguing when a cognitive dissonance arises and students’ expectations do not match their observations. We use an elicit-confront-resolve approach to help students observe and understand the seemingly conflicting observations made from inside versus outside of the rotating system (Figure 3). To aid in making sense of their observations in a way that leads to conceptual understanding the three steps elicit, confront, and resolve are described in detail below.
Figure 3: Positions of the ramp and the marble as observed from above in the non-rotating (top) and rotating (bottom) case. Time progresses from left to right. In the top plots, the positions are shown in inert space. From left to right, the current positions of the ramp and marble are added with gradually darkening colors. In the bottom plots, the ramp stays in the same position relative to the co-rotating observer, but the marble moves and the current position is always displayed with the darkest color.
2. What do you think will happen? Eliciting a (possibly) lingering misconception
Students have been taught in introductory lectures that any moving object in a counter-clockwise rotating system (i.e. in the Northern Hemisphere) will be deflected to the right. They are also aware that the extent to which the object is deflected depends on its velocity and the rotational speed of the reference frame. In our experience, due to this prior schooling, students expect to see a Coriolis deflection even when they observe a rotating system “from the outside”. When the conventional experiment is run without going through the additional steps described here, students often report having observed the (non-existent) deflection.
By activating this prior knowledge and discussing what students anticipate observing under different conditions before the actual experiment is conducted, the students’ insights are put to the test. This step is important since the goal is to integrate new knowledge with pre-existing conceptions, not build parallel structures that are activated in context of this class but dormant or inaccessible otherwise. Sketching different scenarios (Fan, 2015; Ainsworth et al., 2011) and trying to answer questions before observing experiments support the learning process since students are usually unaware of their premises and assumptions (Crouch et al., 2004). Those need to be explicated and documented (even just by saying them out loud) before they can be tested, and either be built on, or, if necessary, overcome.
We therefore ask students to observe and describe the path of a marble being radially launched from the perimeter of the circular, non-rotating table by a student standing at a marked position next to the table, the “launch position”. The marble is observed rolling towards and over the center point of the table, dropping off the table diametrically opposite from the position from which it was launched. So far nothing surprising. A second student – the catcher– is asked to stand at the position where the marble dropped off the table’s edge so as to catch the marble in the non-rotating case. The position is also marked on the floor with tape to document the observation.
Next, the experimental conditions of this thought experiment (Winter, 2015) are varied to reflect on how the result depends on them. The students are asked to predict the behavior of the marble once the table is put into slow rotation. At this point, students typically enquire about the direction of rotation and, when assured that “Northern Hemisphere” counter-clockwise rotation is being applied, their default prediction is that the marble will be deflected to the right. When asked whether the catcher should alter their position, the students commonly answer that the catcher should move some arbitrary angle, but typically less than 90 degrees, clockwise around the table. The question of the influence of an increase in the rotational rate of the table on the catcher’s placement is now posed. “Still further clockwise”, is the usual answer. This then leads to the instructor’s asking whether a rotational speed exists at which the student launching the marble, will also be able to catch it themselves. Usually the students confirm that such a situation is indeed possible.
2. Did you observe what you expected to see? Confronting the misconception
After “eliciting” student conceptions, the “confront” step serves to show the students the discrepancy between what they expect to see, and what they actually observe. Starting with the simple, non-rotating case, the marble is launched again and the nominated catcher, positioned diametrically across from the launch position, seizes the marble as it falls off the table’s surface right in front of them. As theoretically discussed beforehand, the table is then put into rotation at incrementally increasing rates, with the marble being launched from the same position for each of the different rotational speeds. It becomes clear that the catcher can – without any adjustments to their position – remain standing diametrically opposite to the student launching the marble – the point where the marble drops to the floor. Hence students realize that the movement of the marble relative to the non-rotating laboratory is unaffected by the table’s rotation rate.
This observation appears counterintuitive, since the camera, rotating with the system, shows the curved trajectories the students had expected; segments of circles with decreasing radii as the rotation rate increases. Furthermore, to add to the confusion, when observed from their positions around the rotating table, the path of the marble on the rotating table appears to show a deflection, too. This is due to the observer’s eye being fooled by focusing on features of the table, e.g. marks on the table’s surface or the bars of the camera scaffold, relative to which the marble does, indeed, follow a curved trajectory. To overcome this optical illusion, the instructor may ask the students to crouch, diametrically across from the launcher, so that their line of sight is aligned with the table’s surface, i.e. at a zero-zenith angle of observation. From this vantage point, the marble is observed to indeed be moving in a straight line towards the observer, irrespective of the rotation rate of the table. Observing from different perspectives and with focus on different aspects (Is the marble coming directly towards me? Does it fall on the same spot as before? Did I need to alter my position in the room at all?) helps students gain confidence in their observations.
To solidify the concept, the table may again be set into rotation. The launcher and the catcher are now asked to pass the marble to one another by throwing it across the table without it physically making contact with the table’s surface. As expected, the marble moves in a straight line between the launcher and the catcher, whom are both observing from an inert frame of reference. However, when viewing the playback of the co-rotating camera, which represents the view from the rotating frame of reference, the trajectory is observed as curved[iii].
3. Do you understand what is going on? Resolving the misconception
Misconceptions that were brought to light during the “elicit” step, and whose discrepancy with observations was made clear during the “confront” step, are finally resolved in this step. While this sounds very easy, in practice it is anything but. For learning to take place, the instructor needs to aid students in reflecting upon and reassessing previous knowledge by pointing out and dispelling any remaining implicit assumptions, making it clear that the discrepant trajectories are undoubtedly the product of viewing the motion from different frames of reference. Despite the students’ observations and their participation in the experiment this does not happen instantaneously. Oftentimes further, detailed discussion is required. Frequently students have to re-run the experiment themselves in different roles (i.e. as launcheras well as catcher) and explicitly state what they are noticing before they trust their observations.
For this experiment to benefit the learning outcomes of the course, which go beyond understanding of a marble on a rotating table and deal with ocean and atmosphere dynamics, knowledge needs to be integrated into previous knowledge structures and transferred to other situations. This could happen by discussion of questions like, for example: How could the experiment be modified such that a straight trajectory is observed on the screen? What would we expect to observe if we added a round tank filled with water and paper bits floating on it to the table and started rotating it? How are our observations of these systems relevant and transferable to the real world? What are the boundaries of the experiment?
IS IT WORTH THE EXTRA EFFORT? DISCUSSION
We taught an undergraduate laboratory course which included this experiment for several years. In the first year, we realized that the conventional approach was not effective. In the second year, we tried different instructional approaches and settled on the one presented here. We administered identical work sheets before and after the experiment. These work sheets were developed as instructional materials to ensure that every student individually went through the elicit-confront-resolve process. Answers on those worksheets show that all our students did indeed expect to see a deflection despite observing from an inert frame of reference: Students were instructed to consider both a stationary table and a table rotating at two different rates. They were then asked to, for each of the scenarios, mark with an X the location where they thought the marble would contact the floor after dropping off the table’s surface. Before instruction, all students predicted that the marble would hit the floor in different spots – diametrically across from the launch point for no rotation, and at increasing distances from that first point with increasing rotation rates of the table (Figure 4). This is the exact misconception we aimed to elicit with this question: students were applying correct knowledge (“in the Northern Hemisphere a moving body will be deflected to the right”) to situations where this knowledge was not applicable: when observing the rotating body and the moving object upon it from an inert frame of reference.
Figure 4A: Depiction of the typical wrong answer to the question: Where would a marble land on the floor after rolling across a table rotating at different rotation rates? B: Correct answer to the same question. C: Correct traces of marbles rolling across a rotating table.
In a second question, students were asked to imagine the marble leaving a dye mark on the table as it rolls across it, and to draw these traces left on the table. In this second question, students were thus required to infer that this would be analogous to regarding the motion of the marble as observed from the co-rotating frame of reference. Drawing this trajectory correctly before the experiment is run does not imply a correct conceptual understanding, since the transfer between rotating and non-rotating frames of references is not happening yet and students draw curved trajectories for all cases. However, after the experiment this question is useful especially in combination with the first one, as it requires a different answer than the first, and an answer that students just learned they should not default to.
The students’ laboratory reports supply additional support of the usefulness of this new approach. These reports had to be submitted a week after doing the experiment and accompanying work sheets, which were collected by the instructors. One of the prompts in the lab report explicitly addresses observing the motion from an inert frame of reference as well as the influence of the table’s rotational period on such motion. This question was answered correctly by all students. This is remarkable for three reasons: firstly, because in the previous year with conventional instruction, this question was answered incorrectly by the vast majority of students; secondly, from our experience, lab reports have a tendency to be eerily similar year after year which did not hold true for tis specific question; and lastly, because for this cohort, it is one of very few questions that all students answered correctly in their lab reports, which included seven experiments in addition to the Coriolis experiment. These observations lead us to believe that students do indeed harbor the misconception we suspected, and that the modified instructional approach has supported conceptual change.
We present modifications to a “very simple” experiment and suggest running it before subjecting students to more advanced experiments that illustrate concepts like Taylor columns or weather systems. These more complex processes and experiments cannot be fully understood without first understanding the Coriolis force acting on the arguably simplest bodies. Supplying correct answers to standard questions alone, e.g. “deflection to the right on the northern hemisphere”, is not sufficient proof of understanding.
In the suggested instructional strategy, students are required to explicitly state their expectations about what the outcome of an experiment will be, even though their presuppositions are likely to be wrong. The verbalizing of their assumptions aids in making them aware of what they implicitly hold to be true. This is a prerequisite for further discussion and enables confrontation and resolution of potential misconceptions. Wesuggest using an elicit-confront-resolve approach even when the demonstration is not run on an actual rotating table, but virtually conducted instead, for example using Urbano & Houghton (2006)’s Coriolis force simulation. We claim that the approach is nevertheless beneficial to increasing conceptual understanding.
We would like to point out that gaining insight from any seemingly simple experiment, such as the one discussed in this article, might not be nearly as straightforward or obvious for the students as anticipated by the instructor. Using an intriguing phenomenon to be investigated experimentally, and slightly changing conditions to understand their influence on the result, is highly beneficial. Probing for conceptual understanding in new contexts, rather than the ability to calculate a correct answer, proved critical in understanding where the difficulties stemmed from, and only a detailed discussion with several students could reveal the scope of difficulties.
The authors are grateful for the students’ consent to be featured in this article’s figures.
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[i]While tremendously helpful in visualizing an otherwise abstract phenomenon, using a common rotating table introduces difficulties when comparing the observed motion to the motion on Earth. This is, among other factors, due to the table’s flat surface (Durran and Domonkos, 1996), the alignment of the (also fictitious) centrifugal force with the direction of movement of the marble (Persson, 2010), and the fact that a component of axial rotation is introduced to the moving object when launched. Hence, the Coriolis force is not isolated. Regardless of the drawbacks associated with the use of a (flat) rotating table to illustrate the Coriolis effect, we see value in using it to make the concept of fictitious forces more intuitive, and it is widely used to this effect.
[ii]Despite their popularity in geophysical fluid dynamics instruction at many institutions, rotating tables might not be readily available everywhere. Good instructions for building a rotating table can, for example, be found on the “weather in a tank” website, where there is also the contact information to a supplier given: http://paoc.mit.edu/labguide/apparatus.html. A less expensive setup can be created from old disk players or even Lazy Susans, or found on playgrounds in form of merry-go-rounds. In many cases, setting the exact rotation rate is not as important as having a qualitative difference between “slow” and “fast” rotation, which is very easy to realize. In cases where a co-rotating camera is not available, by dipping the marble in either dye or chalk dust (or by simply running a pen in a straight line across the rotating surface), the trajectory in the rotating system can be visualized. The instructional approach described in this manuscript is easily adapted to such a setup.
[iii]We initially considered starting the lab session by throwing the marble diametrically across the rotating table. Students would then see on-screen the curved trajectory of a marble, which had never made physical contact with the table rotating beneath it, and which was clearly moving in a straight line from thrower to catcher, leading to the realization that it is the frame of reference that is to blame for the marble’s curved trajectory. However, the speed of a flying marble makes it very difficult to observe its curved path on the screen in real time. Replaying the footage in slow motion helps in this regard. Yet, replacing direct observation with recording and playback seemingly hampers acceptance of the occurrence as “real”. We therefore decided to only use this method to further illustrate the concept, not as a first step.
Dr. Mirjam Sophia Glessmer, holds a Master of Higher Education and Ph.D. in physical oceanography. She works at the Leibniz Institute of Science and Mathematics Education in Kiel, Germany. Her research focus lies on informal learning and science communication in ocean and climate sciences.
Pierre de Wet is a Ph.D. student in Oceanography and Climatology at the University of Bergen, Norway, and holds a Master in Applied Mathematics from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. He is employed by Akvasafe AS, where he works with the analysis and modelling of physical environmental parameters used in the mooring analysis and accreditation of floating fish farms.