Category Archives: method

Teaching inspiration dispenser

I just had this fun (I think) idea of a “teaching inspiration dispenser” for faculty development (inspired by Laura’s Instagram post on her experience with a @shortedition kiosk): I basically want a receipt printer, located somewhere centrally on campus, that gives out small pieces of paper with teaching inspiration or tips when people press a button.

It can be charged with new ideas

  • from every teaching workshop that happens (we’d just ask people to write minute papers at the end with their best teaching tip; either one of their own, something they heard about, or the best idea they got during the workshop),
  • from what students wish teachers thought of,
  • from what the Centre for Teaching and Learning thinks is good advice or inspiring to think about,
  • from what visiting scientists share,
  • from what we read or hear about,

All we need is a really short text (maybe with the author’s name and date, to make it more personal and relatable?), and then there need to be a couple of dozen of those in storage, so people are not likely to get the same one too often if they are repeat customers.

I think something like that would be awesome to

  • just share interesting ideas (“Mmh, I wonder if I should try…”),
  • generate conversation (“Guess what the teaching inspiration dispenser told me this morning?”),
  • be a collectible item that people put on their pin boards above their desks or maybe even swap or pass on to someone else who they think might benefit from the idea,
  • represent artefacts of collective learning as the database behind it grows.

There is of course also the much more boring low-tech version (much less appealing that pressing a button and seeing paper coming out!) where we just have a big bowl of folded pieces of paper where people pick one. We could colour-code the paper, e.g. the light green spring edition of newly added pieces of paper, or the red ones are for large classes. People could also easily put in their own pieces if they wanted to contribute; that way it’s not moderated and thus more democratic. So maybe it’s an equally good or even better option?

I’m the kind of person who would really love getting the physical piece of paper, sticking it in my bag, finding it weeks later and being reminded of the thing I wanted to try in my teaching. Even though I get so much inspiration and so many ideas from social media, podcasts, blog posts, books — just having a small piece of paper with an interesting thought would really appeal to me. A bit like a fortune cookie, except with some useful advice and minus the cookie (not a fan, but YMMV. Maybe the teaching inspiration cookie would be something for you?).

What do you think? Would you enjoy getting teaching inspiration that way? Would you want the automated dispenser or would you prefer to pick from a bowl?

Negotiating a rubric of learning outcomes and letting students pick the format in which they show they’ve mastered the learning outcomes

I’m still inspired by Cathy’s work on “co-creation”, and an episode of “Lecture Breakers” (I think the first one on student engagement techniques where they talked about letting students choose the format of the artefact they do for assessment purposes; but I binge-listened, and honestly, they are all inspiring!). And something that Sam recently said stuck with me — sometimes the teacher and the students just have “to play the game”. Assessment is something that needs to happen, and there are certain rules around it that need to be followed, but there are also a lot of things that can be negotiated to come to a consensus that works for everybody. So, as a teacher, just be open about your role in the game and the rules you yourself are bound by and the ones you are open to negotiate, and then start discussing! Anyway, the combination of those three inputs gave me an idea that I would like your feedback on.

Consider you want to teach a certain topic. Traditionally you would ask students to do a certain activity. You have specific learning outcomes you want your students to reach. Whether or not they reach those outcomes, you would evaluate by asking a certain set of questions to see whether they answer them correctly, or maybe by asking them to produce an artefact like an essay or a lab report. And that would be it.

But now consider you tell students that there is this specific topic you want to teach (and why you want to teach it, how it relates to the bigger picture of the discipline and what makes it relevant. Or you could even ask them to figure that out themselves!) and that they will be free to produce any kind of artefact or performance they want for the assessment. Now you could share your learning outcomes and tell them about what learning outcomes matter most to you, and why. And then you could start discussing. Do students agree on the relative importance of learning outcomes that you show in the way you are weighing them? Are there other learning outcomes that they see as relevant that you did not include (yet)?

Once that is settled (possibly by voting, or maybe also coming to a consensus in a discussion, depending on your group and your relationship to them. And of course you can set the boundary conditions that maybe some learning outcomes need to count for at least, or not more, a certain threshold), you are ready for the next important discussion. How could students show that they have mastered a learning outcome? What kind of evidence would they have to produce? What might count as having met the outcome, what would still count as “good enough”?

Now that it’s clear what the learning outcomes are and what they mean in terms of specific skills that will need to be demonstrated, you could let students add one learning outcome that they define themselves and that is related to the format of the artefact that they want to produce (possibly public speaking with confidence when presenting the product, learning to use some software to visualise, or analysing a different dataset than you gave them themselves, …). You could have already included 10% (or however much you think that skill should “be worth”) in the rubric, or negotiate it with students.

While negotiating learning outcomes, students will already have needed to think about how each learning outcome will become visible with their chosen way of presentation, and this should be talked through with you beforehand and/or documented in a meta document, so that a very artistic presentation does not obscure that actual learning has taken place.

How much fun would it be when people can choose to give a talk, do a short video, present a poster, design an infographic, rhyme a science poem, or whatever else they might like? I imagine it would be super motivating. Plus it would help students build a portfolio that shows their subject-specific skills acquired in our class alongside other skills that they think are fun or important to develop. And maybe some artefacts could be used in science communication, engaging other people by hooking them via a format they are interested in, and then maybe they also get interested in the content? I’ve seen hugely creative ideas when we asked students to write blog posts about phenomena we had investigated in the rotating DIYnamics tanks, like a Romeo-and-Juliet-type short novel on two water drops, or an amazing comic — and there they were confined to writing. What if they could also choose to make objects like my pocket wave watching guide, or to perform a play?

I guess it could be overwhelming when the content is very difficult, the task is very big, and students then also have to consider how to show that they learned it, in a way that isn’t pre-determined. Also timing might be important here so this task does not happen at the same time as other deadlines or exams. And obviously when you suggest this to your students, they might still all want to pick the same, or at least a traditional, format, and you would have to be ok with this if you take them seriously in these negotiations. What do you think? What should we consider and look out for when trying to implement something like this?

Pick a role and write a lecture summary from that perspective. Does that sound motivating?

Kjersti and I have been talking about asking students to take turns and write summaries of lectures throughout the whole semester. We would then give feedback on them to make sure we get a final result that is correct (and that the student learns something, obviously). The summaries are then collected into a booklet that students can use to study for the exam. I did that when I was teaching the “introduction to oceanography” 10 years ago and liked it (also great feedback for me on what students thought was important!), but in the end it is just one more thing we are “asking” the students to do, so is it really such a good idea?

Then on my lunchtime walk today, I listened to “lecture breakers” episode 78. Great episode as always! Early in the podcast several design criteria are mentioned, for example for intrinsic motivation it’s important to give students choice and show the relevance of what they are doing to their real life (more on the self-determination theory here), and that from an equity perspective, it’s important to provide different perspectives on a topic. Those stuck with me, and then one piece of advice was given: to let students adopt roles. Generic roles like a facilitator, researcher, devils advocate; or roles that are specific to the topic of discussion. They did not really elaborate on it very much, but what happened in my head is this: What if we combined our summaries with the idea of students choosing roles?

There are so many stakeholders in science, and students might have preferred approaches or might want to try on potential future roles. For example, someone could choose to take on the role of a minutes keeper and write a classical summary of the main points of a lecture. That would be all I asked my students to do back in the day, so not super exciting, but maybe it is what someone would choose? Or someone might choose to be a science journalist that does not only document the main points, but additionally finds a hook for why a reader should care, so for example relating it to recent local events. Or someone could pick the role of devil’s advocate and summarise the main points but also try to find any gaps or inconsistencies in the story line. Or someone might want to be a teacher and not only summarise the main points, but also find a way to teach them better than the lecturer did (or possibly to a different audience). Or someone might want to be a curator and combine the key points of the lecture with other supporting resources. Or an artist, or a travel guide, …? Or, of course, there are specific roles depending on the topic: A fisherman? Someone living in a region affected by some event? A policy maker? A concerned citizen?

Choosing such a role might give students permission to get creative. A summary does not necessarily be a written piece, it could also be a short podcast or a piece of art, if they so choose. That would definitely make it a lot more fun for everybody, wouldn’t it? No idea if students would like this new format, but it’s definitely something that I want to bring up in discussions, and — if they think it’s a good idea — also give a try some time soon!

An iEarth teaching conversation with Kjersti Daae and Torgny Roxå on #WaveWatching

iEarth is currently establishing the new-to-me format of “teaching conversations”, where two or more people meet to discuss specific aspects of one person’s teaching in a “critical friend” setting. Obviously I volunteered to be grilled, and despite me trying to suggest other topics, too (like the active lunch break and the “nerd topic” intro in a workshop), we ended up talking about … #WaveWatching. Not that I’m complaining ;-)

After the conversation, I wrote up the main points as a one-pager, which I am sharing below. Thank you, Kjersti and Torgny, for an inspiring conversation!

I use #WaveWatching in introductory courses in oceanography and in science outreach both on social media and in in-person guided tours. #WaveWatching is the practice of looking at water and trying to make sense of why its surface came to look the way it does: What caused the waves (e.g. wind, ships, animals)? How did the coastline influence the waves (e.g. shelter it from wind in some places, or block entrance into a basin from certain directions, or cause reflection)? What processes must be involved that we cannot directly observe (e.g. interactions with a very shallow area or a current)? Kjersti Daae (pers. comm.) suggests an analogy to explain #WaveWatching: Many people enjoy a stir-fry for its taste, like we enjoy looking at water, glittering in the sun, without questioning what makes it special. But once we start focusing on noticing different ingredients and the ways they are prepared, it is a small change in perspective that changes our perception substantially, and leads to a new appreciation and deeper understanding of all future stir-fries (and possibly other dishes) we will encounter.

I teach #WaveWatching using a cognitive apprenticeship leaning (Collins et al., 1988) approach*: By drawing on photos of selected wave fields (in the field using a drawing app on a tablet), I model my own sensemaking (Odden & Russ, 2019). I coach students to engage in the process, and slowly fade myself out. Students then engage in #WaveWatching practice anywhere they find water – in the sink, a puddle in the street, a lake, the ocean. Since waves are universally accessible, this works perfectly as hyper-local “excursions” in virtual teaching: Students work “in the field” right outside their homes.

Waves are not an integral part of the general curriculum in physical oceanography. While some wave processes are relevant for specific research questions, for typical large-scale oceanography they are not. And the concepts used in #WaveWatching are not even new to students, they are just an application of high-school optics to a new context.

Nevertheless, #WaveWatching helps work towards several goals that are important to me:

  1. Using “authentic data” acts as motivation to engage with theory because the connection with the real world makes it feel more interesting and engaging (Kjelvik & Schultheis, 2019).
  2. Engaging in sensemaking and gaining experience on what can (and cannot!) be concluded from an observation are highly relevant skills and this is an opportunity for practice.
  3. Building an identity as oceanographer – seeing the world through a new lens, joining a community of practice (Wenger, 2011), but also being able to demonstrate newfound expertise and identity to friends and family outside of that new community by talking about this new lens – are otherwise rare in socially distant times.

After being exposed to #WaveWatching, people tell me that they can’t look at water in the same way they did before. They are now seeing pattern they never noticed, and they try to explain them or ask themselves what I would see. They often send me photos of their observation years after our last interaction, and ask if I agree with their interpretations. #WaveWatching might thus be a threshold concept, “a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” and where “the change of perspective […] is unlikely to be forgotten” (Meyer & Land, 2003).

Literature:

  • Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1988). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing and mathematics. Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children8(1), 2-10.
  • Kjelvik, M. K., & Schultheis, E. H. (2019). Getting messy with authentic data: Exploring the potential of using data from scientific research to support student data literacy. CBE—Life Sciences Education18(2), es2.
  • Meyer, J. H. F., and Land, R. (2003) “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising” in Improving Student Learning: Ten Years On. C. Rust (Ed), OCSLD, Oxford.
  • Odden, T. O. B., & Russ, R. S. (2019). Defining sensemaking: Bringing clarity to a fragmented theoretical construct. Science Education103(1), 187-205.
  • Wenger, E. (2011). Communities of practice: A brief introduction.

*more on that in this post (that comes online on 21.5.2021).

Using an active lunch break to see the world through our subject area’s lens and to reconnect us to what fascinates and motivates us

I often teach faculty development workshops at Kiel University. Since we have been in remote teaching mode almost exclusively since March 2020, dealing with virtual classes is a pressing subject – both for the faculty who attend my workshops, but also for myself as I have to present best practice examples of leading fully-virtual all-day workshops.

I got the idea I will present here from David Morgan (this is his implementation) during the September 2020 “FieldWorkFix during Covid-19” conference, where I experienced the “active lunch break” as a participant. I remember being slightly annoyed that people were trying to hijack my lunch break (which already started out an hour late due to the time difference!), and that I did not completely follow the instructions. David asked us to follow a quasi-random, “bias-free” path determined by “wandering cards” (e.g. “follow something yellow”, “take a right turn”, “sit down for 2 minutes and see what happens”) in order to get us off our well-trodden paths to make it easier to see the world with different eyes and also to lower the threshold of picking something that we feel needs to count as a good example with a clear connection to our subject. So no pressure to go running to the botanical gardens for the biologists, or the beach for the oceanographers! I thought “it’s my lunch break after all, so I will do what I please!” and went the straight down to Kiel fjord, as I do every day. I then took a photo as instructed, “using my subject area as my lens”, and uploaded it to the website. I started the second half of the day with newfound energy and inspiration, glad that I had gotten over my internal resistance and participated.

I have since used a similar active lunch break in three full-day faculty development workshops with approximately 15 participants each. Every time, right before the 1-hour lunch break, I introduce the task. I ask them to take the opportunity to step away from their screens for a bit instead of catching up on email, to get some movement, some natural light, some oxygen. I state that I know that it’s a bit of a leap of faith to spend their lunch break “my way”, but that I would really encourage them to at least step out on their balcony and find *something* that they notice as an expert in their fields, to take a picture and to upload it in a shared google slides document. I share examples of what we did during that initial workshop and of what participants in previous workshops did. I then start the lunch break and anxiously run outside to at least do the task myself, even if everybody else might choose not to. I tell myself that if nobody actually ended up doing the task, it would be a great opportunity to talk about why students might choose to not do the tasks they are given.

As I am walking, I always find something that fascinates me and that I can relate to my interest in oceanography. I take a picture, also take in the nature around me, and relax. I come back and upload the picture, adding a short description of what what the picture shows looks like through my eyes. Then, slowly, the participants return and usually more than 4 out of 5 upload a picture.

When everybody is back and the break is over, I ask them about how it went for them. Each time, someone mentions that they would not have taken the time to take a real break and go outside, had I not encouraged it and connected it to a task that they felt obliged to work on. Then, someone says how they at first thought that it would be impossible to find something to take a picture of, because their research field is so specialized and abstract, and how they were then excited to see something and feel like they were noticing a connection to their field that would be invisible to others, and how that reminded them of how very cool they thought their field was. And someone says how they want to use it on their own students if they have to teach full days and really want to make sure they include a real break.

The kind of pictures that people bring back are very different. For me as an oceanographer as well as for other people in geosciences, it is very easy to relate puddles on the street to the ocean, or children’s windmills to measurements of atmospheric properties. A professor in chemistry took a picture of a climbing rope web on a playground and related it to the crystal structures he is studying. Linguists bring pictures of election posters or advertisements with slogans on them, of flowers that remind them of medieval poetry, of a flower behind a fence that elicits the idea how reading can free the mind. An ecologist showed a picture of a bird’s nest in her conservatory as an example of contextuality of reproduction decisions: Starting to build the nest there seemed a good decision at the time, but then the weather changed and what used to be a secluded and quiet place became a high traffic area for children. Looking through those pictures with the participants is a joyful excursion into the way other people perceive the world, full of wonder and a sense of exploration and excitement.

I really like this “active lunch break” task because of the effect it has on my participants, and on me! So much so that I use this method “just on myself” on long working days, and I have never regretted doing it :)

Have you ever tried something similar? Would you?

The “lightning storm in the chat” method

In a workshop I led recently, a participant helped me gain a new perspective on an old method: the “lightning storm in the chat” (my best attempt at translating “Chatgewitter” to English. No idea what the name of the method is in English).

The idea is simple: You ask a question, people type their responses in the chat, but they don’t send them just yet. After either a fixed time or a short countdown, everybody presses enter simultaneously, and all the answers appear in the feed at the same time.

I’ve always seen this used as ice breaker question (“what kind of drink do you have on your desk right now?”, “what’s your favourite pet?”, or similar “ice-breaking” questions) and I always thought it was a typical example of a method that was just being used because we always learn that we should occasionally change methods, but that didn’t actually do much except waste time (which, btw, is a common perception of multiple choice questions, too, which I always counter with “well, maybe you need to ask better questions”…).

But obviously, the same “lightning storm in the chat” method can be used with better — open, deeper, more interesting — questions, too, and then goes from being a silly waste of time to a useful tool:

  • Since everybody types at the same time, this method is a lot faster than the typical methods of collecting input, where one person responds, and then the next one responds, and so on. Now we just need to give a minute or two (or five) to think and type, and then all the answers are ready to be submitted.
  • Since we are collecting all the different answers within a matter of minutes, it is actually feasible to get an answer from everybody in the audience. This would most likely not be possible if we were relying on people to verbally communicate their answers.
  • Since a lot of answers appear at the same time, it takes pressure and importance off of each individual response. Each response still contributes to the overall picture, but in the end, it is just one of many. This makes the threshold a lot lower than if people were responding one at a time.
  • When participants respond one after the other, responses are inevitably biased by what was said before. Not with this method: we get a good impression of what people are thinking individually, pre-discussion. (This can be helpful for assigning people into groups for discussion later on, too!)
  • In contrast to multiple-choice questions with pre-defined answers, we are also not missing out on nuances in the responses when someone mostly agrees with an answer, but not quiiite, but has no way of indicating that in a classical multiple-choice choice (well, we are still missing nuances here, too, since we are still typing under time pressure, but you get my point)
  • Also in contrast to multiple-choice questions, there is hardly any preparation going into it. Questions can be asked spontaneously when the need arises. (Obviously, for the purpose of optimally supporting learning it still makes sense to think about questions a little, and not just rely on spontaneous intuition as a default…)
  • Since there are no pre-defined answer options, this is a great tool to ask e.g. for suggestions on how to proceed, what kind of topic would be interesting to discuss, or other really open questions that can help the instructor understand what the participants want or need at that time.

Have you used the “Chatgewitter” method before? What do or don’t you like about it?

My two favourite methods for re-activating and re-focussing workshop participants

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?

Asking for the “nerd topic” when introducing workshop participants to each other to foster self-disclosure to create community

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.

Teaching field courses in a virtual setting

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.

(On that note: Kitchen Oceanography is also science! Check out this post for proof…)

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.

  • social development
  • 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.

Fully virtual

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

I’ve long been a fan of local fieldwork, i.e. sending students out to discover something related to the course’s topic right outside their door. For examples see for example my post on hydraulic jumps that are everywhere, on #BergenWaveWatching, or on #MoreThanWeeds.

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!

Outdoor asynchronous

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!)

Outdoor synchronouns

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.

Ideas for assessment

Depending on what is being done during the virtual field courses, traditional forms of assessment might still work, or maybe they need to be adapted. What you could consider is including activities into your assessment that are motivating students in themselves, for example asking them to write Instagram or blog posts (and check out this blog post for a grading rubric for Instagram posts!).

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!

References

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

Giles, S., Jackson, C. & Stephen, N. Barriers to fieldwork in undergraduate geoscience degrees. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 77–78 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-0022-5

Larsen, C., Walsh, C., Almond, N., & Myers, C. (2017). The “real value” of field trips in the early weeks of higher education: the student perspective. Educational Studies, 43(1), 110-121.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford

Instructional videos in a nutshell

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.

Record with a buddy!

For lecture videos, it doesn’t have a large impact on learning outcomes what the exact format of the recodfing is, but students prefer to actually see their instructor.

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! :-)

There are so many options, for example:

  • include a multiple choice test that students have to pass before moving on to the next video
  • 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?