Scholarship of Teaching and Learning – torn between the scholars and the teachers

On finding my role in my new job.

As many of you know, I’ve changed jobs a couple of months ago, and I am now in a position where I advise university teachers on their teaching while also trying to do research on how to improve students’ learning. And sometimes I feel like I am caught between a rock and a hard place*, and I have been discussing this with many people at my job.

On the one hand, my scientific self, training and background (as well all my scientist friends!) hold me to the highest standards of science.

On the other hand, I have those people that I am consulting, that want an answer from me right here and now.

How do you reconcile those two demands? Yes, I want to do science right. I want to have a large population to draw from, I want control groups, I want statistics. I want to only change one parameter at a time in order to know exactly what is influencing what, and how. And I want to give advise based on science, not gut feeling. On the other hand, I do want to help the people I am advising to improve their teaching as quickly as possible. Which sometimes means relying on my gut, changing more than one thing at a time, not having control groups, and giving in to all the other practical demands of teaching and university life.

Given the description of the position that I hold, helping the teachers is more important than doing the research. Yet I believe that what we develop as “quick fixes” can and should be made available to a wider audience. Even though it is only a report of what we did and not a scientifically sound result.

Assuming for a moment that we should publish, there is the question of where to publish. The “real” scientists won’t want my kind of studies in their “real” journals, even if we do evaluations, but the teachers wouldn’t read those kind of journals anyway.

From this blog I’ve learned that a lot of people (who wouldn’t necessarily read scientific papers on teaching oceanography) are following and enjoying this. And every week I get feedback from people who “spent at least an hour on your blog yesterday” (thanks Joke), “stalk my blog for inspiration and ideas” (thanks Jonathan), who have to tell me their experiences with one of the experiments right away and are typing with fingers red and blue from food coloring (thanks Kristin), who “aspire to be as creative as [me]” (thanks Fitz) who ask when I’ll be publishing my book or youtube channel (thanks Torge), who advertise my blog through various media (thanks Geli!!! And Kim and others), who tell me that after reading my blog they need to go and buy corn starch right away (thanks Ingrid). And this is just a random collection of feedback I found browsing my inbox.

This is amazing feedback and it means a lot to me that people find reading about my teaching helpful for their own. And that makes me think that maybe publishing results of my research on teaching and learning in this or some other blog would be so much better than trying to get it into journals where it doesn’t really fit and isn’t even really wanted. And where it would most likely not be found by those people who would use it as inspiration for their own teaching**. On the other hand that means that it would never be used by people who do research on teaching and learning, and that those two worlds – the scientific and the applied one – will continue to exist on parallel trajectories, next to each other but never intersecting.

So what to do? I’ll leave you to ponder this dilemma while I travel to Bergen to do some “real” science and meet some friends. Talk to you soon!

*neither the rock nor the hard place are too bad, though – this is still my dream job! ;-)

** “inspiration” means here that they consider it and either take it as is, or modify it, or reject it and come up with better ideas themselves. For me this blog is about inspiring thinking about teaching, not about me telling people what the solution is…

Happy half Birthday!

Adventures in Teaching and Oceanography has been around for a full 6 months today!

Adventures in Teaching and Oceanography has been around for a full 6 months today! Can you believe this? On the one hand it feels like I have had this blog for a very long time, because writing this blog is not actually that different from doing experiments for fun, and I have been doing that for a very long time (plus SO MUCH happened over the last 6 months!).

On the other hand, this is the one-hundred-and-fourth post published on this blog. You can easily assume that more than one hour per post went into doing the experiments and writing the posts. For some posts, it was substantially more, but for some maybe a little less. But let’s stick with one hour for simplicity. This means that I’ve put about 120 hours in over 6 months – that is the typical amount of work in a student help’s contract. I can’t decide whether that is a lot of time (about one work day per week!) or not (hey – if we hired a student help, we could do a lot of outreach for not a lot of money!), so I’m not going to comment any further. In any case, while some of this time happened on the job (and isn’t it awesome when people pay you to develop and conduct experiments with students? And some of the experiments I couldn’t have conducted at home for lack of appropriate tanks), all of the picture prepping and writing and planning happened on my own time for fun. And it is so much fun! Happy half Birthday, dear blog! :-)

Help! Equation of State?

Is there an equation of state for hypersaline water at very cold temperatures?

A friend of mine is looking to calculate changes in density of a hypersaline Antarctic lake from summer to winter. Apparently, this lake is about 10 times saltier than the ocean and often cools down to -17C at the bottom.

My own spontaneous answer was that I am not aware of such an equation of state, and that I doubt that there is a lot of empirical data in that property range. Plus from talking to Dead Sea researchers while working on double diffusion, I know that measuring salinities that are that high is not at all easy – the constancy of composition of sea water breaks down (at least in the Dead Sea) which has consequences for the measurement methods that can be used, and in any case CTDs aren’t calibrated for those salinities. But I am hoping that the collective wisdom of my readers will come up with a better answer.

So, dear readers. Do you know of an equation of state that applies to that range of properties, or do you have any other comments on the issue? Please leave a comment below or get in touch with me! That would a) really help my friend, and b) help satisfy my curiosity :-)

Oceanographer at heart.

Happy Valentine’s day!

The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you. […]

I originally wrote this post to announce me starting my new job. I didn’t post it then, because it was quite a big transition and in the end I wasn’t prepared to deal with it in public. I didn’t really have any time at all to adjust – I sat in my office in Norway until late one Friday night, grading the exams my students had just written, and then the next Monday I started at another job in another country, just like that.

Now I have already been in this job for 2.5 months, and I am really happy. I am in the job that I have been describing to people even though I didn’t know it existed until 8 months ago when I found it advertised, applied, got the offer, accepted the offer and all this time couldn’t believe my luck. And it is not in oceanography.

It is not all completely new, and it is in fact closely related to the things that I enjoyed most at my old job and that I spent plenty of my evenings and weekends on: Thinking about how to improve teaching, developing materials to support student learning, and evaluating if that goal has been met. And if it hasn’t been met – back to square one and start from scratch!

I am not doing this in the context of oceanography, instead I am responsible for mechanical engineering, ship building and related subjects. But I don’t feel like that is taking me too far away from oceanography – after all, I studied ship building and marine technology as a minor subject when doing my Master’s in oceanography. And the physical basis is the same anyway. So if anything, it is complementary to oceanography.

Nevertheless, it is all new and rather than a “postdoctoral fellow in physical oceanography”, I am now a “coordinator of teaching innovation” (doesn’t sound too bad either, does it?). But being an oceanographer, going on awesome cruises every year, showing experiments to my nerdy friends and their nerdy friends at every opportunity has for the last 12 years been such a big part of who I am, so even though this new job is my dream job, I am sad to be closing this awesome chapter of my life.

But even though in the future I might not have the opportunity to go on cruises as regularly as I would like (but pssst – there is something in the planning there!), and even though some posts on this blog might change topic ever so slightly (from playing with water towards playing with water and ships, but I’ll also spend 10 days in August just doing the kind of tank experiments you know and love from my blog, and you bet I’ll be blogging about that!), I can’t imagine any of the rest will ever change.

Because I am, and will always be, an oceanographer at heart. <3


Thou art my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou’d be you.

Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1784)

Oceanographic concepts and language (part 4)

On how it always helps to speak the same mother tongue as your teacher.

As you might have realized from previous discussion on the topic of oceanography and language (part 1, 2, and 3), I have been thinking a lot about how me teaching in a foreign language to both me and most of my students affects my teaching, our interactions and their learning. I thought I was very aware of the difficulties that arise due to the second (or third or fourth) language issue, and that that awareness was helping me deal with it in a good way.

Recently though, I was supervising students writing the exam for the course I had taught. I was walking around, talking to individual students, and a german student asked me a question to clarify what I wanted them to do. Specifically, the student repeated the question back to me in German and asked me to confirm that their understanding was correct, which it was. And that was when I realized that even though I have always been teaching in English, and always tried to respond to students in one-on-one situations in whichever language they approached me in, german students really have an advantage in my class.

Similarly, when correcting exams, I understand the false friends that german students might use, or their weird choice of words. And while I always try to separate language problems from problems with the oceanographic concepts, I might not be doing such a good job for students whose languages I am not familiar with. Actually, not “I might not be doing such a good job” – there is no way I would do a good job if I was not familiar with the language and the false friends or weird sayings or typical mistakes that come with that language.

I don’t know how to resolve this. I don’t even know whether it is possible. I am sure that the effect is small in my courses and grades because I am aware and actively trying to make sure this isn’t unfairly helping or hindering students. But this is the first time that I think of being back in a primarily german-speaking environment as an advantage – at least I am not introducing unfair circumstances due to different languages.

What do you guys think? Have you come across these problems? How did you deal with them?

Letter tubes and hydrostatic pressure

How less than 25% of the tested students give consistent answers to these problems.

This is already the third blog post talking about the paper “Identifying and addressing student difficulties with hydrostatic pressure” by Loverude, Heron and Kautz (the first two posts here and here). But I am still a bit in shock by what I read in that paper.

Consider the figure below. A N-shaped tube filled with water.

The N-tube problem.

Students are asked to rank the pressure at points G, X, Y, Z.

Because I hate reading electronics papers where they give you the questions and the students’ misconceptions, but don’t tell you what the correct answer would be (how would I know?) I am going to give you the answer, but I’ll assume that you know it anyway. Clearly, points X, Y and Z have the same pressure, whereas the pressure at point G is less.

So what do students say?

The N-tube problem and the typical WRONG student answer.

A very prominent answer, according to the authors of the study, is that students confuse pressure with weight. Since there is more water above X than above any of the other points, the pressure here seems to have to be highest. And following this logic, the pressure at Z is the smallest (for a sketch of the wrong “h”s that go into this answer, see the figure above).

Using a different-shaped tube, and asked again to rank pressures, students find different results (rather than giving the correct answer, which would be that the pressure at X and Y is the same, the one at W is higher and the one at Z is lower):

The U-tube problem.

Here, many students conclude that the pressure must be increasing from X through W through Y through Z, hence perceiving pressure as varying along the curvature of the letter.

When students in that study were shown both letters together, this is what the typical answers look like:

Comparing the N-tube and the U-tube.

The authors find that less than 25% of the students answer these two problems (even when shown side-by-side) consistently. And consistently means just that: They either answer both correctly, OR they answer both of them based on the misconception described for the N-tube, OR they answer both of them based on the misconception described for the U-tube.

This means that 75% of the students in the study didn’t even have a mental model that they consistently used. And those were students who had gone through the standard instruction in hydrostatics. This makes me wonder how this translates to my own students. I have never explicitly talked about these kinds of problems, assuming that students had a full grasp of the material. But clearly this is an assumption that should not be made. But where do we have to start teaching if this is still so fraught with difficulties? Do you have any ideas? Then please let me know.

Cartesian divers – theoretical considerations

 A bit more reflection on cartesian divers.

When I wrote the two previous posts, I had known cartesian divers for a very long time in many contexts, for example as something that is routinely used in primary school teaching. While I was aware that developing a correct physical description of such a diver is challenging, I assumed that everybody had an intuitive understanding of how a diver would react when pressure was applied on the bottle. To me, this is an experiment that I would use to demonstrate the different compressibilities of air and water, assuming that everybody can imagine what happens if the density of a floating body changes.
Turns out my assumption of what people intuitively understand was way off. In the paper Helping students develop an understanding of Archimedes’ principle. I. Research on student understanding”, Loverude, Kautz and Heron talk about difficulties university science majors have with hydrostatics. Of seven volunteers who were interviewed, who had all completed their instruction in hydrostatics and all reported course grades at or above the mean, all but two predicted that the diver would rise as pressure was applied to the bottle. And none of the students could account for the observation that the diver sank!
Now I’m wondering at which point the students’ difficulties arise. Is it that they don’t know about different compressibilities or is it at a much more basic level? From the study mentioned above it seems that students don’t appreciate the tiny density range (where calling it a range might already be over-stating it) in which a body can float in (non-stratified) water without swimming at the surface or sinking to the ground. In a way this makes sense – most of the time that we look at water in a way comparable to how we look at a cartesian diver (i.e. through side walls so we are looking at a depth section of a non-stratified fluid), we are actually looking at aquaria where fish float in very similar ways to the cartesian divers. But we never stop to think about how floating and adjusting depth in a fluid is actually quite an achievement. Which we see when the fish die and first float at the surface and then sink to the bottom…
In any case. If it is the case that students don’t appreciate how rare it is for something to float in a fluid, then showing a cartesian diver might even be working against us by reinforcing a perception that is harmful to the students’ future understanding of hydrostatics. Or we can use the divers in a different way – have students build them themselves, so that they need to fiddle with them to adjust their initial density until it is just right, before they start working in the way shown in the previous posts. I think this is a thought I want to develop further… So stay tuned!

Oceanographic concepts and language (part 3)

What level of proficiency do you need to communicate about science?

This post is not strictly about oceanography, but I started thinking about it in the context of a class I taught recently, where I was teaching in a foreign language to me and most of the students.

After one of the classes, a student came to me to thank me that had I continued explaining concepts, even though some of the (native speaker) students thought that that was ridiculous and everybody should know what certain terms meant (posted about here).

And one thing this student and I noted when discussing in a language that was foreign to both of us was that even though our grammar might be not perfect and our vocabulary not as large as that of native speakers, we had a sensitivity for other speakers that many of the native speakers lacked. For example, we discovered that it comes natural to us to speak about “football” to speakers of British English, when we would say “soccer” to speakers of American English. Or that we are aware that trousers and pants might or might not mean the same thing, depending on who you are talking to. And I remember distinctly how on a British ship, sitting at a table with American scientists, I explained that when the stewart asked if we wanted “pudding” we could well end up getting cake, because in the context then what he meant was “dessert”.

When you are a non-native speaker, you get used to listening very carefully in order to understand what is going on around you. In my first months in Norway, for example, I happily watched Swedish TV and would understand as much there as on Norwegian TV. I would recognize words, grammar rules that had been discussed in language class, even phrases. Yet many of my Norwegian friends say they find it hard to understand Swedish.  But on the other hand I remember that I found it much easier to communicate in English when in Vienna than to adapt to their German dialect.

Sports-analogies are another example that is typically very language-dependent. I know by now what “pitching an idea” means, but not because I know pitching from a sports context, but because I have heard that phrase used often enough so it stuck. Same for this teaching assistant who helped with my class who I overheard shouting “mud pit!” when he wanted students to remember something about molecular diffusion (or heat?) – the picture I made up in my head is that of players huddling together in a muddy playing field, but I still don’t know what exactly he was referring to (and I’m sure neither do half of the students of that class).

Now, I am not saying that native speakers of any language are necessarily unaware of those peculiarities. But what I am saying is this: If you are a native speaker, and you are communicating with non-native speakers, try to be aware of how you are communicating your ideas, and be sensitive to whether you are understood. And listen carefully to what your students are saying and don’t just assume that non-native speakers can’t possibly have anything interesting to say. And if you are the teacher who taught the class before I taught the class with the student mentioned above, and you told them that their English was not good enough because they didn’t speak (note: not because they didn’t understand, but because they didn’t speak!) your dialect: Learn their language, or any kind of foreign-to-you language, and then we can talk again.

And on this slightly rant-y note, I’ll leave you for now. I will be back in the new year on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I have tons of ideas for more posts (you have no idea how many experiments my family will have to endure over the next couple of days! And I have about 30 hands-on experiment posts in various draft stages written already), and if you end up desperately waiting for new content here, how about you try some of my (or other) experiments and let me know how it went? Have fun playing!

Oceanographic concepts and language (part 2)

How to make lectures in a foreign language less scary for the students.

The class that I have until recently taught in Bergen, GEOF130, is taken by students in oceanography and meteorology in the second year of their Bachelor at the university. It is the first course they take at the Geophysical Institute – their first year is spent entirely at other institutes. The Bachelor is taught in Norwegian – with the exception of GEOF130. This course is taught in English, because it also serves the Nordic Master, which is taught in English, and that brings in many students who don’t speak Norwegian.

While I am glad the course had to be held in Norwegian (I would definitely not have had the time to prepare 4 hours of lectures per week for a whole semester in Norwegian!), many of the students were not happy. They typically understand everything you say just fine, but there is a huge barrier when it comes to speaking in front of their peers in a foreign language.

The easiest way to cope with the shyness I found is to speak to them in my less-than-perfect Norwegian. Seeing the teacher make funny mistakes in a foreign language makes it a lot easier for them to dare making mistakes in another foreign language.

Yet students often choose to write the exam in Norwegian (and yes – I have to pose the questions in English, Nynorsk and Bokmål!). Which often leads to problems, since all of the lectures and all of the reading materials were in English, so the students don’t actually know any of the technical terms in Norwegian and often end up inventing them or, worse, mixing them up with similar sounding but not otherwise related Norwegian terms.

So the next thing to do is to always try and be aware of which terms they are likely to know and which are technical terms. This is not always easy and depends a lot on what their native language is (see this post). One thing I did early on when I started teaching was to create a small dictionary of oceanographic terms in English, Norwegian and German. Anyone out there who wants to help edit that dictionary? And everybody, please feel free to share if you think this might be useful to someone else!

Student cruises (part 5 of many, or – thank you to a great mentor)

The first student cruise I ever taught while being taught by one of the greatest teachers myself.

As you might have noticed from the last four or so blog posts, I really enjoy teaching student cruises and I think they are a super important part of the oceanography education.

So let me tell you about the first student cruise I taught. I was lucky enough to co-teach it with one of the most experienced and knowledgeable oceanographers out there, who was excited about sharing with me all there is to know about cruise planning, cruise leading, teaching at sea and many other topics.

Screen shot 2012-03-09 at 6.21.44 PM
Me and Anne on watch during that student cruise. Picture courtesy of Angus Munro.

From the first day of the first cruise onward, my ideas and contributions were welcomed, and I got to heavily influence the scientific program of the cruise. On the second day of the first cruise, I was told to just walk up to the captain and tell him if I wanted to change the course and go measure somewhere else than planned.

Screen shot 2012-03-09 at 6.24.50 PM
On the bridge, discussing the scientific plan for the next day. Picture courtesy of Angus Munro.

The cruise ended up being great learning experiences for me. For the first time, I got to decide how to allocate ship time to best investigate the question that I thought was most interesting, a topic that I had never had (the chance) to deal with previously.

Screen shot 2012-03-09 at 6.16.03 PM
Getting the small boat ready to recover a mooring. Photo courtesy of Angus Munro.

At the same time, I had the opportunity to learn from – and work with – the best. One of the practical highlights: A mooring release had not been working reliably in the past, but it was the one that we had with us on this cruise. So what to do?

Screen shot 2012-03-09 at 6.15.52 PM
Recovering a mooring. Photo courtesy of Angus Munro.

Easy! Just tie a rope from the mooring to a tree! (Ok, so maybe this isn’t generally helpful, but if you are in Lokksund, this is genius)

And then I got to spend a lot of my time on watch (and a lot of my time off watch) discussing what we were seeing in the new data, what we could learn from that, where we should go next to prove or disprove our new theories.

And I got to watch a great teacher interact with his students (other than me). I saw how he challenged, how he encouraged, how he helped, how he guided, how he inspired.

Screen shot 2012-03-09 at 6.15.37 PM
Bringing the mooring back on deck. Photo courtesy of Angus Munro.

Thank you so much, Tor, for being the role model you are and for having given me all of this, which I have since been striving to give to my own students.

All photos in this post were taken by Angus Munro (thanks!) on the 2012 GEOF332 student cruise.