I’m back to browsing the “menu” in my new favorite book, “The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain” by Zakrajsek (2022). If you haven’t read the first blog post about the book, you might want to read that one first for context.
I found a new YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!!!-book: “The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain” by Zakrajsek (2022). It is aimed at students and it might be the most important thing students ever read in school…
This is the third part (part 1 here, part 2 here) of my notes on reading “small teaching online — applying learning science in online classes” by Darby & Lang (2019). Take it with a pinch of salt and go read the original book! These are just my two cents on the points that I find especially relevant for myself.
Part 1, chapter 3 is on “using media and technology tools”, basically saying that not all is gold that glitters, and that we need to be very deliberate in how we use technology. And then there are their tips (clearly written pre-pandemic):
This is the second part (part 1 here) of my notes on reading “small teaching online — applying learning science in online classes” by Darby & Lang (2019). Take it with a pinch of salt and go read the original book! These are just my two cents on the points that I find especially relevant for myself!
Part 1, chapter 2, is on “guiding learning through engagement”, basically how to scaffold learning by designing lots of small signposts and feedback opportunities throughout the duration of a course or project. And this is how they suggest we do it:
I absolutely loved reading the “small teaching” book by Lang (2021), so I was super excited to dig into the related “small teaching online — applying learning science in online classes” by Darby & Lang (2019), and it did not disappoint! I loved it (my only complaint: why didn’t they call it “Tiny Teaching”??? What a missed opportunity!) and — as always — I am summarizing the main points (of the part 1, chapter 1, stay tuned for future posts!) from my perspective below, but it is totally worth reading the actual book! Continue reading
A great teaching method that engages students with literature, and that Cathy Bovill recently introduced me to, are “doughnut rounds”: Students (or workshop participants) are asked to read an article and formulate a certain number of questions, that are then discussed in groups. This leads to people being able to fill in gaps in their understanding (for example due to superficial reading…) and to general engagement with the topic.
‘Active Learning’ is frequently used in relation to university teaching, especially in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects where expository lecturing is still a common means of instruction, especially in theoretical courses. However, many different activities and types of activities can be assigned this label. This review article examines the educational research and development literature in 7 subject areas (Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Engineering, Geography, Geosciences and Physics) to explore exactly what is meant by ‘active learning’, its core principles and defining characteristics.
Active Learning is often presented or described as a means of increasing student engagement in a teaching situation. ‘Student engagement’ is another poorly defined term, but is usually taken to involve four aspects: social-behavioural (participation in sessions and interactions with other students); cognitive (reflective thought); emotional and agentic (taking responsibility). In this way, ‘Active Learning’ relates to the opportunities that students have to construct their knowledge. On the other hand, and in relation to practice, Active Learning is often presented as the antithesis of student passivity and traditional expository lecturing in which student activity is limited to taking notes. This characterisation is related the behaviour of students in a session.
Most articles and reviews reporting the positive impact of Active Learning on students’ learning don’t define what Active Learning is. Instead, most either list example activities or specify what Active Learning is not. This negative definition introduces an apparent dichotomy which is not as clear as it may initially appear. In fact, short presentations are an important element of many ‘Active Learning’ scenarios: it is the continuous linear presentation of information that is problematic. Most teaching staff promote interactivity and provide opportunities for both individual and social construction of knowledge while making relatively small changes to previously presentation-based lectures.
That said, the amount of class time in which students are interacting directly with the material does matter. One example of measurement of the use and impact of Active Learning strategies (or activities that require students to interact with the material they are learning) in relation to conceptual understanding of Light and Spectroscopy found that high learning gains occur when at least 25% of scheduled class time is spent by students on Active Learning strategies. Moreover, the quality of the activities and their delivery, and the commitment of both students and staff to their use, are also seen as potentially important elements in achieving improved learning.
In order to develop an understanding of what Active Learning actually means, groups in seven disciplinary areas reviewed the discipline-specific literature, and the perspectives were then integrated into a common definition. The research found that presentations of Active Learning in terms of either students’ construction of knowledge via engagement, or in contrast to expository lecturing were used within the disciplines, although the discipline-specific definitions varied. For example, the geosciences definition of Active Learning was:
”Active learning involves situations in which students are engaged in the knowledge-building process. Engagement is manifest in many forms, including cognitive, emotional, behavioural, and agentic, with cognitive engagement being the primary focus in effective active learning,”
while the physics definition was that:
”Active learning encompasses any mode of instruction that does not involve passive student lectures, recipe labs, and algorithmic problem solving (i.e., traditional forms of instruction in physics). It often involves students working in small groups during class to interact with peers and/or the instructor.”
The composite definition to which these contributed is that:
”Active learning is a classroom situation in which the instructor and instructional activities explicitly afford students agency for their learning. In undergraduate STEM instruction, it involves increased levels of engagement with (a) direct experiences of phenomena, (b) scientific data providing evidence about phenomena, (c) scientific models that serve as representations of phenomena, and (d) domain-specific practices that guide the scientific interpretation of observations, analysis of data, and construction and application of models.”
The authors next considered how teaching and learning situations could be understood in terms of the participants and their actions (Figure 1 of the paper). ‘Traditional, lecture-based’ delivery is modelled as a situation where the teacher has direct experience of disciplinary practices, access to data and models, and then filters these into a simplified form presented to the students. Meanwhile, in an Active Learning model students construct their knowledge of the discipline through their own interaction with the elements of the discipline: its practices, data and models. This knowledge is refined through discussion with peers and teaching staff (relative experts within the discipline), and self-reflection.
The concluding sections remark on the typical focus of Discipline Based Educational Research, and reiterate that student isolation (lack of opportunities to discuss concepts and develop understanding) and uninterrupted expository lecturing are both unhelpful to learning, but that ”there is no single instructional strategy that will work across all situations.”
The Curious Constrauct of Active Learning
D. Lombardi, T. F. Shipley and discipline teams.
Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 2021, 22 (1) 8-43
I’m currently leading another virtual 3-day workshop on “introduction to university teaching”, and yesterday I left a prompt on the shared slide deck we are working on, “Things I wanted to say but didn’t get the chance…”, for participants to react to when they gave me the continue, start, stop feedback on that day. As I explained to the participants, the idea is that there are many reasons why participants might choose to not contribute even a relevant point in the heat of the moment. They might be shy, they might think the thought wasn’t that super relevant, they might not want to derail the conversation, they might be afraid of the reaction they might get, they might not be sure of how well technology will work and if a bad network connection might lead to awkward moments, and many more. But what a pity if all those thoughts are lost, especially since I would bet that there is a systemic bias in who speaks a lot and who doesn’t. So including this way to hear missing voices seemed a good idea, and it was interesting to see what it brought up! I’ll always do this now! What do you think, will you, too?
This summer I had a fun little side project: I was co-supervising a Bachelor thesis in geography at Kiel University! Janina Dreeßen, with Katja Kuhwald as her main supervisor, did an excellent job, and I am presenting her work at the #FieldWorkFix conference today. If you can’t join later, here are my slides and what I’m planning to say. Enjoy!
Janina’s task was to create a learning opportunity on coastal protection for 16-year olds in a school setting, to run it with some students from her target group, and to do a preliminary evaluation of how it worked. And that’s what I want to present here (of course she also did a review of both the subject of coastal protection, and the literature on how students learn with digital media and on excursions, but that’s beyond the scope of this presentation).
The learning outcomes that Janina focussed on were
- to be able to name which coastal protection measures exist close to the students’ homes (i.e. on a specific part of the German Baltic Sea coast),
- to recognising those coastal protection measures “in the wild” and understand their functioning, and
- to explain why there are rules in place to protect dunes etc, and what the rules are.
Because of Covid-19 regulations in Germany this spring, we wanted to create something that could be done outside, and socially distant.
We decided to create a virtual scavenger hunt using the app Actionbound that provides the platform and an easy drag-and-drop interface to create interactive mobile adventures. Actionbound serves as a virtual guide to different locations, which you can navigate to following an arrow or looking at a map, and you can prescribe whether the mobile phone’s GPS actually has to show that a location has been reached (within a couple of meters) for the scavenger hunt to continue, or whether you trust your players to find it, or you can also allow to skip it.
Within the app, you can provide media related to, and released at, specific locations: Movies, sounds, pictures, texts; so there is a great potential to use this in teaching. Actionbound scavenger hunts are also interactive experiences, as it is possible to create quizzes using multiple-choice questions, ask for free text answers, or media uploads. All of these can be made compulsory (so you can’t continue the scavenger hunt unless you respond) or voluntary, so they can be skipped.
Actionbound runs on the participants’ own smartphones, and scavenger hunts can be downloaded in advance and played offline, if data usage is restricted or the network in the region might be a problem.
The person who creates a scavenger hunt is provided with usage statistics: How many people played, how long they played, what they answered, the files they uploaded, those kinds of things.
Playing a scavenger hunt using Actionbound is free for players. Creating scavenger hunts is free for private use (so great if you want to just test it!), but for educational or commercial use, you have to buy licenses. We were lucky as we could get a free educational license under the umbrella of GEO-Tag der Natur, which bought licenses and distributed them for free to people creating scavenger hunts to be played on the topic and within the timeframe of that larger project (no coincidence here, that’s my project and Janina’s idea was a perfect match for what we were looking for :-)).
The design of our scavenger hunt was guided by our interpretation of the self-determination theory by Deci and Ryan (e.g. 2000, but many more). This theory suggests that learning is optimal when it is intrinsically motivated, and that in order to feel intrinsic motivation, three basic needs have to be met: autonomy, competence and relatedness.
Autonomy means that we need to feel that we have control over our behaviour, that we have choices that we can make in whatever way we please. Obviously in a school setting, there is always going to be external constraints, but the more we can give students ownership over what is going on, the more likely they are to feel motivated.
For our scavenger hunt this means that, where possible, we provide different options for how tasks can be done (and I will give an example of that later).
We do want everybody to reach specific waypoints and look at different things along the way, but we give participants flexibility for how exactly they reach those waypoints (there is an obvious way, but they can also do detours on the way if they like), and how they organise their time. We do that for example by letting them know when they have reached the mid-way point and what type of larger tasks are still ahead of them, so they can estimate how much time they will need to get back to the starting point, and decide when and where they would like to take their breaks.
Below, you see a map of the area we were focussing on: We start out in location (1), then students head to stations 2 to 11, and then everybody meets up at station (12) in the end, to drive back to school together. On this tour, students see many features that are relevant to coastal protection, some of which you can probably spot from this satellite picture: We see for example the marina, the slip hook which contains a nature reserve, sand banks offshore off the coastline, a dyke, and groynes.
We do want to know whether students recognise relevant features along this tour that they’ve been introduced to earlier, so one task was for example to take and upload a picture of the “spit hook” — a term that they were likely not familiar with before and where they had to make the transfer from the map above to the feature you see in the pictures below. It was visible on all pictures students submitted, although better on some than on others.
Back to basic needs that need to be fulfilled in order to feel intrinsic motivation! The second basic need, the feeling of connection, we try to address by letting students work in small groups of 2 to 4. Within those groups, we foster a sense of belonging by starting the scavenger hunt off by asking them about their personal experience with extreme(-ish) events.
This, for example, shows a relatively common (as in about once a year) event in Kiel, the next bigger city to where this scavenger hunt is located, that students doing this tour are likely familiar with: Storm surges in the Baltic Sea often lead to roads close to the water being closed and flooded, and waves breaking over the sea walls. Damages to sea walls can regularly be seen (also because it takes years before they are being repaired), and booms to close roads off with with “road closed due to flooding”-signs are permanently installed, so students should have some personal experiences and prior knowledge that can be activated. Talking about personal experiences and sharing stories about them is a good way bond with others.
The third basic need that must be fulfilled is a feeling of mastery, which we tried to ensure both by scaffolding our tasks and by making sure that students could make choices that would allow them to show their strengths.
For example, the last task of our scavenger hunt was to create a movie about a coastal protection measure of their choice, in whatever format they chose. They were given this task at the farthest point out, so they could walk back past all the coastal protection measures they had seen on their way out, contemplating the task, and then use free time towards the end to implement it.
I expected students would submit something that looks like what we show here (although that’s my incredibly adorable and smart three year old niece and not a 16 year old student): building structures on the sandy beach, maybe discussing the design criteria behind them, and then maybe making a large wave to show how it breaks (or doesn’t break) the structure.
Here is one example of a movie that was uploaded (and other examples include someone sitting on a bench, talking about coastal protection in a story-telling sort of way), that was clearly thoroughly thought-through and produced: The movie shows a person walking down a dyke towards the sea. As she is walking, a narrator talks about how dykes protect settlements from storm surges. The camera follows the person walking down the dyke as she crosses a street and starts stepping on the dunes, where the narrator (who is now also visible on camera) steps in and tells her to stop, and explains how there are rules in place to protect the dunes. He then also points out other coastal protection measures that are visible in the distance.
So now we are coming to our conclusions. Throughout this process, and testing this scavenger hunt on a 10th grade geography class, what did we learn?
Generally, things worked really well. Being able to deliver inputs at specific locations without students following a guide around gave them a feeling of autonomy which they seemed to enjoy, and we were positively surprised by the quality of most of the artefacts we collected via the app. Despite (or maybe even because of) it’s game-like appearance, Actionbound turned out to be well suited for use in a school context, although the effort of creating a scavenge hunt is not inconsiderable. In our case, we created a scavenger hunt that can be played by many different school classes over months or even years, and the effort needed to set something like this up might be more realistic than if it is just done for use with one single class.
Using self-determination theory to guide development was also useful for us, because it reminded us to include elements beyond the classical tasks of “read this, then answer the question to show us that you understood what you read”. Including elements of gamification made it fun and memorable, but did hopefully not distract from learning.
But another thing we learned (which we had also been advised before, but I guess this is something everybody needs to learn for themselves): test, test, and test again! It is frustrating if, for example, “dog” is the expected and accepted answer to the question of who is not allowed in the dunes, and “dogs” then isn’t counted as correct, or even looses you points. Those kind of things we only caught when testing with the school class, but would ideally have caught earlier.
And then we were very lucky with the weather — this might not have been fun if it hadn’t been warm and sunny, and we did not have a backup plan!
One thing I would try and implement more next time is to have students really do something at the location they are at — not just observe, but actually either collect something that they bring home to analyse later, or have them work on an artefact that stays in this location and that other groups can build on (giant sandcastle? wall painting? …?). Because now for us it was great that students could see the coastal protection measures “in the wild”, to scale, interacting with the ocean (albeit on a calm day), but I would like to strengthen that connection with the actual physical location even further in the future.
One last thought: I would really like to do a similar thing as co-creation in the future, where students design scavenger hunts to teach other students about a topic they first did some research on themselves. That would a) be a great way to document their own learning (instead of e.g. writing a report), and b) likely lead to scavenger hunts that are even better tailored to that specific target group, and even more fun to do. Actionbound has that option already implemented, and I think that could be great!
But that’s for another time.
Thanks, Janina and Katja, for this fun project! :)
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?