Tag Archives: method

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?

Reflections on reflections

When we think about reflections in water, we usually think of calm lakes and trees on the shore opposite to us. Or clouds. Or at least that’s what I think of: Everything is so far away, that it seems to be reflected at an axis that is a horizontal line far away from us.

Then the other day I walked along Kiel Fjord and it hit me that I had never actually consciously observed reflection of things that are located close to my position, and especially things who are not pretty much equidistant to me, but where one end is a lot closer than another one. Consider the picture below: Do you notice something that looks kinda odd to you (while at the same time looking super familiar)?

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If you are wondering what I mean, I marked it in red in the picture below: The rope and its reflection! It’s embarrassing to say that (as someone who has been sailing A LOT since the age of 7) this was the first time I really noticed, but it struck me how the maximum of the parable of the reflected rope isn’t right below the minimum of the parable of the rope, but seems shifted to the left. Of course this is exactly how it should be if we think about the optics, but I was really shocked that I had never noticed before and never thought about it before! I bet if I had had to draw the reflection I would have done it wrong and probably not even noticed…

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Here is another picture to show you what I mean. This is what it looks like:

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Below I’ve drawn in the original objects in blue, the axis of reflection in red and then the reflection in green:

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So far, so good, everything looking the way it’s supposed to look. Right? Then look at the picture below:
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Sorry if this seems obvious to you, but I’m fascinated with this right now :-)

But it leads to another interesting thought: Asking people to draw stuff in order to both check their understanding and also make them reflect on their understanding. I recently had the opportunity to observe a class of master students draw the SST of the mean state of the Pacific Ocean (which was an exercise that I had suggested in connection with a class on El Nino. I thought it would be neat to have them draw the mean state and then later the anomalies of El Nino and La Nina to activate prior knowledge) and it was surprising how difficult that was even though I’m sure they would all have claimed to know what the mean state looks like. Having to draw stuff really confronts us with how sure we are of things we just assumed we knew…

And then I’m pretty sure that once we’ve drawn something that we have constructed ourselves from what we knew (rather than just copied a drawing from the blackboard or a book, although I think that also helps a lot), we are a lot less likely to forget it again.

Anyway, this is a type of exercise I will use — and recommend — a lot more in the future!

Using twitter as a tool to let students discover that the topics of their courses are EVERYWHERE

This is a method that I have been excited about ever since learning about #birdclass in the “Evidence-based undergraduate STEM teaching” MOOC last year: Help students discover that the content of your class is not restricted to your class, but actually occurs everywhere! All the time! In their own lives!

The idea is that students take pictures or describe their observations related to course materials in short messages, which are posted somewhere so every participant of the class can see them.

One example where I would use this: Hydraulic jumps. As I said on Tuesday, hydraulic jumps are often taught in a way that students have a hard time realizing that they can actually observe them all the time. Most students have observed the phenomenon, maybe even consciously, yet are not able to put it together with the theory they hear about during their lectures. So why not, in your class on hydrodynamics, ask students to send in pictures of all the hydraulic jumps they happen to see in their everyday life? The collection that soon builds will likely look something like the image below: Lots of sinks, some shots of people hosing their decks or cars, lots of rivers. But does it matter if students send in the 15th picture of a sink? No, because they still looked at the sink, recognized that what they saw was a hydraulic jump, and took a picture. Even if all of this only takes 30 seconds, that’s probably 30 extra seconds a student thought about your content, that otherwise he or she would have only thought about doing their dishes or cleaning their deck or their car.

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A collection of images, all showing hydraulic jumps of some kind.

And even if you do this with hydraulic jumps, and not with Taylor columns or whatever comes next in your class, once students start looking at the world through the kind of glasses that let them spot the hydraulic jumps, they are also going to look at waves on a puddle and tell you whether those are shallow water or deep water waves, and they are going to see refraction of waves around pylons. In short: They have learned to actually observe the kind of content you care about in class, but in their own world.

The “classic” method uses twitter to share pictures and observations, which apparently works very well. And of course you can either make it voluntary or compulsory to send in pictures, or give bonus points, and specify what kind and quality of text should come with the picture.

You, as the instructor, can also use the pictures in class as examples. Actually, I would recommend picking one or two occasionally and discussing for a minute or two why they are great examples and what is interesting about them. You can do this as introduction to that day’s topic or as a random anecdote to engage students. But acknowledging the students’ pictures and expanding on their thoughts is really useful to keep them engaged in the topic and make them excited to submit more and better pictures (hence to find better examples in their lives, which means to think more about your course’s topic!).

And you don’t even have to use twitter. Whatever learning management system you might be using might work, too, and there are many other platforms. I recently gave a workshop for instructors at TU Dresden and talked about how awesome it would be if they made their students take pictures of everything related to their class. They were (legitimately!) a bit reluctant at first, because you cannot actually see the topic of the course, measuring and automation technology (MAT), just the fridge or camera or whatever gadget that uses MAT. But still, going about your everyday life thinking about which of the technical instruments around you might be using MAT, and discovering that most of them do, is pretty awesome, isn’t it? And documenting those thoughts might already be a step towards thinking more about MAT. At least that is what I claimed, and it seems to have worked out pretty well.

We are about to try this for a course on ceramics (and I imagine we’ll see tons of false teeth, maybe some knees, some fuses, many sinks and coffee cups and flower pots, maybe the occasional piece of jewelry ), and I am hoping they will relate what they take pictures of to processes explained in class (like sintering, which seems to be THE process in that class ;-))

I am going to try to implement it in other courses, too. Because this is one of the most important motivators, isn’t it? The recognition that what that one person talks about in front of the class all the time is actually occurring in – and relevant to – my own life. How awesome is that? :-)

Have you tried something similar? How did it work out?

Student poster presentations: the cheap and easy way

Sometimes we really want our students to practice presenting posters, but we can’t afford printing all those nice A0-posters for everybody in our large class, or we don’t want them spending time on design but focus on content, or both. What then?

Well, instead of having them design A0 posters, just give them a template for 6 A4 (or letter, if you are in the US) pages (or 9, if you want more categories than I did in the example below), let them fill those with content, print them, and then either tape or pin them to a wall. Instant poster session!

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A cheap and easy way to have students practice poster presentations

You could of course also hand them the sheets of paper that already contain the heading, or give them blank papers and let them write the titles themselves. As long as you are not interested in the design-part of creating a poster, this is a really cheap and easy way!

Will giving your students more structure make them need more structure?

One of the arguments against offering students practice opportunities online and providing automated feedback right then and there is that that way, they will never learn to work independently. Since I am working on e-assessment a lot and with many different courses at the moment, this is a fear that I definitely need to take seriously. I don’t believe that the danger is as big as it is sometimes made out to be, but I do believe that there is a vicious circle to be aware of.

It all starts with the instructor having the impression that students are not able to organize their learning on their own. Since the instructor wants the students to succeed, she offers them a clear structure, possibly with bonus points or other kinds of rewards, so they have a safe space with instantaneous feedback to practice skills that are required later. So far, so good.
Now the students are given this structure, and get used to working on problems that are presented in small portions and with instantaneous feedback. They start believing that it is the instructor’s job to organize their learning in such a way, and start relying on the instructor to provide both motivation and bite-sized exercises.
Which the instructor, in turn, notices and interprets as the students becoming less and less able to structure their learning.
At this point it is very easy to fall in the trap of trying to provide an even better, more detailed, structure, so that the students have a better chance of succeeding. Which would likely lead to the students relying even more heavily on the instructor for structure and motivation.
Teufelskreis

It is easy to fall into a vicious circle where the instructor feels like they need to provide more and more structure and motivation, and the students feel less and less responsible for their own learning.

So what can we do? On the one hand we want to help students learn our content, on the other hand they also need to learn to learn by themselves. Can both happen at the same time?
I would say yes, they can.
The first step is recognizing the danger of entering into this downward spiral. There is absolutely no point in hoping that the students will take the initiative and not fall into the trap of relying on us, even if we point out that the trap is there. Of course they might not fall in, but whether they do or not is beyond our influence. We can only directly influence our own actions, not the students’, so we need to make sure to break the spiral ourselves.
The second step is to make sure that we resist the urge to give more and more detailed exercises and feedback.
The third step is to create an exit plan. Are we planning weekly quizzes as homework that students get a certain number of bonus points for? Then we should make sure that over time, either the number of bonus points will decrease, the time interval will become longer, the tasks become more difficult, or a combination of all three. The idea is to reward the behaviour we want just long enough that students establish it, but not any longer than that.
And of course, last but not least, instead of giving students more structure, we can help them learn the tools they need to organize their learning. Be it training skills to organize yourself, or helping them find intrinsic motivation, or teaching them to ask the right questions so they can walk themselves through complex problems until they find an answer.
It’s a pretty thin line to walk, and especially the fourth step might really be out of an instructor’s control when there is a lot of content to go through in very little time and the instructor isn’t the one deciding how much time is going to be spent on which topic. Most TAs and even many teaching staff won’t have the freedom to include teaching units on learning learning or similar. Nevertheless, it is very important to be aware of the vicious circle, or of the potential of accidentally entering it, to be sure that our best intentions don’t end up making students depending on us and the structures we provide, but instead make them independent learners.

Bridging the gap between conventional mathematics teaching and the topics that engineering students are really interested in

I’m very excited to announce that I, together with Christian Seifert, have been awarded a Tandem Fellowship by the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft. Christian, among other things, teaches undergraduate mathematics for engineers, and together we have developed a concept to improve instruction, which we now get support to implement.

The problem that we are addressing is that mathematics is taught to 1300 students from 12 different engineering study programs at once. At the moment, in addition to lectures and practice sessions in both very large and small groups, students get weekly online exercises that they can earn bonus points with. Student feedback is positive – they appreciate the opportunity to practice, they like that they are nudged towards continuously working on whatever is currently going on in class, and obviously they like to earn bonus points they can use on the exam.
However, mathematics is not typically a subject that non-mathematicians are very keen on. Many feel like there is no relevance of the content to their lives or even their studies. And many don’t feel confident they have a chance to succeed.
As I wrote in my recent posts on motivation, both believing that you can succeed and seeing the relevance of things you are supposed to be studying to your life are necessary for people to feel intrinsically motivated. So this is where we want to start.
Since the experience with the weekly online tests is so positive, we want to develop exercises that apply the mathematics they are currently learning to topics from their own, chosen fields. So if they are supposed to practice solving a set of linear equations, students of mechanical engineering, for example, might as well use one from a mechanical engineering case. Or even better: they might be asked to develop this set of equations first, and then solve it. By connecting mathematics with topics students are really interested in, we hope to get them to engage more with matematics.
More engagement will then likely mean that they improve their understanding both of mathmatics itself and – equally important – of their main subjects, where currently manystudents lack the math skills required. At the same time, we hope this will increase student motivation for both subjects.
Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done to first implement this concept and then evaluate whether it is working as well as we thought it would, and then probably modifying it and evaluating some more. But I am excited to get started!

On grading strategies.

How do you deal with grading to make it less painful?

Talking to a friend who had to grade a lot of exams recently I mentioned a post I had written on how to make grading less painful, only to realize later that I wrote that post, but never actually posted it! So here we go now:

Last semester student numbers in the course I taught went back to less than 1/3rd of the previous year’s numbers. And yet – grading was a huge pain. So I’ve been thinking about strategies that make grading bearable.

The main thing that helps me is to make very explicit rubrics when I design the exam, long before I start grading. I think about what is the minimum requirement for each answer, and what is the level that I would expect for a B. How important are the different answers relative to each other (and hence how many points should they contribute to the final score).

But then when it comes to grading, this is what I do.

I lock myself in to avoid colleagues coming to talk to me and distract me (if at all possible – this year it was not).

I disconnect from the internet to avoid distraction.

I make sure I have enough water to drink very close by.

I go through all the same questions in all the exams before moving on to the next question and looking at that one on all the exams. This helps to make sure grading stays consistent between students.

I also look at a couple of exams before I write down the first grades, it usually takes an adjustment period.

I remind myself of how far the students have come during the course. Sometimes I look back at very early assignments if I need a reminder of where they started from.

I move around. Seriously, grading standing (or at least getting up repeatedly and walking and stretching) really helps.

I look back at early papers I wrote as a student. That really helps putting things into perspective.

I keep mental lists of the most ridiculous answers for my own entertainment (but would obviously not share them, no matter how tempting that might be).

And most importantly: I just do it. Procrastination is really not your friend when it comes to grading…

What do you think? And ideas? Comments? Suggestions? Please share!

Designing exercises with the right amount of guidance as well as the right level of difficulty

An example of one topic at different levels of difficulty.

Designing exercises at just the right level of difficulty is a pretty difficult task. On the one hand, we would like students to do a lot of thinking themselves, and sometimes even choose the methods they use to solve the questions. On the other hand, we often want them to choose the right methods, and we want to give them enough guidance to be able to actually come to a good answer in the end.

For a project I am currently involved in, I recently drew up a sketch of how a specific task could be solved at different levels of difficulty.

The topic this exercise is on “spotting the key variables using Shainin’s variables search design”, and my sketch is based on Antony’s (1999) paper. In a nutshell, the idea is that paper helicopters (maple-seed style, see image below) have many variables that influence their flight time (for example wing length, body width, number of paper clips on them, …) and a specific method (“Shainin’s variables search design”) is used to determine which variables are the most important ones.

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Paper helicopter

In the image below, you’ll find the original steps from the Antony (1999) paper in the left column. In the second column, these steps are recreated in a very closely-guided exercise. In the third column, the teaching scenario becomes less strict, (and even less strict if you omit the part in the brackets), and in the right column the whole task is designed as a problem-based scenario.

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Flight time of a helicopter investigated at different levels of difficulty

Clearly, difficulty increases from left to right. Typically, though, motivation of students tasked with similar exercises also increases from left to right.

So which of these scenarios should we choose, and why?

Of course, there is not one clear answer. It depends on the learning outcomes (classified, for example, by Bloom or in the SOLO framework) you have decided on for your course.

If you choose one of the options further to the left, you are providing a good structure for students to work in. It is very clear what steps they are to take in which order, and what answer is expected of them. They will know whether they are fulfilling your expectations at all times.

The further towards the right you choose your approach, the more is expected from the students. Now they will need to decide themselves which methods to use, what steps to take, whether what they have done is enough to answer the question conclusively. Having the freedom to choose things is motivating for students, however only as long as the task is still solvable. You might need to provide more guidance occasionally or point out different ways they could take to come to the next step.

The reason I am writing this post is that I often see a disconnect between the standards instructors claim to have and the kind of exercises they let their students do*. If one of your learning outcomes is that students be able to select appropriate methods to solve a problem, then choosing the leftmost option is not giving your students the chance to develop that skill, because you are making all the choices for them. You could, of course, still include questions at each junction, firstly pointing out that there IS a junction (which might not be obvious to students who might be following the instructions cook-book style), and secondly asking for alternative choices to the one you made when designing the exercise, or for arguments for/against that choice. But what I see  is that instructors have students do exercises similarly to the one in the left column, probably even have them write exams in that style, yet expect them to be able to write master’s theses where they are to choose methods themselves. This post is my attempt to explain why that probably won’t work.

* if you recognize the picture above because we recently talked about it during a consultation, and are now wondering whether I’m talking about you – no, I’m not! :-)