Tag Archives: teaching

Need your help! “Wish list” for a student lab for tank experiments?

I’d love your input: If your student lab for GFD tank experiments had to downsize, but you had to present a “wish list” for a smaller replacement, what would be on that list? Below are my considerations, but I would be super grateful for any additional input or comments! :-)

Background and “boundary conditions”

The awesome towing tank that you have come to love (see picture above) will have to be removed to make room for a new cantina. It might get moved into a smaller room, or possibly replaced all together. Here are some external requirements, as far as I am aware of them:

  • the (new) tank should ideally be movable so the (small) room can be used multi-purpose
  • since the new room is fairly small, people would be happy if the new tank was also smaller than the old one
  • the rotating table is kept (and a second, smaller one, exists in the building)
  • There are other, smaller tanks that will be kept for other experiments, dimensions approximately 175x15x40cm and smaller
  • the whole proposal needs to be inexpensive enough so that the likelyhood that it will actually be approved is moderate to fair ;-)

Here are a couple of things I think need to be definitely considered.

Dimensions of the tank

If the tank was to be replaced by a smaller one, how small could the smaller one be?

The dimension of the new tank depend, of course, on the type of experiment that should be done in the tank. Experiments that I have run in the tank that is to be replaced and that in my opinion should definitely be made possible in the new location/tank include

  1. “Dead water”, where a ship creates internal waves on a density interface (instructions)
  2. Internal lee waves & hydraulic jumps, where a mountain is moved at the bottom of the tank (instructions)
  3. Surface imprints of internal waves (example)
  4. Surface waves (example)
  5. Intrusions (example)
  6. Waves in a density stratification (example)
  7. Surface waves running up on a slope (I haven’t blogged about that yet, movies waiting to be edited)

If we want to be able to continue running these experiments, here is why we should not sacrifice the dimensions of the tank.

Why we need the tank length

The first reason for keeping the length of the tank is that the “mountains” being towed to create the lee waves are already 1 and 1.5m long, respectively. This is a length that is “lost” for actual experiments, because obviously the mountain needs space inside the tank on either end (so in its start and end position). Additionally, when the mountain starts to move, it has to move for some distance before the flow starts displaying the features we want to present: Initially, there is no reservoir on the “upstream” side of the mountain and it only builds up over the first half meter or so.

The second reason for keeping the length of the tank are wave reflections once the ship or mountain comes close to the other side of the tank. Reflected surface waves running against the ship will set up additional drag that we don’t want when we are focussing on the interaction between the ship and the internal wave field. Reflected internal waves similarly mess things up in both experiments

The third reason for keeping the length of the tank is its purpose: as teaching tank. Even if one might get away with a slightly shorter tank for experiments when you just film and investigate the short stretch in the middle of the tank where there are no issues with either the push you gave the system when starting the experiment or the reflections when you get near the end, the whole purpose of the tank is to have students observe. This means that there needs to be a good amount of time where the phenomenon in question is actually present and observable, which, for the tank, means that it has to be as long as possible.

Why we need the tank width

In the experiments mentioned above, with exception of the “dead water” experiment, the tank represents a “slice” of the ocean. We are not interested in changes across the width of the tank, and therefore it does not need to be very wide. However, if there is water moving inside the tank, there will be friction with the side walls and the thinner the tank, the more important the influence of that friction will become. If you look for example at the surface imprint of internal wave experiment, you do see that the flow is slowed down on either side. So if you want flow that is outside of the boundary layers on either side, you need to keep some width.

Secondly, not changing the tank’s width has the advantage that no new mountains/ships need to be built.

Another, practical argument for a wide-ish tank (that I feel VERY strongly about) is that the tank will need to be cleaned. Not just rinsed with water, but scrubbed with a sponge. And I have had my hands inside enough tanks to appreciate if the tank is wide enough that my arm does not have to touch both sides at all times when reaching in to clean the tank.

Why we need the tank depth

The first reason for keeping the height is that for the “dead water” experiment, even the existing tank is a lot shallower than what we’d like from theory (more here). If we go shallower, at some point the interactions between the internal waves and the ground will become so large that it will mess up everything.

Another reason for keeping the depth is the “waves running up a slope” experiment. If you want waves running up a slope (and building up in height as they do), you have the choice between high walls of the tank or water spilling. Just sayin’…

And last not least: this tank has been used in “actual” research (rather than just teaching demonstrations, more on that on Elin’s blog), so if nothing else, those guys will have thought long and hard about what they need before building the tank…

Historical images of research on internal lee waves being done with the tank

Without getting too philosophical here about models and what they can and cannot achieve (and tank experiments being models of phenomena in the ocean), the problem is that scaling of the ocean into a tiny tank does not work, so “just use a mountain/boat half the size of the existing ones!” is actually not possible. Similarly to how if you build the most amazing model train landscape, at some point you will decide that tiny white dots are accurate enough representations of daisies on a lawn, if you go to a certain size, the tank will not be able to display everything you want to see. So going smaller and smaller and smaller just does not work. A more in-depth and scientific discussion of the issue here.

Other features of the tank

When building a new tank or setting up the existing tank in a new spot, there are some features that I consider to be important:

  • The tank needs a white, intransparent back wall (either permanently or draped with something) so that students can easily focus on what is going on inside the tank. Tank experiments are difficult to observe and even more difficult to take pictures of, the better the contrast against a calm background, the better
  • The tank should be made of glass or some other material that can get scrubbed without scratching the surface. Even if there is only tap water in the tank, it’s incredible how dirty tanks get and how hard they have to be scrubbed to get clean again!
  • The tank needs plenty of inlets for source waters to allow for many different uses. With the current tank, I have mainly used an inlet through the bottom to set up stratifications, because it allowed for careful layering “from below”. But sometimes it would be very convenient to have inlets from the side close to the bottom, too. And yes, a hose could also be lowered into the tank to have water flow in near the bottom, but then there needs to be some type of construction on which a hose can be mounted so it stays in one place and does not move.
  • There needs to be scaffolding above the tank, and it needs to be easily modifiable to mount cameras, pulleys, lights, …
  • We need mechanism to tow mountains and ships. The current tank has two different mechanisms set up, one for mountains, one for ships. While the one for the ship is home-made and easily reproducible in a different setting (instructions), the one to tow the mountain with is not. If there was a new mechanism built, one would need to make sure the speeds at which the mountain can be towed matches the internal wave speed to be used in the experiment, which depends on the stratification. This is easy enough to calculate, but it needs to be done before anything is built. And the mechanism does require very securely installed pulleys at the bottom of the tank which need to be considered and planned for right from the start.

“Source” reservoirs

The “source” reservoirs (plural!) are the reservoirs in which water is prepared before the tank is filled. It is crucial that water can be prepared in advance; mixing water inside the tank is not feasible.

There should be two source reservoirs, each large enough to carry half the volume of the tank. This way, good stratifications can be set up easily (see here for how that works. Of course it works also with smaller reservoirs in which you prepare water in batches as you see below. But what can happen then is that you don’t get the water properties exactly right and you end up seeing stuff you did not want to see, as for example here, which can mess up your whole experiment)

Both reservoirs should sit above the height of the tank so that the water can be driven into the tank by gravity (yes, pumps could work, too, more on that below).

“Sink” reservoir

Depending on the kind of dyes and tracer used in the water, the water will need to be collected and disposed of rather than just being poured down the drain. The reservoir that catches the “waste” water needs to

  • be able to hold the whole volume of the tank
  • sit lower than the tank so gravity will empty the tank into the reservoir (or there needs to be a fast pump to empty the tank, more on that below)
  • be able to be either transported out of the room and the building (which means that doors have to be wide enough, no steps on the way out, …) or there needs to be a way to empty out the reservoir, too
  • be able to either easily be replaced by an empty one, or there needs to be some kind of mechanism for who empties it within a couple of hours of it being filled, so that the next experiment can be run and emptied out

If the waste water is just plain clear tap water, it can be reused for future experiments. In this case, it can be stored and there need to be…

Pumps

If reservoirs cannot be located above and below tank height to use gravity to fill and empty the tanks, we need pumps (plural).

  • A fast pump to empty out the tank into the sink reservoir, which can also be used to recycle the water from the sink reservoir into the source reservoirs
  • One pump that can be regulated very precisely even at low flow rates to set the inflow into the tank
  • Ideally, a second pump that can be regulated very precisely, so the double bucket method of setting up a stratification in a tank can be done automated rather than relying on gravity.

Preferable the first and the latter are not the same, because changing settings between calibrating the pump for an experiment, setting it on full power to empty the tank, and calibrating it again will cause a lot of extra work.

Inlets for dyes

Sometimes it would be extremely convenient if there was a possibility to insert dyes into the tank for short, distinct periods of time during filling to mark different layers. For this, it would be great to be able to connect syringes to the inlet

Hoses and adapters

I’ve worked for years with whatever hoses I could find, and tons of different adapters to connect the hoses to my reservoir, the tap, the tank. It would be so much less of a hassle if someone thought through which hoses will actually be needed, bought them at the right diameter and length, and outfitted them with the adapters they needed to work.

Space to run the experiment

The tank needs to be accessible from the back side so the experimenter can run the experiment without walking in front of the observers (since the whole purpose of the tank is to be observed by students). The experimenter also needs to be able to get out from behind the tank without a hassle so he or she can point out features of interest on the other side.

Also, very importantly, the experimenter needs to be able to reach taps very quickly (without squeezing through a tight gap or climbing over something) in case hoses come loose, or the emergency stop for any mechanism pulling mountains in case something goes wrong there.

Space for observers

There needs to be enough room to have a class of 25ish students plus ideally a handful of other interested people in the room. But not only do they need to fit into the room, they also need to be able to see the experiments (they should not have to stand in several rows behind each other, so all the small people in the back get to see are the shoulders of the people in front). Ideally, there will be space so they can duck down to have their eyes at the same height as the features of interest (e.g. the density interface). If the students don’t have the chance to observe, there is no point of running an experiment in the first place.

Filming

Ideally, when designing the layout of the room, it is considered how tank experiments will be documented, i.e. most likely filmed, and there needs to be space at a sufficient distance from the tank to set up a tripod etc..

Lighting

Both for direct observations and for students observing tank experiments, it is crucial that the lighting in the room has been carefully planned so there are minimal reflections on the walls of the tank and students are not blinded by light coming through the back of the tank if a backlighting solution is chosen.

Summary

In my experience, even though many instructors are extremely interested in having their students observe experiments, there are not many people willing to run tank experiments of the scale we are talking about here in their teaching. This is because there is a lot of work involved in setting up those experiments, running them, and cleaning up afterwards. Also there are a lot of fears of experiments “going wrong” and instructors then having to react to unexpected observations. Running tank experiments requires considerable skill and experience. So if we want people using the new room and new tank at all, this has to be made as easy as possible for them. Therefore I would highly recommend that someone with expertise in setting up and running experiments, and using them in teaching, gets involved in designing and setting up the new room. And I’d definitely be willing to be that person. Just sayin’ ;-)

“Continue. Start. Stop.”. An article supporting the usefulness of my favourite method of asking for student feedback on a course!

I’ve been recommending the “Continue. Start. Stop.” feedback method for years an years (at least since my 2013 blog post), but not as a research-backed method but mostly based on my positive personal experience with it. I have used this method to get feedback on courses I’ve been teaching a couple of weeks into the course in order to improve my teaching both within the course as well as over the years. If there was anything that students thought would improve their learning, I wanted to be able adapt my teaching (and also, in a follow-up discussion of the feedback, be able to address student expectations that might not have been explicit before that I might or might not want to follow). I like that even though it’s a qualitative method and thus fairly open, it gives students a structure along which they can write their feedback. Also by asking what should be continued as well as stopped and started, it’s a nice way to get feedback on what’s already working well, too! But when I was asked for a reference for the method today, I didn’t really have a good answer. But then I found one: an article by Hoon et al. (2015)!

Studies on the “continue. start. stop.” feedback vs open feedback

In the first study in the article, two different feedback methods are compared over three different courses: a free form feedback and a structured format, similar to “continue. start. stop.”. From this study, the authors draw pointers for changing the feedback method in the free form course to a more structured feedback. They investigate the influence of this change in a second study.

In that second study, the authors find that using a structured feedback led to an increasing depth of feedback, and that the students liked the new form of giving feedback. They also find indications that the more specific the questions are, the more constructive (as compared to more descriptive texts in the open form; not necessarily more positive or negative!) the feedback is.

My recommendations for how to use the “continue. start. stop.” feedback

If anything, this article makes me like this feedback method even more than I did before. It’s easy and straight forward and actually super helpful!

Use this as formative feedback!

Ask for this feedback early on in the course (maybe after a couple of weeks, when students know what to expect in your course, but with plenty of the course left to actually react to the feedback) and use the student replies to help you improve your teaching. While this method can of course also be used as summative feedback at the end of the course, how much cooler is it if students can benefit from the feedback they gave you?

Ask full questions

One thing that I might not have been clear about before when talking about the “continue. start. stop.” feedback method is that it is important to actually use the whole phrases (“In order to improve your learning in this course, please give me feedback on the following points

  1. Continue: What is working well in this course that you would like to continue?
  2. Start: What suggestions do you have for things that could improve the course?
  3. Stop: What would you like us to stop doing?”

or similar) rather than just saying “continue. start. stop.” and assuming the students know what that means.

Leave room for additional comments

It is also helpful to give an additional field for other comments the students might have, you never know what else they’d like to tell you if only they knew how and when to do it.

Use the feedback for several purposes at once!

In the article’s second study, a fourth question is added to the “continue. start. stop.” method, and that is asking for examples of good practice and highlights. The authors say this question was mainly included for the benefit of “external speakers who may value course feedback as evidence of their own professional development and engagement with education”, and I think that’s actually a fairly important point. While the “continue. start. stop.” feedback itself is a nice addition to any teaching portfolio, why not think specifically about the kind of things you would like to include there, and explicitly ask for them?

Give feedback on the feedback

It’s super important that you address the feedback you got with your class! Both so that they feel heard and know whether their own perception and feedback agrees with that of their peers, as well as to have the opportunity to discuss what parts of their suggestions you are taking on, what will be changing as a result of their suggestions, and what you might not want to change (and why!). If this does not happen, students might not give you good feedback the next time you ask for it because they feel that since it didn’t have an effect last time, why would they bother doing it again?

Now it’s your turn!

Have you used the “continue. start. stop.” method? How did it work for you? Will you continue using it or how did you modify it to make it suit you better? Let me know in the comments below! :-)

Reference:

Hoon, A. and Oliver, E.J. and Szpakowska, K. and Newton, P. (2015) ‘Use of the ‘Stop, Start, Continue’ method is associated with the production of constructive qualitative feedback by students in higher education.’, Assessment and evaluation in higher education., 40 (5). pp. 755-767. [link]

Asking students to take pictures to help them connect theory to the reality of their everyday lives

— This post was written for “Teaching in the Academy” in Israel, where it was published in Hebrew! Link here. —

Many times students fail to see the real-life relevance of what they are supposed to be learning at university. But there is an easy way to help them make the connection: Ask them to take pictures on their smartphones of everything they see outside of class, write a short sentence about what they took a picture of, and why it is interesting, and submit it on an electronic platform to share with you and their peers. And what just happened? You made students think about your topic on their own time!

Does it work?

Does it work? Yes! Obviously there might be some reluctance to overcome at first, and it is helpful to either model the behaviour you want to see yourself, or have a teaching assistant show the students what kind of pictures and texts you are looking for.

Do I have to use a specific platform?

Do I have to use a specific platform? No! I first heard about this method after Dr. Margaret Rubega introduced the #birdclass hashtag on Twitter for her ornithology class. But I have since seen it implemented in a “measuring and automation technology” class that already used a Facebook group for informal interactions (see here), and by a second class on the university’s conventional content management system. All that is required is that students can post pictures and other students can see them.

Do you have examples?

One example from my own teaching in physical oceanography: Hydraulic jumps (see figure below). The topic of hydraulic jumps is often taught theoretically only and in a way that students have a hard time realizing that they can actually observe them all the time in their real lives, for example when washing your dishes, cleaning your deck or taking a walk near a creek. But when students are asked to take pictures of hydraulic jumps, they start looking for them, and noticing them. And even if all of this only takes 30 seconds to take and post a picture (and most likely they spent more time thinking about it!), that’s 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.

hydraulic_jumps

Collection of many images depicting hydraulic jumps found in all kinds of environments of daily life

And even if you do this with one single topic and not every single topic in your class, once students start looking at the world through the kind of glasses that let them spot the hydraulic jumps, they are going to start spotting theoretical oceanography topics everywhere. They will have learned to actually observe the kind of content you care about in class, but in their own world, making your class a lot more relevant to them.

An additional benefit is that you, as the instructor, can also use the pictures in class as examples that students can relate to. I would recommend picking one or two pictures occasionally, and discussing for a minute or two why they are good examples of the topic 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).

Does this work for subjects outside of STEM, too?

Does this work for subjects outside of STEM, too? Yes! In a language class, for example, you could ask people to submit pictures of something “typically English [or whatever language you are teaching]”. You can then use the pictures to talk about cultural features or prejudices. This could also be done in a social science context. In history, you might ask for examples of how a specific historical period influences life today. In the end, it is not about students finding exact equivalents – it is about them trying to relate their everyday lives to the topics taught in class and the method presented in this article is just a method to help you accomplish that.

P.S.: This text originally appeared on my website as a page. Due to upcoming restructuring of this website, I am reposting it as a blog post. This is the original version last modified on October 1st, 2016.

I might write things differently if I was writing them now, but I still like to keep my blog as archive of my thoughts.

Using real time data of ship positions in teaching?

This morning I was looking for the current position of a research vessel on MarineTraffic.com and noticed something that should maybe not have been surprising, but that I had never really thought about: How all the fishing vessels (orange) are sitting right on the shelf break! I guess that’s where they should be when we think about currents and nutrients and primary production and fish, but how cool is it to actually see it?

screen-shot-2017-03-29-at-08-49-17

And see that area west of Lofoten where there are a lot of fishing boats in a circle? An unnamed inside source told me that that’s where cod is spawning right now, so everybody is going there to fish. Tomorrow, the cluster might be in a completely different place. And even now, some 10 hours later, it seems to have migrated a little northward? Will definitely check again tomorrow!

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I obviously had to look whether fishing on the shelf break was just a thing in Northern Norway and turns out that it’s the same on the Greenland Shelf.

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Now that I got into playing, I found it also really interesting to see that there is a lot of fishing in the equatorial Pacific going on. And how clearly you can see major traffic routes even in just the distribution of ships.

screen-shot-2017-03-29-at-10-50-11

And then, ShipTracker even offers a density map of ship traffic:

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Which I had to screen-shoot in two parts because of reasons:

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This site would be such a great tool for all kinds of teaching purposes. Realtime data on shipping is just a click away, even with the free version! There are so many things that students could do estimates on using this site, on transport, fishing, pollution, just pick your topic! And using authentic data makes the whole thing a lot more interesting than looking at maps or numbers a teacher would provide. Pity I’m not teaching right now!

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)?

2016-10-31-16-28-40

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!

Mirjam Glessmer and Timo Lüth leading a workshop for university instructors

You learn better when you think that you will have to teach

Have you ever worked as student tutor? Then you’ve probably felt like you understood the content of the course you tutored a million times better after tutoring it. Or at least that’s what I hear over and over again: People feel like they understood a topic. Then they prepare to teach it, and realise how much more there was to understand and that they actually understood it.

And there is research that shows that you don’t actually need to teach in order to get the deeper understanding, it is enough to anticipate that you will teach: “Expecting to teach enhances learning and organization of knowledge in free recall of text passages” by Nestojko, Bui, Kornell & Bjork (2014).

In that article, two groups of participants are given texts that they are to study. One group is told that they will be tested on the text, the other one that they will have to teach someone else who then will be tested. After all participants study the text, they are then all tested (and nobody gets to teach). But it turns out that even expecting to teach had similar benefits to what we see in student tutors who actually taught: Participants expecting to teach have a better recall of the text they had to study, can answer more questions about it and especially questions regarding main points.

So what does that mean for teaching? As the authors say: “Instilling an expectation to teach […] seems to be a simple, inexpensive intervention with the potential to increase learning efficiency at home and in the classroom.” And we should definitely use that to our advantage! :-)

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!

What does the awkward silence mean?

I really want to recommend a blog post by Paul T. Corrigan that I recently read on “Teaching and Learning in Higher Ed”: When students don’t answer a question, what does the awkward silence mean?

We’ve all been there: We’ve asked a question and nobody replied. Worse, even, they avoid our eyes. What can we do? Check out the post for a surprisingly simple idea!

Guest post: Estimating salinity as a homework assignment

Today I am super excited to share a guest post that my awesome friend Joke Lübbecke wrote for us. Joke is a professor in physical oceanography in Kiel, and we like to chat about teaching occasionally. She has great ideas for exciting tasks for students to do and I bet they learn a lot from her. Here is what she writes (and the photos in this post are the original photos that her students kindly agreed to let us use on this blog. Thanks very much!):

Estimating salinity as a homework assignment

When I gave the second-year oceanography students in my class bottles of salt water and – without any further instructions – asked them to find out what the salinity was, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Would they just take a sip and guess 35? Would they all use the same approach? So when they handed in their solutions in the following week I was very happy to see how creative they had been and how many different things they had tried to get to an answer. For example, they had

  • Evaporated the water and weighted the dry salt

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Evaporating water from salt water and weighing the remaining salt to measure salinity

  • Used differences in buoyancy between salt and fresh water

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Measuring salinity by comparing buoyancy with known samples

  • Measured the electric resistance of the sample, then tried to mix a solution with the same resistance by adding more and more (defined quantities of) salt to a fresh water sample

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Measuring salinity by measuring the resistance of the sample and reproducing a sample with known salinity and the same resistance

or simply

  • Tasted the sample and compared to water samples with known salinities :-)

The numbers they came up with were as diverse as their approaches so this was also a nice demonstration of the difficulties to accurately measure salinity.

(And of course the salinity of the water sample they got was about 35, but who cares? – the journey is the reward!)