In this semester’s episodes of our podcast series, Tuesday Tips on Teaching With Technology (iTunes U link), we are highlighting some discussions from the recent Course Redesign Conference held at NAU. With our faculty colleague, Dr. Brandon Cruickshank of the NAU Department of Chemistry, we facilitated discussions on pedagogy, and we saw three major themes emerge from the discussions:
- Coverage versus depth
- Student engagement
- Academic integrity
Coverage versus Depth
We asked conference participants how we could think less about content and more about promoting deeper knowledge or mastery of fewer skills. We were interested in understanding how participants helped their students to “drill down” in depth, as opposed to trying to cover as much as possible in the lecture. Participants pointed out that curriculum designers design things backwards, focusing too much on coverage of content and not enough on student understanding of content. They suggested that instead of “spewing content,” instructors could focus on the essential understandings we want our students to come away with, those important concepts and applications that students will be able to recall five years from now.
This reminds us of the ideas of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigue, whose Understanding by Design is in its second edition and now has a supporting web site that serves as a curriculum development “exchange.” Understanding By Design suggests the following stages of curriculum development (.pdf):
- Objectives: What are the desired results?
- Assessment: How will students demonstrate that they have achieved these results?
- Learning plan: What learning activities will help students develop their understanding of the content?
If we spend more time in class focusing on deeper knowledge and getting students to think about material in greater depth, then they will be able to gain broader knowledge outside of class. In other words, we don’t have to cover all the material in class; we just have to give students the foundation to be able to learn further on their own through directed activities that occur outside of class.
Our discussion focused in part on the use of clickers by some of our participants. Dr. Cruickshank makes extensive use of clickers in his chemistry classes. For example, he used clickers to quiz his students about reaction rates, a topic he had not covered in class before the quiz. After the students answered some questions and looked at the responses of the whole class, he had them talk in groups, then answer again. He then assigned homework that covered the same general topics. Some students who visited him during office hours said, “We didn’t do this yet in class.” He replied, “Yes, that’s what the clicker question was about.” It was, he said, a light bulb moment. In other words, he gave them the framework without being explicit about it.
Dr. Cruickshank’s clicker example is one way of engaging students in large courses. He used the clickers to spark student interaction with each other. By making students active participants in their classes and, therefore, in their learning, we can better engage them with the concepts and ideas that we want them to learn.
The online publication Faculty Focus recently published Building Student Engagement: 15 Strategies for the College Classroom, a report that offers some helpful tips for getting students involved in their own learning. Another way to get students engaged is to have them prepare for class not only by reading or interacting with assigned material, but also by completing self-assessments or pre-tests of their knowledge. We talk more about pre-class activities in two earlier podcasts, episodes 19 and 20, on Pre-, During-, and Post-Class Learning. Faculty who try this approach note that their students are more engaged and even seem to be having more fun. Some students even told Dr. Cruickshank that his “class seems so short.”
One key to engagement is peer instruction, a concept developed for the sciences in detail by Eric Mazur (1997; Crouch and Mazur, 2001), currently the Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University. The success of peer instruction stems from research indicating that dialogically rich learning environments—those that emphasize dialogue among students and between the teacher and students—help students develop critical thinking and in-depth conceptual understandings. For more information about research in this area, see Reiter, 1994; Anderson et al., 1996, 2001; deCorte, 1996; and Matthews, 1996.
Mazur began using peer instruction in his introductory physics classes in the late 1980s and 1990s to give his students immediate feedback on concept tests during his lecture time. He later began using audience response systems (clickers) to better manage the peer instruction. Together with Catherine Crouch (Crouch and Mazur, 2001) he has shown that introduction of these methods into their classes led to significant improvements in students’ conceptual reasoning.
An excellent comparative study by Nicol and Boyle (2003) of Strathclyde University provides more information on this method and its potential application to large courses.
Briefly, the last topic of interest at the course redesign conference was academic integrity, or more specifically, strategies instructors could use to detect plagiarism in their students’ work. A few software solutions are available, such as TurnItIn and SafeAssign. Both products compare student writing to a database of other assignments, research articles, and the Internet, and they produce reports for faculty or students indicating the likelihood that the student writing is original. An unstated implication of these tools, though, is that students are intentional plagiarizers, which might not be the case. As one participant in our conversation noted, we need to keep the “generation gap” in mind, remembering that students and faculty have different levels of comfort and understanding with both the technology and the concepts of academic integrity. We need to educate both faculty and students about generational, cultural, and societal definitions and practices related to academic integrity. Indeed, we at the e-Learning Center are working on a tutorial to do just that.
The issues surrounding course redesign are many and varied. NAU faculty identified the three we’ve explored here and in our podcast as some of the more important. We’d like to know more about what others think. What pedagogical issues do you face in your large courses? What strategies do you employ to resolve some of these issues? Use the comments feature in this blog to share your ideas. We look forward to hearing from you.
(** = full text access)
Anderson, T., Howe, C. and Tolmie, A. (1996). Interaction and mental models of physics phenomena: evidence from dialogue between learners. In, Oakhill, I. and Garnham, A., Mental Models in Cognitive Science. London: Taylor and Francis.
Anderson, T., Howe, C., Soden, R., Halliday, J. and Low, J. (2001). Peer interaction and the learning of critical thinking skills in further education students (.pdf). Instructional Science, 29(1): pp. 1–32. **
Crouch, C.H. and Mazur, E. (2001). Peer instruction: Ten years of experience and results (.pdf). American Journal of Physics, 69(9): pp.970-977. **
DeCorte, E. (1996). New perspectives on learning and teaching in higher education. In, Burgen A. (Ed.) Goals and Purposes of Higher Education in the 21st Century. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Matthews, R.S. (1996). Collaborative learning: Creating knowledge with students. In, Menges, R.J., Weimer, M. and Associates (Eds.) Teaching on Solid Ground: Using Scholarship to Improve Practice. San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Mazur, E. (1997) Peer instruction: A user’s manual. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Wiggins, G. and McTigue, J. (2005). Understanding by design. (Expanded 2nd Ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. **
Nicol, D.J and Boyle, J.T. (2003). Peer Instruction versus Class-wide Discussion in Large Classes: a comparison of two interaction methods in the wired classroom. Studies in Higher Education 28(4): pp. 457-473. **
Reiter, S.N. (1994). Teaching dialogically: Its relationship to critical thinking in college students. In, Pintrich, P.R., Brown, D.R., and Weinstein, C.E. (Eds.). Student motivation, cognition and learning. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. **
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