Learning – Always in Style

Take Rational Course Design with Margaret Weck!
A message from HAPS President Emeritus, Margaret Weck!

Have you ever noticed how variable the depth of learning is amongst students in your classroom – even when you have students with very similar backgrounds and levels of preparation?  Perhaps you’ve looked for patterns or specific characteristics that might help explain this variability.  After all, if you can find consistent and predictable behavioral patterns, you might discover the key to motivating and assisting those who are struggling with coursework.  One useful tool for doing just that is to identify each student’s preferred “learning style,” a method that groups students based on their preferred means of learning.  Interestingly, this very topic was the focus of a HAPS –L discussion forum this past summer.   Following is a brief summary of the main points of that discussion supplemented with a little additional information.

A 2004 book by Coffield, et al. (1) identified 71 different learning style models, most of which are variations of two particular general themes. One of these themes is psychologically-oriented and looks at how individuals make sense of their personal experiences.  Examples include David Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory (LSI) and Zubin Austin’s Health Professionals Inventory of Learning Styles (H-PILS).  The second major theme focuses more on neurological sensory information processing.  Examples include the right-brain vs. left-brain dominance tests and Neil Fleming’s Visual, Aural, Read/Write, Kinesthetic (VARK) inventory, a tool that indicates a person’s preferences for sensory modalities that most smoothly facilitate the mastering of new information.  

Will I be able to definitively resolve the central issues of learning styles in this post?  Of course not.  As we all know, it is notoriously difficult to “prove” anything, even without the additional handicap of measuring psychological processes through self-report.  In my opinion, it’s not worth the necessary paper or electrons to engage in a heated debate over this, especially since the take-home message is pretty much the same regardless of the outcome.  

Even those who strongly advocate the use of learning styles are aware of the limitations of each specific model and the instruments used to categorize individual learners.  Furthermore, the results of every inventory are full of questions of validity, reliability, and stability.  In other words, what does it really mean for someone to be an “assimilator,” or a “kinesthetic learner,” or “right brained?”  Are people with one tendency actually incapable of learning in any other way? Are these tendencies fixed, or can one improve or broaden native capabilities or preferences with enough effort and exposure to new types of learning?  The questions are endless, and addressing them is beyond the scope of this article; however, Edutopia (2015) has an overview of the various opinions and positions held by education leaders on learning styles: http://www.edutopia.org/article/learning-styles-real-and-useful-todd-finley.  

Since 2008 (2) rigorous educational research has not shown that specific instruction targeted toward a student’s learning style produces any statistically significant improvement in measured learning as compared to a non-preferred learning style.  Yet the debate over the usefulness/uselessness of learning styles persists.  

As far as course design is concerned, “universal” instructional design already encourages the use of multiple delivery modes to both present and assess student understanding of the most important ideas in our content.  Using multiple forms of representing and expressing key information automatically helps students find at least one point of entry into the content. So if preferred learning styles are real facilitators of learning, universal design already addresses them to a large degree.  Additionally, multiple presentation and assessment modalities provide reinforcement and a variety of possible retrieval cues which should help everyone – regardless of learning style.

One big positive offered by learning styles is that they are a non-threatening way to engage students in conversations about their learning.  Many students do not routinely participate in systematic self-reflection, but we can encourage them to talk about how they learn and what it means to demonstrate their own understanding of a subject by using easy-to-understand terminology found in the learning styles inventory.  As long as we don’t affix permanent labels to our students, which in effect “excuses” them from mastering the material, learning styles can provide students with insight into their own learning and offer a source of concrete strategies for engaging with course material.

  1. Coffield, F., Moseley, d., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004) Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 Learning: A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.
  2. Pashler, H., McDanierl, M., Rohrer,  D. & Bjork, R. (2008) Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9(3):105-119.

Do Our A&P Students Know How to Read? Part 3

valerie-lee
A message from Valerie Lee, an assistant professor at Southern Adventist University who just started her 6th year of teaching and loves HAPS!

In Parts 1 and 2 of this blog series, we identified that Anatomy & Physiology students are having difficulty with reading comprehension.  More specifically, their struggles are not limited to understanding specific content; rather, they are struggling with general vocabulary comprehension.
(To view Part 1 &/or Part 2 of this series,  Click the Link(s):
“Do Our A&P Students Know How to Read
 -PART 1             -PART 2

For her Southern Scholars senior research project, Molly Theus, first year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine student at the University of Georgia in Athens,  attempted to seek insight into this problem by asking four questions:

  1. Does a positive correlation exist between cumulative GPA and vocabulary comprehension?
  2. Does a positive correlation exist between time spent reading for pleasure and vocabulary comprehension?
  3. Does a positive correlation exist between being read to as a child and vocabulary comprehension?
  4. Is there a link between a student’s major and vocabulary comprehension?

Molly chose six classes as candidates for investigation: General Biology II, Principles of Biology, Anatomy and Physiology II, Cell and Molecular Biology, Studies in Daniel, and Pathophysiology (Table 1). These classes were chosen to include one lower (n=42) and one upper division (n=31) biology-major class, one lower (n=43) and one upper division (n=32) nursing class, and one lower (n=27) and one upper division (n=20) general education class (total n=195). To assess personal reading habits and history, a questionnaire was distributed to all students in the six selected classes. To assess vocabulary comprehension, a twenty-question multiple choice vocabulary quiz was also distributed. In order to assure anonymity, informed consent and student information forms were assigned a unique three number code corresponding to each questionnaire.

Participants were given a two-week period of time in which to complete the questionnaires. Once the packets were collected, each informed consent document containing student names was separated from the rest of the forms so that quiz scores were kept anonymous. The names were needed to compile average GPAs and class-standing information for each participant. GPA and class-standing was then matched to quiz scores using the unique numerical codes. We made use of an ANCOVA linear model to analyze our data. The number of questions missed on the vocabulary assessment was the dependent variable and the independent variables are listed in Table 2. University GPA was rank-transformed to meet parametric assumptions. Analysis was performed using R version 3.3.0.

The preliminary result yielded three key results:

KEY RESULT 1: Students’ reading for pleasure had no statistical significance for predicting higher scores on the vocabulary quiz (Table 2). This was contrary to what we had hypothesized based on the literature.  

KEY RESULT 2: In our model, the amount of time parents spent reading to their child was a statistically significant predictor of scores on the vocabulary comprehension quiz. This relationship was consistent even when controlling for university GPA (F(3, 183) = 4.80, p = 0.003; Figure 1).

KEY RESULT 3: A higher cumulative university GPA was also a significant predictor for improved quiz scores (F(1, 183) = 20.39, p = <0.001; Figure 2).

Molly and I were surprised that reading for pleasure was not a statistically significant indicator of vocabulary comprehension. Molly suggests several possible interpretations:

    • Students choose reading materiel at or below their reading level.
    • If a student’s reading level is low, that might inhibit acquisition of non-content specific collegiate vocabulary.
    • Self reporting is not a precise tool.

What can we do with this information?

  • Early intervention seems to be key to the issue of vocabulary comprehension
  • Collegiate students identified as struggling with non-content specific vocabulary comprehension need interventions as well. Possible interventions include encouraging them to read challenging books outside of class and providing mentor support.
  • This is an interdisciplinary issue that needs to be addressed in every department.

The preliminary results are very interesting and both Molly and I are interested in collecting more data in the future by expanding the background questions asked and surveying both private and public institutions. If you are interested in helping us, contact me at vlee@southern.edu.

Do Our A&P Students Know How to Read? PART 2

molly-theus2
A message from Molly Theus, first year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine student at the University of Georgia in Athens.
  • This message from Molly Theus, first year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine student at the University of Georgia in Athens is Part 2 of a 3 Part Series; “Do Our A&P Students Know How to Read

(To review Part 1 visit the link:   -PART 1 ).

Vocabulary comprehension is a crucial component of any student’s education. Research has been done about how to best teach content-specific vocabulary (Stinnett, 2012), and having competent instructors is certainly a key component. To teach non-content-specific vocabulary, teachers at the elementary level need to have “specialized linguistic knowledge” (Phelps & Schilling, 2004) to effectively teach reading. Reading comprehension is assessed primarily with standardized testing assessing Common Core standards (Fisher & Frey, 2014). These Common Core standards emphasize that “teaching to the test” will no longer work and that there is hope that reading improvement could be on the way (Hirsh, 2010). Content-specific subject tests, such as science and math tests, are also useful in assessing reading and vocabulary comprehension.

There is growing concern in the education community about an apparent lack of vocabulary mastery. A strong emphasis was placed on reading under the 2001 “No Child Left Behind Law” (Hirsh, 2010), which aimed to improve test scores across all subject areas. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports that the nation’s average reading scores in 2009 for grades 4 and 8 are not statistically different from those in either 2007 or 2001. While there has been no marked improvement in reading scores, math scores “have seen an upward trend after the instatement of the law in 2001” (Hirsh, 2010). A study conducted in 1983 showed that students had difficulty comprehending assigned tests, seemingly due to issues with vocabulary comprehension, not content complexity (Moore, Readence & Rickelman). Content-specific comprehension could also be linked to reading strategies, as passive readers appear to have more difficulty comprehending science texts than active readers (Croner, 2003).

Vocabulary comprehension is not only important for success on individual scholastic tasks such as exams, but also for a student’s overall outlook for success. In an article written for the publication Principal, E.D. Hirsch Jr. states that “Verbal scores are highly correlated with a student’s life chances and contributions to society” (2010). It is crucial that students who appear to be struggling with vocabulary comprehension are identified and given supplemental assistance, as “Vocabulary growth rate differences accumulated over time such that the effect on vocabulary size was large” (Duff, Tomblin & Catts, 2015). This means that the gap between high-achieving students and underperforming students continues to widen over time.

Several instructional methods have been shown to be particularly effective in improving vocabulary comprehension in lower grades. One such technique is scaffolding. Scaffolding, or using complex texts written at a level higher than a student’s current grade level, can “build confidence and competency [in] decoding unfamiliar words” (Fisher & Fray, 2014). Encouraging teachers to read aloud to students can help students understand “text structure, word solving and comprehension strategies so that skills are built and habits are formed” (Regan & Berkeley, 2012). Teachers should also emphasize that their students “read widely from texts they want to read, building their background knowledge and vocabulary while developing morally, emotionally, and intellectually” (Ivey & Johnston, 2013). Furthermore, according to Patrick Croner who compared active to passive reading comprehension in science texts, active readers demonstrate more metacognition and utilize pre-reading and during-reading strategies to improve comprehension. Passive readers, on the other hand, tend to be much less engaged in the text. Consequently, Croner recommends using varied reading strategies to turn passive readers into active readers to improve their textual comprehension (2003).

Outside of the classroom, reading for pleasure is an indicator for vocabulary success. Students who read on their own are more likely to encounter low-frequency words and improve their vocabulary than their minimally-reading counterparts (Duff, Tomblin & Catts, 2015). It has also been demonstrated that reading aloud with preschoolers, and asking the children questions while being read stories, improves vocabulary acquisition (Senechal, 1997).

To give students the tools they need to be successful in college and beyond, steps need to be taken throughout development, beginning with preschool-age students at home and continuing throughout elementary and high school.  The inability to understand basic vocabulary is an issue best solved before students reach the collegiate level. However, new developments and novel approaches of teaching content and reading comprehension to college students using adaptive computer software (Ray & Belden, 2007) could be promising for struggling students.

Come back next week to hear about a research project conducted within the microcosm of Southern Adventist University students last semester to further investigate the extent of this problem. 

Literature Cited

Croner, P. E. (2003). Strategies for teaching science content reading. The Science Education Review 2(4), 104-19

Duff, D., Tomblin, J. B., & Catts, H. (2015). The influence of reading on vocabulary growth: A case for a Matthew effect. Journal of Speech, Language & Hearing Research 58, 853-64.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2014) Scaffolded reading instruction of content-area texts. Read Teach The Reading Teacher 67(5), 347-51.

Hirsch, E. D. (2010). Teaching content is teaching reading. Principal. (November/December) 10-14.

Ivey, G., & Johnston, P. (2013). Engagement with young adult literature: Processes and outcomes. Reading Research Quarterly, 48(3), 1-21.

Moore, D. W., Readence, J. E., & Rickelman, R. J. (1983). An historical exploration of content area reading instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 18(4), 419-38.

Phelps, G., & Schilling, S. (2004). Developing measures of content knowledge for teaching reading. The Elementary School Journal, 105(1), 31-48.

Ray, R. D., & Belden, N. (2007). Teaching college level content and reading comprehension skills simultaneously via an artificially intelligent adaptive computerized instructional system. The Psychological Record 57, 201-18.

Regan, K., & Berkeley, S. (2012). Effective reading and writing instruction: A focus on modeling. Intervention in School & Clinic, 47(5), 276-282.

Senechal, M. (1997). The differential effect of storybook reading on preschoolers’ acquisition of expressive and receptive vocabulary. Journal of Child Language 24(1), 123-38.

Stinnett, M. (2012). Content area reading pedagogy and domain knowledge. Illinois Reading Council Journal, 40(3), 70-5.

Do Our A&P Students Know How to Read? PART 1

valerie-lee
A message from Valerie Lee, an assistant professor at Southern Adventist University who just started her 6th year of teaching and loves HAPS!

Years ago, I took a graduate level educational class called “Teaching Reading in the Content Area.”  This class was geared toward elementary and secondary schools; I never dreamed the information presented would be relevant to me later as a professor in a college classroom.

I teach a second semester combined Anatomy and Physiology course nearly every term. My students are primarily freshmen planning to pursue programs in Nursing or other Allied Health Fields.  Early in the semester, I tell them this class is like learning a new language.  So, I try to emphasize word roots while pointing out the meanings of Latin prefixes and suffixes.

Even though studious students focus their efforts on memorizing anatomy-specific vocabulary, they surprisingly have difficulty on exams with the meanings of English words that I assume all students know. After seeing a discussion about this issue on the HAPS listserv in December 2015, I realized I wasn’t alone.

Over the course of a few days, A&P professors all over the country added basic vocabulary words their students struggled with to a list I compiled.

Table 1 includes some of the non-content-specific words with which A&P students routinely have trouble.

terms_not_understood

 

Table 2 includes many content-specific words that A&P students often confuse.  

terms_easily_confused

Quizzing students on the meanings of these words, on the first day of class, might be an effective tool for encouraging students to assess their current level of preparation and readiness for the course.  

Thinking back to my educational class, I realize this is not a new problem. So, what does the literature have to say about the problem and what steps are suggested to provide solutions to the problem?  Molly Theus, one of my former students and now a first year veterinarian student at UGA, prepared a literature review on the subject. To read Molly’s review, stay tuned for next week’s blog.