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Learning – Always in Style

27 Feb
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.

The First Ever SoftChalk User Conference

1 Oct

Hello from Baltimore. I managed to convince both my dean and my distance ed director to stake my trip to the SoftChalk User Conference. So far, I’ve managed to learn a few useful items, had some nice beer, and scored a free dinner, a coffee mug, and a T-shirt.
In the first session, by Richard Smith and Greg Priebe of Harford Community College, I learned a thing or two about making accessible content in web pages. Here are the most important:
1. Don’t use bullets when you can use numbers. Screen readers, used by visually impaired individuals, can’t make sense of bullets, but numbers are helpful for reference and review.
2. Make simple tables (of course, SoftChalk makes tables that can be read by screen-reading software) rather than elaborately formatted tables.
3. There is a code referred to as a ‘skip link’ that allows screen readers to skip over headers that repeat from page to page. I never thought about that, but if the screen reader has to read the entire page, and the top of each page is a lengthy table of contents (or other header), then that probably gets old in a hurry to your visually impaired students. If you can’t embed a skip link, then just skip the fancy headers.
4. If you can find out where, on your campus, the screen reader is located (it’s probably Jaws) then try out your web pages using the screen reader. With a blindfold on, so you can really experience how well you’ve made your pages accessible.
5. If you include embedded or linked videos, precede the link with the video title, along with the approximate length of the video. (This came as a handy tip from the audience.)
And, of course, I already knew to use closed-captioned videos – although it’s probably a good idea to preview those captions to make sure they are useful, rather than just assuming they are!

I’m not going to go into the useful attributes of SoftChalk here, but if you are interested, you can find them at http://www.softchalk.com, where you can check out the repository of lessons at SoftChalk Share. I will add this to my list, started last week, of repositories useful to the teaching of A&P.

The meeting continues tomorrow, all day, and I promise to pass on any useful information next Wednesday. Until then…

Betsy Ott
President-Elect

Musings on Video Lectures…

21 Jul
In this lecture, I received 2 phone calls,  1 text message, dropped my phone, and had a sympathetic nervous response when something fell off the wall in my office.  I think I should re-record this lecture.

In this lecture, I received 2 phone calls, 1 text message, dropped my phone, and had a sympathetic nervous response when something fell off the wall in my office. I think I should re-record this lecture.

Summer is such a luxurious time to reflect on my teaching and get fired up to make improvements.  It is so nice to feel my excitement growing as I get my class materials together for the fall semester, which is only a month away.

After settling into the decision NOT to flip Human Biology this fall, I decided to make use of all the extra time I would have to re-record my Human Anatomy video lectures.  I feel this is a little bit insane…this will be my 4th time teaching (and flipping) Human Anatomy and my third time re-recording my flipped video lectures.  It seems more than mildly insane to re-record lectures this often, but I understand that I am not only ironing out the wrinkles in my flipped pedagogy, but I am also ironing out the wrinkles in my presentation of CONTENT.  I have taken it for granted that in a traditional classroom I get to re-work my lectures and improve on my craft every time I teach the course.  This is a fantastic assurance that I will constantly GET BETTER.  But in the flipped scene, improving the lectures is much more time consuming.  Nonetheless,  I am clearly in need of creating a “new edition” of my lectures, though I am sincerely hopeful that THIS set of videos will last more than one semester.

As I prepare to record lectures, I can already tell that the videos will be better.  I have a better understanding of the big picture, which will make the individual pieces fit together more cleanly.  I have more experience with the tricky parts which allows me to emphasize the concepts that will be most helpful to my students.  And I am hoping to record the lectures at a more leisurely (and reasonable) pace, without the imminent deadlines that inevitably means I end up trying to present content in front of a video camera in my office by myself, exhausted and delirious, at two in the morning.  Ahem.  My fingers are crossed.

23- A Decision

16 Jun
"Sanity" and "Insanity" signs

Hmmm…left or right…left or right?

I’m a stubborn human.  I also have some pretty grave questions about my sanity.  Because it was just this morning as I chatted with my mom on the phone during a very slow jog through my neighborhood, that I AGAIN lamented about whether or not I was going to flip Human Biology in the fall.

Really??!  Does anyone else get the feeling that we’ve been here before?

But I think this time, I really did work through the issue (though I did ask my mom to remind me of this decision should I somehow lose focus before fall).

So here’s the ultimate reason I am firmly committing to NOT flipping Human Bio this fall.  There are only 17 students enrolled in the course at this time and the course will not be offered again until next summer at the earliest.  There.  So if I were to flip the class, I would invest the ridiculous amount of flipping energy for 17 students (whom I’m sure I will love very much, and who are probably quite deserving of the educational advantages that the flip offers).  But 17 students in 1 year just doesn’t justify the time it would take to prepare for an effective flip.

I think I feel peaceful about this decision.  The true test will be to see what the blog topic is NEXT week.  If I’m still talking about whether or not to flip Human Biology in the fall, you’ll know this peaceful sense is an illusion.  But if I’ve moved onto a new topic, then we’ll all happily put this one to bed and I’ll start trying to remember how NOT to flip a class!   HA!

22- To Flip or not to Flip?

9 Jun
Fair use image of Bart Simpson.

I will NOT flip the classroom upside down…I will not…really…I will not…

I’m slowly settling into the swing of summer…and it is time to pull the trigger on a decision I have been struggling with for a couple of months now.

In the fall, I will be teaching a new class that I have never flipped:  Human Biology.  This is a non-majors course that is general bio, anatomy and physio, IN ONE SEMESTER.  Obviously, we must do a very light survey of these three courses, all of which I’ve taught multiple times before.  I do not anticipate the prep being too difficult, from a content perspective.  But I am having an ongoing internal battle about whether or not to FLIP the class.

There are a million points on the “FLIP IT!” side of the equation.  Students love it.  I have more time to work with them during class.  We can do more FUN STUFF!  Plus, I’m the flipping QUEEN, right?  I’ve been flipping all over the place for 2 years now.  I’m a flipping phenom!

But maybe I’m growing up a little bit (!) because I am not sure I can handle the stress of DEADLINES that inevitably accompanies the decision to flip a new class.  I’ve spent two years under the “gotta get a lecture recorded before I go to bed TONIGHT” mandate.  Even my YouTube students who don’t’ even know me comment on the scattered and unfocused rambling in my video lectures that is directly proportional to the lateness of the hour (and hits a peak around 1am).

Besides that, fall already promises to be a very busy semester.  It will be my first semester as a full-time tenure-track professor (after 5 years as an adjunct in this institution).  Plus, I will be teaching Human Anatomy again, which I find to be pretty intense.  Add to that the fact that we have two brand new cadavers (who will be with us for the next 3-5 years)…and I am utterly confident my fall plate will be overfull.

Every cell in my body says, “Make the smart flippin’ decision, Riggs.”  And my cells have been saying this for, oh, a couple of months now.  So what part of me is still refusing to pull the trigger and admit that I will NOT be flipping Human Biology in the fall?  I know it is time…and I know what I need to do…it just makes me sad, because I really love flipping.

So I’ll probably just end up agonizing over the summer until it really is too late to pull off a quality flip, and then the decision will be made for me.  Ask me again in August.

17- The Magic Assessment Machine

5 May
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EEG_recording.jpg

The magic assessment machine…please build it for me!

I want a magic machine that scans a student’s brain and tells me EXACTLY what s/he learned in my class.  I want the machine to accurately make all the decisions and judgement calls around grade assignment and I want it to offer rich and meaningful feedback to the student.  I want this glorious machine to be connected to the student’s brain all semester long, so it can deliver a constant stream of personalized guidance…it would be like each student would have a tiny ME in their heads!  The machine would assess the ability to THINK, so that robot-like efforts to simply check off a list of requirements would never lead to an “A.” My magic machine would be completely “BS” proof, flawlessly detecting any attempts to defraud the assessor.  My machine would not be fooled!

I really wish I had this magic machine today, because assessment is really hard.  I know that someday I will no longer feel like a “baby teacher” and I will transition into a place where I am more sure of my methods…and maybe then my classes will feel like less of a daily experiment.  But right now, as I set my sights on final exams and research papers, I am confounded by the confounding factors that blur my ability to assess whether or not my students “got it.”  Physio has been tricky this semester.  I am not satisfied with the flipped lectures, the pace of content delivery, or the in-class activities.  Frustration levels (for all parties involved) have been high and exam scores have been low.  And our culminating research paper project has been a barely salvageable train wreck (though much improved from the last time I tried it!).  I struggle between owning responsibility for the difficulties (“my fault”) and requiring student accountability (“your fault”). Many students capitalize on this ambiguity and I find lots of fingers pointing my way.  It is a fine line to walk between acknowledging your mistakes and getting pushed into a defensive corner.

Today, I think the appeal of the magic assessment machine is the way it would first shift many of those fingers away from me…but perhaps the more important value is that it would also give me confidence that I KNOW what my students KNOW and their grades absolutely reflect this.

I’m pretty sure my magic machine is a dream (regardless of how hard textbook companies are working to make it a reality!)  Maybe I don’t really need the machine at all…maybe I will someday turn into a “grown-up” teacher and find myself just sitting more comfortably in my ability to accurately assess what students KNOW.  Yeah…I think this is the more likely outcome.

15- Flipping’s Fatal Flaw?

21 Apr
Nothing's perfect...

Nothing’s perfect…

I love the flip.  I love what I can during “lecture” when students have already been exposed to the content.  But as I conclude my Anatomy and Physiology courses this semester, I struggle with the simple fact that I REALLY want to re-record MOST of my video lectures.

This is really bad news, because I have exactly 582 videos (which make up about 70 lectures) posted on YouTube right now.  Maybe it is just the time of the semester, but I can’t even imagine how exactly I would rally the energy and enthusiasm to go about re-recording these lectures.

I just watched my physiology lecture on reproduction.  Let me just tell you a few things that I observed.  While talking about oogenesis, something fell off the wall in my office, initiating a sympathetic nervous response.  I kept recording.  Then there was a sound outside my office, so I grabbed my cell phone and made sure Security was on speed dial.  I kept recording.  While checking my phone to make sure Security was on speed dial, I noticed a text message from my mother.  I kept recording.  I think I said the word “FOCUS” about 23 times.  One of my YouTube viewers commented, “LOMG she’s annoying…it takes her so long to get to the point.”

But how in the world could I re-record these 70 lectures?  It has taken me 2 years to arrive at the place where I am finally re-using previously recorded content.  And rather than finding I suddenly have lots of time, I am working just as hard to build good clicker-based activities to do during what used to be lecture.  I actually feel like this might be a fatal flaw for the flipped method…at least my version of it.

I am planning to deeply contemplate this question, because I’ve invested very fully in the Wendy-style flip.  I can’t imagine delivering a  traditional lecture…but I also can’t quite visualize how I am going to re-record my 70 existing video lectures.  Because we all know, iterative improvements are an invaluable perk that comes with teaching experience.

Maybe I am just suffering from a case of “end-of-semester burnout.”  Any thoughts?

13- Flippin’ Crazy?

7 Apr
This is my little rah-rah support team.  Pretty sure they don't feel neglected!

This is my little rah-rah support team. Pretty sure they don’t feel neglected!

I was in my office the other day when a colleague stopped by unexpectedly and began offering advice.  I always appreciate hearing different perspectives, but when he started telling me that I spend too much time flipping my classes and not enough time home with my kids, I had to struggle to maintain objectivity.  Perhaps his comments hit a nerve simply because I am (of course) engaged in the familiar, guilt-ridden battle between motherhood and career.  But I found it really interesting that he focused particularly on the FLIP.  So I spent some time thinking about the flip…and whether or not the time I’m investing in the pedagogy is WORTH IT.

While I do not in any way shape or form agree that I’m neglecting my family, I do agree that flipping my classes requires a ridiculous amount of time and I’m far from satisfied with the results. My list of complaints about my approach is lengthy.

  1. My video lectures are long and I tend to ramble.
  2. If I change the order in which I cover content, the video lectures end up filled with confusing references.
  3. Sometimes I say things that are incorrect…and these mistakes are on my PERMANENT record, unless I re-record the lectures!  Yikes.
  4. I’m a relatively new teacher and I always want to improve my stuff. Updating video lectures is really time consuming!
  5. Even with the amazing resources in the APS Life Science Teaching Resources Community, my class activities are sometimes too basic and become boring.
  6. My class activities are sometimes too complicated and become overwhelming.
  7. I never really feel like I have enough time to completely PREPARE for any week.
  8. I never EVER feel like I “nailed it.”  EVER.

So as my colleague criticized my priorities, I took a tired breath and wondered WHY I keep flipping.  But in spite of every single imperfection, I honestly cannot imagine going back to the traditional approach.  I get to assume my students have covered the content when they come into my class.  I feel good about holding them to a higher standard than I might otherwise.  And I love the opportunities to talk about the content in a curious and meaningful way, every single time I see them, because  I don’t have to “cover everything.”  I’ve already covered it!

The simple fact is that my students are more engaged now than they were before I started flipping.  Yes—it is far from perfect.  But I guess it is worth it to me.

12- Flippin’ Activities: Variety is Good

31 Mar
Even spider variety is good...(or interesting, at least!)

Even spider variety is good…(or interesting, at least!)

It is hard to believe that I have almost two years of flipping experience under my belt.  Sometimes flipping feels so crazy that I forget to acknowledge how much extra work is required to pull it all together. And there are so many layers in a successful classroom, flipped or not, that it is often quite challenging to effectively steer the ship.

During my first year of flipping, I spent most of my time recording video lectures.  This left the actual class time VERY unstructured, and I relied primarily on student questions posed DURING class to fill that time.  I struggled with low attendance throughout my first flipped year and I was chronically dissatisfied with the quality of student engagement during the “new” lecture hour.  In my second year of flipping, I reused most of my video lectures (for better or for worse).  This freed up my time to use the Life Science Teaching Resource Community (the Archive of Teaching Resources has a new name!) to improve the quality of my class activities. This, in conjunction with the fact that I also started using clickers (for which students earn 5% of their course grade), has improved the class tremendously, in my opinion.  But my students expressed a different opinion the other day when I failed to prepare a set of clicker-activities for my class on “Blood.”

First, I did NOT admit to my students that I was unprepared.  (Ahem.)  Instead, I started class by asking them what they thought was the most important concept in the lecture.  This began the discussion and I capitalized on their questions and confusions to engage them in a 90 minute review session.  At the end of the 90 minutes, several of them made a pronounced effort to tell me how helpful the class had been that day.  They actually explained that sometimes the interesting and creative activities I facilitate require so much application and critical thinking that, in their minds, they don’t get a chance to really review the material from the previous night’s lecture.  This was such an interesting perspective and while I can not concede that the “easier” review session was BETTER than the more challenging application tasks, it did make me think about the value of VARIETY in the flipped class.  We all know that Anatomy and Physiology are really challenging courses.  But we’re coaches, and good coaches push their players hard, but they also know when to let up and make sure their players know they can be successful.  The take home message for me?  Variety is good.

11- Be Heard!

24 Mar
Robin_Hood_(1922)_-_Allan_Dwan

Even if you DON’T have access to the world’s biggest microphone (!), you can STILL make your voice heard!

I’ve talked about how valuable the HAPS email listserv is  (join HAPS and sign up for the listserv to see for yourself!) and I’ve analyzed WHY the listserv is so valuable.  It comes down to the active engagement of a knowledgeable community.  The APS Archive of Teaching Resources has the tools necessary to facilitate a similarly engaged community.

I noticed this when I was browsing the Archive.  I created an account with them which allows me to personalize my interactions with the archive via a tool called “myAPSarchive.”  This tool shows up on the left side of the website when I sign in, and posts suggestions for things I might like, based on the preferences I set when I registered.  I was delighted to find a collection of resources on “Interactive Lectures” posted there tonight.  Once you have an account, you can create your own collections.  This is a fantastic option for saving a group of resources related to similar topics!  But even if you don’t create your own, it is really fun to explore the collections posted by OTHERS.  I usually find topic-based collections (check out this cool collection on “Diabetes“), but I was excited to find this  collection based on pedagogy.

Here is where I so clearly see the value of the COMMUNITY.  The “Interactive Lectures” collection was rated by 3 people and had earned a total “star” score of 4.7 out of 5 (the rating  asks you how helpful the resource will be for your teaching).  Once you’ve created an account, rating the collections and activities is as simple as clicking on the stars.  And the more people that rate a collection or activity, the more valuable those stars become.  But  you can also comment on the resources at the bottom of the page.  These comments are very helpful and often provide insight into how the resource can be used.  The “Interactive Lectures” collection has two very thoughtful comments.

I think it is important that if we JOIN the archive community, that we also CONTRIBUTE to the community.  It is easy to do…and we HAPSters are good at it!  So be heard!