Faculty welcome to attend Simon Bott presentation, “Active Hands-On Learning in Large Lecture Classes,” tomorrow, 1-2 pm

This announcement came from Prof. Shirley Yu, CTE Board Member and campus coordinator for CIRTL:

Dear Colleagues

Faculty are cordially invited to attend Dr. Simon Bott’s presentation, “Active Hands-On Learning in Large Lecture Classes,”  on Monday 1:00-2:00 pm  in the CITE lab room 326.
His topic should be of interest to faculty and graduate student future faculty regardless of discipline.   Dr. Bott does a lot for the university through his creation and running of the PALS program, Profs with Pride, and the Cougar Trading Cards, so this is a great opportunity to meet him and learn some ways to engage large classes.  Please RSVP to Shirley Yu at slyu@uh.edu if you would like to attend.

Thank you,
Shirley Yu

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Faculty Workshop — Making Technology Work for You

The Center for Teaching Excellence sponsored a workshop on technology in the classroom on Friday 24 February 2012.  The workshop began with presentations from Todd Romero (History), Rebecca Forrest (Physics), and Jennifer Lazzaro (IT support staff for CLASS).

Todd Romero began the discussion by stressing the importance of getting help from IT support staff when planning to employ new technologies in teaching. He thanked Jennifer Lazzaro for her help in helping him organize the material for his history courses. The challenge for the history department is to lower the failure and drop rates for the large (450 student) survey courses it offers as part of the Core Curriculum. Those rates have exceeded 50% in the past, although recent efforts have brought that number down. Romero used clickers in his class, but discontinued the practice in favor of alternative methods for increasing class involvement. The lesson is that it is important to find out what works for a given situation, and to adjust when a given technology does not help.

The technologies Romero uses now include video podcasts to help students improve their learning skills such as note taking, reading a textbook, and taking essay tests. Many students have had no prior experience in these areas. Romero also makes extensive use of e-mails, to remind students of items on the syllabus such as tests and major assignments, and to given students feedback on how they are doing in the course, both for those who are having trouble, and those who are doing well. He explained that his use of PowerPoint has evolved from text dense slides to the use of graphics such as editorial cartoons, maps and satellite images of parts of the world. He stressed the importance of making PowerPoints visually rich.

Romero described how technology is used in two online history classes, one on Native Americans and the other on witchcraft. Here lectures are replaced with shorter units of about 20 minutes that make extensive use of video podcasts, and film clips. Students are encouraged to engage in digital story telling, by working out their own graphical presentations on history topics. Developing a good script for a video can be as rewarding for the student as writing a paper, and many students have strong digital skills to draw on.

Romero has also used discussion boards extensively, and advises that it is not necessary to respond to everything, as he did at first. Now he takes the role of a moderator, who provides reminders, thanks students for their participation, and encourages further discussion.

Rebecca Forrest described her efforts to improve her introductory and upper-class physics courses. She used clickers as a method for peer instruction. A question is posed to the whole class. Students respond, and then discuss their answers in small groups, and are then asked to respond a second time. The hope is that the responses will converge on the right answer, and that the responses can be used as a focus of discussion of the topic at hand. Forrest no longer uses this method, as she now prefers to use that class time for demonstrations.

Forrest reported on three different online tactics she uses. The first is online systems for submission, grading and feedback on homework, which are supplied by many introductory physics textbooks. This is an improvement over manual submission and grading of homework where only a fraction of the problems can be graded by TAs, and feedback is not immediate.

A second online technique is to give short quizzes on material through Blackboard shortly before a class. She got the idea from project on teaching called Just in Time Teaching. The tests help guarantee that students are ready for a given class.

A third method Forrest uses is to provide online tutorials on math skills in the first two weeks of her introductory courses. Students in these courses are often not prepared mathematically, as evidenced by drop and failure rates in the 30% – 40% range. A diagnostic exam of math skills is given before the class begins, to warn students of their deficiencies, but even so, the problem persists. Online tutorials allow students to get back up to speed in math.

The main problem Forrest experiences is dealing with three different online systems, one for homework grading, one for quizzes (Blackboard), and one for tutorials. She is hoping that the homework systems can be integrated into Blackboard in the future.

Jennifer Lazzaro began by urging faculty to think hard about the issues they are trying to resolve before they worry about applications of technology. She described a wide range of technologies for the classroom, including Wimba, where one can create a virtual classroom with students and/or guest speakers at remote sites, and archive the entire proceedings for later use. She also mentioned Voice Boards to language training, TurnItIn for plagiarism checking, and convenient return of written comments by the instructor, Skype for virtual classrooms and guest speakers, and Google Hangout where up to 15 people can collaborate with video camera and microphone on a single document or blackboard. Lazzaro also described some successful teaching technology projects in CLASS, including a course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where a website describing the pilgrimage of the characters is presented.

There followed a freewheeling discussion on a wide range of issues.

Frank Holt described the reactions faculty have to the technology revolution – from those who complain that there is no chalk in the room, to those like Forrest who develop a sophisticated range of technologies. The main problem he sees is that it is very difficult for faculty to see, and come to appreciate, the rich variety of technologies being deployed at UH. He suggested that we create a super course so that examples of best practices would be available to all.

The topic turned to the “blind” use of inappropriate technology. Jennifer Lazzaro pointed out that while Second Life is very exciting, it is far from clear how it can be successfully used in a given class setting. Rebecca Forrest pointed out that despite all the technology she deploys, she uses chalk to lecture. That is an advantage over PowerPoint, since the speed at which she is able to write matches the speed at which students can take notes effectively. When questioned about how her class of over 165 students can all see the board, she responded that she simply writes larger than usual. Jim Garson mentioned that working with PowerPoint restricts his movement and this is detrimental to keeping the class’s attention. Frank Holt remarked on the problem that turning ones back to write on the board automatically loses contact with the class. It was pointed out that using visual presentations has been around ever since the widespread use of slides. PowerPoint does help by providing more convenient storage and management of images, and the web has improved access to them.

The speakers were asked to comment on the amount of extra time it takes to use technology. Romero pointed out that his e-mail system can be managed with as little as a half an hour a week. Forrest pointed out that many of the things she must do to set things up online (such as setting up homework assignments) would have to be done in any case. She said that grading the pre class tests was manageable for 80 students, but for a class of 180 she needed to develop a new way that used multiple choice grading. In general, it is important to rethink how to do testing so as not to be swamped with the extra work. Her worst problem is managing the grades in three different system. Merging files where student lists are different can be challenging.

A discussion of the issues related to online grading of homework followed. Those systems are good at evaluating student answers, but not at evaluating the methods students used to arrive at them. It is not easy for such systems to award partial credit for a good derivation followed by a silly mistake in keying a value to a calculator. The worry is that online grading will stress getting the right answer, whereas what we want to teach is the correct method for deriving the answer. Furthermore, online grading does not encourage the student to work out a problem in detail on a piece of paper.

Near the end of the workshop, the topic turned to textbook publishers, the new online tools they provide, and the digital revolution in the way students will read them. Several participants mentioned heavy lobbying by textbook representatives interested in the large profits to be obtained by having a whole department adopt their text for an introductory course. Packages with textbook and online materials can run well over $200. As to whether these costs will come down for students who use digital readers rather than hard copy, Lazzaro thought that the answer was: No. At present, publishers offering packages where the student uses his or her digital reader are provided for a limited amount of time (6 months to a year), cannot be sold after their use, are harder to use than a hard copy text, and still cost only about $15 less. Frank Holt remarked on the poor quality of some texts, which are only lightly revised and retitled for use in very different courses.


Please attend our Faculty Workshop, “Rules, Rules, Rules” next Friday, Jan. 27th, 1-2:30

As noted above, if you have any questions or suggestions, please send those to Frank Holt at fholt@uh.edu, or hit the “Comment” button here.  Thanks, DM


Google Docs for Classroom Collaboration

I’ve previously introduced Google Documents as an efficient tool to organize and publicize classroom materials to a universal or restricted audience. Here, we’ll see how using Google Docs as a collaborative tool for students enhances engagement and learning.

Sharing the Document with your Students
After creating an empty document — either a text document or spreadsheet or drawing — remember to share the document either universally or with a restricted URL.

As part of that sharing, you will allow others to edit the document as well. Remember — this edit option should only be used for those shared documents you really expect to be modified by others. You would not want to allow editing to your syllabus or reading list, on the other hand.

If you have a mailing list of all your students’ e-mail addresses, you can simply add that list to the sharing permissions. If not, you will need to copy the URL and broadcast that somehow — either in another known document, or in shortened format such as www.bit.ly which is easy to copy by anyone.

Ground Rules

Once you notify your students of the document’s URL, establish your learning expectations with them by clearly articulating what the learning activity entails and how to treat an open document. Simple rules might include

  1. Always identify your own work; this can be done by appending your initial and last name at the end of your addition such as [B Martin]
  2. Remember this is a public forum and all the rules of classroom respect will be observed within the document (here, link to your syllabus comments on classroom respect).
  3. After submitting your own work, remember to come back and review other students’ submissions and comments

These rules, of course, are the same rules you would suggest in any on-line learning environment.

Sample Collaborative Learning Activities

1. Commenting on a standard text. Using the Comment feature (Insert > Comment), students can add their own interactive interpretations or questions to an existing text, such as a historical document, published article, or your own faculty classroom notes. Here, the students will see how other students think while engaging with an actual source text — two critical thinking strategies. By seeing other students’ comments and questions, they also learn from each other while bouncing new ideas that you simply don’t have time to address in the classroom.

2. Group pre-writing. As you use small-group learning strategies, groups can use a space within one class document to pre-write a paper project. I’ve used this several times in my First Year Writing course, where the entire class sees other groups’ pre-writing ideas. Groups begin to become more competitive and can “steal” other groups’ ideas if they are usable.

3. Class note-taking. Here, students add their own notes and comments to other students’ notes for a class session or a module. Called crowd-sourcing, the idea is that the collection of various perspectives on what is important from class time shows different ways of looking at the same problem. Students can then use more creative ways of approaching the same topic or question. Yes, this means that some students will submit notes and other students will not, but the task here is not to grade students on their allegiance to note-taking, but to let students on-line do what they do anyway — copying and discussing their class impressions.

See this discussion of crowd-sourced notes which includes this live example of what can happen when more than one person begins to add ideas to an existing document.
4. Group papers or data sets. Depending on your small group learning project, Google Docs is the perfect way for a group to collaboratively bring their material and revisions to one document. This is far superior to multiple documents being shared across e-mail or flash drives. Revision history is maintained by Google Docs, and with the comment feature, the group can pose questions and reply while tracking their own conversation. The final document can be downloaded as an OpenOffice, Microsoft Office, or PDF file. The document-in-process can be shared with you, so you can monitor and advise as it is being created, revised, and edited.

These are just a few ideas for using the cloud for collaborative learning. Start small, and collect feedback from multiple students — some will have more experience with both group work and cloud documents. All students, however, can learn to use these resources easily and will soon be convinced that crowd-sourcing documents is an effective way to learn and to express learning.

In the comments, please feel free to offer your experience, suggestions, and questions about using Google Docs in your classroom. We’ll respond in comments below, and in future posts.


Highlights from the Faculty Brown Bag, “Engaging Large Classes”–2/17/11

Presenters were Nancy Young (History), Amy Vandaveer (Marketing), Barry Lefer (Earth and Atmospheric Science), and Simon Bott (Chemistry).  David Mazella (English) helped facilitate the discussion.  37 faculty were present.

Dr. Young talked about her background as a teacher at a liberal arts college, and how she continued these engagement strategies at UH, even with larger classes.  Some of her practices include:

  • Moving around the classroom, moving around the aisles, never letting them get too far from her voice. Asking specific students, allowing them to stumble to grow.
  • Using slides with specific engaging/confronting quotes, then asking students to predict the author – age, sex, color, etc.  Slides become basis to question the material.
  • Using clickers in class room. To take attendance silently (divided through class hour). Used also to reflect reading and to facilitate discussion. Then she can talk to the students based on their decisions.
  • Starting lecture with an open-ended question, similar to the scholars’ questions, involved in the debate. Framing the lecture’s argument with a question makes it more likely for students to remember the discussion.
  • Using “challenge” questions, which unlike the opening question, do have a right or wrong answer.
  • Exploiting multimedia, bringing in sound file, music, film clips, links of recorded conversations

Dr. Young views the lecture as an embryonic distillation of actual historical inquiry.

In terms of classroom management, Dr. Young does not tolerate side conversations. She navigates the classroom to hear the students in their own voices.

Ms. Amy Vandaveer talked about the teaching principles that she had developed over years of teaching large sections:

  • Purposeful preparation
  • Unplug and engage – zero tolerance of student tech in classroom
  • Become mobile – the podium is not your friend
  • YouTube is your friend
  • Peer learning can be powerful
  • Relatable information and Collateral – visuals from real culture; use story-telling

Dr. Barry Lefer offered some of his own strategies for holding the attention of large classes and maximizing their learning:

  • Take attendance and have class participation count as grade or extra credit
  • Start lecture with “News of the Day,” some news item related to course content
  • Ask questions from names included on Attendance Sheet, wait for answers
  • Walk around the classroom.
  • Use stories from personal research/experience to bridge their understanding of course content
  • Build on students’ experience – they often know the answer, but don’t know why
  • Pop quizzes
  • Multiple cumulative exams; review exams after grading, top 10 incorrectly answered questions

Dr. Simon Bott, described how he keeps control of a 550 student class every semester.  On the first day of class, he establishes two simple rules:

  1. $1000 buys them presence in that classroom three times a week; anything that takes away from any student’s hearing chemistry is evil; no one has that right to take away that $1000 experience. Bott embarrasses late-comers, early-leavers, talkers, cell-phone users, no lap-top users
  2. Bott is the king of the classroom. Students are his subjects. Confiscates lap-tops and cell phones for class duration.

He also gives them a brief written quiz every day, which he personally grades immediately following the class and enters into a spreadsheet.  By the mid-semester, he knows the roster and is able to match faces to names and grades.

After these presentations, the group discussed the best way to ask questions to a large group, and how to make them approachable yet challenging enough to keep students’ interest.  They should ramp up in difficulty as the semester proceeds.  Marketing demands that novices learn how to ask questions of their customers or clients.  Science teaching is often based on basing questions on visual materials like graphs or illustrations.

There was also a discussion of the usefulness of attendance, roll sheets, and various kinds of attendance policies.  One audience member suggested a mid-semester survey that asked students three simple questions: what’s working? what can I do to help you learn better? and what can you do to learn better?  Another suggestion was to survey students at the beginning of the semester to ask them their goals for the course.

The brown bag ended around 2:30.

[thanks to Bruce Martin for taking the minutes for this meeting]

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So, have we forgotten anything?  And what should we discuss next?  If you have a suggestion, hit the Comment button, or email us at cte@uh.edu, or visit our website at http://cte.uh.edu/.

DM