Session 3: Students as Learners, You as Teacher

In this week’s session, we focus on how to better understand how we as teacher can help students as learner to learn better by boosting their motivations, understanding their learning styles and adopting various teaching activities to best meet the education goal and students’ full potentials.

Pre-session Reading:

  1. National Center for Educational Research (2007).  Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. Washington, DC: Department of Education.
  2. Lang, J. M. (2008).  Students as learnersOn Course: A Week by Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.  [pp. 152-177]
  3. Glen, D. (December 15, 2009).   Matching teaching style to learning style may not help students.  The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  4. Kirk, Karen (n.d.).  Student motivations and attitudes: The role of the affective domain, Science Education Resource Center (SERC) at Carleton College

The first reading by NCER is an obligatory reading for everyone, while one the three that follows is chosen based on last name. I was assigned to read Kirk’s paper on student motivations. We then shared in class with each other what we learnt and liked the most about three optional readings. I like the format of this interactive pre-session assignment, which not only takes some burden from student off but also forges a habit of collaboration among students. As a matter of fact, I am in a couple of such reading groups with fellow graduate students in physics and find it both simulating and efficient for getting my feet wet in brand new fields of research.

The most impressive reading goes to Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning by the NCER. I like it so much that I downloaded the PDF and plan to upload to this website for everyone who don’t have the access. The article is a well written, comprehensive and scientifically rigorous and sound piece of art. It aims to discuss all actionable ideas that teacher should integrate into the teaching process based on experimental studies of how students learn.

The paper offers seven recommendations with corresponding degree of experimental support ranging from Low, Moderate to Strong. I appreciate how educators for educators are especially more cautious on what they are teaching the teachers how to teach: the effect can be exponentially amplified generations after generations. It is easy to blindly pass down some subjective beliefs without giving the complete context and experimental evidences, which most bad teachers do. Consider it is an article by the national center of education research, such level of scrutiny is largely within expectation.

The two recommendations that resonate with me the most are the ones that are Strongly supported by the experimental evidences:

  1. Use quizzing to promote learning.
  2. Ask deep explanatory questions.

Within the first recommendation of quizzing, pre-question and post-exposure are equally important: ask  simple but important  questions in class before the teaching inspire students to re-evaluate what they already know and what their blind spots are; arrange quiz or homework assignments after the class reinforce the student’s learning. This is well integrated into two other recommendations with Moderate experimental supports:

  • 3. Space learning over time.
  • 4. Interleave working examples with problem solving sessions.

Learners move through different stages of intellectual developments. And each one of them came to class with a pre-assigned mental model: how their pre-concept on the teaching materials are like. Experts have highly hierarchical mental models organized around core concepts which are interconnected, novice might only have sparsely connected facts which are compartmentalized.

Ask deep explanatory questions is a magic trick that every teacher should use but not everyone could master it, just like real magic. I am lucky in life, to have had teachers who are acute observers, sharp interrogators and loving mentors.

My first physics teacher in middle school is famous for demonstrating hard problem solving in class. I still clearly remember myself came up to the blackboard in front of the whole class to show how to measure the diameter of a pingpong ball with normal rulers.

My high school teacher, who changed career decision is again a habitual questioner. On the first day of the class, back in 2005 in a sweaty classroom packed with 60 eager and ambitious young mid-school graduates, who were anxious to know how hard high school class can possibly gets, she elegantly held up a physics textbook, and asked us to open the same book on our desk with her,

“what do you see, is there something odd that gets you thinking?”

We are not expecting such ambiguous question right off blank sheets of our new schoolers’ minds. The whole class is silent for a minute, my heart was racing super fast, a thousand possible answers blasted through my mind in my eager attempt to be the first student who answer a question correctly, but nothing made sense for a satisfiable answer. Nobody eventually brave out for any solution, and she smiled and then open her eyes wide open, which gets everyone’s curiosity out in the loss,

“Why are there white space of around around 4 cms wide on each page of the book? It’s for you guys to write down your own baffling questions and exciting discoveries that make this book truly yours.”

The intensity of her intellectual scrutiny and sincerity of her love for knowledge moved me into tears, I was crying out of joy in my first physics class of high school in the first couple of minutes. I never thought it would be of such immense pleasure to ask questions, a good question will teach us better than any answers. I cry every time I recollect that moment of my life, including this moment on the interweb. That was just the tip of her questioning iceberg.

Every class since then is a class loaded with competitions between students to get her endless reservoir of questions right. She ask questions before, after or even long after we learn some physics discoveries by the ancient Europeans. She lead problem solving sessions after the class in our spare time to train us in national high school physics competition. We solve problem in front of her while observing how she came up with even more quizzes. In all occasions, deep and explanatory questions are her secret weapon to get us thinking, integrating and realizing what we have and haven’t fully understood.

That is a long personal evidence for why asking deep explanatory questions are great for teaching and learning. As a summary, we learn from both the pre-session reading and in class the following eight actionable teaching guidance:

  1. Space practice over time.
  2. Alternate between worked examples and practice problems.
  3. Support verbal description with practice.
  4. Connect abstract and concrete example of the concepts. Provide real world examples.
  5. Using quizzing to promote learning.
  6. Ask deep explanatory questions.
  7. Students who feel that they belong have greater intrinsic motivation and confidence.
  8. One’s prior knowledge influences new learnings.
  9. College students move through stages of intellectual and ethical development.

Some important take away from the in class learning, for me are the idea of student centered learning and the benefit of diverse teaching methods.

Why should we care about cognition learning theories which put students in the center of the course design? Our instructor showed two pictures, in one a wild flower was blooming out of a lifeless concrete, in the second, an ocean of flowers are blossoming in a sunny hill. She use this to illustrate how student centered teaching is like farming: you can mass produce good education and thus good learners!

But my question in this regard come again: how to both inspire students in all training and offer better opportunities for faster learners? The solution might be to use diverse teaching method that fits not just on average but everyone. It is hard to distinguish faster learner from fastest learners anyway, since everyone is constantly sharpening their own learning skills, and it is not fair for teachers to get into their way of un-bounded self improvement. As a result, adapted and changing teaching method, that mix simple and straightforward review sessions through quizzing or problem solving with more in depth research project or harder and optional homework assignment will motivate students both internally for intellectual achievement and externally from peer collaboration.

Finally, for a preparation of teaching philosophy, this class gives off a nice clue for our final draft: How you teach, why you teach the way you do, how you know your way works?

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