Thirsty learners

KASY8531

Cooper drinking from his cat fountain

They say you can lead your students to knowledge but you can’t make them drink. True, but misleading. You can also make your students want to drink by offering them a tantalising and intriguing fountain, and by giving them salty problems that make them thirsty for the knowledge needed to solve them.

 

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Posted in Learning, Planning teaching, Students

Reinvigorating reading

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I recently discovered that reading a good book about teaching revitalised me when I was tired. So now, rather than shelving my reading because I have other work to do, I sometimes pick up a book so I can build the energy to do my other work. As Schwartz (2007) suggests, I am better off managing my energy, not managing my time.

Tony Schwartz (2007) Manage your energy not your time. Harvard Business Review, 85 (10), 63-73.

Posted in Book review, Uncategorized

Disobedient Teaching

disobedient teaching

Welby Ings (2017) Disobedient Teaching, Otago: University of Otago Press.

 

Welby Ings doesn’t tell you how to be a teacher, he shows you who you can be.

Disobedient Teaching was profound not because of what Ings was saying but how he was saying it. He pointed out many examples of wonderful teaching or leading educational change, often involving persisting for what was right despite resistance, anger and even threats. But more importantly, the examples were inspiring. In one example Welby describes how he helped hide Pacific Island students under a classroom so immigration officials would not deport them under the draconian New Zealand laws of the time. In another example he describes how he enabled his students to deeply understand prejudice by asking them to walk through town, each student on their own, dressed as ‘losers’. This was a risky but well-planned and weighty learning experience for the students.

I can’t do justice to what he shows the reader. You have to read and feel for yourself.

Posted in Book review

Big picture or detail? Where to start course planning?

Blooms taxonomy

Sometimes we organise our courses according to a hierarchy of learning outcomes, such as Blooms Taxonomy of Learning Objectives. We use the hierarchy to identify the level of outcome we want from our students: Do we want them to merely comprehend what we teach, or do we want them to apply this knowledge to solve problems, or even to create new ideas and solutions?

These hierarchies imply that the higher outcomes are dependent on the lower outcomes. For example, students can only apply their knowledge, critically analyse, evaluate and create once they have they know, remember and comprehend the basic knowledge of the field. This is often thought to also imply that you should first teach students the knowledge they need, and then later you can ask them to analyse this knowledge or create with it. The assumption is that students need the basic knowledge before they evaluate it or apply it. While this second implication is true, it is also fundamentally mistaken and leads to poor course design. In fact, we should start our courses at the higher level before going back down to the bottom.

Start at the top so that learning is meaningful for students

If students first learn isolated bits of knowledge, what they have learned is inert. It is stored as meaningless fragments that are effectively useless. For the knowledge to be useable it has to be stored in meaningful chunks. Once students have learned isolated bits of knowledge, they find it difficult, if not impossible, to arrange these into meaningful categories. Learning is more effective if students first understand the meaningful categories and then, as they learn new bits of information, they organise what they learn according to these categories. For example, you don’t learn a lot of facts about what people do in different countries and then create a concept of culture. You learn what culture is, and then each isolated fact you subsequently learn makes sense as an illustration of differences in culture. In a second example, you don’t ask students to memorise all the parts of a cell and then expect students to put them together to understand cell function. You start by enabling students to understand the function of a cell within a body, and then they learn how all the parts fit together. In both of these examples, it is best to start with a broad synthesis or analysis of fundamental concepts and principles, and then go to the detailed knowledge that will fit within this meaningful big picture.

Start at the top to engage your students and motivate their learning

Starting at the bottom of the hierarchy also gives no motivation for students to learn. Why would they care to remember a whole lot of meaningless facts? Instead, you motivate learning by starting at the top, where you can engage students and inspire them to inquire. For example, if you start by showing students a big, interesting problem, case or question that needs some complex analysis and evaluation to solve, and you show them why this problem is important so they want to solve it, then they will then be motivated to learn all the little bits of knowledge they will need for a solution. Even though the students cannot solve this problem at the start of the course, the problem provides a meaningful context for their learning, so when you teach them the detail it is no longer unrelated info to try to remember, but meaningful data because of its usefulness in solving the problem. They understand the facts because they see it within the big picture of solving the problem they are engaged with.

Posted in Planning teaching

Let me be clear! How do I tell when I need to clarify my writing?

I taught a workshop for supervisors recently about assisting your students to write. I said that one reason why our students write badly is because they cannot tell whether their writing is good enough. When they read their own writing they only see what they intended to say, not what is actually written, so they can’t tell if it is clear or coherent or whether it flows.

If I’m right, then the key to teaching writing is enabling our students to recognise when they are unclear. Once you can tell that your own writing is unclear you will find out how to write clearly, and you will keep working on your writing until it is clear. You will seek out or develop strategies for clarifying your own writing. However, if you can’t tell if your own writing is clear, it doesn’t matter how many strategies for clear writing that you learn, because you won’t see the need to use any of them.

One way we can enable our students to write better is to help them see the difference between clear and unclear writing (just as a wine connoisseur can taste the difference between a good wine and a bad wine). We might ask them to read well-written journal articles and theses so they can see examples of clear writing, or we might point out where their writing is unclear and explain why, or we might suggest they read their own writing out loud so they can more easily hear anything that is unclear. Yet it is also very important if we, their supervisors, explain how we recognise when our own writing could be clarified, so our students will have a process to emulate.

So, I challenged the participants of my writing workshop to explain to their students how they tell when their writing is unclear. But how do I do this? Somehow I notice when my writing needs clarification and I make it clearer, but how? It is a mystery to both myself and my students.

To figure out how I clarify my own writing I ‘reverse engineered’1 my mysterious process of thinking. Basically I clarify my writing by comparing what I mean with what the words actually say, and trying to make these match. Sometimes I have to change the words I wrote to clarify what I mean as I was vague, ambiguous or unclear about what I actually meant. Sometimes I have to change the words I wrote because they were not clear and did not match what I was trying to say. As part of this iterative process I found six things I did, or thinking moves I used, to discover if my writing was unclear. I use these at any time, and in any order in my writing process.

  1. I ask myself ‘What do I want to say? What do I mean?’ as I free-write my pre-drafts and first-drafts. For example, I want to say something about learning theories, and I first write: “Experiential learning is one kind of learning theory.” But this is not what I want to say as I instead want to emphasise that this is the main learning theory in the article I am writing. So I change it to: “The main learning theory is experiential learning.”
  2. I ask myself ‘What do the words actually say? Do they match what I mean?’ For example, I wrote that experiential learning was the “main learning theory”, but this is not what I meant, because it is merely one of many learning theories. What I meant was that it is the learning theory that I will focus on in my article. So I clarify the writing: “The learning theory that I focus on in this article is experiential learning.”
  3. I look for anything in my writing that needs clarification or elaboration. I frequently do this by asking myself ‘What do I mean by…?’ or ‘What will the reader need to be explained?’ For example, the term ‘learning theory’ needs to be explained, so I clarify my writing by adding: “A learning theory explains the mechanisms by which learning occurs.”
  4. I ask myself: ‘Is there any chance of ambiguity? Does my writing allow for multiple interpretations? Is there any chance that a reader might misunderstand or take a different meaning to the one I was intending?’ If I find anything that is ambiguous or vague, then I ask myself ‘How can I re-write it so that the reader is more likely to get what I meant?’ For example, the term ‘experiential learning theory’ is guaranteed to be ambiguous because any abstract term like this is used by different people in different ways, and I have not clarified how I am using this term. So, I clarify my writing by adding: “Experiential learning theory is learning by doing.”
  5. I give my writing to a reader and ask for their reaction. If they are confused or puzzled, or if they miss something important or interpret the writing differently from what I meant, then I need to clarify. I have to figure out what led the reader to the puzzlement or misinterpretation, and then correct this so they are likely to get what I intend. For example, a reader might say “I’m confused by what you mean. I have no clear idea about what learning by doing is.” Or they might ask me “What do you mean by doing? Doing what? How do you learn by doing? What is the process?” To clarify my writing I would need to answer their questions.
  6. I also look for any exceptions to what I wrote, as this will indicate where I have not clarified what I mean. For example, I wrote that “experiential learning is learning by doing” so I would ask myself: “Are there any examples of experiential learning that do not count as doing? And are there any examples of learning by doing that do not count as experiential learning?” If so then I have to clarify what I mean by acknowledging the exceptions.

NOTE: This blog post is about writing that aims to convey the author’s intended meaning clearly to the reader. This seems like a plausible view of academic writing in journal articles, but it is not a universal approach to good writing. I’m not sure it would be appropriate for novels or poetry for example.

[1] Golding, C. (2011) Educating for Critical Thinking: Thought-encouraging questions in a community of inquiry, Higher Education Research and Development 30(3), 357-379.

Posted in Reflection and improvement, Writing

Framing your advice for thesis writers: What would your examiners think?

I stumbled across a useful trick for cultivating good writing for thesis students. If I frame my writing advice as ‘this will help you deal with your examiners’ then thesis students are more likely to act on the advice. My usual advice such as “make your sentences clear and succinct” had much less impact on thesis students, compared to advice like “the examiner will be confused if you write it like that.” Thesis students seem captivated by advice based on how their examiners will react to their thesis.

I liked this way of framing advice so much that I wrote two open-access articles about writing a thesis based on what examiners do. My first article was a systematic review of the literature that identified 11 things thesis examiners tend to do as they read a thesis. My second article developed advice for thesis students based on each of these 11 practices. These articles enable me to offer authoritative advice to my thesis students, such as: “We know thesis examiners tend to get annoyed with frequent typos and referencing errors, and then they doubt the candidate’s competence and start to read hyper-critically, so the advice is you should do a thorough edit before submitting your thesis.”

My insight about using thesis examiners to frame advice for thesis students didn’t come from nothing. It is based on several principles that underlie how I teach thesis writing. I’m not sure if these are universally applicable, but they are how I guide my own practice when working with thesis students from every department and discipline.

Advice is more or less useful depending on how it is framed.

The same advice framed in one way might be misunderstood or ignored, while if it is framed in a different way it may be transformational. It is not only what you say, but how you say it. My wife shared a lovely example of this with me yesterday: Her old dance teacher had told her for years to lean away from her dance partner, but this only gave her a sore back and made her lose her balance. Then another dance teacher told her to bring her chest and stomach into one line—doing this effectively means leaning back—and she suddenly understood what to do and had perfect posture. It was technically the same piece of advice about how to stand, but how it was framed made a huge difference.

Advice framed as general principles is better than advice framed as specific directions.

General principles enable students to judge what to do, while specific directions erode their autonomy. When students are given general principles about writing, they have to think how they will apply the principle to their specific piece of writing in their specific context, but if they are given specific directions they just do what they are told without learning to think like a writer. Also, specific directions will have frequent exceptions, unlike general principles. For example, thesis students often want specific directions about how long a literature review should be. But rather than telling them the number of words they should produce (which is likely to be inaccurate for many students in different situations), I instead offer the general principle that the literature review has to be long enough to do justice to the main ideas from the literature, and to make these clear for the reader. Of course sometimes thesis students just want to be told what to do, but they are training to be independent researchers, so we do them a disservice if we don’t ask them to judge for themselves.

General principle: Write for your reader

One general principle that I offer as advice to thesis students is to write for your reader, and in the case of thesis students, this mean writing for your examiner. This principle implies that there are two steps in writing a thesis. You should first write down what you want to say, but then you should re-write it so it is also clear, interesting and convincing for your examiner. So, the advice is to figure out what sort of writing would make a good read for the sort of academics who will be examining your thesis, and then emulate this writing. You can figure out what sort of writing your examiners would like by reading journal articles and theses in your field (and by reading the articles I wrote about what examiners tend to like in a thesis).

General principle: Give feedback about the reader’s reaction

Advice framed as feedback about a reader’s reaction is often better than advice about how a student should improve their writing (though advice about how to improve is also useful in its place). When we share our reaction to their writing, such as “I was confused here”, or “I couldn’t see the connection between this paragraph and the next”, we train students to make judgements about their own writing, rather than stealing this thinking work from them. They have to judge how to respond to the reader who says “I find that unclear” rather than just following instructions about how to fix the paragraph. They have to decide what made the reader think the writing was unclear, and therefore, how they can improve their writing: Was the sentence too long, so I need to make it more succinct? Did I omit an important signpost that explained how one sentence followed from the other, so I need to add ‘because’ or ‘a second perspective is…’? Did the reader have a different interpretation of the words I used, so I need to define what I mean by ‘emotion’? The underlying principle is that writers need to understand how their writing affects their readers, so they can then improve their writing for these readers. The gift of feedback is understanding the impact of our writing, so we can then make it better.

 

Golding, C. (2017) Advice for writing a thesis (based on what examiners do), Open Review of educational Research, 4(1), 46-60.

Golding, C., Sharmini, S., Lazarovitch. A. (2014) What examiners do: What thesis students should know, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 39(5), 563-576.

I also posted this on the DoctoralWriting SIG. Check them out for some great stuff about writing a thesis.

Posted in Writing

Ah-ha!

How common is it to have ‘ah-ha!’ moments as a result of reflective thinking?

There seems to be an assumption that reflection should lead to profound, transformative insights. This is even given as a reason against using reflection in teacher education courses: Teachers think they can only pass their reflective teaching course if they have completely transformed their teaching by rejecting some fundamental assumption, so they invent transformative experiences (Macfarlane and Gourlay 2009).

But I think these sorts of transformations rarely result from reflection. I can’t even remember a time when suddenly my whole approach to teaching was transformed and I saw everything differently. My reflections about teaching typically result in small, satisfying changes, which I call insights, but which are not the massive, earth-shattering upheavals we might expect. When I reflect on my teaching I might tweak a teaching method, solve one particular issue I was wondering about, or come up with a better way of explaining something to my students, or devise a new strategy that I hadn’t thought of before. For example, this blog post is the result of my reflection about how I change and improve my teaching. I had a vague idea that I developed new insights, and I have clarified that these insights are frequently small rather than transformative.

I only rarely experience moments when several different issues fall into place – for example when I suddenly realise that I had seen assessment solely as grading students, but it was better to see assessment more broadly as evaluating student performance, with or without grades. This is more than the typical experience of clarifying an isolated point, because it transforms a lot of my teaching practice. But it is also not a complete transformation. Perhaps it is a kind of like a micro ah-ha! It is a very satisfying experience where something hazy suddenly comes into focus.

Reflection frequently involves more plodding than great leaps of insight. It is hard work that is rewarded by a slow revealing, like cleaning a very smudged painting, rather than a flash of insight that suddenly illuminate the entire picture.

 

Bruce Macfarlane & Lesley Gourlay (2009) The reflection game: enacting the penitent self, Teaching in Higher Education, 14:4, 455-459

Posted in Reflection and improvement