I have a lot of conversations with all sorts of people about teaching. Sometimes they are happy to listen, and sometimes it’s clear they’d rather be somewhere else. The one thing almost everyone gets excited about is the two stage exam. The benefits of having students work together to solve exam problems they’ve just thought hard about are glaringly obvious, and the implementation costs compared to many other potential teaching innovations are minimal.
I try to spend most of my time living in the present, but in practice, I end up spending a little too much of my time alternately planning for and worrying about the future. Winter break is a time for looking back and gleaning some lessons from the past. In this article I try articulate some lessons learned from an intense 18 months running my department’s Active Learning Initiative.
This fall Doug and Edward both taught classes of their own. In their latest episode, they reflect on their challenges, what they tried, and what they learned.
As regular readers know, I’m a huge believer in iterative refinement. It’s important to try new things, and it’s equally important not to give up too soon. Pretty often, even with bad ideas, there’s a glimmer of promise that just needs to be nurtured. My first poster session was good, but they’ve become so much better over the years through incremental improvement.
Jose Vasquez has been teaching economics at the University of Illinois for 14 years. He teaches one of the largest introductory microeconomics classes in the world every semester with more than 900 students. He also teaches one of the biggest intro micro MOOC’s in the world: His Coursera course has had more than 100,000 students register in the last five years. He thinks deeply about how best to use his class time and what he wants students to do outside class. Our conversation covers a wide range as Jose explains what still excites him about teaching and how he got to where he is. We also talk about the joys of active learning, the importance of motivating our students, and the benefits (and costs) of peer assessment.
Justin Cerenzia teaches history at St George’s School in Middletown, Rhode Island. We don’t usually have guests from high schools on the show, but Justin is no ordinary high school teacher. He’s also the director of the school’s teaching center and someone who pays keen attention to research on pedagogy across the board. In this episode we talk to Justin about how teaching methods and ideas being popularized in STEM fields can translate to the humanities.
Outside observers can give instructors valuable formative feedback, and with the right observers and the right instruments, classroom observation can also be a useful (if incomplete) measure of teaching quality. Our guest, Marilyne Stains, teaches in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln where she specializes in chemical and science education. She has used a range of measures of instructor and student behavior in her research and recently co-authored the largest-ever study of STEM teaching practices that analyzed classroom observation data for more than 2,000 classes. In this episode, we discuss the pros and cons of a variety of classroom observation techniques from reliable objective measures like COPUS to completely unstructured note-taking.
My DBER journal club recently read “A Mathematician’s Lament.” While I couldn’t attend the actual discussion, I really enjoyed the essay. The gist is that math is practical, but it can also be a creative art form, and this is completely ignored in the vast majority of K-12 math classes. Kids have no exposure to math as play beyond gamified drills of arithmetic facts. Working mathematicians on the other hand don’t just know a whole bunch of definitions and algorithms–They actively create and try to see a beautiful abstract world in ways no one has before. Mathematicians have a lot more in common with painters and sculptors than they do accountants or even engineers.