Machine learning is capable of amazing things. Speech recognition was a fragile novelty 15 years ago and now it’s ubiquitous. Self driving cars are on the verge of breaking through. Chess and Go are now mastered by machines. At the same time we are gathering unprecedented amounts of data on our students. We track their behavior in class and their usage of the Learning Management System (LMS) outside class. We measure their performance through exam scores, quiz scores, answers to in-class questions, and evaluations of their writing. To supplement this information, we have demographics, surveys, and measures of their performance in other classes. It seems obvious that combining these two technologies should yield important insights into student learning, and in fact big money is being invested by the smallest and biggest edtech companies to do exactly this. And I think it’s really dangerous.
This semester I’m teaching two big classes, and for each, I’m giving two midterms and a final. All six of these exams are composed entirely of free response questions. Some questions require calculations, some require interpretations, and some require longer explanations. You wouldn’t think I’d have much use for an app like ZipGrade that’s designed to grade multiple choice quizzes, but you’d be dead wrong.
Pretty much anyone who has talked to me recently has heard me sing the praises of invention activities. These differ from more typical in-class activities in that students are asked to grapple with challenging problems BEFORE they are taught how to solve them. The experimental work of Dan Schwartz and colleagues shows that this struggle prepares students well to learn from the lecture.
Our guest today, Doug Robertson, is one of the best teachers on the planet. He teaches 4th grade at Powell Valley Elementary School outside Portland, Oregon, and you might know him from his multiple interviews and podcasts, his books, his YouTube channel, or maybe his incredibly entertaining Twitter stream. While we usually focus on higher ed on the show, we had a great conversation with Doug about how we apply the fundamental principles of teaching in our respective classrooms.
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.