Writing Process in the Lower-Division Classroom

Writing is the most difficult, and yet the most valuable transferable skill.  Unfortunately, few students arrive at college with the ability to write proficiently, and not many become proficient writers while attending college.

Various studies indicate that the percentage of entry-level freshmen who write proficiently at the college level ranges from the high 20s to the low 30s.  A recently published and notably provocative book about the lack of learning that takes place in college, Academically Adrift, bemoans the fact that college students are not asked to write enough.  Students who were surveyed reported that they were only asked to write a total of 20+ pages in about 50 percent of their college classes.

Based on my own experience, I suspect that these numbers are inflated.  First, proficiency tests are based on writing prompts and samples that are at a much simpler level than those required by the social science minimal writing standard (which is about 8 pages worth of thesis-driven argument that integrates a variety of evidence sources and material).  Moreover, a minority of students in my own surveys of undergraduates at a four-year university indicated that they had written more than 5 pages in lower-division college courses, let alone 20.

I believe that about 15-20 percent of college freshmen are proficient in social science writing.  As a result, my goal was to train another 40 percent of students in a lower-division history course how to successfully craft and compose a standard social science paper.  In my experience, prioritizing history writing in lower-division courses was both gratifying and beneficial.  Student evaluations read: “This is the first time in my life that a teacher has really showed me how to write.”  It turns out that students do not balk in the face of a challenging writing assignment if they have a clear, detailed road map that lays out exactly what is expected of them.

A solid writing training program depends on the integration of all the learning behaviors in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

The three keys components of this training are:

  1. Break down the steps of the writing process to meet the specific needs of a social science paper.
  2. Design an explicit and clear set of instructional scaffolds that build students’ critical thinking about each step of the writing process.
  3. Set up writing groups and submission procedures for a series of informal and formal assessments.

The chart below demonstrates the writing project plan for a GE standard 1500-word history paper.

The real secret sauce in this writing process is the detailed, scaffolded activities in the middle column.  Why?  Because the professor must be an activator, not a facilitator, of the critical thinking that is involved in the writing process. Some activities and learning behaviors can be completed independently and online, but they should be brought to a professor-led classroom discussion for review and analysis.

The image below provides a visualization of the breakdown of the thesis-writing step in the essay-writing process.  The professor can begin by instructing students as to the qualities of strong thesis, as well as the markers of a weak thesis.  Students then complete an online quiz in which they are asked to select the superior thesis in a choice between two theses.  The professor then follows-up by including a discussion and analysis of these quiz items in the next week’s class.  A couple of days later, students submit their individual theses to the professor for checking, revising, and approval.

In my estimation, social science professors who want to participate in the generalized improvement of students’ writing level in the lower-division courses will need to contribute 10-15 minutes of classroom time to this project each week.  Although this does involve grading the crafted parts of students’ papers twice before grading the end product, it does not take much more time than grading a very bad final paper in which students have been left to their own devices.  Detailed, scaffolded activities also require a little bit of time to learn how to activate, but within a couple of semesters, composing them becomes quite simple and will feel like second-nature.

Yes, a professor does have to give up a little bit of time and self-training to teach writing and composition skills effectively.  However, in gauging whether or not it is worth your extra time, you only have to remember two numbers: 86% and 88%.  These are, respectively, the percentages of college professors and employers who believe that writing effectively is a very important transferable skill-one that is critical to students’ future prospects in the job market.

 

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Analytical Reasoning in the Lower Division Classroom

One of the few standardized tests that assesses the analytical reasoning skills of college students is the Collegiate Learning Assessment.  The Mastery Level of the CLA+ requires students to solve an analytical reasoning problem and write about it.  Some scholars believe that the performance tasks in this test are too general and too easy.  However, even if the score is slightly inflated, this news is still not good.

Two-thirds of college freshmen are not proficient in analytical reasoning.  Equally concerning is the fact that four years later, after the less proficient students have dropped out of the system, the more select group of seniors is only 61 percent proficient in analytical reasoning.  This evidence seems to back up the complaint of employers that the graduates that they hire do not possess quality problem solving skills.

The students who drop out of the system, as well as those who stay in it, are in need of more robust training in analytical reasoning.  Without it, they cannot become proficient from the passive position of listening to a professor.  Therefore, active learning methodologies are necessary for professors who want to train students in this valuable transferable skill.  The keys to active learning are:

  1. Students are actively using application and analysis learning behaviors.
  2. Students clearly understand the breakdown of the analytical process and can evaluate their choices alongside other possibilities.

Active Learning  Analytical Reasoning

How do you train college freshmen to use an analytical process, as well as reflect upon it and improve it?  Again, you need to break down the process into the following components:

  1. Inquiry, background, and selected evidence
  2. A scaffold of the key thinking process of applying and analyzing with a mind map or organization of the concepts that will answer the question
  3. A professor-led discussion of the conclusions, as well as a review of the analytical processes that led to the conclusions.

The above breakdown can be used for more complex problems that use sources.  Less complex active learning activities might include the following:

  1. Giving data or information to students and having them respond to some provocative question using a poll quiz in class or by writing brief response papers
  2. Providing a document or evidence and a series of questions that require students to break down and understand the document better
  3. Simply giving a five-point quiz or poll in the midst of a lecture that asks students to apply a concept to a given case

A look at Bloom’s Taxonomy shows once again that analytical reasoning uses all the learning behaviors that appear in the charts I’ve presented.

Professors do not have to turn their courses upside-down in order to make these changes.  In fact, I encourage professors who are transitioning from traditional, lecture-only teaching styles to go slow, steady, and small.  The more exposure that students have to these small active learning opportunities, the better.  You should learn how to manage students, develop your own discussion style, and experience what works best for you and your students before trying more ambitious activities.

Active Learning Lecture → Lecture + Active Learning Activities + Polls

I recommend blending a lecture-based approach with active learning strategies.   The lecture platform is essential to the classroom, but one of its major problems is that it works against the human attention span.  The research below demonstrates this phenomenon:

  • Forty percent of the time, students are not attentive to what is being said in a lecture.
  • After the first 20 minutes, student attention drops off dramatically.
  • Students retain 70 percent of information in the first 10 minutes of lecture, while they only retain 20 percent of the information from the final 10 minutes of the session.

Below is a physical representation of how the attention span works in a traditional lecture setting versus an active learning lecture structure. In the traditional lecture, there are 20 minutes of high attention followed by 30 minutes of weak attention, and, finally, 10 minutes of low attention.

An active learning lecture setting on the right incorporates several activities and learning behaviors from understanding, to analyzing, to evaluating. These activities periodically revive the brain’s ability to attend and participate. The first 5 minutes involve a poll or quiz to introduce and pique interest in the lecture.  This segment is followed by 25 minutes of traditional lecture, which occurs within the timespan that students still maintain high attention levels. In the third segment, however, students switch gears.  They form groups among themselves and discuss the independent work they have completed on an active learning problem that is related to the lecture and they process to discuss their findings with one another for around 15-20 minutes.  In the final 10 minutes, the professor discusses the conclusions of the activity with the whole class. If there is an additional 15 minutes of class time, the professor may return to lecture, confident that the students are beginning a new attention cycle and will retain what is now being presented.

 

 

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Close Reading in the Lower Division College Classroom

The definition of close reading is “the disciplined reading and rereading of inherently complex and worthy texts.”  Note that there are two underlying assumptions that characterize this definition:

  1. The texts are supposed to be both challenging and necessary
  2. The student must learn a read/study discipline in order to absorb them

Close Reading → Brief, Complex Texts

 In other words, these texts are not beach reading for students; on the contrary, they fall decidedly outside the average student’s comfort zone.  To really master the knowledge contained in the reading, one must exercise the disciplines of reading, re-reading, reflecting, asking oneself questions, prioritizing concepts, and considering the author’s intent and choices.

As such, the first rule of close reading is to keep the texts reasonably brief and concise, but also challenging.  It would be a mistake to throw hundreds of pages of complex academic content at the students based on the theory that it is “good” for them, or because you consider yourself a “rigorous” professor. This misguided approach leads to the following:

Poor Reading

Reading specialists call it “gist” or “one and done” reading, where the student barely scrapes the surface of the reading and retains very little of its content.

No Reading 

Thirty percent of students either don’t buy the text or do buy it but “wing it” instead of reading the assigned texts.  Another problem is that professors sometimes capitulate to the no-reading problem and simply test on the lecture material rather than on the assigned text.

Search Reading 

Students use the professor’s study guide and the index of the text or search function on a digital text to look up the terms and “wing it” on the test.

I have found that the brief, complex academic texts that I want students to close read are about 4,000-5,000 words of disciplined weekly reading, or about 12 pages per week.  Overall, however, I want students to read closer to 30 pages per week, as this is also recommended by reading specialists.  Because of this, I supplement the close reading with ease reading in the form of narrative books and papers at the general or popular reading level of grade levels 8-9.  The combination of the academic text and two supplementary books or a collection of articles per semester has worked well for me. I also know that this meets the recommendations of reading specialists who suggest 150,000-200,000 words of assigned reading in the college classroom. 

Close Reading → Brief, Complex Texts + Reading Chunking

Beyond the question of quantity, a disciplined reading strategy must also be established. The basic formula is this: the more your students struggle with academic reading, the more necessary it is to breakdown or “chunk” the reading material, and the more important it is to test your students with frequent quizzes.  I believe that a 2,000-word chunked reading (5-6 pages) is the minimum that should be assigned to a college student.  If you have a student who cannot sustain reading for 5-6 pages, even with support, they may be too far out of the range of college-level reading proficiency.

Close Reading → Brief Complex Texts + Reading Chunking + Scaffolding

 Next, it is important to add what education experts call scaffolds, or techniques and support systems that help students develop their reading discipline. There are two kinds of reading scaffolds:

  1. Modality supports, or using the senses to facilitate reading (least-to-most-effective are audio, visual, and kinesthetic/note-taking)
  2. Internal discovery of the reading, or directing the student to see the structure of the writing with questions, as well as signal words and phrases

Finally, you want to be sure that the frequent quizzes you are assigning contain questions that are detailed, conceptual, and inferential and which can be linked directly to the study questions and signal words and phrases.  You may allow the quiz questions to be on the easier side in the beginning–however, you should make sure that you are not assessing answers on a study guide, but drawing from the actual assigned reading.  This ensures that the students’ reading comprehension levels can be evaluated and improved.

 

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What Does the Transferable Skill of Read/Study Mean?

The reading level of students entering college is rather elusive, but it is usually calculated in one of two ways. One is based upon the national average of placement scores, which indicates that about 50 percent of entering freshmen read at a grade 12 level. Alternatively, “The Nation’s Report Card” of the NAEP indicates that about 38 percent of graduating high school seniors read proficiently at a grade 12 level, which would suggest a proficiency level percentage in the mid 50s for the group that will enter college. In addition to these estimates, a highly publicized study by the Renaissance Learning Organization determined that the reading material of college English classes is on roughly grade 7 level, which led the RLO to conclude that, in reality, college students really don’t read beyond the middle school level.

Let’s move beyond the battle of statistics for a moment and look a little more deeply at how the transferable skill of college reading relates to the larger picture of college graduation and employability. The chart below tracks the reading levels of books on the New York Times Bestsellers List, as well as those of other types of literature.

There are a few key pieces of information to note when observing this data. First, the bestselling books fit into a grade 8 reading level (highlighted by the oval). Next, note that fiction literature generally falls within a lower reading level than does nonfiction literature. Finally, notice that academic papers, textbooks, political literature, and government reports–indicated by the bars on the right–are distinctive in that they fall under the much higher difficulty level of grades 11-12.

How do we explain this data? First, the median reading level of American adults is around grade 8, as detailed in the chart below. If bestselling authors, such as Malcolm Gladwell, intend to sell books, they need to write for the median audience. Although many people reading Malcolm Gladwell are probably capable of reading at a higher level, a grade level 8 is a comfortable one, for which one doesn’t have to strain, slow down, re-read, and reflect too often.

This observation is very important for college professors because it reveals that there are two types of reading–“ease” reading and “work” reading. What is the difference between grade 8 “ease” reading and the grade 12 “work” reading that is required for academic texts? The three discomforting features of academic texts are:

  1. Very conceptually-driven or analytically narrative passages (as opposed to simple narrative)
  2. Difficult, very precise vocabulary
  3. Complex sentences with lots of dependent clauses contributing a lot of content

While tempting, it would be unwise for professors to eliminate these uncomfortable characteristics, or to “dumb down” their readings. In fact, I want to suggest that academic reading should be thought of as the training ground for “work” reading–that is, the complex memos, reports, data, and topical readings of modern, professional employment. The real takeaway here is that successful, well-educated people prefer to read at grade 8 level, but they work at the level of grade 12 or higher.

So, what is the strategy for training students to develop a “work” reading mode? Reading specialists tell us that “close reading” is the best way to teach those who read comfortably at grade 8 to cope with and learn how to read less comfortable but necessary grade 11-12 academic texts. The chart below lists the three basics of this strategy.

In the next blog, I will describe the mechanics of close reading in the lower division classroom.

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The Importance of Transferable Skills

College professors spend a great deal of classroom time lecturing about the complex knowledge of their disciplines for the following two reasons:

  1. Tradition
  2. The assumption that college-bound students already have the skills necessary to utilize this sophisticated knowledge.

While the traditional lecture setting should certainly not be underestimated (an issue which I will discuss later on), the assumption that students have the skills to work with the complex knowledge that is dealt with in lectures is wrong.  Colleagues say that they understand this, but I think the achievement gaps of high school graduates who enter college are even greater than they realize.

Transferable skills allow a person to process and manipulate any body of information, whether general or disciplinary.  For the sake of this discussion, we will start by grouping key transferable skills into three broad categories – reading, analytical reasoning, and writing.  Studies of entry-level college freshmen show that about half read at grade 12 level, just 37 percent have the very basic analytical skills necessary to work with information, and only 27 percent write at a grade 12 level.

The data visualized in the chart above has important implications concerning college graduation rates.  The 27 percent of college-bound students who are “proficient” (i.e., at a grade 12 level) in all three areas of proficiency probably have a very high rate of graduation.  At the other end of the spectrum, about 40 percent are “not proficient” in all three areas, with skills typically below mid-grade 9 level. This problematic deficit is very difficult to make up in college.  In fact, over half of those that belong in this 40 percent are probably also a large portion of the 22 percent of students nationwide who drop out of college in their first year.  They simply can’t keep up.

This leaves a remaining 33 percent of the students, a group that I will call “near-proficient,” or ranging from grade 9 to grade 12 in the three skill areas. The good news is that most of the proficient and near-proficient students end up graduating.  A good percentage of the latter, however, struggle and take 6 years and more to graduate.  Moreover, they are not usually among the most stellar graduates. I argue that an emphasis on transferable skills in the first two years of college would help all near proficient and some 5 percent or so of the not proficient students to catch up academically, ensuring graduation.  If they did graduate, it would increase the national graduation rate to 65 percent, a very desirable goal for American social mobility.

Transferable Skills → College Graduation + Employability

The following two surveys demonstrate a further consideration that involves a more focused concentration on teaching and expecting transferable skills to be developed in students within the first two years of college. This will lead to college graduation for an additional seven to ten percent of students and will also improve employability.  This first survey is of college professors who identified the expectations of students who seek a bachelor’s degree.  Note that, while the specific transferable skill of “mastery of knowledge” is given very high ratings, the other specific skills of critical thinking and writing effectively are also highly valued.

Even more revealing is the survey of employers who reveal what they are looking for in the people that they hire.  Note, here, that mastery of knowledge (and even job skills) does not even make the list.  Employers emphasize transferable skills almost exclusively, especially “communicating, orally and in writing,” “analytical reasoning,” and “solving complex problems” — all three of which are at the top of their lists.  Both groups also rate research, collaboration, and the evaluation and use of information very highly.
If these specific transferable skills were to be applied in a college classroom setting, a visualization of the result would look something like the graphic below. The triangle shape you see is known as Bloom’s Taxonomy, used here to categorize and weigh the amount of time a student spends demonstrating learning behaviors.  In many lower-division college classes, the lion’s share of the curriculum and the time is devoted to mastery of knowledge (which is at the bottom of the pyramid), while critical thinking and writing and research–the transferable skills that are prized by the employers in our surveys–garner less attention in the education setting.

However, the classroom that concentrates on transferable skills through the disciplinary content would turn Bloom’s Taxonomy from a pyramid to a ziggurat.  “Mastering knowledge” would still carry a good deal of weight, not only due to the professor’s
lectures, but also through the amount of assigned reading and studying
of information and texts that is required of students to do on their own. After all, the learning behaviors of Remembering and Understanding are foundational.  But Analyzing and Applying problems, evidence, and sources characteristic of the discipline would be added, as would Creating and Evaluating in the forms of writing, research, and presentation, using disciplinary knowledge, problems, and evidence.

As you can see, the weight of classroom time is shifted up the scale from an almost singular interest in mastery of knowledge with read/study and listen skills to analyze and eventually write/research. Note the professor is shifting the weight of time and attention, not turning the classroom upside down.

This blog is part two of a six-part series.  In future blogs, I will continue to explore how we can collectively improve graduation rates and, as a result, provide ladders of opportunity to our youth. Part one of the series is available here: College Professors and American Dreams.
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College Professors and American Dreams

Recently, social scientists have discovered a few facts that speak to the “American Dream,” or upward social mobility that is promised to hard-working Americans.  Below is a chart demonstrating that the United States is second to last among other developed countries in relative social mobility (defined as the socioeconomic position of 40-year olds compared with that of their parents).  American social mobility has been slowing down compared to other wealthy countries, especially since 1980.

I emphasize social mobility because it is an important underlying theme in today’s political climate on both sides of the aisle. It is obvious that Americans treasure this “Dream” and have become very disappointed that it does not seem to be coming true for them.  They are frustrated by what they perceive as their leaders’ lack of sufficient attention to this massive problem, and they want a fix sooner rather than later.

As you might expect, the root cause of this decreasing relative social mobility is complex, and there are no easy ways to repair massive socioeconomic shifts like this one.  Globalization and, even more importantly, automation have resulted in the loss of many US jobs–especially lower-skilled fields such as manufacturing.  These trends, regardless of political efforts, will continue to accelerate.  To revive the American Dream, middle and working class Americans need leaders and institutions that help them work with and around these long-term economic trends.

This brings me to a very important finding uncovered in these studies.  In America, a parent’s income level–and, by extension their education level–is a far more predictive factor of a child’s socioeconomic future than it is in any other developed country. Achieving the American dream has almost become dependent upon completing a college education.

College Graduation → Employment → Social Mobility

 The graph below illustrates this finding.  The net new jobs figure is an important statistic for economists because it anticipates future employment trends.  In a recession, businesses go through the painful processes of laying off employees and shutting down facilities in order to then take advantage of their newly cleaned slate to reposition their companies for the future. This means hiring employees who they believe will help the company thrive in the long run.  Thanks to the following study, we now know who these new employees are.

From 2007-2009, this happened: 

. . . and since 2010, this development followed: 

Over 70% of new jobs since January 2010 went to people with a bachelor’s degree or higher, while less than 1% of the new jobs went to people without a college degree.  The Great Recession practically took down the “Applicants Wanted” sign for high school graduates, while also maintaining a climate that was not particularly welcoming to graduates with just some college.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, the 6-year college graduation rate in the US currently hovers in the low 50s percent range and, unfortunately, has ticked down slightly in the last few years.  The takeaway for college professors is this: concentrate on what will move a significant number of the “some college” students into the graduated column.  What is a significant number?  Just a 10 percent increase in the national college graduation rate would elevate the US to near the top of the world list in relative social mobility.

As discussed, there is a significant correlation among the college graduation rate, employability, and social mobility.  While the 50/50 graduate-to-dropout rate in the American higher education system has been around for a while, changing it to 60-40 is within the power of professors and educators.  In fact, the most important question facing professors today is, “am I willing to take on this challenge?”

This blog is part one of a six-part series.  In future blogs, I will explore how we can collectively improve graduation rates and, as a result, provide ladders of opportunity to our youth. Look for part two of this blog series, “The Importance of Transferable Skills,” this Thursday. 
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Teaching the Presidential Debates

Kate Chilton is a San José State University professor who is using Globalyceum’s Election 2016 in her classroom.  We have invited her to blog about her plan for teaching the upcoming Presidential Debate.

It is not often that an American political event outdraws the Super Bowl on television.  But if 100+ million Americans watch the first presidential debate on Monday, as many predict, that may very well happen.

Here’s how my colleague, Laura Guardino, and I are teaching this signature election event using Globalyceum’s Election 2016.  Globalyceum has decided to run a special debate poll that opens on Monday, September 26, at 6:00 AM PDT and is available through Friday, September 30, at 11:55 PM PDT.  It runs parallel with the Second Mock Student Election, so students will be able to take a poll and vote in the same week.  For students unable to see the live debate, we will encourage them to check online for full debate videos (CNN and PBS will likely offer it).

2016_student-mock-election

In the days following the Monday debate, we will encourage students to watch the debate and participate in the poll and vote.  But our learning objective is for students to gather information and analyze the way the debate shapes public opinion in this crucial period.  Both of us plan to assign Globalyceum’s “Problem: Do Debates Make a Difference?” in the Comparative Problems list.  We like the way it asks students to watch a comedy show about the debate, comment on the satirizing of the candidates, and consider the influence that comedy shows may have on young people this election season.

The following Monday, each of us plans to start class by showing Melinda Jackson’s video on the debates, a followup to videos on the Conventions and the Battleground States. I will have 2-3 students share in class their comedy clips from YouTube and have a whole-class discussion about satire and its influence on politics.  Laura will divide her class into small groups for a 20-minute small group session so that students can discuss the information they have accumulated from the debate, comedy shows, news media, the video, and the poll results to answer this question: Is your impression of the debate similar or different to your classmates (according to the poll results), the news media, or other public commentators (including comedy shows)? Why?”  Group leaders will report out the results of the discussion. As always we give participation points for student participation. Globalyceum’s grade book automatically records students who vote, poll, and submit assignments.

On Tuesday morning, almost everyone will have an opinion about the debate so it is a great opportunity to engage students in this election.  Don’t miss it.  Please let me know if you have any other election-related engagement strategies with your students and feel free to reach out to me with any questions.

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Using Election 2016 in the Classroom

A teacher who brings elections, political processes, and government into the classroom is actually priming students to get involved…

Here is a problem that many professors have.  My syllabus has been set since the start of the semester, and any potential change might throw my students off or change my grading system.  But my students are interested in this year’s election, and I do not want to pass up a chance to teach history as it is happening.  How can I make it happen online, use no more than 10 minutes of class time each week, and easily incorporate it into my grade point structure?

The many different activities in Globalyceum’s Election 2016: Follow the Vote have provided me with the easy solution to this problem.  The first activity I chose was the mock election because I knew my students would appreciate the opportunity to vote and then analyze their votes.  For many of my students, this presidential election would be their first as potential voters.  

The mock election was online, and it collected not only the vote but demographic data about the voters.  I could assign it for homework, and the students could complete it at home in under five minutes.  In the following week, I would then be able to throw the results up on the screen for the first five minutes of class time to hold a brief discussion.  Globalyceum has organized it so I can manipulate the data with the students, comparing voting patterns of groups–age, gender, ethnicity, education, etc.–and digging a little deeper into the election.  Last week, my students completed the first mock poll of opinions about the issues and candidates, and I look forward to a similar and even more interesting discussion with those results this week.  If you missed the first round of elections and polls, it is not a problem because there is a second mock election the week of September 26 and a second survey in mid October, followed by the final mock election the week before US voters go to the polls on November 8.

Mock Election Results
Mock Election Results

Brief videos (under four minutes) about events of the election is another great feature of Election 2016 that I have chosen to use. The most recent was “The Battleground States.”  It not only explained the Electoral College and how it creates the phenomenon of battleground states, but also Dr, Melinda Jackson’s analysis of this year’s battleground.  I added my own variation — I showed the video at the start of class and asked the students to rate which candidate had the better battleground state strategy.  This in-class assignment took seven minutes, and dramatically enhanced my lecture.  I was using the Globalyceum lecture by Jack Rakove, “Three Myths of the US Constitution,” which talks about the Founder’s reasons for creating the Electoral College.  This allowed me to make a great connection between past and present.  The next video about the debates will be available October 3, and I plan to do a similar strategy of video and then poll.

Globalyceum’s Election 2016 suite of materials also has primary source problems and readings on our electoral system.  If you have the time, you can use these in class or as homework.  I have chosen to do just the videos and mock elections and polls, but I know other professors who have added one or two of the other activities.  

I had the good fortune last fall of talking with Dr. Melinda Jackson, the author of Election 2016.  I asked her what was the biggest problem with teaching students American government and history today.  She responded quickly–”student political apat hy.”  Professors should do more than tell students about politics and government. They also need to turn students into “engaged citizens who can make a difference.”  A teacher who brings elections, political processes, and government into the classroom is actually priming students to get involved by voting, volunteering in an election, writing a letter to a representative, or registering others to vote.  It only takes 10 minutes a week, but it can make a world of difference.

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The Active Learning Lecture?

I add a question mark to this title because most people when they think of active learning do not think of a lecture. A lecture by its very nature is supposed to mean passivity on the part of the student, and active learning means student engagement in their own learning. But the first part of that statement is simply not true. As I noted in my last blog, lecture that is handled well in the classroom can be incredibly active. Today, professors are finding ways to create a lecture experience that makes the classroom a dynamic place and gives more responsibility to the student. In order to transition to an active learning lecture, there are five principles to observe.

  1. Reduce lecture duration to 40-60% of the available classroom time.
  2. Move factual information to reading or online listening and leave more challenging conceptual information to lecture.
  3. Provide structure and good visuals without bullet points to your briefer lecture.
  4. Poll students during lecture for both opinion and understanding.
  5. Offer an active learning assignment for before or after the lecture.

Reduce lecture time.
Even the best lecturer has a hard time sustaining student attention past 20 minutes–according to science, the limit of sustained attention span. If your class is 75 minutes of lecture, you are truly asking for nap time. If you are naturally a good speaker and have a very engaging lecture style, you can talk for 45 minutes. But if lecture is not your strength, consider limiting yourself to 30 minutes as a standard practice.

Make Conceptual Information Shine in the Classroom.
I have observed enough lectures to know that, in the social sciences, about 75% of a 75-minute lecture is simply recitation of facts that a student could get by reading a book. Many professors admit to me that they are lecturing in parallel to their assigned reading texts, and students end up not doing the reading. But almost all lectures by a well-trained academic have a conceptual core, where there is real benefit in having a person explain it. It is this 30 minutes of concept explaining that should shine in the classroom. The other 45 minutes of factual information can be left to the students reading at home or by simply putting the remainder of your PPT online and creating a voice over–the flip in what is known as the flipped classroom.

Craft the Briefer Lecture.
When you confine yourself to a 30-45 minute lecture, you can put more effort into a quality lecture with 3 attributes. (1) Choose a subject for the lecture that can be explained in 1500-2500 words (about 5-9 pages double spaced if you were to write it out). (2) Create a 3-part structure like a well-written essay, including an opening hook to engage the students, a clear thesis with several points, and a final summary. (3) Make a visual PPT with 10 quality visuals that illuminate what you say about every 2-4 minutes. By illuminate I mean images that have some detail and are directly on point with your lecture. There are no bullet points in a quality lecture–the scientific literature on this issue is absolutely clear. The minute you put up bullet points, it is a signal to students to stop listening, start copying, and go into zombie mode.

The Punctuated Lecture.
You want a lecture where all students are engaging, not just the top 10 students. To ensure this, there is a new lecture idea called the “punctuated lecture” that builds poll technology, readily available today, into the lecture and actually grades students for lecture understanding in real time, not 5 weeks later. First, make sure that the poll technology you use will give participation points for student opinion with multiple choice, true-false, and free response answers, but also gives varying points for right and wrong answers. Create provocative opinion questions for the start or end of the lecture, and a couple of right-wrong answer questions for the middle of lecture to check for student understanding. Practice keeping your discussion of these questions to 1 minute of implementation and 2 minutes of discussion, which provides about 12 minutes of punctuated engagement time for each 30-45 minutes of lecture (about a 25-30% ratio).discussion

Active Learning Assignments.
This is a larger subject for another blog, but active learning assignments of this type have 4 features. (1) They use primary sources, case studies, and actual evidence, because the student is practicing being the social scientist. (2) The exercise has an analytical question and the student must use the evidence to answer the question. (3) The assignment is related to the topic of the lecture or the general topic of the week, so that the lecture and the assignment work hand in hand. (4) Generally, it is best if the student does most of the assignment outside of class; works in groups in the beginning or end of class to clarify understanding, and finally debriefs or reports out as a group to the whole class for a discussion of the concepts in class. The whole process would be about 30-40 minutes of class time.

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What a Good Time to Talk About Assessment

  board-361516_960_720This is about that time of year when you might want to reconsider two questions about assessment: How much assessment should my students do? How much grading of assessment should I do?  Right now the quick answer to both might be–as little as possible. But the well-considered answer would be–a lot of student assessment and much less but higher-value professor grading.

How is this possible? Think back to a time (before graduate school) when you as a student had an assignment that was graded in such a way that it became a turning point in your academic life. Can’t? Well, that supports the research that says the way you become a better academic student is through the feedback of cumulative and steady grading and rating of your performance over time. Assessment works best when it provides a consistent message about standards and practices when it is frequent and timely, when it shapes academic behavior, and when it prevents students from making the same mistakes over and over.

When you think about assessment, do not think aboutstudent-1178024_960_720 what everybody else does or what is traditional. Ask yourself: What are the 3-5 things I want the students to do that will make them better academically in the long run? And then create an assessment program where good planning and automation do an effective job of shaping the simpler student tasks and behaviors and your personal grading intervention is reserved for the higher-value academic tasks.

 

For the sake of brevity, let me lay out such an assessment plan for my 5 desired student goals.

Student Goal
What Student Does?
What Student Learns?
How Professor Grades?
Read
Takes weekly MC/TF online tests on reading.
To improve reading by being accountable for the adult- recommended 150,000 words per term.
Zero. Set up automated online grading.
Study
Submits weekly reading study guides of key terms online.
To condense readings into concepts that are explained and prepare for assessment.
Zero. Incentivize the study behavior with participation points.
Analyze/Discuss
Takes up to 8 in-class poll questions online about lectures as they happen in class. Submit small group problems online.
To learn to collaborate and actively discuss in small and large groups the ideas, processes, and evidence presented in lectures and problems.
Zero. Use polling technology to collect and record automatically the in-class data. Give participation points for problems.
Write

Submits 3 parts of the writing process of the paper in the term, called formative assessment.

To build an analytical paper systematically and correct errors in the writing process before they can accumulate into incoherent writing.
Grade 1.5 hours per student for the term, divided into 3 grading sessions.
Research
Submits 3 parts of a research process in the term and works with a research team, called project-based learning.
To get information from varied sources about a topic of high interest to the research team: collaborate, plan, discuss, analyze, and present.
Grade 1 hour per group for the term. Up to 3 collaboration sessions overseen in class. Teams present online or in finals week.
You may notice that I do not include the 2 activities that dominate college teaching–lecture assessment with blue books and end-of-term paper or book report.  They would look like this:
Student Goal
What Student Does?
What Student Learns?
How Professor Grades?
Listen
Writes out 3-5 pages of information in a blue book in class.
To tell back to the professor what he or she said or what the student read several weeks before.
1.5 hours of repetitive grading per student, divided over 2-3 sessions in the term.
Write
Writes 5-10 page paper to a writing prompt and submits at end of term.
To write descriptively and  demonstrate the state of the student’s writing skill at the time.
1 hour per student,  possibly 1.5 hours to correct the writing of weaker students.
I believe I have made a pretty good case here that, for the same or less grading time, you can actually improve all students’ academic performances in a much wider and more significant range of skills and disciplinary learning. Research calls it the frequent, low-stakes assessment plan. It works well, particularly today with the availability of online grading and submission. All it requires is for professors to shift priorities and learn to use the online tools. Consider these thoughts as you look at the stack of papers and bluebooks in front of you. Do yourself and your students a favor and investigate new assessment strategies this summer.
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