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Friday, September 30, 2011

Accretionary Wedge #38: Back to School: What Teaching Has Taught Me About Learning.

In the Call for Posts to this latest edition of the Accretionary Wedge, Anne asked:
"What should you and I and other geosciences profs be doing better?" 

In graduate school, I took some really sweet courses - like Igneous Petrogenesis from Calvin Miller (at Vanderbilt), and later Tectonics from Rob Van der Voo and Metamorphic Petrology from Eric Essene (both at Michigan).  These courses were fun and memorable, challenging yet enjoyable, and above all, made me think critically about the topics at hand.  There were a number of others too.

And then there were the OK ones, the so-so ones, and the awful ones, and I won't name names.  I knew I wanted to be a professor when I got out, and I knew, as everyone does, that there are professors who are good teachers, and there are those who are in-between, and there are those who need to be encouraged to find another profession.  And I would be one of the good ones, right?

I'm in my 8th year as a professor now since leaving UM.  The one thing I've learned clearer than anything, is that graduate school does not prepare one to be a good instructor.  At all.  I realize now how very little I knew about how people learn.  Spiraling? Student Learning Outcomes? Scaffolding? Pedagogy?  Bloom's Taxonomy? Cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains?  Assessment?  Goals and objectives?  I hadn't really heard of any of those terms.  I was in training to become a professor, a job that at least in part involves teaching, but I hadn't even heard words of the language spoken by those who understand the literature on how to teach well.  Graduate school does not prepare faculty to be good teachers, at least not intentionally.

In my early years as a professor, I absolutely couldn't understand why some of my students struggled so much to learn.  Because I did some things really well.  A lecture, now that I can deliver, with schnazzy, well organized  powerpoint slides, numerous examples, interesting sidenotes, a couple of breaks for questions & discussion, and even a joke or two that drew actual smiles.

But here's what every professor needs to know: of that fantastic 50 minute lecture you just gave, the one you spent 2 full days preparing, organizing, scanning your old field photographs for examples, sifting through textbooks to find the right figures, and all of that - of that 50 minutes where you deliver a great lecture, students might retain about 10 minutes.

10 minutes?!!?  Are you kidding me?!??!  Unfortunately, no.  Now, most of us professor go "now wait a minute, I got a whole lot more out of lectures than that!"  Yes, you did... and that's why, today, you're the professor.  But unfortunately the research shows that most people do not learn well from lectures.  That's something I never learned as a student.  But in my role as a teacher, this point has become crystal clear - for most students, lecture is largely a waste of time, even the good ones!

One concept that has revolutionized my teaching for the better is the realization that if students don't actively use the information being communicated to them, they won't really assimilate it or retain it.  I've seen it many times now in the past 7+ years - I'll give a good lecture, students will comment that they learned the material, and we both feel good about what went on in that time we spent learning new concepts - but then I give them some problems to solve, or an activity to do, and they suddenly have tons of questions!  They may have thought they understood a concept, but now having to apply it they realize they don't get it like they thought. Questions they didn't know to ask, now start coming out.  These are the moments when they are really learning!  All of us learn through our experiences, experiences that require us to overcome something, solve something, find a new way around something, etc.  No one learns to ride a bike by sitting and listening to someone talk about how to ride a bike.  You learn to ride a bike by getting up on that bike and trying to ride it - and you fail the first few times, maybe the first hundred times, but eventually, the neurons start to fire together in the right way, the skills are honed, and off you go!

So professors out there, if your students are struggling, even though you've given them what they need to know in a great lecture, and they've got some good books to help them out, and you went over that concept in class 5-6 times, and they asked questions, and it seemed to go really well, realize this - lecture is largely a waste of time.  Man, I hate to say it!  Partly because I've listened to some really great lectures at times, and really gotten a lot out of them.  Instead, or rather in addition, think about what activities you could have them do, what problems you can give them to try and solve, and whatever else you can do to stop being the sage on the stage and start being the guide on the side.  Because the good thing is, the students still need you.  Student-centered learning doesn't mean that the teacher isn't important, far from it!  Figured out a great way to talk about a tough concept?  Got a great slide to summarize some complicated processes?  Great!  Deliver it well!  Good lectures are still better than bad ones!  But after that, what problems will you give them that will require them to use the information you just presented?  What activities will you assign to them, where they apply the lessons learned?

When I first started teaching, this was really hard.  What am I going to have them do?  Do I have the materials I need?  What questions will I ask?  A really well developed activity takes a lot of work.  To think about the learning goals of the activity, how to immerse the student in the subject, to assemble the right materials and equipment, and to write up a nice looking assignment sheet isn't an easy job.  Fortunately, there is the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College.  For many years now, professors from all over have been contributing activities, labs, and other information to the site.  I find that for me, the best way to use the site is to follow the Teach the Earth link, and then head to the "Upper Level Geoscience Courses" link, find the course I'm teaching, and start searching from there.  There is a wealth of information there, but it isn't always easy to find what you need or what you're looking for even if you know it exists there.  But a lot of the stuff submitted is pretty good, and with enough patience I can generally find something that at least sparks an idea in my head.  Now that I've done it a few times, it has become much, much easier,  to think about, create, and implement good activities, and student learning is increasing.

Teaching has taught me that even the best lecture is largely a waste of time, but working through activities, solving problems, and recreating experiments is time very well spent.