7 Characteristics of Good Learners

thinkingOver at the Teaching Professor blog, Maryellen Weimer has come up with a list of seven characteristics of good learners.  We might all salivate at the idea of students like this:

  1. Good learners are curious
  2. Good learners pursue understanding diligently
  3. Good learners recognize that a lot of learning isn’t fun.
  4. Failure frightens good learners, but they know it’s beneficial.
  5. Good learners make knowledge their own.
  6. Good learners never run out of questions.
  7. Good learners share what they’ve learned.

Imagine a classroom full of the curious, persistent, generous risk-takers described here.  “But Beth,” I hear you saying, “that’s all very well, but we have to take our students the way they come.”

And that’s true, but we’re not helpless in the face of passive resistance.  We can adopt policies that require and reinforce diligence.  But more to the point, we can model this kind of learning for our students, demonstrating our own curiosity and the way in which our discipline asks questions.  We can share some of our own flubs, and create a classroom environment that provides the kind of support that encourages risk-taking and enables success.  We can show how the un-fun equips us to fly.

Most of us probably ended up in teaching because we love to learn.  Let’s remember to show our students how we got there.

Posted in Active Learning, Critical Thinking, Students, Teaching Methods | Tagged , | Leave a comment

How do I ask students better questions?

While preparing for class I find that a lot of my time is spent composing my delivery, i.e., what is the content that I will present, how will I present it, how I will use the board, how I will use computer demonstrations, etc. These are all important to consider. However, I often find that my lectures or assignments may be weakened not by the whats and hows of my delivery but by the questions I ask — the whats and hows I pose to the students. The silent class, lack of engagement or incorrect answers are sometimes due to not giving as much thought to my questions as I do to my delivery.

The importance of asking the right questions is in itself a field of study. Inquiry-Based Learning is a well-evolved teaching system based on asking questions. The Foundation for Critical Thinking has a nice (and short) opinion piece with a somewhat call-to-arms tone emphasizing the importance of a well-considered question strategy in the classroom. One example can be found in this recent article, which asks how to pose questions with the goal of increasing participation and engagement: www.edutuopia.org. A “simple, effective approach” that this article suggests is to ask specific questions of specific students.

At the level of a specific question, how a question is asked can generate different answers and stimulate different thought processes. As described in the paper Asking More Effective Questions, questions in the classroom typically take one of two forms: convergent questions, where there is generally a specific answer, and divergent questions, whose answers are more open ended. Formulating effective divergent questions is recognized as more challenging for instructors. This theme is taken up by Nesbit and Cliff in the field of physiology and I note one of their conclusions: “Our findings indicate that, despite the fact that instructors of anatomy and physiology recognize the value of open-ended science questions, they have considerable difficulty in successfully creating them. Inexperience may contribute to the low rate of success in producing open-ended questions.” This gets down to perhaps the most detailed level of asking questions, i.e., how do we word them to best achieve our goal?

I often struggle with the open-ended question posed to the classroom. Is the silence that follows due to a mis-application of a teaching technique or strategy indicating lack of engagement, preparation or understanding? Or is it simply the fact that they don’t know what I want? Is my attempt to pose an open-ended question merely resulting in obfuscation? As another example, I recently posed an exam question (mathematics) that said, “Solve the following differential equations for x(t):”. Many students did not carry the solution as far as I intended. The fact that many did not and that many stopped at the same point indicated to me that I must be somewhat culpable for the misunderstanding. In this case, it appears that I should have said, “Solve the following differential equation and determine all unknown coefficients.” In this case I needed to be more specific. On the other hand, sometimes I don’t want to be more specific because understanding what I mean with a question is part of the examination.

I conclude not with any “how tos” or suggestions to try a nifty bit of technology. Instead, I want to emphasize that just like our delivery methods, which can be analyzed from theory down to their MOOC bits, we should give equal attention to our question techniques. And for those questions, we must consider not only the theoretical and strategic issues of engagement and convergent vs. divergent questions, but also simple wording. Sometime (maybe often), it’s less an issue of pedagogy, and simply a matter of careful, considered and effective composition.

Posted in Active Learning, Course Design, Teaching Methods | Leave a comment

Documenting Kindness

kindnessHere’s a happy thought for the start of a new semester:  academic life can be characterized by kindness rather than snarkiness.  Thanks to Mark Chancey‘s Facebook post, I read a recent article that highlights a project created by a professor at Mizzou named Rabia Gregory.  She has started the Academic Kindness Tumblr — as its subhead proclaims, this blog provides a space to “record unsolicited kindness, unexpected goodwill, and excessive generosity in academia.”  As Professor Gregory notes, Academic Kindness seeks to show that “not all academics are brutish self-centered narcissists who delight in tearing apart the work of others for sport.”  It also encourages us to respond to the kindness that comes our way by “paying it forward” — being generous to colleagues, staff, and students.

Most of the examples posted so far reflect generosity in the scholarly realm.  For example, there are stories of senior scholars taking time to support the work of graduate students they had never met.  Here’s one of my favorites:

“While doing my comps, I found myself in need of an obscure, unpublished Ph.D. I was still figuring out ProQuest and I was trying to figure out a way to order it from the university. As I was doing this, I sent a brief email to a very senior scholar whose work deals with the material in this dissertation and asked if he could recommend the best way to find a copy of it. Instead, he sent the entire dissertation to me by mail — in two packages because it took him a while to photocopy the whole thing (I should also note that I live in a different country, so it would not have been cheap to send). A very kind and unexpected gesture!”

One post is even a fan letter to SMU’s Professor Bonnie Wheeler.

I bet, though, that we all also have teaching-related stories of unexpected grace.  My teaching life, for example, has been immeasurably enriched by colleagues who shared teaching materials, covered for me when I was ill, provided really helpful critique, or shared a confidence-building compliment when I needed it the most.  How about you?  Share your stories of academic kindness in the Comments to this post, or on the Academic Kindness Tumblr. And remember to pay it forward.

Posted in Academia, Inspiration, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Reading Fiction

novel-1There is a piece in the Dec. 9 Chronicle (“Why Fiction Does It Better”) that argues that fiction develops readers’ capacity for “sociocognitive complexity”:

Cognitive scientists and literary theorists have plenty to say on this subject. Cognitive science connects the acquisition of vocabulary to social cognition, or the development of theory of mind—a capacity to attribute mental states, including thoughts, beliefs, and desires, to oneself and other people.

For those of us around the university who aim to prepare our students to bring to their various post-University roles — citizens, parents, professionals/workers, bosses — such useful attributes as compassion, tolerance, empathy, and the ability to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity, it is encouraging to see a positive correlation between these capacities and a universally available activity.

The author’s challenge is to get more fiction into school curriculums and to do so earlier, not later, in the moral development of students.  And in universities, where an emphasis on STEM education has the potential to crowd out courses built around novels, drama, and narrative poetry, the curricular challenge is no less severe.

When a few of my first-year law students asked what they might read over the holiday break, I didn’t hesitate to suggest a handful of novels that I thought would entertain and provide a welcome break from the past four months of reading cases and statutes. Little did I know I was also adding to the development of their capacity for sociocognitive complexity!

Posted in Learning Communities, Pedagogical Theory, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Going Text-less on Power Point

As a professor of Latin American literature and culture, the use of audio-visual material has been a very effective tool in my classes. So far, I have preferred a low-tech approach to teaching, occasionally playing a short scene from a movie or a documentary, a music video, or a TV ad.  Although I am also a Power Point user, I have never been an advocate of using it to present information. Text on a screen becomes tedious, it slows down class discussion, and it suddenly puts our students in a robotic, note writing mode. To me, Power Point is fundamentally a pedagogic tool to introduce different types of visuals into the class, shifting the dynamic of the class discussion, and reinforcing the full attention of my students.

I rarely use text on the screen; I also discourage my students to do so in their oral presentations. The use of Power Point in the classroom should be about a few stimulating images, not about a class-long presentation full of definitions, explanations, dates, and written excerpts from the book. In a text-less Power Point presentation, students are the ones who define, explain, analyze, and inform while the images change on the screen. They should illustrate what they are saying, whether it is an event, a theme, a conflict, a reference to pop culture or to historical places, even the emotional or mental state of a character. The images should complement and enhance the information given; they should work as “hyperlink” windows or visual footnotes. The use of text could be used in certain cases, but it should be kept to a minimum. For instance, sometimes a photo without context can provoke an interpretation that changes completely once you add a date or a tittle. Thus an image of a building in flames that looked like one of the twin towers could become the Chilean presidential palace during the US-backed coup on September 11, 1973.


One can also measure reading comprehension in the type of visuals used by the student to illustrate the plot in a story. A student might decide to represent a character with the photo of a white Hollywood actor in his late twenties when the novel describes him as a poor Dominican in his puberty. On the other hand, another student could used the image of an obese young woman to demonstrate, not how dangerously skinny the character actually is, but the body image she has of herself according to the text.

UnknownI have also found very helpful the use of a visual image completely devoid of any context at the beginning of the class, inviting students to imagine, interpret, and articulate what they see. The iconic face of Che Guevara on a dollar bill, an upside down map of the world, a photo of a mouth with lips made out of real ruby stones and real pearls instead of teeth, or a painting of two lovers facing each other with mirrors in place of their faces are a few examples that have provoked productive and lively discussion in my classes.


Posted in Active Learning, Students, Teaching Methods, Technology, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Robots in My Classroom

Two to three times a week, talking robots, cartoon animals, and humorous drawings of celebrity figures make appearances in my Problems in the Philosophy of Religion classroom. In full color, but with oddly stilted voices, they discuss evil, Anselm’s proof for the existence of God, the foundations of morality, or the nature of time. They don’t talk for long – each conversation lasts only two minutes or so — but they have become an integral part of this upper-level undergraduate class, and of the way my students learn philosophical concepts from ancient to modern.
The robots, which students choose and animate using the web-based XtraNormal program or another animation program of their choice, first appeared in my classroom in 2010, when I was looking for something more engaging than the “2-minute” response papers that I had been assigning. In those papers, students were to critically respond to a specific philosophical reading the class had done for the day, highlighting what they thought was good about the argument, and where they thought it might not be so good. Often, the papers did just that, and launched us into interesting and fruitful discussions. More often, however, students would end up in front of the classroom, reiterating the argument rather than critically assessing it. They were repeating ideas rather than engaging in dialogue. How to make this happen?
In the XtraNormal program, students must write in dialogue, much as if they were crafting a screenplay. This forces the kind of dialogic thinking I was hoping to get with the original two-minute response assignment. It also creates some useful social pressure as we screen every video at the beginning of class, and then archive links to the videos on the class Blackboard site so they are accessible for purposes of review, something students report as helpful come exam time.
What I have come to love most about the robots, though, is the sense of play they bring to what are often almost overwhelmingly serious topics. In looking at the world through robot eyes, and hearing it through robot voices, students are able to engage arguments they may have previously dismissed outright as dangerously counter to their world views. We can start a conversation.

For an example, click here: Robots Discuss William James
Alas, XtraNormal shut down services at the end of July 2013 (I weep for the end of the robots), but there are other animation programs which appear to be equally good or better, some of which I list below:

Posted in Active Learning, Critical Thinking, Students, Technology | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Craigslist learning

This week I have some curmudgeonly (that is actually a word that my spell checker ok’d) thoughts to share. My faculty colleague found this CragislistAd [BT update: I've posted this link to the ad text, because the original has been flagged for removal since Lynne wrote this blog entry last night].

Since it is a request for a statistics paper-writer-for-hire, it made the rounds in our department (Statistical Science), with everyone asking each other if the assignment was theirs. It belonged to none of us.

Of course, we don’t know if the requester is even an SMU student or from some other university in Dallas. Nevertheless, I found the posting to be very discouraging. The matter-of-factness of the request was shocking to me. I’m sure that when I was in college (way back in the last century) there must have been some students who hired others to write their papers. However, I never heard about any of them because I don’t think it is something that a student would have advertised. Back then, most people I knew felt a little privileged to be in college, and didn’t want to risk appearing as though they weren’t up to it.

When these kinds of ads show up on Craigslist, does it make the idea of purchasing the services of a person to learn for you seem more common and therefore more acceptable? The amateur psychologist in me says that must be true. I hope some real psychologist will weigh in on this.

As teachers, we sometimes imagine that if we can just craft the perfectly enlightening and interesting assignment, we can bring our students to that Eureka moment and they will from then on recognize the BIG and IMPORTANT ideas in our course. We hone our ability to explain to them how they will be assessed on the assignment (as we learned to do in CTE’s rubric workshop), thinking that it will enhance the effectiveness of the assignment since they will know better how to spend their time productively. But before any of these things have any hope of mattering, the student has to DO the assignment. But even for those that do, they must spend adequate time on the assignment itself and connect it to the course material for it have its planned effect . Many of my students do not seem willing to spend this kind of time (since I can see on Blackboard that about 20% of them start their homework assignments after 11 p.m. for a 7 a.m. submission time). Many seem to think it is just part of the game we are all playing, as they navigate the hoops we throw up for them on their way to the credential (a degree) they want.

It may seem that I am exaggerating the importance of one Craigslist ad, by a student who might not even be ours, and maybe I am. However, I was already thinking about this attitude problem due to a conversation with one of my students earlier in the week. She asked me if she could take the midterm scheduled for the Monday before Thanksgiving the week before, because “all my other courses are cancelled for that Monday and Tuesday before break.” (This is copied and pasted from her email—these are her exact words.) Can it really be true that 80% of us are dismissing class the two days before Thanksgiving?! I doubt it, but if even some are, it may seem to students that we faculty also think that time spent engaged with the course material is optional and can be dropped if something more fun comes along, or if their parents have a trip planned, or any number of other things.

So here is my question: Is there ANYTHING we can do as a faculty to increase the proportion of students who appreciate the connection between the learning and the credential? Certainly much of a student’s attitude toward learning is already formed before they get to us, so maybe the answer is no.

For my part, I told the student no, I would not change the date of her exam, because I thought we needed all the learning time we could get to master this material. I also threw in that I don’t approve of the semester being cut short for no reason. I imagine she was not pleased. If I were an assistant professor, I may not have had the courage to insist that she be given those extra days of learning time. Our reward structure pushes us in the other direction.

This may seem like a funny topic for a teaching blog. Don’t we just have to make the material fascinating and present it correctly? Certainly that helps. But I believe student outcomes would improve dramatically if more of our students believed that the value of their credential is what they learned to get it, and what they learned about how to learn along the way. Can we have any impact on that belief at all? I’d like to start a discussion about how.

Posted in Students | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Twitter for Academics

twitterLet’s face it:  among many academics, Twitter has a bad rap.  Maybe it’s because we first became aware of it through celebrity overexposure (Lady Gaga has over 40 million followers) or the trivial oversharing of its contributors (“eggs over easy for breakfast”).  And it’s only slightly interesting that #Thanksgiving and #BlackFriday are “trending” right now.

But this week, two articles came to my Inbox pointing to ways in which Twitter can be useful in our professional academic lives.  One is about creating conversational communities.  A blog post entitled “What does Twitter have to offer academics?” reflects on making connections.  Twitter’s 140 characters, they note, can be used to quickly solicit information, discuss concepts, network, keep up with current news in one’s discipline, increase visibility, promote recent publications, learn about conferences, and make global contacts.  During conferences, Twitter can create a “backchannel” that allows discussions among attendees during and after presentations.  Here, for example, is a sample of the Twitter feed from last spring’s CTE symposium, “Higher Education in the Crosshairs.”  For anyone thinking about using Twitter as an effective tool for academic networking, this post on 10 Commandments of Twitter for Academics gives good advice.

The second article (that I found through Twitter!) relates more directly to teaching.  Who could resist the title:  “How Orwell and Twitter Revitalized My Course”?  In it, a professor of English discusses his use of an assignment that each student in his 21st Century British Literature class post three ‘tweets’ a week related to the course.  He adopted this strategy because he found that his students rarely made connections between different topics in the course, or between their readings and the course’s big themes.  And so he set up the Twitter assignment to try to encourage those connections.  Here’s how he describes the experience:

As of this writing we are five weeks into the semester, and . . . this assignment has produced levels of connection and engagement among my students that I have never experienced before. We begin every class period by taking a quick look at the tweets that have been posted since the last meeting. That means every class begins with a brief discussion of connections they are seeing and forging.  [Through their posts] they are putting together a collective body of research on contemporary British life that has become a crucial resource for all of us in the course, including me.

Interested in learning more?  Take a look at 60 Ways to Use Twitter in the Classroom from the folks at TeachThought.


Posted in Academia, Technology | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Finding Ways for Students to Discover Their Passion

quote4In a poor part of Matamoros, Mexico, one elementary school teacher—Sergio Juarez Correa—is changing the way he approaches teaching. He is convinced that by allowing his students to direct their own education, he can in some sense level the playing field between his pupils and those across the border in Brownsville, Texas, who have access to reliable sources for electricity, laptop computers, and constant Internet access. While Correa’s students may lack the resources to which their Brownsville counterparts have access, his students have potential. They have the same potential, he says, as any other students in the world.

This ambitious Matamoros native has embraced an evolving educational theory that views knowledge not as a “commodity,” but as “something that emerges from the students’ own curiosity-fueled exploration.” “Teachers provide prompts, not answers, and then they step aside so students can teach themselves and one another.” This approach, which is akin to the Montessori Method and the Reggio Emilia Approach, tries to “creat[e] ways for [students] to discover their passion.” (I’m hoping others, like those of you at the SMU Simmons School of Education, will chime in with your expertise on educational theory.)

I have recently been wondering whether a more student-driven approach can be successful at the graduate level, and I have been contemplating employing such an approach in one of my law school courses. In my Law and Science course—about which I have blogged before—I am considering turning over much of the teaching to my students. My hope is that this will inspire my students to take greater ownership over the course material and to delve deeper into the interactions between law and science.

Before I detail how I am considering tweaking my course, let me give you a few details about the course as I currently structure it. First, I introduce my students to the field of Law and Science and provide them with some basic background on the scientific method and logical reasoning. Then, throughout the semester, I introduce my students to various topics in the field, including scientific evidence, the use of neuroscience in assessing culpability, employing epidemiological evidence to examine causation in toxic tort cases, research ethics, and how law can play a role in the development and regulation of nanotechnology and stem cell research. My course is primarily discussion-driven; I provide readings to my students and then we discuss them and related issues during class. My course is also what we at the Law School call an “edited writing course.” I require my students to write a novel research paper for my course that is of publishable quality.

I am generally happy with how my students have responded to this course structure. My students are often eager participants in our class discussions. Sometimes, though—because they are less interested in the topic of the day, are overloaded with schoolwork, or have personal matters that have taken them away from their studies—they are less engaged than I would like them to be. Many of my students produce interesting papers over the course of the semester. Sometimes I wish my students had found a greater love for their paper topics, had engaged with the legal literature more, or had worked harder to find a thesis that was novel.

To try to make my course more compelling to my students, I am considering turning over much of the course content to them. My hope is that by putting more of the course content into my students’ hands, they will become more interested and invested in the course. Let me explain more specifically what I consider doing. I think I will continue to begin the semester with introducing my students to some of the basics of Law and Science. I may also spend more time exploring the general themes of Law and Science in those first few classes. During this same time period, though, I would like to encourage my students to begin thinking about a particular area of Law and Science that they are interested in zooming in on. This would not only be the focus of their research paper but it would also be the focus of a class discussion on the topic—a class discussion that is planned and led by the students. It would probably be best for a pair of students to plan and lead the discussion. My vision is that the students who have chosen this topic of interest will conduct research on the topic, select course readings, and meet with me before teaching the class about this niche area of Law and Science. Driven by planning and leading the discussion, I hope the students will delve more deeply into their chosen topics and become truly excited about the material. I hope that their enthusiasm will be contagious and infect the entire class. I also hope that this will drive my students to begin their research on a particular Law and Science topic earlier in the semester and learn it more thoroughly so that they are able to develop more fully-formed and novel theses for their course papers.

I think there could be incredible advantages to this new approach, but I also worry that it could be somewhat risky. If my students do not become excited about their area of Law and Science, their attempt to lead the class in discussion could lack content and enthusiasm and be very boring. There is also the possibility that the rest of the students will not take the student-selected readings and student-driven discussions seriously because they view the discussion leaders as novices. Another risk is that the students perceive my experiment as an attempt to shirk my teaching responsibilities. Time may pose another challenge: my students will have to work very hard at the beginning of the semester to research and plan their course discussions.

My idea for tweaking my Law and Science course is still in a very embryonic stage, but I would love to hear your thoughts about whether this would be a useful approach to my, or any undergraduate or graduate level, course. It would also be great if readers could share good resources for the pedagogical theory animating Correa’s approach. Please share your thoughts and resources in the comments.

Posted in Active Learning, Course Design, Inspiration, Pedagogical Theory, Teaching Methods | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Why don’t students ask for help? What can you do?

Student Asking for HelpIt is that time in the semester when grades become more real and students can see the end of the semester and finals approaching. Around this time, I have several students who are proactive and seek out appointments with me to understand their current grade or seek advice on how to prepare for the final. But about this time, just after mid-term grades have been posted, I also notice the two or three students in my class that have been struggling yet have never come to see me. I have often asked myself why.

In probing a few of these students last year, I came to see that for some students it would never cross their minds to visit with a professor. One student told me that he never visited with a teacher in high school, so he never thought to visit one at university.  Another told me she thought she could fix the grades on her own with a little more studying and work. After these comments, I also began to examine the literature on this topic. I came to find that it is quite common for students to think they look dumb if they seek help from a professor or that they might seem childish. The literature further presented the potential for gender differences and income factors to be at play in why some students might not ask for help.

Some things you can do to encourage students to ask for help include:

  • Remind students of your office hours and suggest reasons to visit;
  • Before a test or report, remind students that discussion of ideas can enhance results;
  • When returning work, encourage follow up to review missed concepts;
  • Most of all, you want try to instill the idea that visiting with you is encouraged and common practice.

For more on this topic, visit these resources:

Faculty Focus

College Parents of America

Posted in Students, Teaching Methods | Tagged | 3 Comments