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First impressions are worth a thousand words December 16, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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FSP has a post at her alternative blog discussing language issues in teaching. In the comments, I mentioned that one effective way to overcome this barrier was to make a presentation that relied less on the spoken word and more on visual images.

This reminded me, however, of how important it is to use images effectively. The previous two academic years, I was teaching several sections of the introductory geology lab. In one particular lab, the students are supposed to draw and label map-view and cross-sectional views of subduction and spreading zones.

I have to admit that I was extremely surprised at how difficult this was for students. What I was supposed to do was to let them look at a couple of computer animations (with a couple labels) and some images (without labels), and they were supposed to be able to draw and label diagrams in their lab worksheets.

After the first year, I was horribly frustrated with this exercise. The students really seemed to not understand how the cross-sections worked, in particular. The map view was only slightly better. During the second semester, I realized that, on the midterm exam, the mistakes they made were almost exactly the ones they made while drawing the original diagram in their lab workbooks.

I strongly suspect that the way I was doing things lead to the following scenario:

One person is leaned on heavily by the group. They think they can figure out the diagram. They begin drawing. There is no discussion among group members about where things go. The rest of the group members copy what the first group member has done, correct or not. They turn in their lab, incorrect.

I finally came to the realization that whatever they write down first is what is going to stick in their head. If they came to something that seems half logical in their eyes, they will stick with it until the bitter end. That initial false impression about how things worked was pretty much permanently ingrained.

I tried correcting their diagrams in their labs before handing them back while also going over it in class and drawing a correct diagram on the board. It didn’t change anything.

The second year I was teaching, I approached things differently. When a group would come to that part of the lab, I would tell them to bring their lab books to the front of the room. I would step through drawing the diagram on the board, asking the group what went where (and more importantly, why). I did not draw anything in the diagrams unless they were correct.

Yes, pretty much everyone got a perfect score in that part of the lab. However, I noticed that, at the midterm, the numbers flipped: rather than 75% of students getting the diagram wrong in the midterm, 75% started getting it right. I even had a couple students correctly draw subduction diagrams in their student evals. (Yay!)

That reinforced to me how important it is that student have good visuals, and equally important, that they have a good understanding of what they mean.

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Comments»

1. NJS - December 17, 2010

I finally came to the realization that whatever they write down first is what is going to stick in their head.

I remember a similar statement from a class I took on teaching in higher education. Good job figuring out how to work with that!

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