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A Rite (Triangle) of Passage May 13, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, family, gifted, homeschooling, math, older son, teaching, younger son.
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pythagorean_catThe younger son recently started his pre-algebra class.  Somehow, this has made math a bit better.  I think the fact that it has algebra in the title makes him feel very accomplished and that, in turn, has made him more enthusiastic about math.

The other day, he was doing some of his homework, and the lecture was confusing to him.  I listened to the lecture and then said, “It makes more sense if you draw a picture.”  He responded that, “Pictures always help me learn better.  I guess the math program doesn’t realize that some of us are visual learners.”  I was both amused and quite stunned.  I think I’ve been discussing educational theory a bit too much at the dinner table.  I can tell he’s listening to us.

Tonight, he hit a milestone.  He called Mike over, and I followed, so he could ask us how to pronounce “pythagorean.”  He was sure he’d heard us talking about it before (yeah, we discuss this stuff around the dinner table), and he wanted to be sure that was what it was.

“Oh, wow!” I said.  “You’re doing the Pythagorean Theorem.  That’s awesome!”  Suddenly, there was an impromptu round of cheering and high-fiving.  The older son even came over and gave his little brother a big hug, saying, “Woo hoo!  The Pythagorean Theorem is awesome.”

As the lecture progressed, it reiterated the terminology, focusing on right triangle legs and hypotenuse.  Given I’ve had ZZ Top in my head, I had to immediately sing, “She’s got legs!  She has a hypotenuse!”  I wasn’t able to come up with much more, though.

Yes, I have to admit that I realized how odd it was, in retrospect.  We were having a celebration that younger son had made it to the Pythagorean Theorem, and we were all making a huge deal about it.

But younger son didn’t think so.  He thought it was awesome and giggled continuously for the next few minutes. I guess he likes having a math cheer team.


Curriculum litmus test February 14, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, physics, teaching.
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I received the written comments back on my student evals from last semester.  I had a number of students who were very annoyed with the final project.  The previous two years, the final project consisted of a Matlab project.  After thinking about what a pain that was, I decided to change to a new project: a paper of 10-15 pages that has each student discuss their goals for getting through college.  The general consensus among those who commented was that the project required too much work for a 1 credit class.  There were several comments about how most of the other sections of this class don’t require as much work as I do, but the paper was just too much.

I’m sort of used to the comments about how much work my class is.  I state up front that they can expect 2-3 hours of homework each week…for a 1 credit class (that is, we meet once per week for an hour).  I also figure they had better get used to it, given the expectations of many of my colleagues.

I did find the comments slightly disturbing, however, because the implication seems to be that what I’m asking them to do is a lot of busy work.  In a lot of classes, many students feel that they’re spending a lot of time doing things that they will never do again outside of college.  They’re right, in a lot of cases.  I took a ton of math as an undergrad, and Mike likes to tell people that I’ve forgotten more math than he ever learned.  Sadly, the longer time goes on, the more I think he may be right.

The class I teach, however, is an academic skills class.  This means I am teaching them how to get through school, particularly in the engineering curriculum.  Do you know how to take notes?  What are the key things that are important?  Can you write a lab report?  Do you even know what area of engineering you’re going into?!

These are the things I’m trying to teach them.  My goal isn’t even to get them through the engineering curriculum, though a lot of the things I assign may be geared that way.  I simply want them to get through school and graduate.  I tell them this.  It perplexes me, therefore, how they can view setting goals as a waste of time.

I really have put a lot of thought into my assignments.  I want this class to be useful, and so I ask myself if each activity is something that will help them learn a skill they’ll need to get through school.  In a lot of ways, I’m at an advantage: college is a very constrained environment, and I can tell what skills are useful until they graduate.  After they graduate and get a job, however, their classwork may or may not be very valuable.  It’s something that simply can’t be predicted.

I have had students come back to me and say that they are really glad I taught the class and they do use the skills that I taught them.  I’m just not sure, however, how to make it clear to the freshman in my class that I really am not trying to torture them and that I do want them to succeed.  I can only hope the ones complaining about writing their goals are so motivated and driven that a lack of clearly stated goals has absolutely no bearing on their performance in school over the next 3 1/2 years.

Some thoughts (like, a million or so) on instructional technologies July 10, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, family, gifted, grad school, homeschooling, math, older son, research, science, societal commentary, teaching, younger son.
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I’ve been having a discussion with Massimo about his post on instructional technology.  Despite what I’ve already said, I have a lot more thoughts, so it’s just easier to write it out as a blog post (or maybe more than one).

I think I’m going to start by defining some things about how classrooms operate online.  First, you have what I would call the Udacity (or maybe Khan Academy) model.  This is a model where you basically watch a lecture online, complete and submit homework assignments online, and discuss things via discussion boards (or Blackboard or Moodle).  The second model is completely computerized – all the lessons are presented via a reading or lecture, and the bulk of the course is completing problems.  Both my sons have used the former method to learn math.  One uses EPGY and the other uses Aleks.  On top of these choices for online education, there are in-class courses, mixed (some components online and others in a classroom or lab), and earning credit by exam, such as AP, CLEP, or DANTE exams.

If you look at these options from the point of view of a university, some of these options for educating students are going to be more appealing than others.  Credit by exam, of course, is going to be the least appealing.  The university gets a fee for administering the exam but pretty much nothing else.  Many universities simply will not accept them, but there are a lot of them (mostly non-elite schools) that will.

The other one that is bad from a university POV is the completely computerized model.  It works incredibly well for things like math and some sciences because it basically moves working from a textbook to working on the computer.  Also, most of the programs are adaptive in that, if you’re having difficulty with a concept, it will first give you additional problems.  If this doesn’t seem to be helping, it will pull you off that topic and put you on to another, waiting a while before it allows you to revisit the difficult topic.  (I believe K12 uses a completely computerized model for all courses, but I have no experience with it and can’t say how well it works for language or social science-type courses.)  In a classroom where one person is a facilitator supervising several students working on the course, this is a very cost effective method, and a lot of elementary and secondary schools are beginning to utilize it.  When doing it for online education, however, it represents an expense that is more, generally speaking, than hiring an individual to teach a class.  The majority of tuition money would be spent on licensing (as there are already several good ones out there) or development of a program (which may not compete well with pre-existing products) and not going into university coffers.  Also, why offer something that everyone else can offer, too?  That’s certainly not going to set you apart in terms of attracting students.  Therefore, universities are more likely to want to have in-class courses, mixed, or online courses that utilize the Udacity model.

In the discussion Massimo’s final comment was this:

I was not aware that there is now solid research showing that online education is superior to classroom teaching for the vast majority of students (I assume that at Stanford they no longer offer classroom-based math courses — it would make no sense to have continued, given that online courses work better). I am surprised that classroom-based education still exists at all, and that so many of us still believe that it is better — but I am sure society will soon abandon this useless relic of a time past, and embrace the more effective online education.

Here’s the problem: there are decades of research showing that online education is, at the very least, equally effective for most students and significantly better for other students.  So why aren’t we using it more?  I could also state that lectures have been been shown to be one of the poorest forms of teaching known to man, so why do we continue to use it so much?  Turns out, there’s an answer.  In this journal called Science (you may have heard of it), they ask exactly this question about interactive teaching and inquiry-based classrooms:

Given the widespread agreement, it may seem surprising that change has not progressed rapidly nor been driven by the research universities as a collective force. Instead, reform has been initiated by a few pioneers, while many other scientists have actively resisted changing their teaching. So why do outstanding scientists who demand rigorous proof for scientific assertions in their research continue to use and, indeed defend on the basis of intuition alone, teaching methods that are not the most effective? Many scientists are still unaware of the data and analyses that demonstrate the effiectiveness of active learning techniques. Others may distrust the data because they see scientists who have flourished in the current educational system. Still others feel intimidated by the challenge of learning new teaching methods or may fear that identification as teachers will reduce their credibility as researchers.

I’d like to note that this was published in 2004, almost a decade ago.  Here we are, 8 years later, and from my observation, active teaching strategies are seldom used in most classrooms.

I think it’s safe to say that this is the same set of problems faced with online education.  I would also add that people who learn well in the classroom have a hard time understanding that others may learn as well or better using a different medium.  Or there’s just simply the problem that they’re afraid they’re going to lose their jobs.  (I only see this as likely in the scenario colleges would somehow try to implement completely computerized online classes…but you can see my comments on that above.)

One major issue that I see is how few college instructors really understand how people learn.  They learned well through a lecture style course, and so they assume that it is obviously the best way to learn.  I personally think that every instructor ought to have at least one course in educational neuroscience so that they understand how lousy lectures really are as well as so that they may communicate to their students how they ought to try to approach learning and studying.  (This was a significant part of the class I taught to incoming engineering students last year, but not all places have a course where you can cover topics like that.)  I do realize that such a course is not available at most universities, but I don’t think that should prevent one from accessing this knowledge.  I would suggest that one who has never taken such a course invest some time in the course materials available online (are you feeling the irony?) at Harvard.  Those opposed to online education can read the book Brain Rules, which was used as the text for the course.  (Of course, if you are opposed to online education, I hope you’re reading an actual paperback rather than downloading it onto your iPad.)

Massimo also says:

I am not disputing that online education may be the only/best option for some — but, from it being a valid option for some, to it replacing classroom teaching foreveryone, there is a bit of a leap, don’t you think ?

No, I don’t think so.  There are two reasons why I think this.  First, teachers who embrace online learning are more likely to embrace other technology that is likely to enhance learning.  Generally, this will enhance learning beyond anything that is likely to occur in a lecture-based class that occurs in a classroom.  Despite what some people may say, research shows (read Brain Rules) that learning which is multisensory (like watching YouTube clips) is better for you than sitting in a lecture.  Images will convey more information than talking, and video (or seeing something in action) conveys more information than straight images.  Sitting in a lab is likely the best environment of all.  Online learning also is likely to be able to keep people’s attention.  (If you read Brain Rules, you’ll come to find that most people can only focus for about ten minutes, and then they need something to restimulate their attention.)

Second, I think accessibility is a huge issue in education.  I have one parent who found it incredibly difficult to finish a degree (and she never did) because she had a choice between quitting her job to take classes at the local university, which were only offered during the day, and taking night classes at an expensive private college.  I have a sibling who is currently finishing a degree in accounting online because she lives two hours from a university and works 4-10s.  How is she supposed to finish a degree at a school in those circumstances?  There are a lot of people in similar situations who would otherwise be unable to earn a degree.  In fact, my husband earned his MS through Penn State through a Navy program where he took some classes at the university and some through a video link…well over a decade ago.  He said he would’ve been unlikely to pursue a degree if he’d had to drive across Puget Sound (he was in the Seattle area at the time) evenings for two or three years.

Okay, so obviously I know a lot of people who have benefitted from these sorts of things.  So why do I think it could work for everyone?  I think this is a basic principle behind Universal Design for Learning: the notion is that if you design a curriculum that helps people with difficulties and disabilities, you’re going to help many other people as well.  Our brains work on a continuum, and while not everyone may have learning disabilities, they may operate in a region where learning may be difficult, if not disabling, when it’s presented a certain way.  Therefore, if you design materials to teach someone who is hearing impaired, for instance, you’ll likely help a lot of people who may have difficulty with ingesting information through auditory means in general.  (Lest you think this must be a small part of the population, take into consideration that I was working toward a master’s degree before I found out that I likely have some sort of auditory processing disorder…and only because my son was diagnosed with one.  Smart people can often do well even with learning disabilities because they often have other ways to compensate…but it can be frustrating for them, nonetheless.  I wrote a post on this topic a while ago.)

So what does this have to do with online learning?  I can give a concrete example: my older son is ADHD and had auditory processing disorder.  He really struggles sitting in a normal classroom and, for most of his life, his teachers  told me he couldn’t possibly be gifted because of his classroom performance despite the fact that I had documented evidence to the contrary.  We took him out of the classroom, and he started earning college-level credits through CLEP exams beginning his freshman year of high school…working independently, primarily through reading.  As I mentioned above, he does all of his math through Aleks.  He does extremely well on pretty much any type of standardizes examination.  I can easily see a kid like him, even with less problems, having huge difficulties sitting in a college classroom but being able to handle an online class very easily in no small part because the method of presentation.  So why can’t this help someone who is less distractable?

Take it a step further.  If online learning is ideal for people who have jobs and families and can work in the evenings but not get to classes, why can’t it also work for students living in dorms or even at home?  Maybe some of them find that they concentrate best at night and it is preferable to sitting in a large, crowded, warm, boring classroom at 8 a.m.  (And yes, people do function on different clocks.)  Aren’t you benefitting the student by allowing them to work at their peak time?

I’m not saying everyone will take advantage of this, but I think it ought to be an option for many people.  Some people really thrive on personal interaction and keeping them out of a classroom would inhibit them from learning.  Some people don’t.  The ideal situation is where students have choices and options.

I think the final thing I have to say on this topic is that the real problem, in my mind, is that teachers see themselves as essential to the learning process.  Really, the one thing I’ve learned going through graduate school and homeschooling my kids is that teachers are more often an impediment.  The university functions to teach students, and yet, in many cases, students are quite capable of learning the materials on their own.  That’s really the reason behind homework: you learn it far better by doing it than by sitting and listening to someone talk about it.  In reality, students are still learning on their own.  The role of the university is to focus the effort, speed up the process, and assess performance.  Students are not necessarily learning anything from their classes that they cannot learn on their own…and in fact, they may be learning it less deeply than if they did it on their own.

I find this ironic given that the other aspect of a university is research: people are expected to learn new things and create new knowledge all the time.  If learning really only happens meaningfully in a classroom, then research couldn’t exist.  I can’t wrap my head around the fact that researchers who learn things on their own all the time will turn around and claim that undergraduates somehow lack that ability.

My conclusion, therefore, is that online education should seriously be considered as an alternative whenever available.   I think it democratizes education and makes a better environment for learning for a significant portion of students.  The reason we haven’t shifted to these models is mostly because professors, on the whole, are unwilling to consider that it should be done another way and are uninformed about the benefits.

The first two homeworks September 17, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, teaching.
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I’m almost done grading the first two homeworks for my classes, and I think the results were rather interesting.

The first homework consisted of reviewing the learning styles quiz.  I wanted the students to reflect on their results and discuss whether they thought their results were valid.  Further, I wanted them to discuss where they anticipated difficulties in school and what things they could do in those situations.  All of these were things I went over in class.

My first surprise was that a significant number of students did not address the questions they were supposed to answer, leaving their essays feeling…empty.  I think I need to be more clear that they need to answer all the questions, but I also think I need to provide a rubric so that they have a better understanding of what I’m looking for.

A number of the students felt they had gained no new information from the quiz.  A couple obviously didn’t understand what their results meant.  I was impressed, however, reading the essays where the students disagreed with the quizzes.  It seemed like those students were the ones who put the most thought into it, saying that perhaps the results applied in some situations but not others.  They usually were able to identify when they felt the results were valid.  I feel like those students really got the point of the exercise: they were supposed to think about how they learn, and they were able to analyze various situations and how their preferences interacted with the environment.

The second exercise had a more positive reception.  The students were supposed to attempt to take notes using two different methods covered in class.  There were five methods, one of which was to tape record the lecture.  The other four were written, although I’ll probably explain them in another post.

Most of the students felt it was useful to attempt to take notes different ways.  They did a nice job comparing and contrasting their experiences and feelings about the process, and very few failed to fulfill the requirements for this assignment.  I have to admit that my heart sank a little every time a student said something like, “I like to these types of notes because I don’t have to think about what I’m writing.”  Those are the students who I worry about.  However, a number of them said they learned something new.  A few said they liked their new notetaking method better while others said they might borrow one or two concepts to incorporate into their notetaking skills, even though they aren’t planning on changing their method a whole lot.

I have to admit that I found certain types of notes easier to read.  (I required them to hand in copies of their attempts.)  It does make me wonder how I can look at some of these notes and think they are far more clear, while the person writing them does not.  The primary issue is that I need to figure out a way to make them not feel guilty for using ‘too much paper’.  Some of these other notetaking methods require more paper than traditional notes because they use white space to organize things.  So many students seemed to think that using paper was a bad thing.  I need to make it clear that using paper to take useless notes is more wasteful than using more paper to take notes that are easier to study and comprehend.

Another issue I ran into is that several of the professors of freshman level classes provide their notes in powerpoints.  My experience is that upper-level classes will be significantly different.  I accepted writing on printed out slides as a possible notetaking method, but I found the evaluation of that to be very unsatisfactory.  Further, I think these students will not have the benefit of experiencing the other types of methods once they don’t have those slides available.  So I’m going to pretend those aren’t an option next semester.

We discussed people’s thoughts in class because I had students use only 2 of the four types.  I wanted students to get a feeling for the other types of notes.  I think that in future classes, I’m going to require they try the three non-traditional written methods themselves.  First, one of the methods the students tried was almost always traditional notes.  Not too many were willing to venture out of their shell and try two new types.  I think this limited their perspective because they were always comparing their new method against traditional notes, and they most often focused on how awkward it was to take notes differently.  Further, when we discussed things in class, only a limited number of students tried each of the new methods.  This reduced discussion to just a couple people, in some cases, and those students couldn’t provide a lot of different perspectives on the benefits and difficulties of the other methods.

I’m requiring my students to evaluate their learning so that they can become self-regulated learners.  I guess I’m trying to do the same thing with my teaching.  In that vein, I’ve concluded that my first assignment needs more clear guidelines.  I think I need to spell things out for the students.  Some students can do a good job with minimal instruction, but some really falter, so I need to be more clear for those students.  Some of the students didn’t seem to think the information was relevant, so perhaps getting specific about what they need to think about will help them understand the relevance more.

For the note-taking assignment, I think they’d benefit from getting more experience trying new things, so I’m going to change the scope of the assignment and have them try the three non-traditional note-taking methods.  Hopefully this will give them something to compare to…and fewer will go the route of not wanting to think about what they’re writing.

Finally, I have to say that this is giving me new insight into how students approach their classes.  I was a student who really didn’t think about how I learned and never had formal instruction in studying and how to learn.  I didn’t learn about a lot of these things until I had to face problems with my children’s learning.  Realizing how few of them have thought about it is probably going to make me think a lot harder about how to present technical information in the future.  I hope I’m able to make things more clear and understandable for my students.

The perfect education January 21, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, homeschooling, older son, societal commentary.
Tags: independence, , , structure

Over the weekend, we brought the older boy down to Minneapolis to hang out with his pals from his previous school. I enjoyed this as I got a chance to hang out with their moms. I talked about this on my old blog, but they really are some fantastic, intelligent women.

As we often do, we started talking about the boys. The youngest of them is still in the old school, the oldest is in a ‘regular’ high school, and of course, my son is doing part-time high school with part-time homeschooling (which will hopefully become part-time college next year).

Each of these arrangements has it’s drawbacks.

I know there’s no perfect way to educate a kid. If you take one kid, the best way for them to learn may be to have complete independence and let them focus on their curiosity. Another kid may be overwhelmed with such a prospect and does better with a bit of guidance and structure. Every kid is different.

I find it interesting that the oldest boy’s mom would complain a lot about the math program our sons used at their old school. She said her son didn’t learn anything from it. However, I found that my son has done far better with this program than any other method I’ve tried. We’re continuing to use it for homeschooling, although he may only have another year of using it.

On the other hand, I watched him struggle heavily with learning a foreign language on the computer. In his first quarter at the high school, he progressed more than he did the previous year with the computerized instruction.

It’s interesting that the youngest boy, who still at the old school, is quite unhappy. Socially, I think he’s better off than either of the other two boys, but he’s frustrated with the lack of structure and feels like he needs to learn more than he is. Unfortunately, he feels overwhelmed with the prospect of learning everything on his own. However, I have also seen kids at that school who have done things that I could only have dreamed of doing at that age. Some of these kids are writing novels and making fantastic science fair projects…with only minimal guidance.

I am not comfortable seeing kids left on their own to figure out their education. I do think there are some kids who operate quite well that way: they are very independent and would find structure to be stifling. On the other hand, the prospect of teaching oneself everything they want (and sometimes need) to know is overwhelming for another kid. That doesn’t mean, however, that putting that kid into a completely structured environment, like a regular high school, is ideal, either.

My personal feeling is that most kids do well with a little of both: they need to have freedom to choose at least some of the things that they want to learn. How they learn then becomes an issue of individual preference. Some kids will take off as soon as they know what to do, hit the library, start building things at home, etc. Other kids really need to be prodded: they will not progress without external guidance and prodding regardless of the fact that they really do want to learn something. Most often, that is a result of a frustration with the method of instruction rather than ‘laziness': how they learn may not readily assimilate the material as it’s presented. Unfortunately, there are not always better ways to instruct someone in certain areas.

I think the perfect education is different for every person. It would be so much better for everyone if we all had the option to try different things and learn what helps us progress. One of the most important parts of education should really be about learning how one learns.


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