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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.

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Self-regulated learning September 6, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, teaching.
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This week, I tried to cram a whole bunch of stuff into one lecture.  I was worried about it being too short, but I ended up cutting some of the details to make it fit into my 50 minute slot.

As a complete aside, I’m amazed that I have managed to write two lectures and have them fit into a 50 minute slot.  No, I didn’t run through them beforehand to make sure they were the right length.  I don’t imagine I’ll be this lucky so often.

The class had four segments.

First, I talked about what self-regulated learning is, i.e. that students should set goals for their learning and continually be evaluating and learning from their lecture, homework, and exam experiences.  I tried to make the discussion very high level. (For more information on self-regulated learning, you can take a look at the presentation by Marsha Lovett (pdf) or the Carleton geoscience pages on teaching metacognition.)  I then said we were going to practice this, so I covered a bit about active listening practices.  I made a point of showing them a plot contained in the Lovett presentation showing how badly students will overestimate, in most cases, their comprehension of the information.

The next segment of the lecture came from the book Brain Rules: I went over how we learn physiologically, and impediments to learning (stress, lack of sleep, multitasking/distractions).  The reason I did this is because it serves as a basis for later recommendations on studying.  For instance, Brain Rules talks about how it is important to repeat exposure to information within an hour lest that information be lost.  When talking to students about studying, this provides a reason for reviewing notes as quickly as possible after class.

I then had the students break into groups and try to come up with the themes for the previous segment.  Most groups got the section on how the brain learns and the impediments to learning.  A couple groups threw in active learning, and several groups broke out some of the subsections for the different parts of the talk.  We went over what each group thought were the themes and then I discussed what I thought were the themes so that they’d have some feedback.

The last part of the talk was about notetaking.  Some of the information on this was taken from the book Learning Outside the Lines (which I bought for the older boy and then immediately stole from him), mixed in with some of the information from Brain Rules.  I told them that notetaking has three parts: going over information before class (and preparing questions), the actual act of notetaking in class (and several variations of layout/methods, which was the largest part of the discussion), and then reviewing the notes after class, taking time to evaluating meaning.

Their assignment for next week is to try a couple different methods of notetaking and then evaluate them.  Again, this goes back to being a self-regulating learner: they need to try new things and then evaluate them, implementing changes if a particular method doesn’t work.

When I was writing up the lecture, it didn’t hang together too well, and I realized that some of it was that I was focusing on the individual sets of information I wanted to get across.  Once I realized I needed to shoot for themes, it went together much better and followed a logical progression.

And only two students slept through the lecture this morning.  We’ll see how the rest of the week goes.

The perfect education January 21, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, homeschooling, older son, societal commentary.
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4 comments

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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