PI in LA

I’m excited to return to Cal State University Los Angeles (CSULA) to give a couple of workshops on peer instruction. My thanks to Beverly Bondad-Brown in the Center for Effective Teaching and Learning for the invitation.

My first workshop is about writing good peer instructions. Actually, it’s about helping students learn to think more like experts, and effective peer instruction with clickers is a versatile tool for all kinds of skills and all kinds of disciplines. The participants looked through a collection of good and bad peer instruction questions and had to judge the questions on their clarity, context, learning outcome, distractors, difficulty and if the question could stimulate thoughtful discussion (hat-tip to Stephanie Chasteen for this list of what makes a good peer instruction question.)

Effective Peer Instruction

It’s not enough to through clickers at the students, though. To get more out of peer instruction, instructors need to do everything they can so students waste no precious, cognitive load trying to figure out what to do. “Is this when we vote?” “Are we supposed to talk now?” “What is the answer, anyway?” Those questions distract them from thinking like experts.

My colleague, Beth Simon, and I have worked out a “choreography” that keeps the students focused on content, rather than the tool. These are 2 variations. One is for classes emphasizing  analytical skills like you’d typically see in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes. Here, students vote on their own, convince a neighbor they have the right answer, vote again, and the participate in a class-wide discussion. The other choreography is for classes where argumentation is more important. Here, all the choices to the question can be supported – the goal is to give students practice supporting their choice. They vote once, justify their choice to their neighbors, and then contribute to a class-wide discussion. There are no right or wrong answers so it doesn’t make sense to “convince your neighbor you’ve got the right answer.”

I’ll add the additional resources I used later today…

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You’re only a 2-minute pause away from peer instruction

No matter what course you teach, one of your course-level learning outcomes should be that students will think more like experts in your field. They won’t be experts yet, not after one course or even an undergraduate degree, but they can think in more expert-like ways.

How do experts think?

According to How People Learn, experts must

  1. have a deep foundation of factual knowledge
  2. understand those facts and concepts in a conceptual framework
  3. organize the knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application

Here’s how I picture that conceptual framework:

Novice

Novice

Expert

Expert

It’s not enough just to teach the factual knowledge: you also have to help students build the conceptual framework and give them practice retrieving and applying the facts and concepts:

Factual knowledge

Factual knowledge

Conceptual framework

Conceptual framework

Retrieval

Retrieval

(My thanks to Kimberly Tanner at San Francisco State University for reminding me that anyone can memorize a bunch of facts; expertise lies in the conceptual framework and retrieval.)

What does your classroom look like?

Yes, let’s support expert-like thinking and behavior. But how do you do it? I think Ken Bain, in What the best college teachers do (2004), describes it perfectly:

More than anything else, the best teachers try to create a natural critical learning environment: natural because students encounter skills, habits, attitudes, and information they are trying to learn embedded in questions and tasks they find fascinating—authentic tasks that arouse curiosity and become intrinsically interesting; critical because students learn to think critically, to reason from evidence, to examine the quality of their reasoning using a variety of intellectual standards, to make improvements while thinking, and to ask probing and insightful questions about the thinking of other people.

The big idea, then, is to pick instructional strategies that give students practice thinking like experts, in a natural and authentic way.

The Slippery Slope to Peer Instruction

My colleague Beth Simon and I have come up with a strategy we call, “The Slippery Slope to Peer Instruction.”

2-minute pause: The 2-minute pause procedure is really easy to implement in a class because you literally don’t do anything. Every 15 or 20 minutes of lecture, when you sense your students’ brains are full, you stop lecturing and invite the students to take 2 minutes to

  • review their notes
  • consult with neighbors to fill in missing points
  • check with neighbors if anything is confusing
  • formulate a question(s) that will clear up confusion or fill in a gap (this is very expert-like behavior!)

When conversations dies down (wait longer than 2 minutes if there’s good stuff happening) lead a brief, class-wide discussion to answer questions and resolve confusion. They’ll probably have questions you haven’t thought about (because if you did think about them, you’d have covered it in the lecture.) Answer by “thinking-aloud”, that is, sharing aloud that voice in your head as you figure it out. When everyone is back up-up-to-speed and has had a chance to hang some knowledge on their conceptual framework, you can pick up where you left off.

2-minute pause Pro™: Maybe when you pause, your students

  • aren’t confus—ed
  • don’t have anything to talk about
  • don’t know how to have expert-like conversions

Then “seed” the pause with a question. You could get them to reconsider what you’ve just covered:

Okay, everyone, that’s a lot to think about. Take 2 minutes to look over your notes. If you’re confused about something, check with your neighbors. If everything’s okay, think about this: what do you suppose would happen if they run that experiment with adults instead of children?

Or prime them for what’s coming:

Okay, everyone, that’s a lot to think about. Take 2 minutes to look over your notes. If you’re confused about something, check with your neighbors. If everything’s okay, think about this: How do you think this result will change when we apply it in 3 dimensions instead of 2?

Peer Instruction: Don’t just stop lecturing and don’t just seed the discussion with an interesting question. Direct the discussion between students by giving them a few conversation starters. That is, ask a conceptually-challenging, multiple choice question with choices that activate expert-like thinking and/or common misconceptions. Here’s one of my favorites, from an introductory #astro101 class

How many of these are reasons for the season?

  • —the height of the Sun in the sky during the day
  • Earth’s distance from the Sun
  • how many hours the Sun is up each day
  1. one of them
  2. two
  3. all three

I like this question because it activates a strong misconception (that the seasons are due to Earth’s distance from the Sun) and it requires students to think and talk like astronomers.

“Requires?”

Yes, requires! Even if every single student correctly chooses B, the instructor can drive the next few minutes of astro-goodness with, “Excellent. Which two?!”

You’re only a 2-minute pause away from peer instruction

That’s our “slippery slope” strategy. Instructors looking to move away from traditional lecture are often reluctant to jump right to peer instruction, citing the technical overhead — software and hardware — and the cost to students for clickers. What could be easier than a 2-minute pause, though? It gives instructors a taste of the incredible feedback and interaction that students will contribute, given the chance. After that, it’s just baby steps to seeding the discussion and then driving the conversations.

Acquiring knowledge. Attaching it to a framework. Retrieving it to support discussion. In my book, that’s expert-like thinking.

(This post is adapted from a post I wrote for UCSD’s Summer Graduate Teaching Scholars program)

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Target your feedback

The other day, I was talking about assessment that support learning in my teaching and learning class. Like I do often, I started the class with a “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” picture:

Archery targets give instantaneous, formative feedback. (Image "on target" shared by hans s on flickr CC-BY-ND)

What do you notice? What do you wonder? (Image “on target” shared by hans s on flickr CC-BY-ND)

The more I heard what my students noticed and wondered and more I thought about it, the more I like the analogy between learning archery and learning calculus or history or engineering or any other class at university.

Let’s Learn Archery!

(I’ve never shot an arrow, other than the usual bendy sticks and string thing that kids do during their summer holidays, so I could be totally *ahem* off-target here. If you know about archery, please, leave me a comment!)

Let’s suppose you want to learn archery. At first, the archery instructor will give you some direct instruction to get you to a level where you’re able to safely shoot an arrow in the general direction of the target. Now it’s your turn to practice and build your skills.

But imagine this: Imagine that the archery target is just the bull’s-eye. A little red circle, what, a couple of inches across, at the other end of the archery range. What kind of assessment and feedback would you get when you practice? You’d know when you did things 100% correct and hit the bull’s-eye. Otherwise, nothing. That would be frustrating and I suspect you’d give up. (Did you try Flappy Bird? And get angry and delete it? Yeah, like that.)

What’s so cool about a real archery target, then, is the instantaneous and formative feedback it gives you. When your arrow hits the target, you know immediately how you’re preforming (how close to bull’s-eye are you?) and, more importantly for learning, what you need to do to improve your aim. Hit up and to the left? Next time, aim more down and to the right.

You know what else is cool? It’s obvious and “well, d’uh, what else could it be?” that it’s you shooting the arrows, not the instructor. Sure, it would be extremely valuable to watch an expert, especially as you learn what to look for, but in the end, you have to do it yourself.

Let’s Learn Calculus!

After all that fun at the archery range, it’s time to head home. That calculus homework’s not going to do itself, you know.  Imagine the instructor gives you a list of questions to do each week (“all the even numbered questions at the end of Chapter 7″). You work through them,  and hand them in.

Calculus homework (Image "Mean Mode" shared by widdowquinn on flickr CC-BY-NC-SA)

Calculus homework (Image “Mean Mode” shared by widdowquinn on flickr CC-BY-NC-SA)

The teaching assistants don’t have time to mark your homework thoroughly. The most they can do is look at your answers to Questions 4, 6 and 12 and give you a check mark or an X. What kind of assessment and feedback would you get from this? That you’re 100% correct on some questions, wrong on a few others, and nothing at all on the rest.

I’m not trying to pick on math. I’ve heard students say they only feedback they get on an essay is a letter grade on the front page.

How is anyone supposed to learn from that?

The feedback helps students learn calculus and history and whatever they’re studying depends critically on the discipline. Each field, each course has its own set of skills and/or attitudes. The instructor’s job is to help the students become more expert-like. There are some underlying patterns to the practice and formative assessment that support learning, though. These are drawn from Chapter 5 of a great book, How Learning Works, by Susan Ambrose et al. (2010):

  • practice needs to be goal-directed: everything the instructor asks students to do should support one or more of the course’s learning outcomes. If the assignment doesn’t, why are the students wasting their time on it?
  • practice needs to be productive: the students need to get something out of everything they do. Do they really need to answer twenty questions at the back of Chapter 7? What about 5 representative questions from Chapter 7, plus 4 questions from Chapter 6 and 3 questions from Chapter 5 so they also get some practice at retrieving previous concepts (like they’ll have to do on, say, the final exam!)
  • feedback needs to be timely: when do I need feedback on the aim of my arrow? Right now, before I shoot another one. Not in 2 weeks when the TAs have finally been able to finish marking all the papers and entered the grades.
  • feedback needs to be at an appropriate level: A checkmark, a letter grade, or only circling the spelling mistakes are not sufficient. Neither is referring the student to the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. A good rubric, for example, lets each student know what they’re acheiving and also what success looks like at this level.

Frequent productive, goal-directed practice with timely, formative feedback at an appropriate level. That’s what an archery target gives you. We need to find the target in each course we teach.

What does the target it look like in your course?

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