Thursday, May 7, 2015

Teaching and Research: A Dichotomy?

Adam Dynes

Every minute you spend on teaching is time away from research. You’re either running an experiment or you’re prepping for class. You can’t do both.

While true – I can’t literally work on writing up my dissertation while at the same time grade student assignments – I hope, at the very least, to show how the teaching vs. research dichotomy isn’t as definitive as we often assume.

First, as teachers we can design courses that engage students in producing original research. Although most of us, as grad students, have limited control over the content and structure of the courses we teach, many of us will be at the helm sooner than we realize.

I’m certainly under no illusion that it’s easy to co-author with undergraduates – they have lots of other time commitments, they’re just learning research designs and methods, and they’ll soon graduate by the time that they do get a handle on these things. 

But there are benefits. As Herrick, Matthias, and Nielson argue in an article on this very topic, research collaborations with undergraduates can lead to more creative research ideas since...

“innovation tends to emerge from minds that are in key senses naive to the fields they are revolutionizing (Csikszentmihalyi 1996; Simonton 1999). Undergraduates, who are by definition outsiders, can sometimes make those new connections with extraordinary speed, which can lead to fresh insights that might evade a professor thoroughly socialized in conventional wisdom.”

Since being “meta” is all the rage these days, I should point out that Herrick and Matthias were undergrad co-authors with Nielson. Also, if the idea of bringing research into your classroom is of interest to you, I would encourage you to check out the issue of the journal that published their article, as it features an entire symposium on involving undergraduates in research.

But what does this mean for you now? You’re probably not designing your own courses quite yet. So isn’t the dichotomy between research and teaching just as strong as ever?

Certainly not! This is because many of the things you do as a teacher will also improve your skill sets as a researcher.

Both teaching and research are about communicating ideas. It doesn’t matter how important your research discovery is if you can’t convey its importance to others.

In teaching, we hone that skill. It’s all about public speaking and presentation skills, and finding ways to interest others in specific research projects. When you give your job talk, the audience will likely include faculty members who don’t know much about your specific research agenda, and like the undergrads in your courses, you’ll have to find a way to rope them in. Teaching also provides us the opportunity to develop our own ideas and vet them with an audience.

One of my favorite works in political science, and one that was quite influential on my dissertation, is a book by Douglas Arnold called the The Logic of Congressional Action. A key concept from the book is the idea that policymakers’ actions and their effects on policy outcomes must be “traceable” in order for voters to reward and punish them.

At a conference I attended a few years ago, Arnold discussed how he developed this concept and fleshed out its implications for legislative behavior. And, as you might have guessed by now, it came directly from his undergraduate teaching. 

It was an idea that he began to articulate in an undergrad course on Congress to help explain the behavior of members of Congress to his students. In discussing how he developed his theory, Arnold specifically mentioned that it started off as just a conjecture, but over the years of teaching the course, he naturally developed it into a broader theory and then realized it “had legs.”

To sum, there are certainly tradeoffs between teaching and research. But I hope that I have moved the Venn diagram in your mind from this:


To this:


Image Sources:

Writing Recommendation Letters as a Graduate Student: Should You?

Anne Schindel

For the past four years, I have taught and tutored students in the English and German departments as well as the Writing Center, and in the process I’ve written my fair share of recommendation letters. If my own experience at Yale is any indication, and you are currently a graduate student, then it is likely that students will approach you to ask for recommendation letters at some point (if they haven’t already!). And if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably think: “Uh-oh – I have no idea how to do that!”

The first time a student asked me for a recommendation, I wasn’t sure whether graduate students were even allowed to write recommendation letters for undergraduates. Most of the information you can find online is geared towards professors writing letters for graduate school or job applications. But undergraduates at Yale are just as likely to ask a graduate student to write reference letters as they are to ask tenured professors. Why? One answer could be that graduate students do a lot of teaching in smaller labs, sections, and seminars. The Yale Office of Career Strategy actively encourages undergraduates to avoid “go[ing] for ‘name brand’ references who don’t know [the student’s] work very well – it’s better to ask a junior person who could speak glowingly and in detail about [the student’s] work than have a senior person speak in vague generalities.”[1] Since many undergraduates come to college without a clear sense of the differences between graduate student instructors, lecturers, and non-tenured professors, they’re just as likely to ask us graduate students for recommendations as anyone else.

If you’re asked to write a recommendation letter, can you – and should you – accept? And, if you accept, how should you proceed? What follows is intended as a quick “how-to” guide for graduate students at Yale to help you decide whether you can (or should) write a recommendation letter when asked, and what the process usually requires.

1.      What do Yale students apply for, and what kinds of letters do these positions want?

The short answer is that Yale students apply for all sorts of positions: I’ve written recommendation letters for summer jobs, Yale-internal fellowships and awards, language study/study abroad, and research or work in a lab. Many of these applications require the standard letter that should be about 1-2 pages long, written in your most polished prose and free of grammatical errors or typos, and (if you have access to it) on departmental letterhead.

Other applications impose their own format, often a series of questions about the student’s academic and personal strengths that you need to answer in a browser or on a separate form. These applications often have the option to attach a full letter so – if you jumped right in and already wrote the whole thing – your work will not have been in vain. To avoid any potential frustrations, though, make sure to check what the application requires before you start writing.

2.      I am a graduate student – am I qualified to function as a recommender?

The honest answer is: it depends. When students first contact you, the best course of action would be to make sure that they understand that you are a graduate student, and that your status could potentially hurt their application. Most applications specify whether they require letters from junior or senior professors or whether they accept others, so tell your students to check whether you are eligible before they input your name. If the student is unsure, encourage him or her to contact the program directly: it doesn’t hurt to ask, and you can also poke around the Internet to see if you can find the answer. Once you are locked in to an online system, it can be cumbersome for the student to switch recommenders, so make sure to get this information before you agree to write for him or her. Once you’re certain the application is not explicitly limited to professors, you’re good to go: it does not matter how far along in your program you are, or how many semesters you have been teaching, as long as you feel like you know the student well and have good things to say about him or her. The most suitable people for recommendation letters, after all, are those who know the students on both an academic and a more personal level. It’s probably why you were asked in the first place: take it as a compliment.

3.      What do I need to include in a recommendation letter, and how do I get this information?

The best way to get all the information you need is to set up a meeting with the student, but email contact will do if you are not in the same place. Depending on how well you know the student and how detailed you feel your letter needs to be, ask him or her to provide you with the following materials:
     a)      Resume or CV
     b)      Application essay or statement of purpose (drafts are usually enough, but make sure  to ask for the most recent version)
     c)      A paper or exam written for your course (if you don’t have this already)
     d)     Any information the student may have about the fellowship, program, or job to which he or she is applying (websites, leaflets, etc.)
     e)      The date on which the recommendation is due
     f)       A list of the student’s personal interests relevant to the position, or an academic transcript (not absolutely necessary – only if you’re comfortable asking for this)

In general, your letter is supposed to show your support for the candidate and his or her particular strengths through concrete evidence and examples. Every letter should be tailored to the specific position for which the student is applying, so try to match the letter with its purpose (e.g. more academic for research and scholarly pursuits, broader range of personal, extracurricular, and work experiences for non-academic positions).

Your letter should start by stating who you are and how you know the student, how long you have known him/her, and in what context you got to know him/her, then proceed to an evaluation of his/her intellectual strengths. Try to think about the student comparatively (e.g. Was he/she the most articulate? Motivated? Curious? Outspoken? Among the best three students you have ever taught?), and provide concrete examples to back up your praise. Avoid stock phrases, clichés, or a heavy reliance on superlatives as much as possible. Depending on the type of position for which the student is applying, you can either blend the academic with the personal, or proceed from the academic to the personal; trust your instincts. Whatever you prefer, discuss the student’s character and individual traits in the same way you presented his or her intellectual strengths, by providing clear and concrete examples from class or from your other interactions. Finish on a strong note, with a brief summary, and by expressing your enthusiastic support for the student’s application for this particular position.  (Don’t forget to name the actual position).

4.      What if I don’t think I can write a good letter?

It is okay to say no. If you feel like you cannot be emphatically positive in your letter, if a student asks you too close to the deadline or in an unprofessional or inappropriate manner, you can decline, but try to do so gently. For example, you could point to the fact that your knowledge of the student is not relevant to the position to which she is applying (say, you taught him or her calculus in a large seminar but he/she is applying to stay with a host family in Japan). Whatever the issue, make sure to explain why you feel unable to help and counsel the student in finding a better reference. If you really have nothing to say about a student who approached you, even after meeting with him or her, it may be a more systemic issue, so try to be as kind as possible and, if you can, offer some potential solutions (asking earlier, telling a professor at the beginning of the semester that she may need a recommendation, etc.). Whatever you decide to do, never promise to write a letter with no intention of doing so later, and don’t lie in your letter in an attempt to improve it.

5.      Any potential pitfalls to avoid?

If you have agreed to write the letter and followed the general guidelines above, be aware that letters of recommendation are often read with an eye to what is not being said: your silence on certain matters can be taken as an implicit criticism, as can your failure to unequivocally support your student’s application. If you include criticism or negative traits, especially toward the end, this can be understood as a tacit move to signal that you do not actually support your student’s application. Try to incorporate criticism (if you choose to include it at all) in a way that turns it into a positive statement. Be aware, however, of different cultural expectations: while it is normal in the U.S. to focus only on a student’s strengths and to be as enthusiastic as possible throughout your letter, the same does not hold for European countries such as Britain and Germany, among others, where unabashed support and enthusiasm is often regarded with suspicion. Get help from a more experienced letter writer if you are unsure about the conventions of a foreign country to avoid accidentally hurting your student’s chances.

I hope these guidelines have been helpful (and below you can find a few helpful links for further reading). Try to enjoy the process – when else can you brag about how awesome your students are without annoying your family and friends?
For more information on recommendation letters:
Yale Office of Career Strategy Reference Guidelines (for undergraduates)
Harvard GSAS Guide for Writing Recommendations (specifically geared toward graduate students at Harvard)
Berkeley Career Center Guidelines for Writing Recommendation Letters (includes special sections for graduate, business, law, and medical school applications)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

From the Archives to the Classroom

Con Diaz, CTL McDougal Teaching Fellow
            When I visit archives, I often find myself asking one question over and over again: What can I do with this document? I am a historian of technology with a special interest in the law, so this question is often the first step in thinking about how people, institutions, technologies, and legal systems have interacted with one another. In a broader sense, this question is a prompt to find new ways of thinking about historical phenomena, evidence to question my own hypotheses, or analytical structures to streamline my questions and answers.

This question is also central to how I teach my students the basics of historical work. For example, for one class meeting my students read a court decision from the 1970s, a critique by a legal scholar written in the same year, and a recent historical account of the decision itself. My goal for the class was to study legal scholarship and court decisions as historical documents. Our class began with a discussion of the content and structure of the decision and the critique. We then moved on to study the historical contexts for these documents and the scholarly intervention that the historian’s account was making. We ended by thinking about how we could use the students’ observations to illustrate or enrich the historian’s argument. 

            These students mined historical scholarship to find the language and structures they needed both to articulate their own observations, and to assess the scholarly significance of their claims. This lesson is central to two of my goals as an instructor:  I want to teach my students how to question narratives and arguments using historical documents, and I want them to mine the historiography for lessons on how to focus and articulate their own questions. In short, I hope to teach them that finding an answer to that simple question—what can I do with this document?—can lead them to a thrilling intellectual pursuit.

            The value of this question as a teaching tool transcends the historical classrooms into which I have brought it. In a gender studies or science and technology studies class, it would enable students to think about the relationships between theory and evidence. In disciplines such as English or literature, it will prompt them to think about what they can do with texts beyond summarizing plots and highlighting metaphors. In the end, thinking deeply and often about that question will teach them a valuable lesson: new ways of thinking are some of the most valuable things they can take with them from a humanities class.





Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Teaching Behind Bars: From the What to the Why

Stuart Paul Duncan

Back in 2007, my academic teaching journey began as a teaching assistant for a diverse array of music-related undergraduate courses at Cornell University, aiding in classes on African Music and the Diaspora, introducing students to technical and composition tools in Digital Music, and guiding students through introductory music theory classes. In 2012, my teaching journey continued at Yale, this time as a part-time acting instructor, with increased responsibilities in shaping music theory-specific classes and evaluating student development over a sequence of multiple theory courses. However, my most transformative experience as a teacher occurred between the two Ivies, when I created and led my own course for incarcerated adult male students at a maximum-security prison in upstate New York in 2010.

At first, I was apprehensive to enter this walled community: an endless series of locked gates connected narrow winding corridors, overlapping one another via endless staircases and generating claustrophobia. And things didn't get any better upon reaching my music appreciation classroom: no computers, no Internet, no cell phones, no projector, and perhaps most importantly, no piano. Four bare walls, a couple of blackboards, and a few rows of chairs in a lecture-style setup were the sum total of this community's physical learning environment. While this environment alone presented something of a transformative experience in reconfiguring my approach to teaching (especially as an alumnus of the technology-enabled classrooms at Cornell), the transformation I experienced was due to the students themselves.

One commonly held misconception of prison life is that incarcerated people have nothing to do all day, and thus prisoners take classes as a way of passing the time, of alleviating their boredom. But, at least for the incarcerated men where I taught, each person worked gruellingly long days by making license plates for the state. In order to take classes, these students had to be in good behavioral standing, and only then could they take part in classes by giving up their lunch breaks. Education was not a given; it had to be earned. My initial concerns prior to the first class were that I might find it hard to motivate these students; however, my fears were unfounded, as these students were voracious learners. While every student had a different educational background — from no secondary education to college degrees — all of them wanted to learn. The biggest difference between my prior experience teaching at Cornell and the prison was that, in addition to wanting to learn, these students wanted to know why they should. It wasn't enough simply to highlight a long-term goal such as "this course will develop a critical ear in listening to music and aid in translating these observations into a written form"; I had to consider why such a goal was worthwhile and how this benefited the student.

This need to ask "why" is a trait that is often associated with adult learning. Across the vast span of scholarly literature on teaching in academia, research generally divides students in two clear groups: traditional college-age students and adult learners. Cari Kenner and Jason Weinerman's 2011 paper, "Adult Learning Theory: Applications to Non-Traditional College Students," is one of many recent papers that refer to M. S. Knowles's 1984 distinction between college-age and adult learners, where the latter:

[...] are self directed, take responsibility for their own actions, and resist having information arbitrarily imposed on them. They have an extensive depth of experience, which serves as a critical component in the foundation of their self-identity. They are ready to learn. As most adult learners return to college voluntarily, they are likely to actively engage in the learning process. They are task motivated. Adult students returning to college attend for a specific goal and the primary component of their motivational drive tends to be internal.3

The need to know why comes from a need to know the value of whatever is being presented, be it an overarching goal, an idea or concept, or even a learning activity: adult learners resist information that has no clear function. And, as they are actively engaged in the learning process, they take on a greater ownership of the information presented. 

As a fellow at the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning and a part-time acting instructor in the Department of Music, pedagogical concepts of backwards design, active learning, and goal-oriented teaching have all played a central role in my approach to teaching. But, the experience of teaching a community of incarcerated adult learners who required me to answer the whys as well as the whats fundamentally changed my approach to education. Asking why encourages us to burst the hermetically sealed bubble that encapsulates a narrowly defined, content-driven approach and embrace a goal-oriented approach that is sensitized not only to wider educational goals appropriate for college-level education, but also to reconceive of our course goals as part of a longer, life-oriented trajectory.

1. See for more information on Cornell Universities Prison Education Program
2. See
3. Kenner, Cari and Jason Weinerman, "Adult Learning Theory: Applications to Non-Traditional College Students," Journal of College Reading & Learning (College Reading & Learning Association) Spring 2011, Vol. 41(2):88-89

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Are Good Teachers Born or Made?

My name is Jemilat Salami-Oyenuga and this is my first year serving as a McDougal Teaching Fellow for the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning. I’m a 3rd year PhD student in the Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology Department at Yale and currently serve as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course in Cell Biology.

This blog post was inspired by a conversation I had with a close friend of mine (also a graduate student but at a different institution). She is in the process of deciding whether or not serve as a Teaching Assistant for a lab course and expressed a deep concern about not being a “good enough” teacher to make a good TA. She echoed sentiments that I had heard from other colleagues who have struggled with confidence in the classroom because they just “didn’t have the flair for teaching.” 
My curiosity grew and I began looking into whether or not effective teachers are born or made. To my delight, this turns out to be a very popular conversation among educators over the years. From my readings, I find myself leaning towards the argument that effective teachers are MADE/RAISED/GROOMED. I have included some of my readings below for your reference.

Great Teachers: Born or Made?
Natural Born Teachers
Teaching the Teachers
Excellence in Teaching

I must say that I came across a number of valid arguments for the contribution of an innate gift to an individual’s teaching abilities. However, with the proper tools and training, the lack of some innate ability should not be an obstacle that prevents an individual from achieving teaching success. Even the most naturally talented teacher would fail to be effective in the classroom without implementing practical elements such as preparation, organization, knowledge/love of content, clarity, stimulating student interest and being respectful. Furthermore, this article highlights nine characteristics of great teachers and it is reassuring to see that 8 out of the 9 highlighted characteristics are skills that an individual can learn and put into practice. This concept ties in very nicely with what we do at the CTL; we provide students and postdocs with tools that allow them to become effective teachers irrespective of natural gifts/predispositions.
Moving on to my dear friend’s dilemma, I wanted to provide a starting point for her and other individuals struggling with the fear of not being effective teachers, to begin to tackle this challenge. I have compiled a (very) short list of resources below that provide helpful information/tools to help one navigate the apprehension that could come with teaching, especially for the first time.

Chapter 1: Teaching the First Class
Tips for First-time Teachers

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this discussion. Are good teachers born or made? Please also feel free to suggest other resources you have found helpful along your journey as a developing teacher.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Rat Race: An Exploration of Learning versus Performance

My name is Rob Wickham, and I’m a fifth-year graduate student in the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program and a first-year teaching fellow in the Center for Teaching and Learning here at Yale. My teaching experience includes formerly being a lab instructor at the University of Minnesota for a zoology course for two years, a Teaching Fellow at Yale in psychology and an adjunct professor at Albertus Magnus College.  

A big part of my research focuses on the neural mechanisms of learning, which in part, requires me to assess on a day-to-day basis whether or not the subjects in my experiments learn.  This got me thinking: "How do I know my students are learning?" or better yet…"What are my students learning?" Let's do a quick experiment to demonstrate why these questions matter.  

Figure 1: The rat can solve this problem in multiple, often unexpected, ways.

The experiment
Let's put a rat in a simple two tunnel maze (Figure 1). Each tunnel has a marking on the floor: triangle or star. The goal is to get the rat to learn that the path marked with the triangle leads to the cheese. Over multiple maze runs, he eventually starts going down the triangle path more and more often.  Mission accomplished...right? 

Let’s revisit our goal. Our goal was for the rat to learn that the triangle path leads to the cheese.  The rat performed the maze perfectly--he got the cheese, didn't he? But how do we know he completed the maze by using the symbols on the path? Maybe he guessed. Maybe he learned to choose "left", not "triangle". Maybe he smelled the cheese. Or maybe he did learn that the triangle path led to the cheese.  This is a classic example of the "learning versus performance" (LVP) problem.

The LVP problem, in its essence, is the task of determining "what" is learned by examining the performance, or behavior, of an organism.  Even for the simple maze, we cannot tell "what" the animal learned by simply examining its behavior.  We have to do a few tricks in order to tease this information out:
·         We have to counterbalance (i.e. switch the location of ) which path has the triangle on it.
·         We have to make the paths long enough so the animal can't smell the cheese (or mask the cheese smell with another smell).
·         We have to make sure the animal is not just going down the path that is "not the star". One way to do this would be to add a third symbol (e.g. square), in place of the star. The animal should then learn to avoid this path.
If we do all these things and the rat is still able to get the cheese, then we can probably assume that the rat learned that the triangle path leads to the cheese, and thus, his choosing of the triangle path reflects this learning.

The validity of an assessment
In the classroom, the LVP problem is analogous to assessment validity. Assessment validity is the ability of an educational assessment to predict the degree of learning in a student.  Assessments usually come in two flavors: formative and summative. Formative assessment is generally more informal, such as calling on a student to answer a question, and is used by the instructor to gauge student progress.  Summative assessment is generally more formal and is typically used to generate a grade (e.g. exams, presentations, papers). 

Whether formative or summative, a valid assessment permits good scores (performance) when the student has learned the material and poor scores when the student has not (Figure 2).  An invalid assessment can produce two distinct populations of students: overperformers and underperformers. An overperformer performs better than they should given how much they have learned, whereas an underperformer performs less than their potential given how much they have learned. I know producing an overperformer may sound like a good thing, but like the case of our rat friend, you do not know what your students are taking away from the class. Having a student ace a test, despite learning nothing, isn't much better than having a student fail a test, despite knowing everything.

Figure 2: Valid assessments occur when the degree of learning matches the degree of performance. Invalid assessments can occur either if a student performs below what is expected given the amount of learning achieved (underperformer) or if the student exceeds what is expected given the amount of learning achieved (overperformer).

The valid assessment has a particular relationship between learning and performance. Let's imagine we had perfect information about what our students learned and had the perfect assessment tool (Figure 3; blue dotted line).  Optimally, the relationship would be some variation of a line.  Thus, if a student learns X information they will have Y performance: no less, no greater. If the assessment is invalid, however, deviations from this line will occur. Overperformers will achieve higher scores (Figure 3; green dotted line) and underperformers will achieve lower scores (Figure 3; red dotted line), relative to what they should receive based on the degree of learning. 

Figure 3: Theoretical depiction of the relationship between learning and performance. Blue dotted line: maximum possible performance given the amount of learning achieved. Red dotted line: A student who underperforms.  For underperforming students higher degrees of learning don't produce comparable increases in performance, indicative of a failure to translate and express their knowledge. Green dotted line: A student who overperforms. For overperforming students, lower levels of learning produce higher than achievable performance, suggesting student is using strategies and skills other than the assessments tests.

Figure 4: Short-list of potential reasons for underperformance and overpeformance.

Underperformers and overperformers
A valid assessment minimizes the chances of creating underperformers and overperformers. One way to approach the creation of a valid assessment is to understand what makes an individual underperform and overperform. The reasons why a student may underperform are many and varied (Figure 4). Remember--they know the material, but they just simply cannot translate this knowledge into performance. Overperformers, on the other hand, are somehow achieving levels of performance that cannot be explained by their knowledge of the material. One caveat is that overperformers may be integrating information from outside the classroom to achieve these levels of performance. While not necessarily a bad thing, having students use skills outside of the ones taught in the classroom can be a detriment if they need the class skills for a future course or future learning.   

Making a valid assessment
Remember the goal of an assessment is to determine "what" is learned. Learning, unfortunately, cannot be directly measured, and we must use a person's performance to infer learning. Thus, assessment by its nature is a noisy process. That is OK, we are not seeking perfection.  However, there are some simple heuristics to get as close as possible! These tips will be placed in the context of minimizing creating underperformers and overperformers (Figure 4).

(1)  Generate specific learning objectives: The more specific your learning objectives, the more control you have over your students' learning. For example, the learning objective: "learn to integrate mathematical functions" is far too vague. There are numerous ways you can integrate mathematical functions and get the correct answer on an assessment. An alternative version, "learn to integrate functions by u-substitution," is far more precise. Now, the only way to get the correct answer is by using the approach outlined by your learning objective. Then, for the assessment, you can ask students to use this specific approach to answer a problem.  This approach minimizes the likelihood of generating overperformers.

The other benefit of generating specific learning objectives is that it is easier to match assessments to the objective.  Therefore, there will be less of a chance for an assessment that is incompatible (Figure 4: underpeformers) with the content.  For example, if you want students to "organize all the presidents of the United States in order of entering office,” you may want to have an assessment that does exactly that, such as providing a list of presidents and having students organize them. A less compatible assessment would be to have students list the presidents by recalling them (no list available) and then organize the presidents. This type of assessment would be incompatible with the learning objective, since the objective was to "organize" and not "list and organize."  Thus, specific and clear learning objectives can also aid underperformers as well. 

(2) Have students show their work: Permit students the opportunity to show what process they are using in their head.  Most people think of "show your work" for quantitative type problems. For the example above, having students show each step of performing u-substitution (demonstrating learning of the process) is fairly easy to ask. However, this approach can also be used for more qualitative subjects and assessments. For example, in writing composition courses, permit the student to comment on the margins (such as in Microsoft Word) to explain their writing process. Furthermore, the instructor can assign questions about the student's writing process . This also minimizes the likelihood of generating overperformers. Moreover, since showing work permits students to operate outside the bounds of an assignment, there are more opportunities for expressing their ideas. This will also help prevent underperformance.

(3) Use a variety of assessment tools: This approach is highly tailored to help potential underperformers translate their knowledge. In order to perform, a student must access the information they have learned.  Even if they can access the information, they must then translate this information into some observable form. Some students can more easily translate their ideas in writing versus speaking, or vice versa.  Moreover, some students can translate ideas more efficiently if asked a very specific question versus a general, open-ended one, or vice versa. Permitting more translation options for students will minimize underperformance.

(4) Match formative and summative assessments where appropriate:  Asking a student to do something on an exam that they have never done before will generate underperformers. This is not to say you shouldn't ask them to solve a novel problem; rather, the skill or approach required to answer the problem should not be novel. One way to prevent this is by matching the form of assessment in class and during the exam. For example, if you have students do a matching assignment to align the base pairs of DNA in class, also have them do it for a different sequence on an exam. The problem is different, but they are applying the skills and knowledge you want them to learn, and hence, creating a valid assessment.

Let's hear from you!
These heuristics are ones that I have come up with in my experiences as an instructor. Hopefully, they will be valuable to you, but I write them knowing that there are alternative approaches and strategies for creating valid assessments. Please comment below with any other suggestions/heuristics, comments, praise, or disagreements.  I would love to hear your thoughts!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Impact of Technology on Teaching

Sara Sanchez Alonso

Technology infuses classrooms with new devices, such as iPads and tablet computers, and it expands course offerings with a variety of online resources. It also provides new ways to enhance student engagement through innovative instructional techniques such as the “flipping the classroom” model or “blended learning” opportunities. However, the introduction of technology into the classroom may pose important challenges to instructors: how can instructors find time to learn these new techniques while simultaneously trying to integrate them into the classroom? Will they need to rethink and redesign their course’s objectives?  

These are some of the questions that will be explored in this year’s Spring Teaching Forum (STF), organized by the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, on April 24th. The discussions will revolve around the two-way interaction between technology and learning: first, how do learning goals shape the use of technology in the classroom? Second, how does this wide range of new tools enhance learning goals? In this post, instead of providing an answer to these questions, I will try to begin the conversation and motivate readers to start thinking about the topic. In particular, my goal is to make the concept of “technology” more concrete and accessible by presenting some ways in which new technological devices can impact the classroom.  

An online search for “teaching and technology” provides so many results, it can be overwhelming at first to choose where to start. The large number of results, however, shows that technology is already having a huge impact on our teaching, and it is worth exploring this interaction. Here are some of the ways in which we can start thinking about the impact of “technology” on teaching:

1. Collaborative Tools

Collaborative tools, such as blogs, wikis, Twitter or new platforms, such as “Piazza” provide new opportunities for interactions between students and instructors, as well as promote student-student interactions. Collaborative work, whether in pairs or small groups, increases learning gains, in terms of recall, critical thinking and application of concepts to new situations. With these new tools, teaching is not limited to class meetings, but active learning and feedback can happen outside of traditional face-to-face meetings. For example, blogs encourage online writings and threaded discussion groups, and the use of wikis, i.e. a webpage that anybody can edit, can help in creating group projects or group brainstorming.

2. Information Visualization Tools

Whether it is a small data set or complex data, technology offers tools that can help users visualize and structure information as well as analyze and manipulate that information in new ways.  One of the most common tools is Geographic Information Systems (GSIS), which allows users to manage and interpret geographically-reference data by showing the different patterns and trends. Another example would be JMOL, an online platform that allows users to view the chemical structure of molecules in 3D.

3. Flipping the Classroom

This new teaching approach consists of giving students a first exposure to the material before class and using in-class time for interactions that require understanding the concept through active learning activities. It does not require the use of technology, but tools such as online videos, podcasts and quizzes are becoming more prevalent in flipped classroom settings.

4. Tablet Computers

Tablet computers offer many possibilities for teaching. On one hand, they allow for better course management by providing gradebooks and annotations to mark up PDF files with highlights and texts. They can also enhance content creation in class through applications for concept mapping or music composition, such as “Mindomo” or “Symphony Pro”. Students can also use tablets as presentation tools with slideshow viewer applications, timers and or even digital whiteboards to draw or graph.

5. Online Courses

Despite the challenges posed by the lack of face-to-face contact and the additional prerequisite of computing skills, the number of online courses is growing. In addition, several online platforms have been created to support learning management online, such as “Sakai” or “Blackboard”. Here are several great websites with tips for creating an online course. Be sure to check them out!

There are many other ways in which technology can enhance learning, such as podcasts, and presentation software tools, but I hope this guide has served as a snapshot of the many shapes that technology in teaching can take. If you want to hear about the pros and cons of technology in the classroom and learn how to achieve a balanced technology-integration of your own, come to the Spring Teaching Forum on April 24th!

In the meantime, I want to close with a quote that I recently came across online:
Colleagues sometimes ask if a specific technology will enhance student learning. That’s a bit like asking whether a chalkboard or book will. Low-tech or high-tech, a tool’s learning benefits depend on when, where, how and why you use it.
- Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence, Carnegie Mellon

Have you used technology in the classroom? What was your experience? Let’s get the ball rolling on a great discussion! J