You can always tell when I am getting towards the end of the semester.  My posts in here start to become more frequent and this summer session is no different.  I had wanted this to be the Summer of Figuring Out What Worked Last Semester, but that hasn’t worked out so far.   Luckily there is still time.

Last semester I became a born again apostle of Dr. Sanjoy Mahajan, formerly of  MIT, who taught an extremely thought provoking course on teaching science which I listened to over the Winter break.  While he was addressing students that were generally teaching at a more advanced level than my non-majors course, many of the ideas seem likely to  translate generally.

One interesting idea he brought up is that, apparently, studies show that people’s enjoyment of an activity go down if you pay them for that activity.  This has big implications (potentially) for motivating students in my class.  He also emphasizes that many students can  “learn” the material in a course enough to understand how to do well on your tests without really understanding or believing in that knowledge.  He emphasizes that you have to address the fundamental misperceptions that sudents may have about the subject at hand.

Combined with my previous belief that students really can’t learn by just listening to me tell them things, that they have to struggle a bit on their own, I started the semester with several changes made to the way I teach.  One was a weekly quiz that focused on student’s misperceptions about the topic we would cover the next week; I did it online, opened it on Friday and Closed it on Sunday night.  “I don’t know” was an option on all of those quizzes (because I really really want to know if they aren’t confident in the answer) and I gave them 5% of their final grade points just for completing all quizzes.  The results were extremely useful in planning each weeks classes.  Many of these questions were from the AAAS Project 2061 Assessment site (I added the “I don’t know” option to try to have more confidence in student responses).  I may be writing more about the specific questions as I analyze the results, but I can tell you how shocked I was at my students’ very limited understanding of what happens to their food.  I wasn’t asking for specifics, just basics.  For instance, going into the metabolism section, it was helpful knowing that only 46% of my 26 students could answer this correctly:

Which of the following statements is TRUE about simple sugars getting from the digestive tract to cells of the brain and the cells of the skin?
a. The circulatory system carries simple sugars to cells of both the brain and the skin.
b. The circulatory system carries simple sugars to cells of the brain but not to cells of the skin.
c. Simple sugars get to cells of both the brain and the skin, but these molecules are not carried by the circulatory system.
d. Simple sugars do not get to cells of the brain or the skin.
e. I don’t know

I also made pains to not call students cold for answers, but instead first take a straw poll vote on their answer to a question, then asked them to discuss their answers, and then to revote (this is straight out of that MIT course).  It seemed to me that there was more engagment this semester than previously, and I had one student actually say “this critical thinking is making my brain hurt”.  “Seems to me” is not hard data though, so I need to carefully look at what happened last semester and see if there is any evidence that it was something other than that particular group of students.

Another useful idea that Dr. Mahajan raises is that of “cognitive load”.   In a nutshell, the amount of information chunks we can hold in short term memory is limited and “experts” are no different. As a person becomes more of an expert in a subject, they re-organize the information into bigger and bigger chunks – they can still fit the same number of chunks in short term memory, but the chunks are more complicated.  Novices, on the other hand, have their short term memory “flooded” if too much information is presented to them and they can make no progress.  There is actually some solid research behind this stuff (Google “George Miller Magic Number  7”).

I remember listening to one of the Dr. Mahajan’s lectures driving to campus as he covered this material – I erupted in “YES YES YES, Oh My God, I have SEEN MY students DO THAT”.  How many times had I showed the standard “carbon cycle figure” or the standard “summary of cellular respiration figure” and noticed that students couldn’t seem to put it together in class even though in smaller doses of either, they would seem to do well?  Answer: all the time.  I realize now that these figures are one “chunk” of information for me that I can move around and manipulate in short term memory whereas my poor students’ STM is completely flooded.  I tried some different things to alleviate this, but I am not sure it was any more (or less) successful.

Next post: what happens when I try to rush writing a grant to fund some new enquiry-based teaching techniques, try to find actual data on whether “enquiry-based learning” results in more learning, and discover the work of John Sweller.  I didn’t write the grant.

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About SubOptimist

I am an Associate Professor in the Science Department at Georgia Perimeter College, Clarkston. I teach introductory biology courses at both the majors and non-majors level in addition to microbiology. Previous to that I spent 7 years as a postdoctoral researcher on different viruses. While I don't miss being on the "grant treadmill", I think better when I write and miss writing up data for papers and grants; this blog helps me with that a little. And sometimes my kids' insanely funny and cute antics need to be shared with the world. Any view expressed in this blog is that of me personally and not Georgia Perimeter College or the GPC Clarkston Science Department.
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