Sideboards are Just Swell

In a previous post, I mentioned finding the work of John Sweller while frantically preparing for a teaching grant to allow me to get more “enquiry-based learning” going on in my classes. Sweller argues that.. well, consider this title of one of his papers: “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching”. Pretty clear where he is coming from, and he supports his argument with lots of data (although its nearly impossible for me to check the primary data on this). Its taken me a whole summer to let this compost in my head, and finally there is something growing.

Right up until the night I read this paper, I was of the opinion that students learn best when they DO something with the information given in class and that lecturing was something I had to limit to short bursts that had a chance of being remembered. Do-ing can be as simple as formulating a question or as complicated as designing/performing an experiment in class. I also felt (and still feel) that it is important that students push themselves (or be pushed) to a point where they are a little uncomfortable: asking them questions that push them out of their comfort zone (although not to far). By the end of Spring 2012, I was envisioning changes to my teaching that would result in me talking a lot less and students talking or working more. This Sweller calls the “minimal guidance” approach to teaching. I never quite succeeded at it; typically I would start a semester with some overly-planned activitites that had students do-ing, then start to panic as our progress through the content slowed way down, then switch to more typical lecture format (which I felt guilty about).

This paper caused me some pause as it suggested that there are times when good old lecturing really is the best thing to do. Especially with students who are novice learners (which constitutes a good number of my non-majors courses); apparently several studies suggest that novice learners come out of “minimalist guidance teaching” knowing LESS than when they came in.

I know there has to be literature supporting the possibility that minimal guidance works, but so much of the literature I have seen is either fluff or behind paywalls. I have found a good motto in life is that the truth almost never lies at either extreme, and this is undoubtedly true here.

The seed I mentioned to be growing has the word “cognitive load” on its stem. Sweller argues (along with Dr. Sanjoy Mahajan, whose course at MIT Opencourseware should be required for all teachers) that you have to pay attention to what your students can fit in to their short term memory as you present material. The way I am getting at this is by asking the facilities department at my school to put up dry erase boards on the side of the rooms I teach in. I won’t bore you with room descriptions, but let’s just say that with the previous room setup, you had very little space to write on if you showed anything with the projector, consequently very little could stay up the entire class to refresh students’ memory of the thought path during that lecture. I had some success using a side board at the campus I taught at over the summer to keep a running concept map that I & the students could refer back to…. hopefully I can build on that with the new boards.

Update 9-20: turns out that room design is an issue and its hard to take advantage in a full class room if there isn’t space. Still trying….

Update 12-15:  I gave up on this idea soon after as other, more pressing variables arose.  The biggest of these other variables is planning classes that gives students the opportunity and safe space to voice questions, something I don’t think I did well enough in  one of my classes this semester.  I am still trying to think of ways to keep fundamental but complicated information in the student’s field of view as “we” (which was really “I” too much) explore different aspects or examples of that information.  For instance a summary cartoon view of glycolysis, TCA cycle, electron transport chain and ATP synthase as we explore what happens when bacteria metabolize sugars versus proteins, or when they grow in an anerobic (large intestine) versus aerobic (skin) environment.

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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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One Response to Sideboards are Just Swell

  1. Pingback: Thinking about thinking Ft Mountain 2017 I | California Southern

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