Practical formative assessment

It is intuitive that teachers should constantly monitor the learning of their students, and then use this knowledge to constantly adjust – or completely re-imagine – their pedagogy. In practice, however, this takes considerable and maintained effort, and it can be hindered by external pressures from administration to “cover” a certain range of topics and from students to reduce workloads and keep things fun.  A number of suggested classroom assessment techniques (CATs) are given by Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching that are relatively easy to implement and, interpreted carefully, can greatly inform the relative success of different teaching methods and give feedback on what topics should be covered in more detail.  One suggestion I found interesting was the What’s the Principle CAT, decribed here:

The What’s the Principle? CAT is useful in courses requiring problem-solving. After students figure out what type of problem they are dealing with, they often must decide what principle(s) to apply in order to solve the problem. This CAT provides students with a few problems and asks them to state the principle that best applies to each problem.

I like the stated intent to understand the thought-process of the students as they approach problem solving, but I’m wondering how well it would be received in practice.  Many students  are going to have difficulty identifying such an abstract concept when faced with a new type of problem to solve, and I wonder how much extra time a professor would need to spend describing what is meant by the term “principle.” I have not had much teaching experience, so I could be way off.  Those of you who have more experience, have you tried this approach?  Do you find the extra time investment to be worthwhile in longterm development of problem solving skills?


My teaching perspective

For your personal edification and mine, I thought I’d share my results from the Teaching Perspectives Inventory:

Transmission total: (Tr) 32.00
B=10; I=10; A=12

Apprenticeship total: (Ap) 31.00
B=11; I=12; A=8

Developmental total: (Dv) 35.00
B=12; I=13; A=10

Nurturance total: (Nu) 31.00
B=11; I=12; A=8

Social Reform total: (SR) 25.00
B=8; I=10; A=7

Beliefs total: (B) 52.00
Intention total: (I) 57.00
Action total: (A) 45.00
Mean: (M) 30.80
Standard Deviation: (SD) 3.25
HiT: (HiT) 34.00
LoT: (LoT) 28.00
Overall Total: (T) 154.00

If you’ve never seen this before and have no idea what this is about (as I hadn’t) I’d encourage you to follow the link to read about the significance of each category.  The jist is that everyone comes to the teaching role with some previously held opinion of what teaching should be about, and what a teacher’s Goals (not just goals) are.  The inventory asks some questions and attempts to clarify what perspectives you hold.  For me, only one category, Development, scored high enough to be a “dominant perspective,” while Transmission, Apprenticeship, and Nurturance all scored fairly high, and poor little Social Reform scored as a “recessive perspective.”  Development, Transmission, and Apprenticeship all do in fact ring true to me with regard to what a “good teacher” should provide, in engineering, at least.  Engineering is primarily a “doing” profession that – rightfully – values real-world experience, and it is based on mathematical laws and principles that are very concrete and therefore conducive to being taught systematically, as the Transmission perspective suggests.  These aspects of the field probably are behind my respect for the Transmission and Apprenticeship perspectives.  Ultimately, however, if an engineer is to be anything other than a technician (and to avoid being replaced by a computer), he or she must develop and maintain a very sophisticated thought process.  It is this aspect of the Developmental perspective that I cling to the most; engineers are creators as much as artists, and so must have the same appreciation for the abstraction of ideas and recontextualization of familiar strategies and concepts.  Engineering professors, therefore, should be constantly developing the skills necessary to reassemble the mathematical and scientific tools at hand into something simultaneously achievable and useful.  This is an art, and it is what separates us (engineers) from machines.

Incidentally, it’s not that I don’t care about Social Reform; I just don’t think it has so much to do with my role as a teacher as it does my role as a human being. In engineering, some of the “values and ideologies that are embedded in texts and common practices within [the discipline]” (from the description of the Social Reform perspective) could be enumerated as

  • the reliability of your work (e.g., can I guarantee that a genetically-engineered strain of bacteria is harmless to people and the environment),
  • effectiveness (this will work as described),
  • and efficiency.

I want to inspire and demand these and other more general values whether I’m teaching or not.  It’s not that teachers, engineering or otherwise, should not care about Social Reform; this is just what I feel was my main objection with the questions in the survey which were obviously leaning in that direction.

Utilizin’ what we’re theorizin’

I mentioned in a previous long-winded comment that this past summer I had a less-than-perfect teaching experience with an intro to chemistry class.  I’ll likely be repeating that course this summer, so I figured as long as I’m thinking about how I might apply all these theories re: the science and art of teaching, I may as well be looking at a practical example.  I’m a teaching assistant, so I don’t have much control over the design of the course, but I’m in charge of the problem solving session, so I can structure that as needed.  While I’m at it, I’d love to have your comments and suggestions.

To begin, I need to properly assess the knowledge of the incoming students so that I can teach from what they understand already, and I need to shape the teaching to that.  Chemistry is at its core a problem-solving discipline that taps a wide variety of mathematical tools and scientific knowledge.  I’m reminded of this conclusion from How People Learn regarding the transfer of learning:

Skills and knowledge must be extended beyond the narrow contexts in which they are initially learned. For example, knowing how to solve a math problem in school may not transfer to solving math problems in other contexts.

They have likely at least seen the algebra necessary to manipulate equations for unit conversions, but they’ve likely never had to custom-build an equation to reach a goal, or if they have, they’ve forgotten.  How can I lead them to this tool in their memory in a meaningful and lasting way?

The other challenge last year was motivation.  It’s not a stretch to anyone’s imagination that unit conversions ad nauseum can be pretty boring and uninspiring.  But it’s an essential and basic skill that actual chemists and engineers use pretty regularly.  How can I impart an urgency to them to attack these problems without discouraging them or sounding condescending?

How to teach a Calvin

Onechop4u drew an interesting connection to the comic strip character Calvin:

Calvin has a very active imagination and this contrasts sharply with the real world around him that contains people and rules. In public school, he is the terror of his teacher Mrs. Wormwood who realizes that he is very bright but that he refuses to study and prefers to recess to class and playing outside to homework. He routinely fails tests.

How do you deal with such a student?

This video has been around a while, so you may have seen it, but it’s worth a watch if you haven’t, and I think of Calvin everytime I see it.

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Closed-circuit learning

It’s a stretch, but I think the learning process might be understood in comparison to an electrical connection to a battery.  Bear with me.  The student is any electrical device, but to maximize the learner imagery, let’s say the student is a lamp with a light bulb ready to light up. The teacher is any old, fully-charged battery providing a few basic services: (1) high voltage, (2) low voltage (or ground), and (3) a secure mount in which all leads can connect firmly. When the student has sufficient motivation to plug in, connections are made and ideas can flow.  This is not a one-way thing for either the student or light bulb.  The plug only works and the light only shines when electricity can flow in a complete closed circuit.  This is the purpose of the ground or low voltage on the battery, and this is the purpose of feedback and listening in the teaching process.

The metaphor upholds for the role of student engagement, as connections must be firmly made for electricity and ideas to flow.  One thing the metaphor does not cover well, however, is who is responsible for student engagement.  Certainly the teacher is responsible for providing clean, corrosion free “leads” to which the student can connect. But is this the end of the teacher’s responsibility? And to what extent can a student be expected to be self motivated for something about which they know very little?

The teacher-learner relationship

The relationship between a teacher and student is complex and dynamic, making it impossible  to pin down an “ideal” example of such a relationship; however, it can be constructive to explore the characteristics that enable and promote effective learning.

Necessary and sufficient:

  1. Trust – Any positive relationship depends on a certain level of trust, and this one is no different. Specifically, the student must obviously trust that the knowledge and experience of the teacher is both accurate and valuable, and both parties must be able to trust that the other is applying an honest effort toward the creation of learning.
  2. Effort – Both parties must apply some effort towards the learning process. Real progress cannot be expected if either party simply “shows up” and waits passively for learning to happen.
  3. Open communication – It is obvious that some communication must occur for knowledge to be transferred from one person to another.  It is especially helpful if the channels for this communication are clear of obstructions like confusing language or terminology. In many instances, it can also help to be clear and open about the learning process itself; for example, many engineering students regularly feel cheated upon entering the real world and learning that no real engineer actually ever uses many of the governing equations they were taught. If the context of the material being taught were made more clear – e.g. “you’ll never use this in real life, but look how mathematical simplification can obscure complexity and give us predictions we can actually use – the student is more likely to pay attention in the first place, and retain the understanding later.

Bonus traits:

  1. Actual knowledge – Optional! Of course this helps, but any two people can share their understanding of a topic about which neither has any prior knowledge. Provided good buy-in and communication from both parties, this is probably one of the most effective ways of generating new ideas and thorough understanding.
  2. Clear goals – this is similar to the above-mentioned openness about the learning process.
  3. Appreciation of learning styles

What are your thoughts on the ideal student-teacher relationship?  How about examples of the good and bad that you’ve experienced before?