Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Skills vs Data in the undergraduate classroom

Originated as a comment over on Terminal Degree:

The students that we teach in the 21st century have a radically different capacity to process data versus acquire skills. This does not mean that they are less smart or less literate than were undergraduates 30 years ago--but the capacity of their intellects and the nature of their literacy are vastly different.

It's an ongoing adjustment, from our side as teachers, to re-order our sense of (a) the volume of material versus (b) the level of comprehension, skills, and command we expect of the undergraduates. At our campus, we are continually refining our realization that skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking critically) are a hell of a lot more important than data. At this point in the continuum of knowledge access, it's more important that undergrads know how to think about and where to look for data, than that they retain that data in their brains, absent references sources. This is tough for us as educators, because (at least my generation)/we come from a learning style that said you had to have both critical skills and command of data. In a changing educational environment, and with students whose learning and data-processing modes are so radically different, we can't expect that same level of data. Nor--if our job is to equip them for this world, rather than the world of 20 years ago--should we.

(3) Now to the current situation, and how you can help these kids maximize their retention and skills and minimize their stress. Here are learning/memory tools that seem to work well with our population and which the students can be shown how to use (they must create on their own, however--this aids retention). These can be described, demonstrated, drilled, and assigned in class:

  • Traditional memory jogs which still work but which the youngsters don't tend to be taught: flashcards, mnemonics, acronyms;
  • Memory tools that play to their essentially post-literate, highly-visual processing: timelines (a great tool, as they teach chronological organization in a visual way); color-coding different related topics; diagrams and "knowledge-clouds"; iconography (hugely important: they are very visually literate and their retention of data, when that data is linked to a visual image, is massively better);
  • Interactive and dynamic tools: study-groups, mock quizzes, team-against-team, "scavenger hunts" ("find me three examples of visual images that demonstrate the idea of Heroic Romanticism");

(4) Now to strategies about writing. One word: MODELS. The reason they cannot write (synthesize, read critically, organize their thinking, formulate a cogent argument, etc, etc) is because they are no longer taught in secondary school how to synthesize. They are taught to short-term-memorize random information and regurgitate on standardized tests.

They are remarkably acute at recognizing, following, extrapolating from, and expanding upon a model. This is how they build facebook sites; this is how they learn to take digital photos; this is how they learn to use an iPhone: they watch and imitate.

For the paper: take a class session and show them a paper blocked out into chunks (Intro containing abstract and thesis statement: Lit Review: Articulation of "need": Methodology: Examples with discussion: Conclusions including "implications for followup and parallel research"). The whole paper might be only 7 pages; each chunk I've cited might be 2 or 3 paragraphs only. But you would have a "telescoped" or miniaturized paper which could serve as a model.

Go into class and bring up a blank slide that just says

"Introduction: thesis & abstract"

And then talk it through, improvising several examples on unrelated topics. Have them take notes. Then go around the room and call on students to come up with a thesis statement about their topic (they'll all volunteer, because they see it might help jump-start the actual writing). Tease out and refine. Rinse and repeat.

This has two advantages: (1) it demonstrates the process by which an idea gets turned into a thesis or statement of an investigative problem; (2) it shows the students that this is essentially a mechanical process which can be imitated. And, it models the process (rather than simply describing it).

If all of the above measures are still insufficient to address student anxiety or lack of time, this is where you punt: if in your estimation, they simply and through no negligence of their own have too much to do, you have the right as the teacher to waive some portion of the paper assignment.

One year, for some concatenation of reasons, I came to the conclusion that my second-semester sophomore class simply had too much to do--that I was going to be dealing with some stress-induced nervous breakdowns if this continued. So I ran them through the 6 or 7 stages that preceded the final draft (thesis--abstract--short bib--background paper just giving factual basis--full bib--first draft) with the explicit message that all of this would lead up to the final draft, which would be the for-credit assignment.

Then, after we had completed all preceding stages and it was time to discuss the final draft, I went into class and told them that, this time only and in recognition that it was being a very hard semester for everyone, I had made the command decision that, provided a student had completed all previous stages in a timely and complete fashion, the final draft could be optional. Only those who had completed all previous stages could avail of this option, and any who wished to complete the final draft for extra credit were permitted to do so.

This had several results: (1) almost all the skills-building had already been completed in the preceding stages; (2) the final draft was the most unfamiliar and thus threatening stage; (3) it gave those who really wanted to write a paper the option of doing so and earning deserved extra credit; (4) it sent the message that meeting your obligations and deadlines can buy you leeway; (5) it meant that I was reading only final drafts that students had really cared about and worked on.

The potential loophole--that students who had not been conscientious would try to write the extra credit final draft to eek out a grade--was closed because those same students typically would not have completed the preceding stages.

There was the issue in subsequent years that students would hear through the jungle telegraph about the mythical semester "when Dr Coyote canceled the final draft", but it was fairly easy to disabuse those future students of false hopes.

I did this because I believe it's part of our larger job as educators to recognize that teaching the students sometimes admits of our *changing* a requirement if, in our expert opinion, that requirement is net-counterproductive.

Now playing: Frank Zappa - Moggio

1 comment:

Phoenix said...

I'm taking a course in pedagogy this quarter, and I'm really getting that relevance is one of the major keys to reaching students. Making sure the classroom is a place to experience learning in ways that can't be replicated online is absolutely crucial.

These YouTube bits underscore these points: