Talking Teaching

October 2, 2016

unplugging a flipped classroom

The always-excellent Faculty Focus has been running a series on techniques for developing and running flipped classrooms. I’ve been reading them with interest, because – as some of you might remember – I’ve ‘flipped’ some (but not all) of my own teaching sessions.

Now, my own classes have been pretty low-tech; with the ‘design-an-organism’ classes (an idea that I learned from my colleague Kevin Gould), students are expected to do a bit of revision of their notes, but the actual lecture-room experience involves nothing more than group work + pens & paper (& a projector to share the results).  So the topic of a recent post naturally caught my eye: The Flipped Classroom Unplugged: three tech-free strategies for engaging students – not least because at my workplace there’s an increasing amount of discussion around ‘going digital’, and we need to take care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Dr Barbi Honeycutt’s list includes: adapting the ‘muddiest point’ feedback technique (except now it’s the students who analyse the comments for commonalities and patterns); mind-mapping; and a brain-storming challenge.

I use mind-mapping quite a bit in class, & also in my own thinking & planning. Barbi’s post reminded me of the PhD research of my friend (& then-student), Cathy Buntting, in which she had me teaching students in tutorial classes how to develop mind-maps using the same tools Barbi describes: post-it notes, pens, & large sheets of paper (in place of whiteboards). (Writing concepts on the sticky notes lets students move them around, revising their maps as their understanding changes.) We also encouraged the students to use concept maps in their revision & to plan essays in exams – and Cathy found that the sort of deep learning encouraged by this technique really paid off in those examinations: students who’d learned complex information using concept maps did much better on questions testing complex understandings than those who tended to use shallow, rote learning methods. (There was no difference between the groups when it came to rote-learning tasks.) She also found that a large majority of students thoroughly enjoyed these tutorial sessions and found the mind-mapping technique both enjoyable and helpful.

I’ve used concept mapping widely (though not exclusively; a range of tools is much better) ever since. However, in lecture classes it’s usually been as a means to show how to review knowledge of a topic & plan out an exam answer, after students have spent time in discussion. In future, I really must be a lot more active in encouraging their own use of this tool in lectures, & not just in the smaller, more manageable tutorial sessions.

Thank you, Faculty Focus!


September 21, 2015

does it help when we give handouts to students?

I seem to be asking a lot of questions in my posts lately.

Recently a teaching colleague pointed me at a post entitled 5 common teaching practices I’m kicking to the curb. While I’ve never used 4 of them, it’s common practice (at my uni, anyway) to provide students with a printed study guide** that contains much of the course content, and most of us also make the powerpoints available ahead of class. (In my case, they’re incomplete; I see no real value in providing absolutely anything that I’m intending to cover during a class.) The intention is that students will read through them ahead of coming to class, & identify the bits where they need to pay particular attention &/or ask questions. The reality, of course, is that some do and some don’t.

But the post my friend shared, plus my own recent learning around the effects of laptops in class, have made me think carefully about this practice. Like the author of that post,

[this] system, I felt, made it easy to catch up students who had missed class, and it prevented students from missing important points made during the lecture.

However, handing out a complete set of everything probably does send a message to some students that they don’t need to do anything further. And if they don’t engage with the material covered – in print & in class – then any learning is likely to be transient at best :( This leads me to think that I should be doing more to help students learn how to take notes that will be useful, in a way that means that they aren’t simply focusing on writing everything down & so failing to pay attention to what’s actually being said. This is important, as I’ve noticed that students will do exactly that (write it all down) for each novel slide. Fortunately help is out there, as the author of 5 common teaching practices includes some useful links, including this one to a University of Nebraska (Lincoln) page advising staff on how to help students learn to write good notes.

Perhaps it should be required reading for all of us teaching in first-year papers?


** or, in the digital era, a downloadable pdf :)

August 31, 2015

should we stop students using laptops during lectures?

I guess it depends on what they’re using their laptops for.

Most days when I come in at the back of the lecture room & walk down to the front, I’ll see a lot of laptops open & in use. Quite a few students will actually have the (incomplete*) powerpoint for the day’s class open on their screens, but quite a few others are on Facebook (or some arcane form of social media that I haven’t caught up with yet) or just surfing. So when a friend shared an article titled Professors push back against laptops in the lecture hall, I read it with interest & also shared it with one of our big FB student pages for some consumer opinion. (There’s some interesting commentary here, too.)

One of the major reasons many oppose laptop use is their potential to distract students from what’s going on in the classroom, and judging from the ‘consumer feedback’ I received, that can be quite a big issue:

I don’t begrudge others using them except when they are watching videos or checking facebook etc during lectures. That’s very distracting.

It’s only annoying and distracting when people take their laptops and play games or scroll Facebook. Which a lot of people do…

Somewhat surprisingly, that distractive effect extends to students putting their devices to what many of us would regard as ‘legitimate’ use ie searching for information directly related to the class. And I’ll admit, sometimes I’ll ask a student to look something up, especially if I think they’re doing something other than class-related work! For example, this brief report cites a study showing that

students who spent a greater proportion of time seeking course-related sites recalled significantly less than those who were more often browsing sites unrelated to the course (r = -.516, p. < .02).

And worse:

the more students used their laptops, the lower their class performance (β = -.179, t(115) = -2.286, p = .024), the less attention they paid to lectures (p = .049), the less clear lectures seemed to them (p = .049), and the less they felt they understood the course material (p = .024)

Yikes! This really piqued my interest, & led me to a 2014 paper by Mueller & Oppenheimer, which has the wonderful title, The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard. Here’s the abstract:

Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

I’ve certainly observed that many students struggle with long-hand note-taking, to the extent that I’ll get the occasional complaint that “she moves on to the next slide before I’ve copied it all down” in my teaching appraisals. (I do explain that they shouldn’t be ‘copying it all down’…**) And I type much faster than I write, so I can sympathise with students who want to use their laptops for note-taking in class. So did some of my students, commenting that

I actually find typing notes better for me, because my typing speed is so much faster than my writing speed.


I would hate it if we were not allowed laptops in lectures anymore! I’d miss half the notes and then have to go home and panopto lectures (or die if they weren’t panoptoed) which just takes up time that i could use studying all my notes properly.

Mueller & Oppenheimer’s paper has really got me thinking. They point out that there is a considerable body of evidence around the efficacy of note-taking, commenting that even without the distraction effect,

laptop use might impair performance by affecting the manner and quality of in-class note taking.

This could have that negative impact on learning by two routes: ‘encoding’, and ‘external storage’. ‘Encoding’ is valuable because – ideally! – students process information as they make their notes, and doing this enhances both their learning & their ability to retain information. ‘External storage’ refers to the ability to review and learn from notes at some later point, including notes taken by others: indeed, we employ note-takers to do this for students who are unable (for a variety of reasons) to take notes themselves.

An important question here is, what are students actually doing when they take those in-class notes? Are they actively summarising what’s been discussed eg via drawing a concept map, or writing a paraphrase? Or are they simply copying, word for word, every single thing I say & show in class?*** While some could argue, “but it doesn’t matter ‘cos I’ll write a summary later”, Mueller & Oppenheimer observe that

verbatim note taking predicts poorer performance than nonverbatim note taking, especially on integrative and conceptual items.

This underlies their suggestion that while laptops allow more rapid note-taking, if those notes are verbatim, then learning and understanding may actually suffer. In fact, they observe that

One might think that the detriments to encoding would be partially offset by the fact that verbatim transcription would leave a more complete record for external storage, which would allow for better studying from those notes. However, we found the opposite—even when allowed to review notes after a week’s delay, participants who had taken notes with laptops performed worse on tests of both factual content and conceptual understanding, relative to participants who had taken notes longhand.

So where do we go from here? I must admit to being a tad flummoxed at the moment – with the need to offer more flexible learning opportunities and  the current trend to ‘paperless offices’, we’re moving into a more highly digitised world and those laptops aren’t going to go away any time soon. How, then, to overcome the apparent negative effects they may have on student learning? If part of the problem lies with the ability to take appropriate notes, do we need to somehow teach this skill to all our incoming first-years?


* I mean, why would I give them the whole lot up front (including the answers to my in-class quizzes)?

** no, seriously! What I’d much prefer is that they read through the material I provide ahead of class, identify the bits where they have no idea what I’m talking about, & then that’s where they should focus any note-taking during class.

*** and if they are taking such fulsome notes – how much attention is being paid to everything else that’s going on in class: the questions, discussion, extra explanations?


August 28, 2015

does powerpoint make students stupid & professors boring?

The author of this article certainly thinks so. He kicks off with this:

Do you really believe that watching a lecturer read hundreds of PowerPoint slides is making you smarter?

I asked this of a class of 105 computer science and software engineering students last semester.

Well, first up, that’s a leading, and loaded, question. And secondly, I’d be surprised if anyone really believed that. Yes, I’m sure that there are lecturers who simply read off their powerpoint slides (which really is a no-no!). And what did we use in the days Before Powerpoint (BP)? Quite likely overhead transparencies, either printed or handwritten, and yes, some of us almost certainly had lecturers who simply read all the information off the transpareny. (I know I did!)

In other words, the header ignores the fact that Powerpoint is simply a tool. Nothing more, and nothing less. It cannot make anyone boring. That’s done by the person using it; similarly,  the way the tool is used will have a flow-on effecct on learners. Indeed, this was the focus of a post I wrote some time ago, and if you haven’t already read the 2008 paper by Yiannis Gabriel that I discussed therein, you should do so now.

A better question would be: how do we help professors to use powerpoint (& other technologies) in ways that better support student learning?

That, of course, requires that we are able to measure student learning in meaningful ways. And here I definitely agree with the author of the article:

Any university can deploy similar testing to measure student learning. Doing so would facilitate rigorous evaluations of different teaching methods. We would be able to quantify the relationship between PowerPoint use and learning. We would be able to investigate dozens of learning correlates and eventually establish what works and what doesn’t.

Isn’t it time that we got serious about doing this?



May 1, 2015

a learning experiment, and a pleasant surprise.

On Wednesday we ran our first whanau tutorial with the first-year students – a class for those students who identify as Māori. The driver for this was the observation that a disproportionate number of the Māori students in my first-year class didn’t do well in our first test, & as a result I asked Kevin, our Faculty’s senior tutor responsible for supporting Māori & Pacific Island students, to see if he could help me by setting up a whanau tutorial.

So he contacted all the Māori students in the class, sorted out a time & day that worked for them, and booked a room, & both of us organised some food and drink. Kev welcomed everyone & one of the students said a karakia (prayer) before we started. Brydget, the senior tutor who runs our first-year bio labs, came along, and so did one of the tutors from Student Learning – who took on the role of asking the ‘silly questions’, to show the students that asking questions really is a good thing & one that’s encouraged. Which gave me the chance to steal one of Brydget’s lines: that the only silly question is the one you didn’t ask :)

There was a test coming up and so the students wanted to work through questions from previous tests, plus they wanted to know how to learn (& remember) things like the characteristics of some animal phyla. I did a bit of talking but for much of the time we had the students working together in groups after a bit of an explanation from me. It was great seeing the energy levels, the engagement, and the fun in the classroom. Brydget & I both try for that when we’re teaching, but this was a whole new level. It was quite a salutory eye-opener for me, as I’ve liked to think I’m an ‘inclusive’ teacher, but I’d never had this level of engagement from this particular cohort before, and I’ve learned now that I still have a long way to go..

We ended up going way over time and the students were buzzing when they left. Kevin always does a survey for his group work and I was really looking forward to the results: there’s a lot of evidence available on the effect of supporting Māori students’ learning styles, but I wanted to see how our own students had perceived the session. Fourteen of the 16 attendees completed the survey, & it turned out that

  • all 14 agreed that they could understand the presenter.
  • they loved the learning environment, commenting that it was easier to ask questions; they liked the interactions and group work & the opportunity to work out the answers; felt that I’d explained things clearly & liked it that I made sure they understood before we went on to a new topic; the sheer informality & friendly environment went down well.
  • they’d all recommend it to their friends (yay!) & rated it as either very good or excellent
  • and felt it was a great way to revise.

As I said, a salutory learning experience for me. I’ve always tried to make classes inclusive, interactive & so on, but it was obvious that the set-up of this particular workshop – with its focus on a specific cohort – provided the spark that was missing.

Even better, next morning a lot of the whanau participants came along to a standard tut with a lot of other students there, as they usually do – but this time things were different. They were much more active in the class, spoke up more and asked more questions than before; their confidence was at a whole new level. They were the only ones to point out to me that I’d made a mistake with labelling a diagram :) (And I said thank you, & that I appreciated it, & it showed they really understood that particular topic.) And afterwards some came up to say how much they’d enjoyed the whanau tut, and a couple followed me back to my office to ask more questions – also a first. And after the test last night I heard that they felt they were much better prepared, this time round. (I haven’t started the marking yet, but I am sooo hoping that this translates into improved grades!)

So yes, we’ll continue this for the rest of the semester, and on into the next half of the year. There’s nothing novel in what we did, & I certainly can’t claim any credit (there’s a lot in the literature on how best to help Māori students in tertiary classrooms eg here, here, here, & here). I’m just mentally kicking myself, and wishing we’d done it much sooner.

And I’m thinking: the Tertiary Education Commission has identified Maori and Pacific Island students as groups that TEC would like to see increasingly more involved with tertiary education. And to do that, and to maximise their learning success, we do need to reorganise our classrooms: eg do more flipping; get used to a higher level of chatter as students work together to solve problems; reduce the formality inherent in a ‘normal’ teacher-driven lecture class & sometimes become learners alongside our students. And that requires recognition that students’ needs have changed since those of my generation were on the learners’ side of the lectern, and that learning styles can and do differ & can be accommodated by using a range of teaching techniques. In other words, a classroom culture shift – one that sees educators recognising that they, too, can be learners when it comes to meeting the needs of a changing student demographic.

And of course, the evidence is already there that making these changes benefits all students.

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