This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

cognitive dissonance

I realized that I need to return to blogging more regularly, so I can keep my ideas in order.  Build a diary of thoughts regarding learning.  This post was named cognitive dissonance to reflect reflect where I am right now on a great many topics.  So listing these topics and reflecting on them seems in order for now.

1)  Experience vs. Learning:  I've been going through the PLA classes offered at DePaul University through CAEL.  I started these because I wanted to join a discussion about adult learning and different ways of assessing learning.  The courses have blown some of my preconceived idea out the window, and really expanded my perspective on learning and assessment.

One of the major themes that has struck me is the disconnect most people have between experience and learning.  Our learning is based on our experience, but I don't think all experiences lead to learning.  Experience may modify a behavior, but you may not have "true" learning from it.  While this is still an embryonic thought for me, there is an example I can give.  A student sits in a class and experiences a lecture, they cram for the exam, get a good grade and move on.  Did the student learn?  The exam says that they "mastered" a subject, but when they in the next class in the sequence, it becomes clear that they do not understand the subject.  They experienced the lecture, they experienced the exam, but they did not learn.  I guess I need to define learning:  my current idea about learning is knowledge in context.  That a person can relate an experience to the intellectual models of a discipline.  For now, let's call it Bloom's Level 4 (Analysis), but I'm not sure if I can yet really define this by Bloom's.  I should also say that I'm working with college-age students, not younger.  Younger students may need drills, repetition, etc....  That is another topic.

So the question becomes how to translate an experience into learning?  My answer is reflection.  Take knowledge and perceive it through the lens of your academic disciplines.  I need to go further in that, but this is just an initial foray at present.

2) Pedagogy vs. Andragogy:  A friend of mine about a decade ago, who was also a college teacher, said that what we do is andragogy, not pedagogy.  She explained it, and I read up on it, then did nothing with it until about a year ago.  I had to grow a little and question some assumptions before I could come back to this.  In helping my partner study for nursing school, I came upon Erikson's Stages of Development.  People who study education may wonder how I didn't come across it earlier.  I'm a microbiologist and ecologist; it was never a model I came across in my discipline studies.

Having reviewed the Erikson model, and looking at reviews, critiques and uses of it, I've come to realize that it is a powerful lens for educators.  Most students at a college, even non-traditional, fall in the 6th Erikson Stage: Intimacy and Solidarity vs. Isolation – Love.  It is not what happens in this stage, but what has occurred before that is important.

College age students have already past through Erikson Stage 4 (Industry vs. Inferiority – Competence), and Erikson Stage 5 (Identity vs. Role Confusion – Fidelity).  In stage 4, the child is learning new skills and knowledge.  This is the time of their early schooling, and the goal, hopefully, is to lead a child to Industry, meaning that they receive praise for what they are doing, and so continue to grow and learn.  If they don't receive the positive reinforcement, inferiority can result.  But the growth is still directed from the outside, by teachers and parents (authority figures).

In stage 5, an important shifts happens:  before stage 5 growth is due to what is done to you, but in stage 5 and later growth is about what the person does.  Growth is no longer dictated by authority figures.  Now depending on which Erikson scale you look at, college Freshmen and Sophmores are either in this stage or in the next, but the key still lies in the fact that in this stage a person's growth should be self-directed.  I believe a major problem stems from this: this is a time when people should be learning self-direction, but instead society is creating a role for them as a high school student, and our education system dictates what should be learned.  Have we systematically created a Role Confusion in high school students, a Role Confusion that persists into college?

The heading for this topic was pedagogy vs. andragogy.  Is there a difference in how you teach a child and how you teach an adult?  Yes.  Is there a difference in how a child, a college age student, and an adult learn?  I think there might be.  I would say that the college age student will be more like the adult learner in that they need autonomy, but they are unlike an adult learner because they are not a self-actualized learner.  (For me, a self-actualized learner is someone who seeks out learning experiences, and then reflects upon them, turning the experience into learning, i.e., construction of new models, expansion of models, or new insights into models).  Ultimately, pedagogy and andragogy are terms that describe teaching models and methodologies; but they don't address learning.

3)  Learning Outcomes:  Like many instructors around me, I inherited my list of learning objectives from my department and long term faculty.  I looked at them, added them to my syllabus, but really never thought about them.  They were just a list of topics that were to be covered in the class.  Now I'm revisiting them.

For a while now, I have been asking my colleagues, "what should a biologist look like when they leave our program?"  Basically, what are the skills, competencies and knowledge we expect them to leave with?  No one has answered me.  They either want to discuss it in a meeting, think it is a good discussion for just a subset of our students, or it makes them uncomfortable.  Sometimes the answer is "our curriculum speaks to this," but when you look, the curriculum is just a series of classes, not a discussion of competencies.  As stated above, a student can sit in a class, get good grades, but still have not growth in knowledge, ability or skill.

Last year, I became aware of the Bolonga accords, and this year I've agreed to help our VPAA on a project supported by the Lumina foundation regarding learning outcomes.  Of course, my core interest is in finding new methods of assessing the learning outcomes of my classes.  From what I have written above, I am starting to realize that student reflection on material is a key to learning.  Incorporating that reflection is difficult.  One thing that has to be done though is to convert the learning objectives into learning outcomes, and communicate these to the students.  Not just show them the list, but really help them to see them as their guide.  One other thing to do is to help them build their own learning objectives.

4)  Digital and Information Literacy:  College-age students may be able to text faster than lightning, but do they know how to perform an effective search?  Do they know how save files in different formats?  Do they know how to use most of the tools provided to them?  While many keep insisting that they do, my experience is that they don't.  Unless it is about games, shopping, social networks, or news, most of my students struggle to use digital resources.  I am guilty of taking digital and information literacy for granted.  I learned how to use card catalogs and annual abstracts, and my thought was "so why can't they?"  I have been appalled at what my students consider acceptable resources.  This goes beyond just citing Wikipedia (which they know not to do), to finding obscure and blatantly false material.  Oh, and when you ask a student why they can't reference Wikipedia, the almost universal answer is "because it is not accurate."  Yet it has shown to be accurate in a lot of disciplines (luckily biology is one of those).  So why can't they use it?  It is an encyclopedia.  They never learned that an encyclopedia is never considered an acceptable academic source.  Heck, they have problems understanding why we always italicize the scientific names of organisms:  they are all in Latin.  You italicize foreign words (basic English).  So, I'm going off topic.  The realization is that students don't know how to deal with information or digital tools.

I'll get back to this later.  :)


  1. Thanks. I realized that there are a lot of thoughts going through my head, and I needed to really start dissecting them.