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.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Assessment: Our Cultural Love Affair with Standardized Tests

The Chicago Teacher's Union strike this week has brought to mind again our culture's codependent relationship with standardized tests.  I specifically chose to describe this relationship as codependent to emphasize how standardized testing controls and manipulates our educational systems.  Instead of being focused on learning, standardized tests focus students on memorizing unrelated and disparate facts in an attempt to prove knowledge and intelligence.  What's worse is that they give an illusion to the rest of the country that there is one acceptable knowledge, that which the exam creators decided to emphasize.

The desire to have some type of knowledge test is easy to understand.  American's are by cultural indoctrination pragmatists.  We want to see the "results".  We want the "evidence".  We hate nebulous answers.  The problem is...learning is not cut and dry.  People learn in different ways, and we process information in different ways.  For example, multiple choice logic problems are easy for some people, but difficult for others.  Sometimes it  is individual, and at other times you can see cultural trends at work.  Standardized tests are ultimately a HORRIBLE way of showing that students have LEARNED.  They do not show the effectiveness of teachers, unless you are looking at how well the teacher taught the test.  I often wonder, have we ever really looked (as a culture) at whether the tests reflect what we think students should be able to do?  Even most of the reading comprehension and math standardized tests seem to miss the mark when it comes to discovering what students have learned.

The prime problem with these exams:  They are easy to administer and grade.  Most of all, they provide wonder numbers which can then be turned into graphs.  Let's ignore the ability to manipulate that data.  Instead, let's just focus on the idea that it is easy for administrators.  A district can just order the tests in bulk, give them at an assigned time, then bulk process them.  The computer then shoots out lots of number....YEAH...Evidence!  But is it good evidence.

One thing I emphasize with my students is that you must look at the underlying assumptions.  What follows are two core assumptions I see in standardized testing.  There are more, but I'm going to start here.
Assumption 1:  All people of the same age (grade) have the same ability to process information.
  • This is a bold assumption, and does not hold very well.  Even adults have different abilities to process information. 
  • This goes back to the industrial model of the American public school system.  All children of age X are sorted into grade Y.
  • But do all children have the same capabilities?  NO.  Some may be better in math than others, some stronger readers, others stronger writers.
  • Core Issue:  Each human being is unique (unless you have an identical twin).  So we each have unique capabilities.
Assumption 2:  All ethnic groups have the same mental models when they enter school. 
I remember one seminar on this topic where the speaker was talking about different thought processes (models) that African American students can come to school with.  It was dealing with what would see as a simple question:  draw a line between two point.  The children's answer was:
It is a line between two points.  Of course, teachers and standardized tests would count this as a wrong answer, but it does satisfy the paramaters of the question. 
  • Children come to school with preconceived ideas (notions) based upon their familial and cultural upbringing.
  • This changes the lens though which they receive information.
  • Again, no two children are alike.

For me, the greatest problem with these exams is that they are attempting to standardize human intellect and knowledge.

In regards to teachers, it is absurd to relate the effectiveness of a teacher to standardized exams throughout primary and secondary schooling.  The exams are not giving us clean data, but instead, data based upon the illusionary concept of a human norm.

NOTE: When you get to specific knowlege (i.e., discipline specific knowlege), I can see using standardized exams a little more (such as the American Chemical Society's collegiate exit exams). I just don't think the general education exams are really giving us the evidence they say they are giving.

Monday, September 10, 2012

How do I like to teach?

Wow, what a loaded question.  It came from Week 2 tasks of  #potcert, specifically the getting started chart.  This may be one questions very few people ask themselves.

Most people are comfortable in the way they teach, but do they like it?  I was very comfortable with the lecture style, and I was good at it.  Since I love storytelling, and have an acting background, it was easy for me to stand up in front of a class and just churn out information.  But did I like it?  It was comfortable.  Was it effective? NO.  When I saw the same students as juniors and seniors, I could tell that most of them did not remember the material. 

At this point, I should differentiate students.  It is ultimately all about the audience, and with the classes I teach, I have different audiences.  First there are my college freshmen who are majoring in biology.  There are a number of challenges with them, not the least of which is deprogramming how they have learned to game the educational system, i.e., get good grades without studying. 

Then there are my pre-nursing students.  They're taking biology to satisfy the requirements to get into the nursing program.  Here you have two types, the hyper motivated who take the initiative to ready and study daily, and those who have no idea how to study.  This second group has a high tendency to fail or withdraw because the class is "too hard."  Never mind they never came to talk to their instructor, or in many cases, showed up for class.  Still, these pre-nursing classes tend to be very bimodal in grade distribution.

In both cases, I was comfortable with the lecture format.  With the majors, I saw that it was very ineffective.  The students thought all they had to do was come to class and listen.  They never sat with the concepts, never did practice problems, or anything.  They passed the exams by cramming, but they never learned.  The good pre-nursing students studied like made, but all they learned were pieces; they rarely saw the whole picture.  The unprepared pre-nursing students most of the time fell away before I could intervene (larger class sizes).  In both cases, I saw that moving to more online assignments, such as quizzes and papers, helped.

But I realized that more was needed.  That is when I moved to a more involved online presence.  One of the things that seems to be the most effective is daily newsletters, but I realize I'm on a tangent.

Back to my original thought:  How do I like to teach is an interesting question, and one that I don't think many people consider.  It gets confused with issues of comfort and ease.  The problem is, is what I like to do effective?  This is the second question we have to ask ourselves.  It may be easy to lecture, but is it effective?  It may be easy to record a lecture and distribute it, but is it effective?  I may like case studies, but are they always effective?

It is a great question to ask yourself. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

To blog or not to blog...

I was reading Vanessa Vaile's reflection on a Facebook discussion about "why blog?", and it got me thinking.  In teaching, I've used blogs and forums, as well as Facebook and twitter.  While I may have likes and dislikes among the different forms, the one thing that they have in common is that they get people talking.  That for me is the most important thing.

Life sciences are conceptually heavy.  Unlike chemistry and physics, where you are doing a fair amount of math in the introductory classes, biology focuses on having the students build conceptual models.  It helps to talk these models out.  It helps to have feedback so that you know your going in the right direction.  It's important to start communicating these.  If it starts the students talking about their discipline, then it's a good thing.

Personally I like blogs.  They are a space in the digital world that I can call my own :).  Where I can put my thoughts down, and let people come in and discuss them.  But, they can also be unwieldy for the novice.  Getting my freshmen to set up blogs and use them can be rewarding and frustrating.  Realizing that they won't use them once the semester is over; really frustrating.  The larger the class, the harder it is to get them to really make their blog a learning environment.  But the worst is getting them to visit each other's blogs.  It amazes me sometimes how resistant students can be to click on another link for class.

Even with a centralized RSS feed, I found students reluctant to go to each other's blogs and post comments.  So I started using other tools.  The first was the social framework called Oxwall.  It worked wonderfully.  Each student had a blog space that they didn't have to decorate and customize (like WordPress), and it built a Facebook like feed.  The problem was that it was hard to build other activities. 

So this year, I'm trying Moodle.  It is a great LMS platform, and highly customizable.  Instead of blogs, I'm using forums for their daily challenges.  Strangely, I'm getting them to respond to each other more though this system than I did in Oxwall.  I think this is because each daily challenge has an independent forum.  They don't have to hunt for things to comment about.  That I think is the ultimate key, novices have not learned to effectively hunt for information and learning opportunities.

OK, they have also never been taught to appreciate and take advantage of learning opportunities (i.e., the grade is all that matters mentality).

I'm not a great fan of Facebook when it comes to undergraduate learning.  There is far too much signal to noise.  Students either never go there (because it's boring) or it takes on a life different than the intended community function.

Twitter is better, especially if you want to get students to start thinking about their discipline outside of class.  I love sending students tweets asking them to think about how knowledge of X (genetics, metabolism, etc...) affects how they look at things.  I also get some great feedback from them.

Like so many things, the audience is what you have to look at first.  Having focused forums seems to help my freshmen.  They can focus on their challenges without having to try to figure out how to build and maintain a blog.  Now, if our school began emphasizing ePortfolios, I would revisit having my freshmen maintain blogs.  Until then, using forums seems to be a great middle ground.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Joining the Pedagogy First Discussion

This week, I started picking up messages on my feeds about Pedagogy First!, a year long open course dealing with online teaching (and learning).  I commented on some of the blogs I follow, and then started looking at some of the conversations that have started during this first week of the course.  Enjoying a good challenge, and looking forward to inspiring discussions, I decided to join in.

As reflection is a great way to analyze your experiences, I decided to reflect on my foray into hybrid online/face-to-face teaching.  My discipline is biology, which is a very content heavy subject.  Traditionally the introductory levels are focused on low level Bloom's objectives, mainly remembering and some understanding.  In teaching college seniors, I started to see a problem; they were not remembering foundational concepts, and they really didn't understand their supposed major.  As with so many disciplines, there is an overall picture of life science that is made up of individual jigsaw puzzle pieces.  We use to start with having students memorize the pieces, and then later they would see where the pieces fit until they saw the whole picture.

Unfortunately, our society started changing the goal of education.  A common meme is that all you need is an AWhile a good grade is important when applying to medical school, so is understanding your discipline.  "What are you going to do when you get to med school," I once asked a student who had horrible study skills and time management.  Her replay, "I'll start studying then."  My response, "when will you learn how to study?  Do you expect to miraculously change?"  Over the last few years, I've realized that my A students, the ones who I'm suppose to consider as my best students, were cramming and flushing information.  When I saw them as juniors and seniors, they could not answer simple questions that I know they had answered when they were freshmen.  I was despondent about teaching, so I decided to start at the ground floor and reconsider my teaching goals:  "what did I really want them to leave my freshmen class with?"  While content is always important, I realized that I wanted them to start putting the puzzle pieces together.  I wanted them to learn how to learn.  I wanted them to realize that they were building a mental framework, a foundation, where they could hang further, deeper information about biology.  Ultimately, I wanted them to be active learners.

So I started to transform my classes.  I originally used the term MOOC, but as Lisa Lane pointed out in her blog, the term MOOC really does not apply to what I'm doing.

For seven years, there had already been a heavy set of online activities for my students, and I had tried to get them to participate in discussions, forums, and even group papers.  I've done active learning and case study exercises.  Each had high points and low points, but I was still missing the important piece, getting the students to sit with biology, explore the concepts on their own, and really work at learning.

When I started my Biology MOOC, the goal was to have students blog daily about topics in biology.  I sent them out a daily newsletter to keep them focused, and each newsletter contained a challenge they were to blog about.  Three times during the semester, they would compile information they had been writing about, and build a Milestone paper.  At the end of the semester, the three milestone papers became a Learning Reflection paper.  At each milestone, they also had an online test, with an in class comprehensive final at the end.  As for points, very few things were high/punitive point values.  Most of the points were small, and there were variable pools of points so that students had multiple ways of earning some points.  The goal was to get student working throughout the week on biology, instead of the day before the exam.

It actually worked better than I thought it would.

I've been working on a new platform, and with the help of our University Relations department, there is now a logo and badge system.  The current open courses can be found at http://www.bologsu.us/mBOLO/ .  More information about Project BOLO (Biology Online Learning Opportunities) can be found at www.bologsu.us

Looking forward to interacting with everyone throughout Pedagogy First.