Engaging Students in Learning

Hello All, I’m Chris Griffin, a GII in Biological Sciences. I would like to focus on student engagement. I teach Bios 1500X, which is an experimental course designed to help students who have struggled with Bios 1700 (the first of the major intro series). Students start in  Bios 1700, and if they fail the first exam, we encourage to consider withdrawing from Bios 1700, and enrolling in Bios 1500 mid-semester. The goal of Bios 1500 is to find out why these students are failing and try to fix it! Engaging All Students in Science Courses This article focuses on science courses, and I’ll be doing a very short case study, Case of the Sick Student, to go with it. See you soon! Chris Added: Powerpoints 3 Case Study Presentation Fake FLC 1


6 thoughts on “Engaging Students in Learning

  1. Ping-Yuan Wang says:

    Thank you, Chris, for the article and a very interesting piece of instructional material. I will be 20-30 minutes late in joining the first meeting because I teach until 3:20. But I look forward to meeting everybody and having a stimulating discussion.

    The call for attention to different learning styles (modalities, intelligences, dimensions of learning, etc.) in Tanner & Allen reminds me of an ongoing debate over the validity of learning styles. This debate essentially is about how people learn and how instructors can help learners learn most effectively both in the short-term and in the long run. Without getting into that debate, I’d like to share a few readings (with which many in the group may be familiar already) that offer alternative perspectives on how learning styles/modalities/preferences/habits affect the learning process:

    – “Desirable Difficulties” — an alternative way of thinking about aligning pedagogical strategies with learning styles: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/all-about-addiction/201105/desirable-difficulties-in-the-classroom

    – Daniel Willingham’s challenge to learning styles: Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIv9rz2NTUk; Blog: http://www.danielwillingham.com/learning-styles-faq.html

    – Dr. Felder’s home page contains a tone of research supporting and resources relevant to theories of learning styles in general. The article “Are Learning Styles Invalid? (Hint: No!)” offers a rebuttal to those challenging LS: http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Learning_Styles.html


  2. I couldn’t sleep, I had all these thoughts:
    1) Separating students from failing something and being a failure. This needs to start with recruitment into 1500. Possibly as a gift and not as a loss. The carrot instead of the stick.
    2) Offering different types of ways to learn doesn’t meant that someone should focus on what’s easiest for them. In fact, if the process of learning isn’t easy, it may be more likely to stick in long term.
    3) Take the course VERY far backward. There’s no reason to drag them through 5 quizzes and 4 case studies in 7 weeks. Instead, try to reconnect them to why they wanted to do science in the first place.

    New Plan: (totally mutable, because the joy of a plan is it can be changed)
    I’m thinking 1 week is failing vs/ failure”, “what is a decision?” (procrastinating is a decision), and finally “what do they want?” (which may be the hardest day).
    Then 2-3 topical weeks. Day 1, topic and some basic info; Day 2, research; Day 3, discussion. Like mini case studies, but on popular topics. Maybe have them help pick some of the topics? Perhaps giving back control will empower them.
    Mid-way point, mid-way quiz, did they absorb any knowledge? Were they doing things they consider “actively” studying? What is studying really? Can you read a paragraph and find the important parts? More on this.
    More popular science.
    A “final” and a then exit interviews.

    So here’s my next questions:
    1) What do you consider studying? What IS studying? What is effective studying?

    2) Cool biology subjects. I know what I think is cool, but that’s in *my* little world. What would you find interesting?
    Current topic possibilities:
    A) Cleaning jeans in fridge: Teaches them cell structure and a bit of microbiology. Possibly osmosis and diffusion if they think that far into it.
    B) DNA food labels: What is DNA? Where is DNA? Remember microbiology? What does *that* have anything to do with DNA?

    3) How do you accept failure as part of a process? What makes you feel safe enough to be vulnerable enough to be WRONG? Publicly, totally WRONG. Besides alcohol, because I definitely can’t use that.


  3. Ping-Yuan Wang says:

    I agree. “Having failed” and “being a failure” are not the same, and challenges and setbacks are critical in the learning process to positive effects. Allowing students to see the value of these “desirable difficulties” is so important in helping them set or adjust expectations.

    Taking the course way backward and focusing on the barebones may be a worthwhile experiment. Is anyone in the group familiar with “Decoding the Disciplines” (http://decodingthedisciplines.org/index.html)? Decoding is a very focused method of pedagogy that forces the subject-matter expert (the professor) to identify the fundamentals in a discipline and to design teaching that focuses on helping students develop those skills. To fully implement this pedagogical practice one has to go through a 6-step process. I have not implemented Decoding in a my own teaching; however, its principles have allowed me to reflect on my course design from new perspectives. For example, the first step in Decoding is to identify a bottleneck in students’ learning in a specific subject. To follow that up, the expert demonstrates through course materials, activities, assignments, and feedback how an expert goes about overcoming that bottleneck. Thinking in terms of key skills and key concepts, I was able to finally escape the trap of content coverage and turn to focus on teaching the essential approaches to gaining knowledge in the discipline of History. So now in my lectures, especially those for 1000-level general education surveys, I can talk more about what History is as a discipline, and why it is important to know facts and read texts closely, and ask good questions about them. Sometimes less is indeed more. I look forward to hearing about the outcome of Chris’ new plan for 1500.

    Finally, this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education from 2013 (http://chronicle.com/blogs/onhiring/deep-learning-for-the-new-teacher/39265) may serve as a nice short companion reading to “Decoding.” This article has continued to resonate with me whenever I want to tweak a course a bit, although I am no longer a new PhD and for a couple of years haven’t needed to develop a new course.


  4. Josh Birnbaum says:

    Chris, Klaus, and Ping-Yuan, you have some great ideas! I think we can all apply those to our teachings. I have a few thoughts to add to the overall discussion.

    We have to recognize that failure is a very damaging concept, and the term itself has stigma. Even if you use the phrase “having failed” in conversation with a student, they still might associate that phrase with personal failure, which, as we have discussed, is detrimental to their self-esteem, their trust in you, and their education. In this context, we might even consider the term “failure” a misnomer—if we make a mistake and learn from it, it sure as hell is not a failure. Not to me, anyway. I tell my students that I screw up frequently and I’m all the better for it. I also tell them funny or informative stories about my mishaps, which help them to see the value in taking risks and not be afraid of making those essential mistakes.

    This idea reminds me of a quote from photographer Garry Winogrand: “The nature of the photographic process—it is about failure, most everything I do doesn’t quite make it. But failures can be intelligent, they don’t have to be stupid, but nothing ventured nothing gained. Hopefully you’re risking failure every time you make a frame.”

    One professor in my department echoes this concept when she implores students, “Dare to suck!”

    I like Ping-Yuan’s language better: “challenges” and “setbacks” and “desirable difficulties” could work well in the classroom discussion.

    I always tell my students, “Suffering is growth.” Then I explain what I mean: that they will have a lot of difficult experiences in this class, that they will have to push hard, that they will make some mistakes, and that I will maintain high standards—BUT, it will be fun (sometimes) and at the end of it all, they will grow and they will continue to see growth after the class ends, possibly for the rest of their lives. Most importantly, I emphasize that I am there to help them with all my being.

    So back to your class, Chris: yes, connect them to a love of science. Link it with currents events (ebola? flu? stem cell research? the science of abortion? bionics? make it editorially relevant, or related to popular science, as you suggested). Even better: ask them what they want to do. Oftentimes my students give me the best teaching ideas, and as you said, it will empower them—not only because you’re giving them a choice, but because you’re recognizing them as individuals and you’re showing that you want to help them personally on their quest for knowledge. Make the class less focused on content and more focused on a structural approach to learning biology, and learning in general.

    I also find that enthusiasm is contagious. If I am consistently excited about photography, that will have a large impact on my student’s feelings about photography and how invested they feel in their educational experience. Sometimes I find myself going over the top with it, but you can never have too much excitement, right?


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