Friday, February 18, 2011

Not enough bars and a teachable moment

One of the thought processes running continuously in the back of my mind lately is how to develop critical thinking. As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently participated in a stimulating meeting about teaching strategies and assessments. Slowly I am introducing more and more active elements in my classes, and feel its positive impact as students take charge of solving problems instead of simply sitting and receiving information.
On a side note: I realize that times have a-changed. In the "old days," information was available only during class time (or from the text book), so students had no other choice that come to class and take notes. However, as information becomes more easily available by oneself  (if I put my lectures up as podcasts, theoretically the students don't really have to listen to it twice) or others, there is a higher bar set for educators. Which is, in my mind, a good thing. These days, I see more and more students glancing under the table while I lecture, which is the obvious sign that they are checking their phones. In classes where they use laptops, I know that they are reading emails etc. Do I get upset with them? I cannot really, as I do the same when I am in conferences...and I recall my college days when I would be reading under my desk. The only way I would stop is when there was something to think about, which would make me fully engaged.
So I have this physiology class where finals are approaching, and we are supposed to have a review session. With a written report due that day, I am facing students buried in their laptops or books, absolutely uninterested in discussing any topics they don't understand.
The issue of course is that they don't know that they don't understand. It is my job to provide them with problems to solve, so they can actually test their knowledge. So in a moment of inspiration I run to make copies of a case study related to the nervous system. The exam coming up is on nervous  and it goes from the basics of signaling (action potentials etc), through parts and functions of CNS and PNS, to nervous system pathologies lite. In summary, lots of material. The case study in question can be built up effectively from the chemical basics of neuron signaling to how nerves function, so I thought that would be a good way to go over the main concepts.
One of the first questions that come up is about Novocaine, a local anesthetic. I look at my students and decide to let them play. "Get your smartphones and laptops," I say. "What is the mechanism of action of Novocaine?" Some minutes pass and students are still gazing at their gadgets. "Come on, this cannot be that difficult," I comment. One of the girls looks up in clear frustration. "There is only one bar inside the room," she says. "It is too slow."
The golden opportunity appears in front of my eyes and I grab it. "All right," I answer. "Let's pretend we are in a part of the world where there is no internet. Let's think. How could a local anesthetic work?"
Students slowly inch their way through the thinking process. It is about pain, so it is a sensory pathway. A sensory receptor picks up the signal, which passes the threshold and provokes an action potential. An action potential starts with depolarization. Depolarization is provoked by opening of sodium channels. If you block the sodium channels, there is no action potential, hence, no pain signal. Novocaine is a sodium channel blocker.
It was great. I could hear the whirring of the wheels inside students' brain as they were using the concepts to explain something from real life. Along the way we covered other related concepts, made some comparisons, there were questions and answers. Most students were engaged. And I was stoked.
The second part of the course is starting in two weeks, and I am finishing preparing the syllabus with the assignments. I know that there will be more activities like that, and I know that I have to figure that out during this long weekend. It will be busy...
Enjoy the long weekend if you are in the US! And happy weekend everyone. As for me, I think I'll go for a run to clear my RAM :)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Meeting with the Other Side (aka Humanities)

The week before classes start is usually Professional Development week. Attendance to a determined number of hours is compulsory, and when teaching at different colleges the time crunch and logistics issues can be considerable. So it happens quite often that I attend activities just because their timing suits me. And the best thing is that I always learn something, and very often it is exactly the kind of knowledge I needed (but I did not know at the time).
As an example, a couple of years ago I participated in a Camtasia training. I was just starting to think about how to improve online courses, and when trainings were offered I jumped on them, but too late. The two courses intended for beginners were full, and I had only two options left, one being Camtasia. I had to google up what podcasts were because I had no clue. To say I was hesitant of the value of that course for me is an understatement, but there I went. Big credit goes to Micah Orloff from @One Institute who was the trainer: when finished I was able to record lectures, screens, and even do fancy stuff like inserting music and transitions. It was a great jump start for my podcasting, which I offer these days for all my classes.
Last Friday I participated in a book club activity organized by the Communication Arts Department.  We were to discuss Ken Bain's book What the Best College Teachers do
Mea culpa: I had not read the book. In fact, I only remembered the meeting when the reminder popped up on my calendar. I had signed up in a panic the last day of ProfDev week, when I realized that I had one more hour to fill and no activities to go. As any other student n the digital age, I spent some time on the internet looking for summaries of the book. At some point I accepted the fact that I had not done my homework and honesty would be my best option. 
The small group that gathered on Friday belonged to the Other Side: they were all English, Communication, and Philosophy instructors. Once I admitted my sin and received absolution from the the lead, Mary, the fun part started. We had to develop overarching goals for our courses that would enhance the intrinsic motivation of students (the wording was lengthier and included the words sustained and emotional), then questions that we could return to throughout the course. Aspects such as assessments and how to make students learn from their own mistakes were discussed. The two ours passed really quickly as the participants shared their ideas and approaches. I had lots of questions that I had no time to ask, aspects of writing and critical thinking I had always been interested. One aspect that I struggle a lot is how to teach/show my students to improve their problem-solving skills. Too often I see the Google approach to problem-solving- look up the words and find the best match. his approach however has severe limitations if dealing with unusual or complex problems. I am also interested in philosophy applied to science.
At the end of the workshop I did get to talk a bit to a couple of people, and discussed scientific writing in general and some other writings in particular. I hope to establish some kind of interaction with humanities instructors- it would be a really great way to work together on materials and assessments that combine scientific method with the power of the written word. I am looking forward the next book club meeting...
Oh, and I ordered the book :-)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Uncluttering the desk and the mind

View of my desk today Sunday morning.
There is a saying that the state of a desk reflects the state of the mind. Yup, I agree. Before embarking on a new project I would always religiously clean up my desk, and my coworkers would roll their eyes at the piles of papers discarded on the floor. For me, it is an emotional need to get rid of the old stuff and freeing mental (and desk) space for the new stuff.
I went for a 1.5 hour run after taking the picture- a bit longer than I usually do, but I needed it. It was also a demanding one, up Cowles Mountain. I like the Mesa trail from the back- it is longer and less populated than the short trail that most people know. It has gentle switchbacks and shaded parts, but the final leg is very steep. At that point, the only thought in my brain was to  keep my legs moving and my lungs from bursting. By the time I was blasting downhill my mind was clear, and I even had a good idea for a written assignment- letting the students choose a scientist from a list in the beginning of the course and have them develop a wiki? Facebook profile? Keep adding more and more information as the course advances- see how their discoveries stand up to time or how they had been changed/challenged with newer discoveries. And have them submit it as their research paper at the end of class. I am always looking for new types of writing assignments, as I like the concept of "Writing across the curriculum." This idea, of course, will take me long time to develop...maybe for the Fall semester.
Disclaimer- I read something somewhere about students developing FB profiles of famous people, so it is not really "my" idea. But I have no clue where I read it...
Anyway, the reason for my wanting to clean up my desk and my mind is that in 3 weeks I start a new course, the second part of Anatomy/Physiology. For the first part (the one I am teaching now) I had the leisure of Winter Break. These courses are 8-week accelerated courses, and if I want them to run smoothly I have to prepare them well in advance. During the break I uploaded all the materials to the course website, prepared/updated all the assignments, instructions, grading rubrics, exams, quizzes, even the extra credit assignments! Thanks to that the course basics are running on autopilot, and I have time to teach more effectively. 
Just today I read a blog post by an instructor unhappy with too much technology. Her piece was balanced and objective, but the comments were rather telling. Many of the instructors who commented were quite negative towards online instruction and interactions. Some stated that maintaining a course website was a lot of work. 
When I started teaching online I was also overwhelmed by the up-front work setting up the course. However I was struck by the fact that I had to plan so well ahead- not only the materials but also the narrative of the course. I had to state my learning goals week by week, and decide how I wanted to achieve them. Yes, it was a lot of work the first time. However once a course is prepared, it can be copied and just modified.
Personally, I think I teach much better now that I use a blended system. Because all the information is available online, I only have to address questions about them instead of wasting valuable class time going over them. Assignments are submitted electronically, which means I don't have to haul around papers (and is more green). All written assignments go through Turnitin or other plagiarism detection software. My lectures are available as powerpoints and podcasts- that allows some to lecture less and spend more time helping students doing case studies for example. I plan to adopt in the future the "inverted classroom" model...
View of my desk Sunday evening
But back to the new class. I don't have the luxury of a break this time- one class ends on Saturday and next class starts Monday. So I need to plan ahead. And there are lots of fun stuff that I need to prepare better: Better cardio and respiratory labs, more dissections, and maybe some more engaging group activities. In summary, creative work. And creative work requires an uncluttered mind. So I spent a couple of hours after the run organizing my desk. I have 3 neat stacks for the 3 courses I am teaching now, and one extra stack for articles/materials I want to read for ideas. After finishing this post (which is part of my mental clutter of the morning) I will start with the lab schedule for the course...and then read...and hopefully get creative. Dear readers, do you have suggestions about developing new, fun activities for Anatomy and Physiology?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The importance of community in the classroom

This week the same scenario took place the first day of class in the two community colleges  I started teaching. As I arrived, students were sitting at their desks in silence. Some were checking their cell phones, others were staring into the void. After greeting them I started to unpack and get ready for class, just to become aware of the eerie silence. Somehow the opening scenes of the video of the VOST project cam to my mind. After a while, I could not take it anymore. "It is too silent here," I said. "Please turn to the person closest to you and introduce yourself. Talk about why you are in this class."
After a second the floodgates opened, and the room was filled with animated conversation as students chatted with each other. By the time class started, the temperature of the room had increased from frigid to cozy.
For a long time content delivery (transfer) was my main concern in teaching. I was used to lecturing, coming from a background where power point presentations crammed with information were the standard. Even when I had started using more active approaches, such as problem-based learning, I would still have my reservations.  I was once chastised by one peer/supervisor for "wasting my time" making students discuss case studies and the like in small groups. For a long time there was this nagging concern in the back of my mind that maybe I should not "play" in the classroom and just stick to the serious business of lecturing. 
My turning point happened last year, when taking the Building Online Community with Social Media course through @One Institute. Skeptical me first rolled her eyes at the amount of community building exercises/activities of the first week. Then, as I read the other participants' discussion board and blog postings, and watched their pictures and videos; I started to find those little things that make people connect. One participant spotted a bumper sticker on a picture I uploaded that reminded him of his hometown. Another shared my passion for figs and pomegranates (discovered also through a picture). A third was from a country I lived for many years (Sweden). And so on. On the side of the course tasks, small conversations started online. I began to feel as I knew the other participants, which meant I felt more confident to discuss topics and post my ideas. The epiphany came when I had to write an essay about community building: I realized that the best study groups I had ever had (college or work) were groups cemented by friendship and community. Study was much more efficient when we did it as a group of friends.
So these days I try to incorporate ways to make my students connect and form community as early as possible. In a face to face class that may sound easy, but it is not- students live hectic lives, they run from class to work or vice versa, often they have families to take care of or they commute long distances. Ice-breakers the first day of class and early group assignments help students find others to study with. As the days pass, I see friendships blossom in class, and I overhear conversations that reveal stronger groups. While I do not claim that this is my doing, I have noticed that giving students the chance to interact with each other and form community is very helpful. 
I have introduced a twist to a group project evaluation based on a case study recommendation, in which students complete a quiz on the questions of the case first individually, then together as the group. If the group score is higher than the average of the individual scores, then the difference is added to the latter. Most groups score higher as a group so it helps individual students. I have consistently observed that the best-collaborating groups (subjectively judged by their cohesion in class, time spent together before class, or just by their interactions) have better group scores. 
I have never been a group cheerleader or one of those parents who are great at devising and directing kids' sometimes I am a bit out of my comfort zone. But I do know that it is worth to spend the extra time and effort to build community in the classroom from the very beginning. And it is more fun too :)