Teaching Writing When You Don’t (Want to) Teach Writing

I know. Student writing is horrible. The sky is falling. Doomsday has come. I’ve had several conversations with colleagues about the sordid state of affairs of student writing. I once hooped and hollered atop that bandwagon too. It was so easy to blame high school teachers and college writing instructors (or anyone else) for not preparing students adequately in the fine art of written argumentation.epigraph.png

Then, I got a job as a university writing instructor. I’ve come to see that the problem partly lies with me and my curmudgeon colleagues (its a blight that extends beyond religious studies). It’s our duty to teach writing too, we just don’t want to do it.[1] Student writing is also not that bad, if you give students a fighting chance.

I’m a traitor to the but-I-don’t-teach-writing cause. I know.

If I haven’t angered you to rage-close the browser tab, then let me explain. At one level, writing is a skill, not a “fact”; all students know how to write, but some may not be proficient at it. They need more practice – and guidance in the Process.

When I say instructors need to teach writing, I really mean they need to apportion time and structure activities that allow students to critique and develop their own ideas. Once students thoughtfully struggle with their ideas and arguments, they are more likely to want to “own” those ideas. As a result, almost magically, their writing will get better. In our religious studies courses (or humanities more broadly), we do not need to formally “teach writing,” as much as we need to give students the opportunity to work out their ideas in a strategic and structured manner. Teaching “writing” is just code for teaching critical thinking skills.

One of the key aspects of my writing courses focuses on (re)shaping student writing habits. We talk at length about “The Writing Process” and students develop their own ideal Process. While many facets are individual (some do their best writing in the library, some in their rooms; some listen to background music, some prefer silence; and so forth), other facets are non-negotiable. My writing course is structured around these non-negotiable facets, namely drafting, peer-review, and revision. Ideally, my goal is to have students incorporate these elements into their natural Process, but like many new habits, they can be hard to adopt.[2]

In the non-teaching-writing classroom, it can be easy to omit drafting, peer-review, and revision (hereafter DPR) activities. But these are precisely what students – and us scholars – need to produce our best writing. If done skillfully, DPR can all be handled by students themselves; there is no extra work for our already-exhausted teaching souls. I will admit, however, it does take time to devise drafting prompts, structured peer-review sessions, and direction for revision. Undoubtedly, these activities will go wrong before experience teaches us how to make them right (online research will certainly help too, or, gasp, conversation with colleagues about our failures).

Of course, I do think students benefit greatly from our expert insights on their ideas. If we can provide verbal, recorded audio, or written commentary at early stages in the Process, this will greatly assist students in developing their ideas. Spending time to get students to talk about their research in class with other is also valuable.

Overall, here are some thoughts about incorporating writing good critical thinking habits into your non-teaching-writing-classroom based around DPR.

Drafting: A simple recipe for disaster is to assign a big writing project due at the end of the term which does not also formally schedule several “checking-in” assessments along the way. These formative assessments could be a simple conversation with individual students or classroom activities where students discuss the early stages of their work. Drafting is another option. This does not have to be a full draft of the final essay. I’ve seen colleagues assign small segments of the essay that are due regularly throughout the term, such as drafting the introduction with a thesis, or body paragraphs with solid evidence, or the conclusion with the potential significance of the findings. More commonly, I’ve seen colleagues assign research proposals or annotated bibliographies, which discuss proposed research questions and potential lines of argument. Personally, I prefer (when possible) to assign smaller writing assignments that allows students to work on certain facets of their larger argument for their final paper. This works best if students don’t have an open-ended final research project, but are expected to address a pre-determined topic or theme at the end of the term (but I’m sure savvy instructors could still craft prompts that function in an open-ended manner). Overall, there are plenty of drafting options to help stimulate student thinking along the way, including daily writing reflections, for example. [3]

Peer-Review: It is important to remember that drafts can also be read by other students (even as homework), if reading students’ work is too time consuming for an instructor. Peer-review can be tricky to run effectively, however. One thing to keep in mind is that students will need assistance on how to critique the work of others; offering truly constructive criticism and thoughtful insight on writing is a skill in itself (as I’ve painfully learned as a writing instructor). Consequently, review sessions need to be highly structured. Provide a commentary rubric or the grading rubric you would use for evaluating the assignment. Or, at the very least, provide a list of things for students to pay attention to. I’d suggest saving the best papers from each term and sharing them during subsequent peer-review sessions. The entire class can read and comment upon the paper(s), thus helping to align expectations about the review process. I’d also strongly suggest having student converse with each other after providing written commentary; talking can easily clarify confusions on both sides. There are numerous discussions of running peer-review online, I’d suggest finding a method that might work best with your class and tinker with it.

Revision: The purpose of doing the above activities is so students think through their ideas and potentially see how others attempt to tackle the same or similar issues. Depending on the drafting assignment (suggestions above), you would have to decide how to have students build off of their initial insights. In other words, what is the next step in the Process? Does their thesis statement need to be re-thought (and possibly re-drafted)? Does their research proposal need to be more focused and peer-reviewed again? Is their annotated bibliography missing an important work? Will students’ smaller writing assignments dovetail cleanly into their larger argument or are there potential flaws which need to be redressed? While some of these interventions can be performed by other students, instructor commentary (or even better, conversation) will prove invaluable. Importantly, only work that will be revised merits extensive feedback, there is little pedagogical value in heavy commentary on final products – the real critical thinking work has already been done.

A final note: There are numerous other suggestions to consider as well when focusing on the Writing Process. One that was not immediately apparent to me was “exposing” myself as a writer to my students. I now regularly tell my classes about all of the writing projects I need to engage professionally as a writer: conference proposal, book review, dissertation chapter, journal submission, and so forth. I share with them the struggles, setbacks, and new insights gained through developing my work. It’s important for students to see or hear about writing that isn’t published, that isn’t perfect, that needs further reflection. By seeing the care that goes into our professional work, students can come to emulate that process.

Notes:

*Some of my comments here developed out of my ruminations on abandoing page-lengths for student writing.

[1] Duty might seem like a strong word, but I’ve used it purposefully. If we consider our course goals to include cultivating critical thinking skills, this almost certainly includes (there are reasonable exceptions) some form of writing assessment. As you will see, I do not consider the teaching of writing in the non-teaching-of-writing-classroom to be a review of low-level mechanics or refinement of diction, but the critique and development of ideas that normally happens in the Writing Process. In this case, the teaching of writing is, simply, the teaching of critical thinking.

[2] I’ll say it again, but now as a footnote: So-called “good writing” is not the memorization of facts. Most students are fully aware of the elements of a good thesis or how to make a strong argument. In many circumstances, what limits them is not their misunderstanding of these facts, but the underdeveloped ideas they have. By spending time on their ideas (researching, conversing, debating, refining, reflecting, etc. ) students generally come to care for those ideas. When folks don’t care about their ideas, they hand in “poorly written” work or plagiarize it.

[3] Even regular, short responses to readings can include a few comments by students on their relevance to a proposed final project. In other words, responses to readings don’t always need to be simple summary.

Educational Tech in the Old School Religious Studies Classroom: A Review (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part X of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX]

I have to admit, at times, I am a proud Luddite. I still love writing on the board, using handouts, and having students read in print (curse those liquid crystal displays![1]). Yet, I would be lying if I have not seen the potential value of educational technology in the classroom. I would also argue that it would be irresponsible to ignore the wave of digitally literate students coming into our classrooms and the skills they possess in those domains – with digital storytelling and data visualization having the most promise in my eyes. Of course, us Luddites do not need to mindlessly drink at the well of technology! There is an overabundance of educational apps and software being produced every year, and not all of it can easily be made to align with our pedagogical goals.

Moreso, the flash of technology should not blind us to its circumscribed value. The hanging question should not be how do we integrate technology into our classrooms, but whether technology can sustain or even advance our educational aims. Our expenditure of time and resources should not go into finding the newest educational tech iteration, but how to identify the technology’s potential to deepen our students’ learning. Sometimes, new technology may make us reconsider our final course outcomes (say, replacing a traditional reserch paper with image-driven scholarship), but I hope we also identify clear pedagogical reasons to do so.[2]

“But wait,” you may object, “I already use my university’s learning management system, I am tech savvy!” True, Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, and other lesser known learning management systems (LMS) are often integrated into a school’s network and offer many educational avenues not available to the traditional non-digital learning environment. The question, I suggest, is how many of us use it beyond a digital repository for assignments and readings? Often there are many uses – such as online discussion forums – that can add a new teaching modality. Unfortunately for fans of LMS software, the new educational tech is more user friendly. In my view, this new tech (often marketed as apps) will not replace the more comprehensive LMS software (at least in the near future); but it does augment it in valuable ways. Overall, many of the new educational apps are more intuitive, interactive, and collaborative than the functions found in university learning management software.

Below I review several different kinds of digital education tools and the potential for their use in discussion based humanities courses, such as those found in Religious Studies.[3] Almost all of the educational tools below offer free versions of their applications with limited functionality. Since I have not paid the subscription for any of these tools, I will only discuss the free features. Regrettably, I have been introduced to many of these tools only recently and my comments remain, overall, rather cursory. Nevertheless, I have already imagined clear benefits to incorporating several of these tools into my course planning. I hope to update this page as my opinions develop and new tools emerge.

Polling Apps

Instead of using expensive classroom clickers, students can download an app on their cell phone and respond to questions set up by the instructor. Honestly, I see narrow value for technology like this because it too easily breeds an impersonal classroom environment. If I wanted to take a quick vote, I would rather ask for a simple show of hands (excepting large lectures). If I wanted to gather a variety of responses on a topic, I would rather engage in dialogue with a few students.

Of course, there are moments when polling apps could be very useful. For example, if you wanted to vote or gather data anonymously, such as providing a mid-term evaluation or “exit ticket” at the end of class.[4] Or, if you wanted to set up a debate between competing perspectives or interpretations, you may gather data to set the topics and parameters of the discussion. Alternatively, I could see a ranking task working well to stimulate discussion. In any regard, I suggest using polling apps judiciously and would say their ideal implementation includes a meaningful class discussion (e.g. analysis, interpretation, debate, perspective-taking, etc.)

  • Mentimeter: Perhaps my favorite because you have several visually appealing layouts to select when displaying student responses (like the “spider chart” for the scales-type question). There are ten types of questions to choose from (Multiple Choice, Open Ended, Scales, Image Choice, Ranking, etc.), but you can only ask three questions total in the free version of this app (hack: when using the scales-type, you can actually add several more questions). Students go to the Mentimeter website and enter a code to gain access to the poll; it’s pretty easy to use.
  • Poll Everywhere: More types of questions (around 20) than Mentimeter, but several are just variants of the open-ended type. One interesting question type allows an image to be uploaded (even a map) and students can click on various parts of it. Students have to text a rather long code to a designated number to get access to the poll.
  • VoxVote: This backend interface is not as easy to use as the others and I honestly just stopped trying to figure it out, but I’ll list it here as another free option.

Game-Style Quizlets

Naturally one could use these apps for exam review or even to review material from the previous day’s class (say, a casual five minute review as students stroll into class). Truly, the benefit of these apps is the ability to assign students to teams, which ramps up the competitive spirits of almost everyone. As with the polling apps, I am hesitant to use these games when simple class discussion would suffice. Additionally, multiple choice testing overall has limited educational value, but that is not to say it cannot be used effectively or wisely. Not surprisingly, some functionality of these quiz apps overlap with the polling apps above.

  • Kahoot: You can create three types of questions: multiple choice, a jumble (think of putting options into a correct order), or a survey. In order to lessen test anxiety, I presume, the potential answers are a mixture of shapes and colors, not the traditional letters (A-D). You can select to have the game played individually or as teams. It is easy to incorporate background images into the quiz, and the overall design is simple and visually appealing. Students go to the Kahoot website and enter a code to gain access to the quiz.
  • Socrative: You can create a quiz with three types of questions: multiple choice, true/false, and short answer (NB: the answer the student types has to match the answer you provide exactly, so it’s more of a fill in the blank than short essay). The “Space Race” option allows you to assign teams. There is also an option to make an “Exit Ticket” directly. Students go to the Socrative website and enter a code to gain access to the quiz or exit ticket. In my opinion, the visual appeal of Kahoot is better than Socrative.

Digital Storytelling

This is a broad category of tools that I divide into two categories, timelines and annotated media tools. The one common aspect is that these tools allow for a more visual and multi-media approach to creating narrative. Instructors could use these to supplement lecture, but I would argue their best usage is through having students create the content. As individuals or in groups, students could be given assignments to utilize these tools to create stimulating review, research, or presentation projects. These tools, in effect, represent a new(ish) genre of writing and content creation, and thus require the crafting of careful guidelines (or grading rubrics). Some instructors may find these suitable substitutes for traditional research papers.

      Timelines

  • Tiki-Toki: An interactive timeline tool which allows you to add interactive cells along a timeline and incorporate a multimedia source (image, video, audio) or weblink to the written text in the cell. The cells can be tagged and assigned colors so they are easy to visually identify (such as for distinguishing people, places, events, and so forth). The backend interface is relatively easy to use.
  • TimelineJS: This is among the suite of open-source tools for digital story-telling originally designed for journalists known as Knightlab. As with Tiki-Toki, you can add multimedia or weblinks to each cell with text. The backend interface uses a spreadsheet, and thus is not as intuitive as Tiki-Toki. The published presentation has a slightly more polished feel than Tiki-Toki, but ultimately they are quite comparable.
  • Sutori: Similar to the timeline tools above, this app allows you to create cells with multimedia sources or weblinks, as well as discussion forums and quizzes. This added functionality gives this online tool the feeling of LMS software, but with a graphical interface on the front end. While the cells are distributed sequentially along a line, the line does not incorporate dates, offering a streamlined vision of events (it is easy to add dates to the text within the individual cells if absolute dating is necessary). The backend interface is relatively easy to use.
  • StorylineJS: Not technically a timeline, but also part of the Knightlab suite. This tool allows you to annotate a line chart to give context behind the number represented.

      Annotated Media

  • Thinglink: A tool that allows you to imbed interactive cells into images (including an image of a map) and video. In addition, multimedia sources (images, videos, audio) or web links can be added to the embedded cells. Essentially, this allows for the creation of a non-linear narrative structured on a visual base. Perhaps the most interesting use of this tool involves creating interactive 360 degree photographs (the site provides a library of 360 degree images), but this function is behind the paywall. The finished 360 degree product could have more interactive capacities than the e-Dunhuang site, which provides some interactive cells in many of its cave photographs.
  • StorymapJS: Part of the Knightlab suite, this allows you to imbed interactive cells into a map and add multimedia sources (images, videos, audio) or web links. The published presentation can be quite stunning.
  • SoundciteJS: Part of the Knightlab suite, this allows soundclips (taken from Soundcloud) to be directly embedded in text. This works best with the blogging site WordPress.

Communication Applications

These tools are primarily meant to foster communication between students (and teacher-to-students) outside of the classroom setting. Most LMS cover the same functionality, but these newer technologies are better than the old online discussion forums found in most institutions.

  • Slack: An online communication hub that dispenses with the need for emails, online message boards, and discussion groups and provides the necessary space for conversation, questions, and file sharing. Slack is marketed as a more mobile-device-friendly LMS, and it has its ardent supporters among the MOOC community. Communication is accomplished through a mixture of channels, threads, and direct messages.
  • Screencast-o-matic: A rather easy-to-use tool for creating screencasts, i.e. videos that capture computer desktop activity and your voice (or image). This can be used for audio feedback on student assignments (with the digital document also captured in the video) or students can create screen-based videos as projects.

Grist for the Mill: On one hand, polling apps and game-style quizlets could easily be incorporated into an active, student-centered classroom. With careful planning, their use could foster discussion among students and even provide stimulus for lively debate. The digital storytelling tools, on the other hand, could be used as new creatvie expressions for student projects or as online sites for class collaboration. Finally, the communication apps can facilitate an out-of-class experience, allowing students and instructors to maintain avenues of contact that exceed the capacities of email or online discussion forums.

Notes:

I would like to thank Mindy Colin for her workshop introducing many of these tools to me, and the members of the Japanese Religions Pedagogy seminar, Fabio Rambelli, Ellen Van Goethem, Ori Porath, Emm Simpson, Diamante Waters, Kaitlyn Ugoretz, and Daigengna Duoer, for our invaluable and spirited conversations about how to best implement them.

*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] I am being facetious, sorry my Luddite brothers and sisters! In reality, I try to consciously use a hybrid of old school and new school approaches. For example, I use a mix of print and digital reading resources in my courses. The more conceptually complex a reading – where I could imagine needing to flip back and forth between pages and ideas quickly – the more likely I am to assign it in print form.

[2] If you are hoping students will just like the techy new tools, or think they are cool, well, I would suggest that is not good enough.

[3] Generally, I see problem solving and task-oriented courses – think STEM classes and lab sessions – as employing different pedagogical methodologies. Of course, there is considerable overlap, but I could imagine a calculus instructor envisioning different uses for the tools I discuss.

[4] I suppose one could also these apps to ask questions about a sensitive topic where students would prefer to remain anonymous. In my view, however, I would rather use these tools to stimulate a good conversation, which might be difficult in this scenario – though I imagine it could be done strategically and skillfully.

In Defense of Lectures? II (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part IX of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part III, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, X]

Defenders of the lecture will often point to a widely popular lecture-style format found easily on the internet – TED Talks (Technology, Entertainment, and Design Talks).[1] These talks typically combine the spoken word with various media (audio, video, image), thus resembling something similar to a modern university lecture.

Yet, TED Talks also keep a relatively tight time cap at 18 minutes, more than halving the typical university class period. What is our aspiring-lecturer to do?

The emerging consensus response seems to advocate for 10 to 15 minute blocks of “classic” lecture (i.e. straight presenting) divided by some sort of class activity where students reflect upon or apply the lecture content. This blend is often represented as an interactive lecture-tutorial hybrid, sometimes referred to as “lectorials” or sometimes “lecturettes.”[2] The problematic assumption is that students will reset their internal “attention clocks” through these interspersed activities. The logic follows that we then have another 15 minutes before students attention precipitously wanes. Tick-tock.

I would like to reflect on this for a moment. To me, this seems to conflate two different complaints against the classic lecture. The teaching-learning activities (TLAs) are typically implemented in order to allow the students to deepen their knowledge of the concepts – this is what transforms the passive learning environment of the classic lecture into the active learning environment of the flipped classroom.

The attention span of students seems to be a very different matter. A recent analysis offered by Neil Bradbury criticized the magical 10-15 minute window, summarily noting:

“A review of the literature on this topic reveals many discussions referring to prior studies but scant few primary investigations. Alarmingly, the most often cited source for a rapid decline in student attention during a lecture barely discusses student attention at all. Of the studies that do attempt to measure attention, many suffer from methodological flaws and subjectivity in data collection. Thus, the available primary data do not support the concept of a 10- to 15-min attention limit. Interestingly, the most consistent finding from a literature review is that the greatest variability in student attention arises from differences between teachers and not from the teaching format itself.”

Interestingly, and as other recent scholarship has shown, the ability to captivate the audience is not due to the format of the learning environment, but the performative ability of the instructor. Unsurprisingly, a bad performance can turn even a 5 minute lecture into an interminable affair. Eleanor Sandry makes an astute observation that educational research frequently excludes personality and rhetorical style from the quantitative evaluations of pedagogy, thus leaving the lecture to be uncharitably characterized as dead learning environment.[3]

I do not think it was accidental that the champion of the didactic argumentative style, Aristotle, was also the champion of rhetorical techniques (noted in our last post). Cool-headed persuasion was most effective when it was combined with emotional flourish. Academic writing, for better or worse, trains young scholars to avoid emotive expression in favor of logical argumentation. Yet, writing a good argument is not necessarily a good template for crafting a good lecture that holds attention.[4]

Thomas Buchanan and Edward Palmer also pose an interesting critique on the anti-lecture paradigm – much of the current research focus on STEM disciplines, especially the applied sciences, where skill acquisition and demonstration is paramount. What of disciplines where interpretation is the primary skill? It can be argued that the act of interpretation necessitates the acquisition of large amounts of contextualizing information – of which the lecture is most effective at disseminating. Additionally, in the disciplines of history or religious studies, narrative creation and story-telling is not only central to their research agendas, but also in their classroom deployment, thus making lecture a valuable modality of pedagogy.[5]

Outside of having students engaging with higher-order thinking, a better argument for breaking up a lecture into segments than attention (or performance) deficit involves “cognitive load,” the idea that our working memory can manage a relatively limited amount of information at one time. Load increases based on the difficulty of the material itself (intrinsic cognitive load), the elements that aid in the information processing (germane cognitive load), and the elements the potentially distract from the information (extraneous cognitive load). Cognitive capacity diminishes not at a set point in time, but at a certain threshold of information – thus it is advised that we pay closer attention to the difficulty and amount of information provided, than merely the time it takes to present it.

Grist for the Mill: I am in no position to settle these arguments – and certainly wish to read more stimulating research – but it seems to me that if your goal is to simply deliver data, especially to students who have very little background, then lecturing would be entirely sufficient. If you have any performance chops or can craft and tell a good story, that lecture could certainly last far longer than 10 or 15 minutes. More importantly, we should pay attention to the quantity and difficulty of the data, and intersperse activities accordingly so students can work with the data in more encompassing ways in order to form a better comprehension of it.

Yet, if we want students to do more than simply recognize and recall facts, or in other words to perform certain skills (such as interpretation, analysis, assessment, and so forth) we need to allow them to practice those skills in a more active classroom environment and this is where lecture falls flat.

Notes:

*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] E.g. Freisen 2014, Bradbury 2016.

[2] The concept of the lectorial, punctuated with 10-15 minutes blocks, is discussed in Cavanagh 2011.

[3] Suggestions for livening-up a lecture include watching motivational or charismatic speakers (Bradbury 2016), and incorporating paralinguistic expression and kinesics (non-verbal voice qualities and bodily movement)(Sandry 2006).

[4] I am unaware of any studies that look at the reception of the classic lecture that is ritually delivered at almost every academic conference. If there are apologists among my readers who claim that you enjoy conference lectures, and consequently students should learn to enjoy all classroom lectures, please let me suggest this. The conference papers you enjoyed are either performed by charismatic scholars or are related to your deeply invested academic interests. Imagine at a conference I asked you to take copious notes on a poorly performed presentation of which you had no background knowledge. Then, after you sat bleary-eyed through the presentation, I would give you a quiz on it. Or even better, make you write a paper about it. Performance and motivation matters for lecturing and learning.

[5] Buchanan & Palmer 2017.

References:

  • Bradbury, Neil A. 2016. “Attention Span During Lectures: 8 Seconds, 10 Minutes, or More?” Advanced Physiological Education, Vol. 40, pp. 509–513
  • Buchanan, Thomas & Palmer, Edward. 2017. “Student Perceptions of the History Lecture: Does this Delivery Mode have a Future in the Humanities?” Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 1-17.
  • Cavanagh, Michael. 2011. “Students’ Experiences of Active Engagement through Cooperative Learning Activities in Lectures,” Active Learning in Higher Education, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 23–33.
  • Friesen, Norm. 2014. “A Brief History of the Lecture: A Multi-Media Analysis.”  Medien Pädagogik, Vol. 24, pp. 136–153.
  • Sandry, E. 2006. “Positively Speaking – Actively Listening: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Lecturing as Valuable in Higher Education,” in Critical Visions, Proceedings of the 29th HERDSA Annual Conference, Western Australia, 10-12 July 2006, pp. 324-330.

In Defense of Lectures? I (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part VIII of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part III, III, IV, V, VI, VII, IX, X]

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 11.03.07.png

Here at the Religious Studies blogging headquarters, we enjoy a good lecture. Admitting this in certain circles may seem a tad tone-deaf given the popularity of the “flipped classroom” and focus on student-centered learning.[1] If you have been hiding in a cave for the past few years (or ignoring the pleas of the Chronical of Higher Education), the sage-on-the-stage format has been widely rejected in favor of the now-preferred guide-on-the-side.

Of course, over the past two decades good data has emerged from educational psychology announcing the successes of more “active learning” models of teaching, while the field of instructional design has tailored these theories to suit the needs of university environments. In preparation for a short seminar on the deficits of the classroom lecture for my colleagues, I wanted to take the stance of the apologetic – what was the best research-based defense of lectures I could muster? The motivation was slightly nefarious, I had long been a convert to active learning environments, but found many of my colleagues in the humanities hesitant (if not hostile) to modify their lecture format, thus I wanted to be equipped with the best possible argument for lecture, in order to defeat it. At least, so went my thinking.

In my reading, the two basic arguments against the lecture format can be boiled down to the efficacy of engendering “deep learning” and the ability to hold the attention of students for a sufficient period of time (typically, for the entire 50-55 minute lecture). Both of these actually require interesting caveats, which I will return to below (and in the next post).

Before we fully dive into this topic, I feel duty bound by my history training to cover some groundwork. The term “lecture” derives from Latin legere, “to read,” but more specifically here it means to read aloud, the dominant form of reading throughout the medieval period in Europe. Traditionally, the method of the lecture is more didactic than dialectical (or Socratic), a division stemming from ancient Greek distinctions in styles of argumentation. Aristotle is often presented as the champion of the didactic “lecture” style, where the straightforward presentation of information was paramount. Importantly for our brief analysis, Aristotle is also known for his interest in the artful use of rhetoric – for simplicity’s sake we can just call this “strategies of persuasion.” Thus Aristotle’s didactic style, suffused by artful presentation, became the origins of classic Roman oratory and even early ecclesiastical sermons.[2]

Moreover, the material conditions of the medieval European university helped maintain the lecture as the primary means of pedagogy. Manuscripts and other text media were relatively scarce, thus the most efficient means of disseminating information was to read aloud the written material that was available. In this case, the act of lecturing and reading aloud were functionally equivalent.[3]

Let us pause here. I do not think many would disagree that, given the widespread availability of textual materials, the bland and pedantic reading of a text retains little value in the modern university. I would also suggest in modern practice the lecture is more varied than simply reading text aloud. University lectures are often rife with multimodal media, incorporating image, audio, and video, in addition to text (via various presentation software, but also chalkboards and whiteboards).[4]

Consequently, one concern I have with several arguments against lecture is that they offer only the most uncharitable and limited definition of what lecture is in modern practice (at least in my personal experience).[5] To offer the full spectrum of definitions of lecture would bring me too far afield here, but I offer one characteristic gloss to situate my claims: “50-55 minutes of largely uninterrupted monologue from a lecturer with student activity being focused on listening and note-taking.”[6] Again, in my experience, lecture is oftentimes punctuated by instructor or student questions (or even brief analytical activities, such as inviting comments on a video), allowing for a calibration of understanding on both sides. In a strict senses, these activities fall outside the purview of the “classic lecture.”

This is important for university instructors to note, by calling for student responses they are already moving towards a flipped classroom. A bedrock claim of student-centered learning advocates is that the more students are involved in the learning process, the more effective knowledge acquisition becomes. Of course, the quantity and quality of these student-centered moments vary greatly by teacher, and at a basic level, I would encourage non-conformists to expand and explore more of these techniques. Nevertheless, a diagram depicting an active learning environment may already look like what many others simply call lecturing [Figure 1].

Figure 1 (from Lumpkin et. al. 2015)

Screen Shot 2019-01-31 at 09.22.19.pngCommon consensus “best practices” recommends that “classic lecturing” be divided frequently by student-centered exercises. Active learning does not replace lecturing, it complements it by structuring the learning experience with moments where students can reflect, analyze, evaluate or synthesize the material that was presented. This is, of course, not a full-throated defense of lecturing, but a qualified defense that it should be paired with other modalities of learning.

But for how long can a lecture captivate a student audience? How regularly do we need to incorporate student activities and what should be their purpose? We will return to these questions in out next post. To be continued…

Notes:

*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] For those unfamiliar with this jargon, here’s a brief primer: student-centered learning is opposed to teacher-directed learning and refers to the primary mode of educational engagement. This maps imperfectly to, but is oftentimes used synonymously with, active and passive learning as well as deep and surface learning, respectively. Student-centered, active, deep learning is often theoretically grounded in constructivist theories of learning, while teacher-directed, passive, surface learning is typically aligned with a vessel theory of learning. The flipped classroom signals a shift from the latter forms of pedagogy to the former. As with any theorized dichotomy, however, these distinctions are blurred quite frequently in practice.

[2] Many of these points are notes in Sandry 2006 and Friesen 2014.

[3] Friesen 2014: 138-9.

[4] Points raised in Freisen 2014.

[5] It seems to me that the modern attack on the lecture has its beginnings in the early 1990’s, specifically with the publications of Charles Bonwell and James Eison’s Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom (1991) and Diana Laurillard’s Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology (1993).

[6] Wood, et. al. 2007

References:

  • Friesen, Norm. 2014. “A Brief History of the Lecture: A Multi-Media Analysis.”  Medien Pädagogik, Vol. 24, pp. 136–153.
  • Lumpkin, Angela; Achen, Rebecca M.; Dodd, Regan K. 2015. “Student Perceptions of Active Learning.” College Student Journal, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 121-133.
  • Sandry, E. 2006. “Positively Speaking – Actively Listening: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Lecturing as Valuable in Higher Education,” in Critical Visions, Proceedings of the 29th HERDSA Annual Conference, Western Australia, 10-12 July 2006, pp. 324-330.
  • Wood, Leigh Norma; Petocz, Peter; Joyce, Sadhbh; Rodd, Melissa. 2007. “Learning in Lectures: Multiple Representations.” International Journal of Mathematical Education, Vol. 38, No. 7, pp. 907-915.

 

On Readings and Reading – and Double Entry Notebooks (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part VII of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part III, III, IV, V, VIVIII, IX, X]

Is it preposterous to claim that you will teach a university student “how to read”? At one level, absolutely. Students have been reading for quite a while and are skilled at digesting and summarizing information. But, reading for information (and its close analogue, reading for comprehension) is only one way of reading, and one that serves foundational, but also minimal, purpose for classes I teach.

Yet, not all readings are equal. Some texts are seemingly impenetrable even for scholars, and reading to simply comprehend a text might be challenging enough for students. Thus, selecting appropriate readings and instructing students how to read them are important steps in the pedagogical “decision tree.”

For survey classes like the one I’m designing currently, introductory textbooks are a clear option. They are effective at delivering a broad range of ideas and terms in easily comprehensible language, and sometimes they are outfitted with convenient illustrations, maps, and charts. Yet, there are limitations to textbooks. Oftentimes, they do not include sufficient primary sources or documents (important if you are taking a historical approach) and due to their style, they tend to be pretty boring reads. Related, and often overlooked, the genre of textbooks are written as broad summaries, and as such do not function a good rhetorical models for student writing. They frequently present data as neutral facts, overlooking the (more interesting!) scholarly debates that breathe life into the field. Consequently textbook authors do not write in an argumentative style that builds to a thesis derived from evidence.

Admittedly, this may not be a concern for many, but I’d prefer to have students engage the genre of writing I’m hoping they will practice writing. I’ve come to think of textbooks as reference handbooks that function in a very similar fashion to good encyclopedia articles – informative, but uninspiring.

Other options include more formal scholarship, such as journal articles, chapters from anthologies, chapters from monographs, or even entire scholarly books. These will typically be analytically focused (and I’d argue, more interesting) and generally model good argumentative writing. Of course, these texts are not written for novice scholars like our students, and at times will assume knowledge our students simply do not have. But I think we should recognize some authors and topics are more welcoming than others, and I do not think this concern should eliminate readings such as these out of hand. In many cases, a good introduction to the text could greatly assist in comprehension and encourage students to do any other necessary background research (Wikipedia will often suffice). Providing guiding questions cna also help. I would suggenst that instead of asking questions that are merely fact based (“What does author X say about Y?”), one could make eplicit (the often implicit) research question the scholar is trying to answer.This will frame the work in the context of the discipline, and suggest where holes in knowledge exist(ed).

Regardless of selected readings, I would be remiss to not discuss on open secret – students do not read, and at best they skim for what they need to know, when they need to know it (like right before a test). Research has shown that 80% of students read the reading assignments in 1981, but that number was down to 20% in 1997. Honestly, I am not sure what to do with this hard reality. One easy way to coerce students to read is to have regular (or surprise) tests on the readings or have them write or summarize the contents. I tend to do the latter, but it is relatively easy to “game” either of these scenarios in one way or another. Another solution is to assign more assessible and interesting assignments such as documentaries, podcasts, and journalistic articles, interspersed with more difficult academic texts.

We should remember, that whatever we assign should be in alignment with our course outcomes and – most importantly – our means of assessment. This matters because students will read in a manner that best prepares them for the type of assessment they receive. If we provide multiple choice exams and “list-the-facts” essays (which, ahem, does not engage higher-order thinking), then students will only read for content. They will, understandably, takes notes on facts, figures, dates, and so forth. While this is valuable, it does not develop any critical reading skills. I would argue that in addition to reading for content, a student should also read more critically.

In fact, scholars read in several ways simultaneously, gathering facts and data, forming opinions, challenging old idea, critiquing argument, and so forth. This is something I want students to cultivate as well. One strategy to help student read more critically is to instruct them to take notes differently and keep a dialectical notebook or a double entry-journal. In terms of the latter, students take notes in one column and in the parallel column they write down their response to that information. This is often “connections” or relational knowledge – how did that fact make you think about something you already knew, about something you see in your life or in the world, about something you are learning in another class, or about something you saw in another reading (text to text, text to self, text to world, etc.). It is foremost about making a network of meanings and ideas connected to one another.

Grist for the Mill: Choosing an good reading is only part of the puzzle, students also need to know how to read that text. It is important to be clear in what purpose the reading serves for your course. Why do you want students to read it? Ask them questions along those lines, instead of questions that simply cover content. Instructing them on double entry notebooks can facilitate a move away from simply skimming for facts. I have found that assigning a large writing project due at the end of the term can function as a lens for reflection throughout the term. If you assign students daily reflective writings on the readings, a portion of that reflection can be oriented towards thinking about how that text may help build part of an argument for that final paper.

*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

Expectation, Assessment, and Alignment: Drafting Learning Outcomes (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part VI of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part III, III, IV, V, VII, VIII, IX, X]

This is where the rubber meets the road, when push comes to shove, and, er, where dreams come to die?! I apologize for my string of worn aphorisms, but so far, my series of posts have remained firmly in the realm of the conceptual. Now we must start turning practical. I’ve outlined some of the reasons why I prefer to focus on skills (or “critical thinking”) than on content (that will be refined soon), why it’s important to explicitly instill a sense of vitality in the humanities for undergraduates, and summarized several pedagogical approaches to teaching a religious studies course.

These general orientations will provide some of the direction for my learning objectives (see below) and will form the basis for my expectations for the course. A potential difficulty arises when we start considering what expectations students have when they walk in the first day. After reading about Gearon’s religious studies paradigms, I think it important to keep in mind that students may have different expectations; this forms one level of alignment. To refer back to Gearon’s paradigms, students may be operating from a theological, psychological, or even philosophical perspective while the instructor may assume a historical or sociological one –  it is the duty of the instructor to make it clear what is expected throughout the course.

In addition, as studies in instructional design have shown, the type of assessment will determine if the course objective are realized.[1] If the assessment tasks draw upon lower forms of cognitive activity than the course objectives (for example, assigning multiple choice tests when assessment or creation are the objectives), there will be a learning equilibrium achieved at a lower level. Proper instructional alignment needs to be conceived and deployed.[2]

I should add that alignment plays a role in several other contextual factors, including alignment with the university mission, alignment with broad departmental goals, and alignment with other courses. Ideally, a series of courses should build upon one another, deepening networks of meaning and skill cultivation.

I made a draft of my learning outcomes (LOs) below. They borrow the language and general structure of Bloom’s taxonomy, ranging from knowledge and comprehension to synthesis and evaluation. In addition, I consider classroom discussion and debate to be skills that need explicit cultivation (and thus proper teaching/learning activities or TLAs).

  • Identify and describe principle beliefs, practices, themes, or contested issues in Japanese religions, including Shinto and Buddhism (and their relationship), and other religious traditions
  • Identify and apply historical critical methods to explain the political, social, or cultural foundations for religious practices and beliefs in Japan
  • Analyze visual and material objects related to religions in Japan (based on the above skillsets)
  • Formulate a critical evaluation of the relative eminence and/or transcendence of Japanese religions
  • Communicate – and even debate – with your peers through in-class, out-of-class, and online discussion and through written assignments

I am pleased with this draft of LOs because I feel they clearly connect to potential assignments and projects (TLAs)[ideally, each outcome should only have one measurable verb, but my draft has more]. This was not accidental. I spent considerable time considering the projects I wanted my students to complete before crafting these outcomes; in other words I aligned them.

The skills of identifying and describing basic religious ideas will be developed through lecture materials, including audio-visual media where possible, and readings. I envision students identifying their own terms, figures, and concepts and constructing a bank of vocabulary for their use on low-stakes exams (a modicum of self-determination). Provisionally, I imagine students working in small “study groups” (a sublte homage to Ryuchi Abe’s analysis of Nara Buddhism) outside of class to identify central terms for that week’s readings (they can meet in person or coordiante through email or texting).[3] One group will be assigned to meet with me to discuss and analyze their choices and place them on a class-accessible website. I imagine both a temporal (Tiki Toki) and spatial (Google maps) component to this work.

Because I am primarily operating through a historical paradigm (although I hope to do class activities that are philosophically based), I will train my students in basic historical criticism so as to understand religion as a human phenomenon (and domain of the humanities). The first day of classs will introduce this framework, and likely draw from the distinctions made by Bruce Lincoln.

One particular expression of this historical practice is to analyze and assess visual and material objects related to religion. One reason I incorporate this aspect is to take religion from the domain of belief and place it firmly within human cultural practices. This is also tied to the next outcome which will focus on the eminent, practical, and mundane aspects of religion. Provisionally, I am thinking of having students select items from e-Kokuho (e国宝) website which lists various National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties of National Museums and have them write a cultural biography or object narrative of an item, possibly as a foundational element for their final project.

I am also hoping to incorporate a term-long writing project where students explore the more mundane aspects of religion and have them assess the “worldly benefits” (genze riyaku) often associated with Japanese religions (and consider if all religions are primarily concerns with the eminent or transcendent).

Finally, I hope to design in-class activities (one, two, three?) where cross-talk occurs and philosophical stances are taken, elaborated, and debated.

I did not put it explicitly in the LOs, but I also plan to teach students how to effectively read in our class (reading for facts, reading to analyze method/argumentation, reading to connect ideas; as well as realizing the different genres of textbooks and scholarly works) and effectively take notes (double entry journal). I will return to this in a later post.

Notes:

*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] Many of the ideas discussed throughout were derived from Biggs 1996. A great discussion can also be found at the Scholarly Teacher blog, here.

[2] Biggs 1996: 350.

[3] Because I take a constructivist perspective, I hope to encourage multiple socially constructed ways of learning, including peer-controlled activities, in addition to teacher and individual controlled activities, See Biggs 1996: 354-5.

References:

Biggs, John. 1996. “Enhancing Teaching through Constructive Alignment.” Higher Education, Vol. 32, pp. 347-364.

The Carrot, the Stick, or Neither: Student Motivation (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part V of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part III, III, IV, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X]

One of my favorites experiments on motivation (or “incentive,” as economists tend to call it) examined the best means to encourage parents to pick up their children on time from day care. I first read about this study in Freakonomics many years ago and it regularly pops into my head. The researchers designed the experiment so that several day care centers established a minimal fine to help incentivize parents who were consistently late. Resoundingly, the result was that more parents came late! It’s astoundingly simple: the inner moral motivation that made parents be on time was offloaded to an external financial motivation. Parents no longer needed to think that they were bad for being late, it would just cost them a few bucks. Not surprisingly, the type of motivation matters.[1]

Working for Instructional Development I am blessed to be surrounded by folks who are passionate about thinking, talking, and exploring all things “pedagogy.” I am also surrounded by folks who are wicked smart, and a few days ago my colleague, Katie, offered an hour long seminar on the main theories of motivation. As she explained, there is no Grand Unifying Motivation Theory (my language), but several theories that clearly overlap (see: jangle fallacy) and fill in some mutual oversights or underdeveloped perspectives. After some good conversation and further reflection, here are some of my most practical takeaways:

  • Students generally take my classes because they are required to do so. Religious Studies courses often cover a range of General Education requirements, and thus draw in many non-majors. From the perspective of Self-Determination Theory, many of my students are complying to an external regulation, and as such may formulate what is called “extrinsic motivation” [see chart below]. Extrinsic motivation is not necessarily problematic per se, but “intrinsic motivation” has been shown to be more readily related to enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity. This explanation aligns with a practice I began several years ago. On the first day of class, when the class size is small enough, instead of asking students where they are from, or what their hobbies are, I orient discussion around why they are taking this class. They could take a gamut of classes to fulfill their requirements, so why this one? Students who initially said (in small group conversation) they only took the class because they “had to,” will start to open up about their interest in another culture or religious perspective, or about wanting to know more about their family or friends. Overall, I try to cultivate a sense of intrinsic motivation by having them realize they have some self-determination in the courses they choose. I ask them to identify some inner motivation and return to it throughout the course.
Screen Shot 2019-01-18 at 08.30.13.png

From Ryan & Deci 2000

  • While this is more applicable to my writing courses (where students tend to have a more entrenched view of being poorly skilling in writing), Self-Determination Theory also highlights the need for a person to feel competent, in addition to a sense of autonomy, in order to develop or sustain intrinsic motivation. Thus, not surprisingly, overly negative feedback from instructors (or peers) can influence student motivation. Unfortunately, I think this is often interpreted as the need to treat students as infantile and perfecting the “shit-sandwich” critique method. But – more importantly – I also think this means assigning regular smaller assignments, or low stakes assessment, so students can build up a repertoire of skills and, subsequently, confidence through a sense of competency. This approach overall aligns with scaffolding theory and the general advice to offer numerous small assignments/quizzes over the course of the term. This could also manifest in numerous other ways, such as asking students to come in with a potential research question or one book or article they would like to explore when the have larger research papers to write.

 

  • I think we all naturally attest to the fact that interest also drives motivation. So why not just pack lectures and readings with “interesting” factoids? Research into Interest Theory suggests there might be a negative relationship if there is too much extraneous – though possibly fun (so-called “seductive details“) – material for students to sort through. “Interesting” sidebar comments in readings (or I suppose, “fun” stories in lecture [edit: yes, in lecture too!], or hyperlinks in web documents?!) simply add unnecessary cognitive load and recruit ill-suited conceptual schemas. It’s better to focus on clarity, than fell prey to endless “interest baiting.”

 

  • There seems to be much debate on the value of the “sage-on-the-stage” style of straight lecturing and the amount of time students can pay attention, with 10, 15, and 20-minute maximums being reported. Instead of critiquing our students for not being able to pay attention, I would gently remind my fellow scholars that in our professional lives, many of the conference papers we listen to are (sometimes mercifully!) capped at about 15-20 minutes. In addition, the reason we find some papers interesting is mostly because we easily relate the ideas to our base knowledge – we find ideas useful to our own work, we think about old ideas in new ways, or sometime want to challenge a view that doesn’t align with our ideas, and so forth. Often student interest is diminished because they are less likely to be asked to relate to the ideas than just memorize them. How we assess our students can shift the imbalance.

 

  • My last observation is a little less formulated. According to Goal-Orientation Theory, there are different goal orientations that influence various self-regulatory processes. For those who have a “mastery orientation,” they tend to outperform on a series of measurements, including effort, persistence, non-procrastination, and both cognitive and meta-cognitive accomplishment. For those who have a “performance-approach orientation,” meaning they are primarily driven to demonstrate competency in order to receive favorable assessment (e.g. be the best student), they generally only outperform in one measurable category – course grade. Yes, read that again. A mastery orientation, which is beneficial in so many facets, does not necessarily lead to top performance [see chart below]. In the seminar, it was suggested that one way to push more students to a mastery orientation was to start assessing them in areas where it outperformed performance-approach orientation, of which I think persistence (regular, small or low stakes assignments?) and meta-cognition (reflection?) may be the most easily assessible.

 

Screen Shot 2019-01-18 at 12.51.54.png

From Radosevich et. al. 2007.

 

Grist for the Mill: I only discussed three motivational theories, Interest Theory, Self-Determination Theory, and Goal-Orientation Theory, and while I feel they provided a strong foundation for how I might structure a university course, there is a lot more to unpack. I may be biased in that I’ve read these theories to justify what I already do, but nevertheless, I feel compelled to continue to openly discuss student motivation in class, offer regular low-stakes assessment, provide frequent feedback and encouragement, and design larger assignments that can be divided into stages and are meant to be, at least partly, student-directed.

UPDATE: Very interesting article I just ran across.

Notes:

*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] Clearly there is more at stake in the experiment (and increasing the amount of the fine would clearly also change the outcome), this is just the gist that I often reflect upon.

References:

  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.
  • Radosevich, D.J., Allyn M.R. & Yun S. (2007). Goal orientation and goal setting: Predicting performance by integrating four-factor Goal Orientation Theory with goal setting processes. Seoul Journal of Business, 13(1), 21-47.