In Defense of Lectures? II (Pondering Pedagogy)

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

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 I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, IX]

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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.

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

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

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 I, II, III, IV, VI]

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.
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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.

 

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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.

Should we Abolish Page-Lengths When Assigning Student Papers? (Pondering Pedagogy)

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

For those of us who are writing, or have written, a dissertation, it is likely that we have run across a well-meaning friend, family member, or stranger in a bar (or Buddhist temple!) who has asked us, “How many pages does a dissertation need to be?!” “Everyone knows,” I say, “it’s exactly 373, no more, no less.”

Of course, this is a silly answer to a genuine question, but I think we scholars have to admit the assumptions behind this question are, well, misdirected. I’ve seen dissertations in my field that are 200 pages and 1200 pages. I would say age-old conventions more commonly determine page length of dissertations, not whip-cracking advisors.[1] More importantly, the guiding principle behind writing a dissertation is identifying and crafting a compelling argument. The scope and depth of the argument is better at determining the length than any pre-established page length. I would say that most scholars do not have the problem of developing the length of their writing, but containing its scope of ideas! Word limit is our enemy, not word count!

In teaching academic writing, my colleagues and I foreground the importance of developing ideas through short writing assignments and drafts. Yes, we do have page-lengths, typically three 5-page papers are due throughout the term. But each of these 5-page papers were preceded by two 2-page papers, used to develop elements of the longer argument. This structure allows students to develop ideas over time (they receive critical feedback along the way) and draft verbiage that can be used for their longer paper. Even these initial 5-page papers are drafts that are revised and edited for their final portfolio.

The first time I taught the course I was caught off guard by how many portfolio papers were too long, either repetitive or unnecessarily broad or meandering. They blew by the 5-page limit because they had too many good ideas![2]  I soon established page-maximums for the portfolio papers (7 pages), and decided to start talking throughout the course about how students should think about the scope of their thesis and the depth of their evidence and analysis. Surely, some initial 5-page papers are short, but I have an equal number of students who are struggling with too many possible trajectories for their argument. They are no longer concerned with page length, but with identifying and crafting a compelling argument. To be clear, this only happens because they are allowed (err…coerced) to developed ideas through writing over a period of time with critical feedback. I commiserate with students who are vexed by having to edit out good (or just fun) ideas – I tell them that is what real scholarship often entails – save them for your next paper!

Now, I can hear (and have heard) the objection, “But, I am a scholar of Religious Studies, I teach Religious Studies, I do not teach writing!” True, but I would suggest we rephrase the statement like this: “I am a scholar of Religious Studies, I teach facts, not skills!” I would argue that writing (or argumentative writing) is a core skill of doing Religious Studies, and if one wants to develop critical thinking, the practice of writing is a main vehicle for its development. If one is truly interested in teaching only religious literacy (i.e. facts), then writing assignments do not need to be assigned – multiple choice exams will adequately test retention of ideas. (And don’t fool yourself if you think assigning an “essay question” necessarily elicits higher-order thinking – most essay prompts ask the student to list facts in one way or another. For example, a good essay question should ask the student to apply a skill in a novel context.)

Grist for the Mill: By writing this (go figure!), I think I’ve come to a better understanding of the value of page-lengths. Page-lengths really don’t matter much if you are working with a motivated student to continuously help develop his or her ideas. Depending on the depth of available research materials (both primary and secondary sources), the complexity of the research topic, and the base knowledge of the student, paper lengths may vary significantly, but still reflect an equivalent effort. The point, I concede, may be simply placing the primary focus on – and underlying motivation directed towards – the quality of the argument and not the length of the paper. One way to do this is to emphasize the need for the slow development and building of ideas with regular peer or instructor feedback.

Dare I say, page-recommendations should perhaps be determined by the time a teacher has to critically read and comment on them all – as opposed to some arbitrary 10, 12, or 15 page paper?[3] I average about 20 minutes of reading and critical feedback per 5-page paper. This feedback (and sometimes this is just suggestions, not “corrections”) is then used to write a final, more polished piece of writing. This process requires more planning than simply penciling-in a “research paper” into your syllabus due at the end of the term. Is also requires a prompt that allows for the development of a student’s ideas over an extended period of time. Granted, this may not be ideal for every class, but I think it is preferable in many Religious Studies courses.

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] If I engage in a longer conversation, I will usually say that scholars often think about the number of chapters needed to develop an argument, and that by the general concern of publishing a chapter or two as a 10-20+ page article we often arrive at a determined dissertation length. In other words, we (typically) do not start by having a page length.

[2] Long papers could be plagued by what I call “stream of consciousness writing,” writing that meanders with no point. I usually tell students that this is the sign of a good rough draft, but now needs to be critically analyzed for kernels of ideas or good argumentation. Unless a student willfully wants to fail, this informal style of writing is almost always fixed after revision.

[3] Many universities have stipulations for certain classes that involve the required assignment of a certain number of pages of writing (it is 15 pages at my university). Typically this represents total pages of writing, thus, following a similar program I outline above, a final 10-page paper should easily be preceded by more than 5 pages of drafting, consequently complying with the 15-page minimum.

How Does One Do “Religious Studies”? [III] (Pondering Pedagogy)

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

Some university students, and many among the general public, do not know the difference between Religious Studies and Theology. In casual conversation, I will often say that I am a historian of Chinese religions; it’s just a lot simpler and doesn’t necessarily entail, from their perspective, religious commitment (…no, I’m not planning on being a monk…in this lifetime ;).

Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan has provided the wording that some scholars of religion use to help describe the difference between the two disciplines, noting that “teaching about religion” is to be “distinguished from the teaching of religion” [italics in original].[1] The former is considered the typical realm of inquiry for teachers in university institutions, while the latter is considered – at least in its legal ramifications in public schools – an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Outside of many seminaries and Theology departments, confessional religious instruction (i.e. the full, unambiguous assent to the truth of a religion) is not expected.[2]

So, in addition to non-confessional instruction, what may be expected in terms of the theory or method of Religious Studies instruction? This, not surprisingly, is understudied and complex. For example, I’ve already talked about how the interdisciplinary nature of Religious Studies can lead to different disciplinary methodologies and levels of analysis being explored and practiced in the classroom setting. Being aware of these choices can help instructors decide what intellectual and disciplinary tools to model and teach.

Recently, I have also been inspired by the work of Liam Gearon who argues that instructors need a more rigorous conceptualization of the paradigms that undergird religious education.[3] Because modern religious education is no longer based upon theological truths or a religious life, Gearon claims, there have emerged several attempts to locate new epistemological grounds. Gearon identifies six different paradigms of contemporary religious education. I discuss each briefly below with some initial ruminations:

  • Scriptural-Theological Paradigm: This follows the premise that religious education should be concerned with Christian scripture and its revelations, and as such falls in line with the “teaching of religion.” This is not so much a mode of teaching, but an expected mode of being, which would in turn circumscribe the types of questions asked and the types of evidence marshalled in support of arguments.
  • Phenomenological Paradigm: Based on the tireless work of Ninian Smart, this approach champions the use of epoché, or the suspension of (dis)belief together with the use of empathy for the subject (or subjects) of study. This was partly a product of a growing awareness of religious pluralism throughout the 1960’s, and I would argue is the basis of the call for religious studies to increase cultural and religious literacy. A more critical reading might also suggest this is the theoretical foundation for “comparative religions,” which can treat religion as a sui generis phenomenon that resists historical or cultural deconstruction. Yet, I will admit that Smart’s Six (or Seven) Dimensions of Religion proves to be a useful heuristic that speaks well to non-scholars. As such, this paradigm may work well for survey courses.
  • Psychological-Experiential Paradigm: Founded on the ideas of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, this takes the view that religious education is beneficial to a person’s moral development. Gearon suggests this paradigm arose in reaction to the Phenomenological Paradigm, which did not sufficiently address a young person’s developmental needs because it did not appropriately evaluate diverse religious doctrines. While ethical and character development is a noble cause (for people of all ages!), I struggle to see how one could implement this in a university setting with the expectation of behavioral change. Yet, could an instructor, for example, ask his or her students to become vegetarian for a week and reflect on the experience? (As part of a section on Chinese Buddhist practice?). Now that I write this, this might be something interesting to explore, but at the same time it is also ripe with problems since many religious practices would not be so amenable. Also, would asking students to engage in meditation fall into this paradigm?
  • Philosophical-Conceptual Paradigm: Gearon describes this paradigm as the throwing off of phenomenological neutrality and the search for “truth.” While intractability inter-related, I might characterize this as the conceptual counterpart to the experiential/behavioral paradigm above. It seems that Gearon present this as the search for an objective truth, rightly problematizing this paradigm’s epistemic grounds. If I may play with Gearon’s ideas a bit, I think this paradigm could be very appealing if was not established on the search for “truth,” but on a search for well-reasoned perspectives (not “what to think,” but indeed, “how to think“). Certain religious perspectives could offer a good counter-balance to student presumptions, causing them to refine – or articulate for the first time – the reasons for those perspectives. To explore the issue from above, a student may develop arguments both for and against vegetarianism, and then decide rationally on a preference (whether or not they adopt it as practice is inconsequential – they simply now are equipped with a well-argued stance).
  • Socio-Cultural Paradigm: This utilizes ethnographic methods, and thus underpins the discipline of Anthropology (and some alignment with Sociology?).
  • Historical-Political Paradigm: Gearon highlights the political ramifications of this paradigm, and as such claims that it is also the most prevalent in education. My reading here would understand the deconstruction of power (ideological, institutional, racial, gendered, etc. – power in all of its forms) to be the primary modality of analysis. The attempt is to explain, within the myriad of culturally and historically constructed frameworks, the religion or religious phenomenon under scrutiny. (I’ll admit my wording is a bit broad, and would encapsulate the above paradigm as well). I would agree, at least in university settings, this is the most common approach. This approach was popularized through the University of Chicago and has been nicely summarized and described by Bruce Lincoln. It should be noted, however, that Lincoln pits the historical method against traditional theology and does not address other potential methodological approaches.

To be honest, I have used Gearn’s paradigms more as things “good to think with” (bonnes à penser) than attempt to fully explicate, or even understand them (so, my apologies for any misinterpretation). Nevertheless, I would argue that the final two paradigms, the Socio-Cultural Paradigm and the Historical-Political Paradigm, align most cosely with my experience as a student and instructor of Religious Studies (Clearly Anthropology and History, but also a range of Area Studies fields). If we consider the Philosophical-Conceptual Paradigm more broadly as critical inquiry (identify assumptions, assess evidence, analyze claims, etc.) in the search for well-reasoned stances, this could also align with the goals of university education more broadly and specifically the with the aims of Philosophy.

Gearon’s description of Psychological-Experiential Paradigm appears to move beyond the mere description and explanation of psychological phenomena (the domains of many scholars) and towards the practice of psychology. In other words, instead of analyzing the minds of religious practitioners, here instructors would mold the actions and thoughts of the student so as to be like those religious practitioners. Clearly, this may be objectionable to many since it sounds like missionizing in the context of Religious Studies. Yet, I wonder if this could be done in limited ways with much though and care? I’ll have to leave that for further reflection. In some ways, this is not so different from the Philosophical-Conceptual Paradigm – both ask the student to inhabit the perspectives and worldviews of the religion under analysis. It seems to me that while a philosophy course could change your life, a religious studies course doing the same thing might raise a few eyebrows?

The Phenomenological Paradigm, which to me entails the comparative endeavor, is a pretty common approach to university courses in Religious Studies, especially in introductory or survey courses that aim to expose a student to a range of beliefs and practices.

Grist for the Mill: Each of these paradigms function as ideal types, and I think any course in Religious Studies would jump between several of them (save for the first). For me, I think it is helpful to identify which paradigm I am presupposing when I design class activities and course work – in addition to deciding how I will assess student work. This schema also allows me to add variety to how I teach, providing a convenient means to conceive of a differnt type of activity or assignment in order to break any potential monotony.

I’ll end by noting that I think the presumption of some students – often derisively called “spiritual seekers” – will assume the framing of the Philosophical-Conceptual Paradigm or even the Psychological-Experiential Paradigm (there are far less at my university who assume the Scriptural-Theological Paradigm). While I am comitted to the general scholarly apparatus of deconstruction, and think these student can find vaule in that form of critical thinking, I do not think that has to be the only agenda for every lesson plan, every activity, and every reading.

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] In a very insightful piece, Sarah Imhoff has noted that this particular linguistic distinction is older than Brennan’s remarks of 1963.

[2] And while it is unconstitutional to teach “of religion” in US public schools, there is no legal standing against it in private Christian schools or homeschooling. As far as I am aware, a mandate of non-confessional instruction in university Religious Studies departments is not explicitly upheld by the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Abington School District v. Schempp, of which Brennan penned the concurrence. Nevertheless, non-confessional instruction is the unquestioned norm (if not written into the mission of individual departments).

[3] Gearon’s analysis is primarily based on the current political and legal realities of England, but his observations work well for the situation in the United States. It would take us too far afield here, but addition to Gearon’s views we could include more overarching learning theories, such as behavioralist, cognitivist, or constructivist approaches.

References:

  • Gearon, Liam. 2014. “The Paradigms of Contemporary Religious Education,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 52-81.
  • Gearon, Liam. 2014. On Holy Ground: The Theory and Practice of Religious Education. London: Routledge.

How Does One Do “Religious Studies” [II]? (Pondering Pedagogy)

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

Knowing the demographic and interests of the student body you teach matters. I’ve taught for several years at a large state university and it’s become a pet project of mine to keep a loose tally the majors of my students. Less than 1% major in the humanities. Admittedly, my classes overall reflet a small sample size, but university graduates with degrees in the humanities have only been between 10-15% in the past 30 years [also note the neagtive trends in the Humanities, and Religious Studies in particular, in the cart below]. Most of my taught classes have been university-required academic writing classes, so I would guess it’s a pretty fair representation (i.e. random sampling) of the student body as a whole. Yet, most of the students are freshman or sophomores, and to be frank, I’ve found that most of them don’t know what the humanities are, let alone have the motivation to major in a humanities discipline.

 

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These suspicious were only confirmed this past summer. I was a last minute teaching assistant for a course that introduced the “research university” to incoming freshman. It was an online course to service the students who could not attend, for financial reasons or otherwise, the highly successful “head start” program, where incoming freshman took summer courses before their formal fall start.

Our course introduced the structure and disciplinary divisions of a research university, which is significantly different from their educational experience in high school. The middle three weeks of the five week course were devoted to explorations of the humanities, social sciences, and math & natural sciences respectively. Students watched recorded interviews of faculty members from each department, interviews of undergraduate majors, and watched or read other media describing the exciting intellectual opportunities of different disciplines.

There was a clear, noticeable trend among the weekly reflections of our students. Many commented that they simply did not know what the humanities studied or why it was valuable to their careers. Others said they enjoyed or excelled at humanities classes in high school, but opted for the safer STEM major (or were heavily persuaded by their parents) when going to college. Clearly, many of these sentiments are motivated by – understandable in some regards – employment-minded concerns.

They also noted that these feelings were common among their friends, claiming that humanities majors were “looked down upon” and taken up by students who were “lazy” and “looking for an easy A.” More interestingly, several incoming students did not know that scholars in the humanities did research, thinking that research was only conducted by scientists (!!). From their perspective, taking classes in the humanities meant rote memorization of “dead” facts, and science was the domain were creativity (and fun experimentation) was encouraged.

Lastly, of the handful of sophomores or upperclassmen who took the course (it was open to everyone), many spoke of a particular humanities class or particular teacher they had taken that revealed the intellectual excitement of that discipline.

So what is my biggest takeaway? First, almost all of the preconceptions above were mitigated once students got a better understanding of what the humanities constitutes (object or scope of study and methods of investigation), of the “living” and sometimes contested nature of humanities scholarship, and of how genuinely excited scholars were of their research, and of the opportunity for students to deeply engage their own research interests (some self-determinism is a powerful motivating tool). Moreover, before the summer course, sophomores and upperclassman only changed their perceptions when they encountered a particularly charismatic teacher.

Grist for the Mill: Thus, it is apparent to me as a teacher of religion (at least where I am currently), that I have to explain what I do as a scholar of the humanities, why I do it, and offer the opportunity for students to experience something similar. It has also been my experience that my excitement for research and resolving my research questions is contagious, which is only amplified when the students have a degree of determining their own research agendas. Admittedly, these are not novel insights. They are approaches derived from a constructivist theory of learning which broadly include methods of student-centered learning and cognitive apprenticeship. Nevertheless, it goes beyond simply having one lecture on the importance of the humanities – it goes into the conceptual structure, classroom activities, and means of student assessment for the entire course.

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.