On the wire – highlights from across the web

The month’s highlights on higher education from across the web


1. Teaching Online Will Make You a Better Teacher in Any Setting

Teaching Online Will Make You a Better Teacher in Any Setting from The Chronicle

Can teaching online make you a better instructor in any setting? Kevin Gannon, a professor of history at Grand View University and director of its Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, reflects on the question here in The Chronicle.

When he began to design and teach fully online units of study, he found that they were far from being “the place where good teaching goes to die.” Rather, he discovered that the requirements of online units led him to ask relevant and overdue questions about his current teaching practices. Questioning, “Why do I do it that way?” and “Is there a better option?” often yielded results that translated to better student engagement in both his online and face-to-face classes. 

The experience of teaching online without the benefit of non-verbal cues and improvisatory additions revealed where his explanations or instructions to students were sloppy or his questions relied on his presence to drive engagement. This led him to sharpen his communication to students in his face-to-face classes too, involving them in the rationale behind his teaching choices and becoming more attuned to the possible ways that they might respond to his materials.

He showed that it is even possible to learn from and adapt features that are native to the online medium. He managed to replicate the richer conversations that emerged naturally out of the asynchronous nature of online discussions by incorporating silent reflection time in his face-to-face classrooms.  The article is worth a read as an impetus to reflection on how each of us could tweak our teaching for better outcomes.

2. How to Engage Students and Support Learning in Large Classes

How to Engage Students and Support Learning in Large Classes from EdSurge

Over to Bonni Stachowiak and her agony aunt styled advice column on EdSurge, Bonni responds to an anonymous academic who is dubious about the use of active learning strategies with large classes. In her response Bonni acknowledges that while small classes do provide greater opportunity for student engagement, a large study ‘found no significant relationship between the size of the class and how well students did in demonstrating learning outcomes’. This doubtless reflects many of our own experiences of lecturers that were brilliant, tutorials that were lacklustre and vice versa. This practice based article looks at large classes that do a good job and the teachers that cultivate an environment which is engaging and induces participation. One exemplar included in this is Professor of Political Philosophy Michael Sandel’s popular Justice Course at Harvard University; this course is so popular Harvard University now offer this course for free on edX. By looking at concrete examples of large class teaching the tips and suggestions offered remain more concrete and applicable than advice that may be solely based in pedagogy. Better still is that many of the suggested tips (e.g. centring the class around 10 big ideas, inviting students to predict what will happen) can easily be adapted into nice activities for smaller classes. An inspiring read and a good mid-semester morale boost.

3. Deep learning is hard work!

Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom from Deslauriers et al. (2019)

Following the theme of active learning, a new study out of Harvard University has found that students believe they learn more from a well-done lecture than by engaging actively in their own learning, despite mounting evidence showing that students often actually learn better in a more active environment. 

Why is this the case? Lead author Louis Deslauriers sums it up nicely: “Deep learning is hard work”! In a news release accompanying the study, Deslauriers explains that “[t]he effort involved in active learning can be misinterpreted as a sign of poor learning. On the other hand, a superstar lecturer can explain things in such a way as to make students feel like they are learning more than they actually are.” 

The study compares undergraduates in a a large introductory physics unit. During week 12 the cohort was divided, with half attending to an “active-learning” classes and half a “polished” set of lectures. The experience was then reversed the next week. Following each class, students were asked how much they felt they learned and how well they enjoyed the class experience. They also completed a multiple-choice exam to test what they learned.  

The results showed that students preferred the lecture and felt they learned more from it, compared to the students in active-learning class. However when looking at the exam scores, the students from the active-learning class scored higher than those in the well-polished but traditional lecture.

So how can we overcome our students’ negative perceptions of the active-learning experience? Deslauriers and his co-authors recommend explaining to students upfront the benefits of active learning to help combat initial frustrations with this potentially new, challenging, but hopefully rewarding learning process.

4. The Distracted Classroom: Transparency, Autonomy, and Pedagogy

The Distracted Classroom: Transparency, Autonomy, and Pedagogy from The Chronicle 

In the fourth article by James Lang on “The Distracted Classroom”, a series which explores how to deal with student distraction by digital devices*, he reports on his trial of polling to increase class interaction. He cites the importance of “building structural methods of participation into our courses, rather than just relying on the vocal students to carry the conversation.”

When using polling he asked his students to respond to short answer questions rather than the more commonly used MCQs, deliberately setting a low word count for the responses.  This allowed him to use the very short answers as a springboard for class discussion.

He found that doing this “democratised” the class discussion because a wider range of students took part than the usual eager or fast-thinking few, as many students put their hands up to expand on their initial responses. Having the poll answers projected to the class also allowed him to draw attention to responses that displayed alternative perspectives, calling on their authors to talk more about their points. He believes that this style of post-poll discussion exposes the students to new ways of looking at the questions and expands their thinking.

These empirical observations were borne out by the student feedback in his unit evaluations. One student wrote that, “By everyone answering a common question it creates unity where people can build off each other and offer any additional support.”

Of course, using digital devices for classroom activities opens the possibility for distraction but perhaps it is less likely than if the devices lay idle but tantalisingly close by.

*articles 1-3 reported in On the Wire March, April and June

5. How student debt shapes family life

How student debt shapes family life from the Times Higher Education Supplement

From the author of Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost (Princeton University Press) comes an article exploring the ways that increasing costs in higher education have come to alter family life. Published in this September’s issue of the Times Higher Education Supplement, this article offers readers a light peek into insights taken from the 160 interviews conducted as part of Caitlin Zaoom’s study. Zaoom explores the way in which higher education has come to be seen as a pathway to independence but paradoxically becomes ‘so expensive that it imperils the very freedoms that [it] is supposed to enable’. Dipping into accounts of families who re-mortgage their house, reduce their electricity usage and defer retirement, the family sacrifice and the consequence of such familial dependency is depicted as a financial pressure that not only affects the student but pulls everyone down. This story is US centric and does note how Australia differs (favourably) in both its financing system as well as student and parent expectations. However favourable, the question still remains as to how such costs affect the learner, their learning and their life within and without the university. As outstanding HELP debt rises and international students face costs and familial pressure likely akin to that of their US counterparts, it is worth reflecting on what sacrifice our students make to be here and what we can do to make sure it is worth it.

[$]Bypass the paywall: Access this article online through the university library

6.Where ‘Growth Mindset’ Training Works (And Where It Doesn’t)

New Study Shows Where ‘Growth Mindset’ Training Works (And Where It Doesn’t) from EdSurge News  

A new study published in the journal Nature has found that found that teaching students to maintain a “growth mindset”- by highlighting that their minds are like muscles that get stronger with use – can result in higher test scores. Too good to be true? Perhaps, especially given that the two mindset education training sessions take only 25 min each online. Nonetheless, an interesting set of results to consider, nicely summarised in this short article from EdSurge News. A good quick read for an update on the latest work in the growth mindset space (and to ponder whether you are convinced or the jury’s still out).


This article was contributed by the Teaching@Sydney editorial team.

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