My last final exam this term was for my 3rd year histology class. A great class to teach; my students often enjoy it. But they also find it very difficult to master the material - so many details, so many interconnections to synthesize. One student who worked particularly hard and was particularly anxious about being accepted into medical school kept in touch with me throughout the term discussing her term paper, discussing her learning strategies seeking help to master histology. She was wound up so tight! As could be predicted, she was the last to submit her final exam to me. After handing in her exam she pulled out her smartphone and looked up and said to me "I just received the email informing me whether or not I got into medical school." Her trepidation was readily apparent on her face. She opened the email and gasped for joy. Doing her little happy dance she came over and gave me a hug. On her way out I asked her to keep in touch and let me know how her first year in med school goes. She bounced out the door of the classroom, feet barely touching the floor.
Kimberly Tanner's first workshop for the Mind the Gap series used a mobile construction exercise. It produced an interesting dynamic in the workshop because different teams had different resources. It was weird because both my partner and I were simply in our own bubble trying to construct something worthy from the scraps of paper, string, and hangers that we had with us. When I noticed that some groups had other resources (scissors! tape!) I realized what was trying to be simulated and then simply focused on trying to produce the best bad mobile we could produce. It was a game! One that was stacked against me and as a result I had checked out of taking it seriously. The other interesting thing that I noticed afterwards was that so many other teams had used interesting themes for their mobiles: education, science, organisms (we were mostly biologists/scientists attending) that I had never considered. What my team did was to produce a mobile consisting of different geometric shapes (triangle, square). Why? The only other time I had ever constructed a mobile was in grade 7 when our class created mobiles of different shapes for our geometry section of math. That was my only experience making mobiles and so that is what I used to model our approach to the workshop.
So a couple of interesting things here. One is how I checked out of the assignment once I realized that that the playing field was not fair. The other thing that is interesting is that I locked myself into approaching the assignment based on my limited prior experience. While unpacking the exercise with Dr Tanner during the workshop I began to wonder how many of our students have similar responses to poorly structured assignments? Poorly structured in the sense that the rules and expectations are not clearly explained with unstated possilibities left assumed. It was interesting that I did not consider asking for extra resources to complete our "high resource" bag (we had glitter glue in our bag). Especially since Kimberly had laid out the extra resources on a desk in front of us. She had not pointed them out or suggested we could ask to use them. But no one (no one!) in the lecture theatre even considered asking if they were available to be borrowed. Why did I not consider asking for assistance from other teams? Was that permitted? Why didn't I ask? Why did I not look around for what other resources might be available? Why did I limit myself to what was present in our bag and to our limited experience? How many of my students have similar responses when I assign a term paper, learning dossier or e-portfolio? How can I make my own assignments more clear and transparent?
These were the questions going through my mind. What Kimberly was trying to emphasize is that our resource bags were representative of what baggage our students bring to our classrooms and are as varied as what she gave to us. Students come to us with different family cultures, educational backgrounds, different experiences and prejudices both projected and experienced. As educators, it is our responsibility to consider the cultural variety in our classroom and try to respond to the different needs of our students. Not try to make students the same, but try to tailor the educational environment we construct for our students such that all students feel welcomed, supported and nurtured in our classrooms. One way of doing that is being explicit in our expectations such that students know what questions to ask to clarify what they themselves need in order to achieve excellence given their own background.
No easy task. No way of using a cookie cutter approach to all students. When I design the learning environment I need to try to respond to each student's individual needs as they become apparent. One thing I learned is that making the course/assignment structure clear, that better levels the playing field and creates the conditions in which all students feel welcomed, supported and nurtured.
A recent article on the Chronicle of Higher Education website suggests that technology will not save/improve/enhance education without student motivation. That student motivation may have its origins in the intrinsic goals of the student, peer pressure from student colleagues or inspiration and support from instructors. I wrote a short piece some time ago (see page 8 here) which suggested the same thing: that the digital divide will be those who have access to ed tech vs those that have access to in-the-flesh instructors, with the ed tech students being the impoverished and those being taught in the physical presence of peers and teachers will be the advantaged. It also echoes what another suggested about the history of educational revolutions: the revolutions never alter the fact that the educational enterprise requires hard work following on the heels of student motivation nurtured by instructors.
We had a great meeting over the last couple of days with Dr. Kimberly Tanner leading us through three interesting and invigorating workshops: Mind the Gap - Nurturing Our Students Toward Expertise. Her slideshows, handouts and articles are linked below. One additional article that is worth reading for those of us interested in implementing active learning in our classrooms is "What if Students Revolt?" and is well worth reading especially after receiving end of term student evaluations (which a number of us are doing now!). In addition, CBE-LSE has collected Dr Tanner's collection of essays on approaches to biology teaching and learning here.
I - Cultural Competency in the Undergraduate Classroom: Cross-Disciplinary Tools, Insights and Strategies to Promote Student Success
This article helps explain to me why, despite understanding the efficacy of active learning strategies, there are still some lectures that illuminate me. The best lecturers do not simply disseminate information; they interpret and make connections between different sources and different media. It reminds me of what Parker Palmer explained in The Courage to Teach of how some teachers are able to make the subject come alive by treating the material with respect while lecturing. There is a place for the lecture, I think, mixed with the use of active learning strategies within the classroom. I think this is also what informs my understanding of the in-class experience as being synergistic and much more than the transmission of knowledge.