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The Perfect Class?

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Few professors would probably admit it, but one of the things that propelled them into teaching was some hidden fantasy of the perfect class.  They would be standing in some gorgeous oak-paneled classroom with wooden desks fanned out around them. The lighting would be somber and come from large mullioned windows, through which you would see a beautiful quad and tree limbs scoring an autumnal sky.

In my secret fantasy, I am not so much lecturing as holding the room spell-bound with questions concerning justice, truth, the nature of reality and the meaning and purpose of life. And on the last day of this life-changing seminar, a lone student stands and slowly begins to clap. Then, student-by-student, the entire class rises up to join in a unanimous ovation as I humbly stride from the room with the barest trace of a tear on my sallow cheek.

This fantasy is self-indulgent crap.  

What you get is uncomfortable desks in military cordons, concrete block rooms and half-asleep students texting …

The Emotional Bennies of Tagging Up

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By February whatever earnest and heartfelt personal learning goals my students set for themselves in their first-week papers have long been forgotten. Yes, they wanted to become better critical readers, successfully manage their time and use better textual support in their writing, but that was then.  Now it's February and they are well within the whirling blender of assignments, due dates and drudgery that make up mid-semester.  So five-weeks into the term is a good time to check-in and tag up..

Lots of professors do something called a Plus Delta Assessment.  It's a useful way to solicit early feedback. There are a lot of models for doing this kind of assessment.  Most involve an anonymous five to 10 minute survey containing three or four open-ended questions: What's working? What could work better?  What can I do differently to help you learn?  What could you do differently? 

Check-ins like these allow for mid-course corrections, but using them comes with an important c…

Miley Cyrus meets Dr. Faustus

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So yesterday in senior honors seminar we were discussing Jonathan Haidt's  book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.  Haidt, a psychologist, explores how many of  the prescriptions of ancient Western and Eastern philosophers are borne out by contemporary research in psychology.  He notes one idea, however, that hasn't passed muster: the Buddhist/Stoic advice that we ought to moderate our desires or at least adopt a studied indifference to them.

There is a certain logic to this.  As the Buddhists point out, any pleasure we derive from satisfying a desire is predicated on time spent suffering from unsatisfied desire.  So a life spent in pursuit of our desires becomes--at best--a zero-sum gain.  Haidt actually began his research amenable to the Buddhist/Stoic advice, but he changed his view after looking at data that shows how people are happier working toward a goal than achieving it.

Metaphors and commonly-held allusions are often a teacher's b…

The Nostos of Facebook

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I had a great uncle by marriage who once self-published a book of observations, one of which has always stuck with me.  He noted that for most of his life he had an unvoiced and unexamined assumption that he and his brothers would all be together again, living under the same roof and in each others' lives on a daily basis.

It made sense, he wrote.  After all, they had at one time spent so much time together.  Clearly this was the natural, fundamental state of their lives.  And everything that came later--adulthood, leaving home, distance, years spent without seeing each other--was just a provisional arrangement.  Someday, in some unspecified future, he just assumed they would be together again.  It wasn't until he was in his 50s that my uncle inspected this notion. When he did, it suddenly and painfully struck him that it was a baseless assumption.  This was never going to happen.

Of course today we can overview the dendrochronology of our relationships via Facebook. They are…

Towards thee I roll...

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Here are six facts.  Now imagine that you are a reporter for the college's student newspaper.   Your task is to write a news lead that places the most important information first. Okay, so evaluate the facts below to determine what piece of information needs to go first in the lead.
Who: the entire faculty of this college.What: attend an "Excellence in Education" conference.Where: Iowa City, IA.When: Thursday.Why: to improve undergraduate instruction.How: the faculty will board buses at 6:00 am and return at 6:00 pm. What is the most important information here?
The above exercise has been given during the first week to every class I teach for the last decade. It's one of several exercises I use to demonstrate the kind of thinking I look for in student work.  Unfortunately, a grand total of one student in 10 years has ever gotten the correct answer.  
To be fair, I didn't get the right answer the first time I faced this task.  Most people don't due to somethin…

Cue the nous

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Getting students to cue recently learned material with self-generated questions is a useful form of elaboration (i.e., a way of re-running information through their meat computers).  It's essentially the method used by the Cornell note taking strategy: take some notes and then re-engineer this new information into study questions: What is confirmation bias?What are the five rights guaranteed by the first amendment?What is the difference between a chromatid and a chromosome? These kinds of questions spark recall or in some cases understanding, the two lowest rungs of Bloom's taxonomy of higher-order critical thinking skills.  But with some prompting and modeling, it's possible to bump students up the taxonomy by getting them to formulate questions that seek analysis, application, connection or contrast.  To be sure, a lot of these questions will be weak or ill formed, but success with this method isn't simply about the answers generated.  There's some value in the a…

Picking Up Your Cues

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One of the differences between experts and novices is the ability to self-cue relevant knowledge. Experts--consciously or unconsciously--are more likely to sense how the situation or problem before them connects to other things they know.  Students often struggle with this.  Indeed, anyone who has taught for a while has had the experience of teaching an idea or theory and having the class spit it back to you chapter and verse. So you toss out a problem or situation to which the idea or theory clearly applies and the result...
Eye blinks, crickets.  


Students just don't automatically make the connection because they know something.  So is there a way to jump start connections?   I don't know, but in my own teaching I've sure been trying the last several years.  For what it's worth, here's what I've been up to.

First, I try to drive home the first week of class that recall and an ability to demonstrate understanding are the the lowest levels of critical ability.  Wh…