Saturday, October 15, 2011

Reflections on effectiveness and advocacy

Another fall has come and will soon go in the ebb and flow of higher education.  Once again students find themselves either rejoicing at making it through their courses or being confronted with the hard results of failure.

This time, for me, is a time for reflection on where I was successful in reaching my students or failed to adequately prepare them.  I, like most educators, agonize over the loss of the borderline student, or I shake my head in frustration when I think of those who come to college to "play" or work the system, a waste of talents and taxpayer dollars.  I reflect on these events and can find no permanent answers to the challenges and frustrations of my profession, only strategies that can be implemented in the hopes of optimizing success.  After all, good education, in practice, is sometimes more of an art than a science.

At this point in my career I have also made a choice to become more of a committed advocate for students higher education, especially for those enrolled in community colleges.  My reason for advocacy, the future of the community college in Mississippi, the home of my current employer, is once again on shaky ground.
Community colleges in Mississippi have historically been the backbone of postsecondary education and workforce training in the state.  These institutions have provided low cost educations to the working poor, the middle class, and even the upper classes of the state for decades.  Students from these institutions have gone on to obtain Bachelor's degrees as transfer students, as well as advanced degrees from other colleges and universities. The workforce training and development has also been a crucial part of the state's transition from a primarily agrarian economy into a more diverse industrial and service economy.

With the tough economy driving up unemployment more students have enrolled in the state's community colleges in order to seek retraining or new careers altogether.  Some of our community colleges have experienced record enrollment, a condition many people would call a boon rather than a problem.  However, this population explosion puts a strain on an institution in terms of space, services, and wear on facilities.  Add to this the cost of educating a given student (the actual sometimes close to 3x the cost of tuition and fees), and the need for state funding becomes even more crucial, since, like other community colleges throughout the US, the bulk of funding for Mississippi's community colleges comes from the state and county districts they serve.  The funding from these sources, unfortunately, has been severely hurt by consistently falling tax revenues.

Past techniques revisited

     This semester has seen a return to teaching and testing techniques that I thought I had abandoned.  This semester I returned to multiple choice exams and have added oral testing in the class (i.e. "come up to the board, please...").
      I have observed a mixed bag of results.  On the upside, I have developed a research-oriented pedagogy that allows me to link students misconceptions to specific learning objectives.  Students also have some instantaneous feedback about their deficiencies regarding basic concepts in the text.  On the downside, however, I have noted a potentially disturbing trend.  It seems very few of my students, especially among the traditional freshmen, are able to study effectively or even have the capability to make the most rudimentary connections between concepts.
     This situation has prompted me to look at my students within the concepts of student development theory to explain the situation.  From what I can tell, my students seem to be stuck within the dualistic position of development described by Perry's theory of intellectual development.  This way of thinking mean students look at the world in terms of right and wrong with no grey areas in between.  now, this situation is quite common among traditional students, but the current crop  seems to have this perspective more firmly entrenched.  For example, I have needed to explain how to study for these studdents, even going so far as to require them to make notecards and explain exactly how to make the notecards.  I have also found myself in the position where I am forcing them to memorize information for the exams. This means I must test them on their ability to learn at the lowest levels of Bloom's taxonomy, rather than giving them information in order for them to demonstrate their ability to apply information.
     All in all, I am rather frustrated at my students' absence of basic work ethic and learning skills.  Lucky for them, however, they have an instructor who cares too much to let them flounder.  They may not always like me, but they will leave my class with a more realistic knowledge of college learning.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

More work with Poll Everwhere

As a warning to any editorial-minded folks, I'm mixing tenses...

Today marked the first time that I deployed an SMS polling service in my general chemistry class.  As I introduced in an earlier post, the application I am employing comes from Poll Everywhere, and in my class I am using  simple multiple choice questions that test my students' understanding of stoichiometry calculations based on chemical formulae (see poll below).

The polls were structured so students could give the correct answer, two other answers that are based on common misconceptions of the concept, and a "Don't know" option.  I administered several polls during a class period, showing only the instructions for the poll, with a five minute time limit on participation in each poll.  After time was called, I revealed the results of each poll to them as a graph.  The results of each poll were then displayed in the graph form shown above.

 My students gave me nothing but positive feedback during this session.  They asked questions about different ways of presenting the concepts within quizzes, common misconceptions were addressed, and problem solving strategies were introduced to them.

All in all, the experience of SMS polling proved very positive for my students, at least in the engagement department.  Whether or not this strategy results in improved test scores, rests, as always, on the shoulders of my students.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Trying out Poll Everywhere

Today I'm giving the application, Poll Everywhere, a try.  Poll Everywhere and its ilk are designed to replace hardware-based audience response systems (ARS), such as "clickers", with a web-based application that polls the audience via different methods like SMS or online voting.  An example of the kind of use of this service can be seen in the embedded chart widget below.

I've just started with this application, but already I can see the great utility of this approach. In fact, I feel rather foolish for not looking into this approach to audience polling sooner, since SMS polling has become a ubiquitous marketing tool for everything from soft drink marketing to reality TV. The results are gathered and presented realtime, so the feedback potential is ideal for the class room.  Add to this the ability to embed the graph in your blog, website, or download as a presentation slide, and you have a streamlined method to seamlessly present your polling data to almost any audience.

As far as pricing goes, Poll Everywhere provides a wide array of pricing options.  A free account allows for up to 30 participants per poll, an ideal number for a small class size.  For the K-12 community several discounted rates are available, ranging from free for small classes of up to 32 students to district-wide plans.  For higher education the plans range from small classes of up to 32 all the way to unlimited numbers of participants with varying prices.

All in all, I am very pleased to finally have a low-cost method of implementing classroom response technology in all of my courses.  Give this one a try.

Monday, November 15, 2010

One of the saddest things I have seen in the lab...

Today I am sitting in lab, and of the six students remaining only two of them seem to be actually making any effort.  I watch the two workers, and I am still frustrated by the increasing number of helpless slackers that seem to be an ever-increasing part of my labs.

Every semester I conduct problem-based learning exercises where I place students in groups of four to five.  The general pattern for most groups seems to be three of the people in the group are (A) lazy, (B) clueless, (C) apathetic, or (D) all of the above.  These slackers attempt to ride the coat tails of the more motivated students.  I have tried implementing punishments for this behavior, but nothing I do seems to work.  (I guess my only option is to walk around with a clipboard and mark them as participating or not participating.)  What's worse, the students who are now in the class are asking me to help them design a procedure that they have already done in an earlier lab!

Is this a consequence of No Child Left Behind (click here for Dr. Moon's video on the subject)?  Is this some sort of ludicrous trend in extended immaturity (If 30 is the new 20, then 20 is the new 10....)?

I am discouraged by this situation, but what is the alternative?  I could let these young people continue to wallow in a sea of disengaged anesthesia, and I'm not so arrogant enough to think that I can truly open their eyes.  Maybe they will finally grow up one day and demand more from their own children.  By this time, hopefully, the next generation will learn from their parents' apathy.

Rediscovering My Old Manifesto

Now that I have suffered through one of the most frustrating semesters of my teaching career, I have decided to revisit an idea that occurred to me in 2008. This idea is to be my manifesto of higher education. What is this idea? It's quite direct...

Confrontation shall be the sum of all education!

Does this mean that I will become an overbearing "sage on the stage", still a sad fixture within higher education?  Does this idea of confrontation mean I must adopt an adversarial attitude towards my students?  No, this idea means that I must seriously think about my role as an educator.  In order to confront the woefully inadequate preparation that too many of my students receive I can see they require three simple actions from me, to filter information, to assess basic proficiency, and to facilitate engagement.

The first two actions are relatively easy for me, since, I am considered a subject-matter expert.  I can, with a PhD in chemistry, find a myriad of real-world applications that capture the essence of different chemical concepts, and I can design challenging assessments that push my students to their intellectual limits.  The real challenge comes from the third role, facilitating engagement, a problem that many of those in my PLN (Professional Learning Network) can attest to being one of the most challenging parts of education.