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How do we make students into professional learners?

Photo: Original by Whispertome via wikimedia.org; released to public domain; clumsy modification by yours truly.

Last fall I was 1/3 of a “teaching triangle”.  This meant I teamed up with two other instructors for reciprocal classroom visits – not for assessment, but as an opportunity for observation and then discussion of different personalities and different teaching approaches working with different students in different classrooms.  I picked up some useful ideas from seeing differences among my colleagues in how they approach teaching.  But much more importantly, the experience crystallized for me something I now realize I’ve been seeing for years: the astonishing differences among students in how they approach learning.

In my triangle, I went first to a non-majors’ astronomy course.  I love teaching non-majors.  So, it was obvious, did the colleague I was observing.  She was animated and enthusiastic, and hopped nimbly from lecture to “active learning”* segments to mind-blowing imagery of the astronomical topic of the day.  And the students?  They were engaged, which sounds great, until I tell you they weren’t engaged with the material – they were engaged with their iPhones and their laptops, checking Facebook and playing video games.  A few paid attention; fewer answered questions; none asked them.  It was painful.

Next, I went to a 3rd-year heat-transfer course (in chemical engineering).  It was like stepping into a wind tunnel of equations, and the information transfer rate (all by conventional lecture) was prodigious.  The students?  Engaged (with the lecture this time) as I’ve rarely seen.  They listened, they took notes, they asked questions, they brought up connections to previous lectures and to their other courses.  The inescapable conclusion was that here was a room full of professional learners.  They knew why they were there and they knew how to take advantage of their presence (and the instructor’s).  Other than my aching fingers (because for reasons I can’t quite explain, I took notes too), the experience was 50 minutes of joy.

So here’s my question.  How do we turn those astronomy amateurs into those heat-transfer professionals?**  Or, more broadly, how do we make students into professional learners?  Because of course, this contrast isn’t non-majors vs. majors, or astronomy vs. engineering, or 1st-year vs. 3rd-year.  In my own 3rd-year population ecology course, I see both kinds of students.  I love having the ones who are there to work and to learn.  The others drive me nuts – the ones who aren’t there at all, or who are there but who haven’t even brought paper on which they might hypothetically take some notes.  How do we convert the latter into the former?

I can tell you how we can’t do it (and you can set this beside these three posts in the litany of Dumb Things Steve Has Done).  We can’t simply tell them.   I decided, last year, to take 20 minutes about a week into the semester to explain to my students how they could do well in my course (and as a happy byproduct, in all their other ones too).  I told them, for example, that if they just came to class routinely, listened and took notes, and re-read those notes the next day, I’d be astonished if they didn’t end up with at least a B.  The result?  Nothing.  Nada; goose egg; bupkis. The same students who stared at me glassy-eyed from an empty desktop before did the same afterwards; and (of course) the ones who weren’t there to hear my spiel still weren’t there to act on it.

At this point, I realize, some of you are judging me.  I’m talking about grades rather than learning, “taking notes” betrays that I lecture, and above all I’m whinging about how students should change their behaviour rather than asking how I should change my teaching.  But while you absolutely should be judging me, that isn’t the reason.  Grades vs. learning and lecture vs. not are just distractions from my point, which is that (I’ve become convinced) the most valuable thing we can achieve in education is not conveying content but giving our students the tools they need to take advantage of every learning opportunity – whatever shape it takes and whenever and wherever they encounter it.  Those tools to a large extent involve student behaviour, and yes, they include how to learn from a lecture – and from a textbook, and from the literature, and from observations and experiments, and from think-pair-share and all the rest.  The reason you should judge me?  For having little idea, after 20 years as a university professor, how to give students these tools.  I know how to make a professional learner into a biologist; but I don’t know how to make the average student into a professional learner.

I’m not alone here.  What I think is regrettable is that not enough of us – indeed, hardly any of us – spend any significant amount of time thinking about how to make professional learners.  When we revise our curricula, we worry mostly about content.  We may consider how content in one course sets up content of the next, and we may stretch to a planned ascent of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but we rarely think much about how one course can shape student behaviour to allow success in future courses.  (By ‘we’, I mean the hoi polloi of instructors who actually deliver the bulk of our courses.)

How could we make students into professional learners?  I’m not sure anybody knows.  There’s no doubt that it’s difficult.  Most universities offer students opportunities to pick up professional-learner skills and behaviour, but I don’t think many of these have the desired outcome.  My Faculty, for example, offers SCI 1001, a zero-credit course intended this way.  Our experience is underwhelming.  Because the course is zero-credit, students (understandably if wrongheadedly) give it low priority.  Worse – the very students who need it most seem to be the ones who pay it the least attention***.

So perhaps we’re doing the wrong things.  What do experts suggest?  Well, I’d love to answer that question, but I’ve struggled to find much other than opinion-based prescriptions – often with one contradicting another.  Ideally, I’d look in the peer-reviewed literature; and there must be studies out there deploying interventions in well-designed experiments with quantitative, longitudinal follow-up (and finding successful ones).  I hope some of you will know about them, and leave citations in the Replies.  There is some such literature on the delivery of content, and some on which student behaviours make for effective learning.  What I’m surprised about is how little I can find on how to effectively shape student behaviour.  (Of course, I may be missing a useful body of work, as it’s very far from trivial for instructors to access and understand the teaching-and-learning literature. Here’s a short book that may well cover some of what I’m after, although I’ve just discovered it and haven’t managed to read it yet.)

In the end, I have no answer to the question I posed in my title.  What I do have is an increasing belief that it’s an important question – more important than “what should I put in my course and what should I leave out” and more important than “should I lecture or flip the classroom”.  It deserves far more attention than I’ve ever seen it given. Or that I’ve given it myself – for I have, I now realize, spent the bulk of my career barking up the wrong educational tree.  I think I’ve found the right tree now.  If only I knew how to bark effectively.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) September 6, 2016.

 Thanks to Dawn Bazely for comments on a draft version of this post.


*^Which I still maintain is a horrible, deceptive, and damaging piece of terminology.  Nonetheless, the use of these techniques is often a good sign of a passionate teacher – even if the techniques themselves are (of course) not a panacea.

**^I can tell you roughly how that Engineering class wound up full of professional learners, but it won’t help.  Engineering programs worldwide are notorious for culling their students ruthlessly until only the professional learners are left.  That’s finding professional learners, not making them.

***^Students skip the library-skills session because they’re sure Wikipedia is enough.  With blinding irony, many skip the time-management session because they’ve left a lab report to the last minute.  I could go on.

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20 thoughts on “How do we make students into professional learners?

  1. lifeforaforest

    I found this really interesting to read. I am a science student myself and although I love my subject, I have always struggled with my attention span. I am one of the students that turns up but doesn’t listen. Not deliberately but because I don’t know how to stop my mind wandering off, I’m dyslexic/dyspraxic which probably doesn’t help. I learn very well from reading and copying passages from textbooks, but struggle when speech is involved, even if it is a Q&A format. I think for some students, including myself, the format of modern education just isn’t right for them, and that isn’t the teacher or lecturers fault. I’ve always thought I would’ve been a very good student back in the day when everyone had to sit in silence and copy out text into their books, one painstaking word at a time!

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  2. Jeremy Fox

    I think part of the answer is implicit in your examples: you just do the best you can with first years, recognizing that a high fraction of them will be unengaged and will suck at learning (meaning: do the best you can to engage them and teach them how to learn, but don’t beat yourself up when you inevitably fail with some substantial fraction of them). Then wait until a combination of maturity, wake-up calls from bad grades, attrition, and the opportunity to focus on a major subject they like turn them into engaged learners in upper level courses.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yeah, that’s pretty much Engineering’s solution. But as I complain in the footnote, that isn’t “making” professional learners – that’s just finding them. But you are right, I’m sure, about one thing – no matter what we try we’re going to fail with some fraction of them. But of course what I want is ways to reduce that fraction. Ways that are actually empirically tested, not ways that are just assertions (we have plenty of those). I realize I may just be doomed to be frustrated!

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      1. Jeremy Fox

        Well, it’s making them and finding them. Attrition is a way of finding them. Students changing their study habits as they mature, or in response to bad grades, is making them.

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  3. dinoverm

    I have a method. After the first exam, you don’t hand back exams in class. Students come pick their exams up during your office hours, and you spend five minutes talking to every single one of them. (If it’s a huge class, this will take forever, but it’s worth it.) You ask them to tell you how they could have improved their learning habitats, and what you could have done to better help them learn. For the second exam, you only do it for students with grades < B-. This makes students critically evaluate their learning habits, and they are motivated to improve by the fact that they never want to have an awkward discussion about a 62% score ever again.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      This sounds great, although I have three questions. First: do you have empirical evidence that this improves their performance? Second, does this improvement extend to other courses beyond their own? (These are not trivial things to document – but there are 100s of tips out there; what’s missing for most of them is scientific evidence that they are effective.) And third – a process question – how, on your second round, do you manage to hand back the “good” exams but not the bad ones without publicly identifying the students who got the bad grades?

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      1. dinoverm

        Oh, 3 is easiest. I meant you don’t ask them to reflect on their grade if it’s “good,” you just hand it back. That saves you five minutes (multiplied by many students). I don’t have empirical evidence handy, but I think it must be out there, because I’ve seen multiple departments adopting an “every student gets a five minute meeting” method. But that might just be to increase direct contact time… not sure! Let me know if you find anything!

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          1. dinoverm

            Also, I think this tells students, “Someone else cares about my education.” In the long run, we want THEM to care, but I think seeing someone else care is a good first step, especially for students who have never really worked at learning before. Again, I don’t have stats – just my own anecdotes.

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  4. Jeff Houlahan

    Hi Steve – I’m not looking to abdicate responsibility but I’m not convinced you can “make” somebody a professional learner. I’ve been both kinds of students and there is nothing that I can imagine a prof could have done to cause me to be a more curious and engaged learner. I was curious about lots of things – how Joe Strummer could be such a bad singer and The Clash could be such a great band? How Neil Peart could be such a great drummer and Rush could be such a bad band? How the Montreal Expos could break my heart every September? But be intrigued by Biology or Chemistry or Physics? Not a chance. You grow into it (or you don’t). I’m always amazed by those students who, at 18 years old, are actually leaning in to understand better – they’re a gift to a prof but as an 18-year-old university student they were a subspecies I didn’t understand.
    My advice for most students would be to wait for 2 or 3 or 5 years before going to university – find your curiosity first. Of course, this is all coloured by my own experience so probably way less universal than I might think it is. Best, Jeff.

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  5. Bethann @ CommNatural

    I got really lucky and co-taught a science instructor professional development institute this summer for University of Wyoming faculty and grad students in a ln aspect of what UW calls the Science Initiative (http://www.uwyo.edu/science-initiative/learning%20actively%20mentoring%20program/) By lucky, I refer to the learning I got to due by virtue of being there not just for my own sessions. See work by Tina Grote and/or Ed Nuhfer. They both study efficacy of teaching, learning to lear, etc. Fascinating work, and I only got exposed to a fraction if what each of them (independently) studies. Ed in particular does a lot if consulting, and he seems like an amazing collaborator and education assessment (meaning studying deliberate teaching changes) mentor.

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  6. Pingback: Friday links: NYTimes on reply all, parasitoids for the win (literally), and more | Dynamic Ecology

  7. Brian McGill

    Great piece. And I think you hit the nail on the head. We spend all our time on curriculum and instructional methods (and occasionally assessment), but its really about students growing into professional students who are ready to be professional in their workplaces. As an ecologist who loves my subject this pains me. But I do get to teach those upper level classes where I can focus on transmitting content. But I will never forget my experience teaching a 100-level intro bio (for majors course). Before teaching it I sat in the back of the room and observed what a high fraction were on their computers (web-surfing, not taking notes) or even just reading a newspaper. Then while teaching it I totally had a light bulb moment when half way through the semester a student came up after lecture and asked me if they were really supposed to do the reading assignments. It was in fact ALL about teaching study skills and not about teaching general principles of biology. And then reading my teacher evaluations afterwards realizing how many students had not gotten anywhere on study skills (the most common feedback was I should show more movies, and one memorable student wrote an entire essay on the shirts I wore – I favored Hawiian shirts at the time – which was probably more carefully constructed than any of his answers on exams).

    Like Jeff & Jeremy I am really torn how much we should see this as a professor’s job vs a “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” student’s job. I reckon the answer is both. But it would be nice to spend time and energy (in the constructive what can we do mode, not the bitching mode) on discussing this with fellow faculty. As a board member of my local K-12 school district it also makes me wonder what could we be doing differently before kids get to college too.

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  8. Kathleen Farley

    As far as a tool box for teaching skills goes, I would recommend ACUE. They did a pilot college level educator training last year which was fantastic. They had six strategies the educator could implement that has positiveeffects on student learning. Also all the strategies are evidence-backed.

    I would also look into Fink who has done work around designing courses that get at designed for student learning.

    Finally, I will say I have only had a handful of students who “didn’t want to learn/work/be there”. Maybe. I would argue that todays student is very different than the student of even a decade ago. Not just because of NCLB, but the infusion of technology, significant changes in how K-12 education is done and the broken elements of the systems that are preparing them for college.

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  9. Thiago Sanna Freire Silva

    Thank you for this. I’m now on my third year as faculty at a slightly teaching-heavy university, after having turned down a 100% research job, mostly because I do really like teaching, and (at least) I thought I was good at it.

    But I’ve been struggling a lot with the ubiquitous lack of interest and motivation among students, and facing recurring existential crises of the “Is it me or is it them?” type. I’ve been making continued efforts to reduce lecturing and make classes more engaging, and to leave room for the students to actively choose what and how they want to learn, and especially the latter have failed miserably. Other young colleagues seem to be going through the same. Hearing the same questioning from someone with 20 years of experience, at a country with a good primary and secondary education system, helps me put my own doubts in perspective. I definitely still have lots of room to improve, but it may not be ALL me, after all :-).

    And thank you for the several interesting links.

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  10. Jake

    I used to teach at a 7-12 charter school that focused on project-based learning. The broad strokes of the curriculum were set by the state (every high school student needed a credit of biology) but within that I worked closely with my 15 students to design a curriculum that suited the interest/needs of each student. And even when the students were given virtually complete freedom to decide what they wanted to learn, how they wanted to learn it, and how they wanted to demonstrate their learning it was so hard to get any of them to change their behavior.

    I would help them identify their interests, figure out how they learned best, give suggestions and work really closely as they produced their evidence of learning but 99 times out of 100, if the student didn’t come into school with a “professional learning” attitude, nothing happened. If we couldn’t accomplish it with a level of individual education unmatched almost anywhere, I have a hard time seeing more traditional classroom educators succeeding on a large scale. After two years at the charter school and a year in a traditional school, I decided to go back to graduate school for ecology because I was getting burned out. I now work with a post-doc who was one of those kids in K-12. He said he graduated high school with a 0.8 GPA. He took some time off, traveled a bit, figured out what his passions were and is now a successful scientist. No teacher he ever had could get him to change until he wanted to.

    The point of all this is that I don’t think we will ever find a reliable way to change student’s behavior in regards to “professional learning”, especially if we’re just trying to start at the college level. That love of learning comes either through early childhood support at school and at home, or through a personal decision later in life to actively pursue it. I don’t think that means teachers should give up because you never know what will trigger that personal change. But I found I had to be careful about how responsible I made myself for the behavior of my students because I came at with an attitude of “I can change all (or most) of you” and I burned out. I really do think it’s a “lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink” scenario.

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  11. laurenkmo

    I posted this on Dynamic Ecology as well, as that is what led me to this post. Thank you for having this important conversation.

    Regarding the active learning, research shows that students do much better when they are constructing knowledge vs. being spoon-fed (or force-fed, depending on their view) (Prince 2004 is one example that uses a science bent, however it is consensus in education fields). In particular, first-generation college students and minority students are more successful in college under this model (Source: UNC Chapel Hill http://college.unc.edu/2014/09/02/hoganstudy/). So using active learning is a HUGE equity issue that can diversify college campuses and STEM professions.

    Primary and high school teachers around the world know that they are responsible for their students’ learning; they cannot just accept that some students ‘suck’ at learning. They have to differentiate for different kinds of learners and student learners. They have to motivate the unmotivated and behind grade level, and reach students who are learning English and students with a range of behavioral or academic difficulties. While college is obviously different than high school, I’m guessing your Education department would have excellent pedagogical strategies (backed up by research) that would increase student motivation, learning, and retention. In sum, most of the answer to your question is to plan for active learning and engaging activities.

    I say all of this as someone who has taught adult learners, college students, and adolescents. I use the same strategies with different levels of content difficulty and depth across the board.

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  12. Pingback: Why I assign the group work that I hated as a student | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  13. Pingback: Is this blog a “science blog”? If not, what is it? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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