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Question base

July 14, 2014 2 comments

The first requirement for the system I’ve been putting together as a thought experiment that would accredit memorisation (see my three previous posts for some background) would be an infinite set of well tagged questions.

I think this is the easiest part of the system to put in place. We are all aware of the success of crowdsourcing as a way to provide content (think wikipedia). So why don’t we put together an open source question base?

Since this learning system is simply about fluency of recall, all we need are questions about stuff. And lots of them.

It isn’t simply about the questions. in order to make this a memorisation/learning environment, the questions have to be tagged – well tagged. This is necessary so that users can focus on their own learning desires.

The kind of tagging that would make this system useful has three varieties of tags: content domain, source, and event.

The content domain tags are the most obvious. Libraries have spent centuries (literally) organising knowledge into content domains. There are wonderful hierarchal systems that allow users to find learning resources (books, articles, papers, websites, posts, pictures, videos – and who knows what else) within a specific content domain. We haven’t been all that great at tagging these resources, but there’s no reason we can’t start. Within the new question base, an easy to use content domain tagging system is a must.

The second set of tags ahas to do with sources. Knowledge is found somewhere, and if questions can be tagged with a specific source, that makes them all the more powerful. Specific books, journal articles, or web-articles (think wikipedia) would allow users (both learners and contributors) to specify exactly where the information comes from that needs to be memorised to a fluent level. Teachers (face to face or virtual) could then specify both content domain and source, along with the required level of proficiency, for an event (discussion, seminar series etc.) required for the learner to be able to participate  fluently.

Finally, event tags could be included so that learners could prepare themselves for the kind of events specified above. They could even be specified for traditional assessment events (mid-term or final exams).

Properly tagged, an infinite number of questions embedded in a threshold learning system, could provide learners and educators with an invaluable tool for the foundational learning we call memorisation.

Learning Thresholds

July 9, 2014 2 comments

In my last post, I wrote about memorisation as a foundational component of learning. What I am going to write about today is a system to more accurately measure memorisation than the one that is currently used.

Currently, a test setter (teacher, institution etc.) determines the content domain that a test is designed to cover, and then writes questions that sample material from the content domain and the determines how much of the content domain has been learned (memorised) by how many of the questions in the sample have been answered correctly. One of the flaws in the system is that, if the test taker misses any of the questions, they are deemed to have missed that part of the content domain the questions were designed to cover. It is an all or nothing proposition that is supposed to accurately reflect the amount of material a person has learned.

An alternative that I would like to propose is based on psychophysical measurement.

Psychophysical measurement is the mapping of physical stimuli (e.g. light) onto a psychological experience (e.g. detecting light). Because biological sensory receptors vary in their sensitivity from minute to minute, a clever way to establish a threshold for detecting the physical stimuli were devised in the late 1800s by a group of very clever scientists. These scientists acknowledged that the strength of a psychological response didn’t directly map on to the actual state of the psychical world. In other words, although no light didn’t elicit a biological response, very weak levels of light didn’t elicit a response either. Increasing the strength of the physical light signal eventually elicits a biological response, however, doing this over and over doesn’t result in the response being elicited at the same level of physical stimulus every time (some variability), and working backward (decreasing the light until it is no longer detected) leads to a different level of sensitivity.

In order to come up with a way to accurately describe what is happening, psychologist’s in the area devised a stepping procedure where the light is increased and decreased in an unpredictable manner, and the value of physical light that the person correctly detects, say 50% of the time, becomes the detection threshold for that person. This doesn’t mean that there is no detection below that level, nor that there is perfect detection above that level, but it is a number used to describe the level at which the person detects light. The same methodology is used for other physical phenomena such as sound, pressure, and heat etc.

Using the same philosophy, we could measure the level at which a person ‘knows’ (has memorised) a body of knowledge. If there were an infinite number of questions, all properly tagged with the level of knowledge (difficulty) required to answer the questions, a smart testing instrument could feed the questions at a person, increasing or decreasing the difficulty level until the person consistently answered, say, 60% of the questions correctly. This difficulty level would then accurately describe the “learning threshold” for that person in that particular content domain, at that particular point in time.

That type of system could measure the ‘learned’ (memorised) material accurately, and would be comparable between teachers and institutions. This type of testing could be a part of everyday education instead of a single point in time examination that returns a static measurement that is often used to define an individual and pigeonhole them.

Just a thought.

 

Categories: Education, Learning, Teaching

Wilful Blindness

June 6, 2014 3 comments

I was in a meeting recently about teaching, and as usual, I ended up chanting my line about what the evidence says about teaching this particular subject (statistics). One of the other lecturers said something that I have heard too many times. She said something like “I don’t care what the evidence says, I already know how I want to do it“. A few months earlier I was talking to someone about proposed changes to the procedures and penalties to deal with plagiarism, and asked the same question, receiving the same response. It seems to happen every few months, that as I ask if the evidence has been considered I am told that, essentially, it doesn’t matter what the evidence says, this is the way we have decided to do whatever.

These examples that I can think of are only the examples that the disregarding of evidence has been made explicit, often, there is no explicit statement, simply a disregarding of the evidence.

The most recent incident made me think about our attitudes toward evidence in general. I work in a research intensive department (ranked 50th in the world for research), and regularly rub shoulders with highly regarded researchers. What I began to wonder is, if some of these same people can so quickly and easily dismiss evidence about teaching and learning, how do they react to evidence that does not fully support their theoretical stance in their particular area of expertise. Do they simply dismiss evidence there as well?

I can’t help but have my faith in their scientific objectivity shaken by these interactions that take place year after year.

Categories: Teaching

Lecturing (Again)

March 26, 2014 2 comments

Some of this post is using recycled material from earlier posts: It has been re-written for a different audience, but I thought it was good for this audience as well.

Bligh (1972, page 4) tells us that “In politics, lectures are called speeches. In churches they are called sermons. Call them what you like; what they are in fact are more or less continuous expositions by a speaker who wants an audience to learn something.”

In HE, lectures are the primary form of teaching – from Marris, 1964 to Lesniak, 1996, numerous surveys speak to the dominance of lecturing as the form of teaching, and it continues to be so today.

Academics love them, and swear by their effectiveness (based on a case study with an N of 1 – themselves). Without a doubt, there are good lecturers and poor lecturers. Nothing riles the passion of an academic more than an attack on their favourite pastime – in the UK we’re even called lecturers!

Students love them because they are both expected and easy. As brave teachers move away from lectures as the primary form of teaching, students rise up in anger, demanding that the lecturer do their job and tell them what to memorise (this is not a joke, but has actually happened in the recent past).

Administrators love lectures because in an hour or so, you can tick the box on hundreds of hours of contact, calling them effective learning experiences.

But, how does lecturing stand up to scrutiny as effective learning experiences?

In 1972, Donald Bligh wrote a comprehensive review of the research evidence on teaching in HE – curiously, the book title was What’s the Use of Lectures? In this review, he looked at over 700 studies that demonstrated the ineffectiveness of lecturing as a learning event.

Bligh looked at several areas, and reviewed the literature looking at how effective a lecture is at achieving particular educational goals. Here is what he found:

 

Educational Goal Number of Studies Found
Lecture Less Effective No Difference Lecture More Effective
The Lecture as a Method of Acquiring Information 27 57 20
The Lecture as a Method of Promoting Thought 12 17 0
The Lecture as a Method of Teaching Values Associated with the Subject Matter 28 24 7
The Lecture as a Method of Inspiring Interest in a Subject 16 11 4
The Lecture as a Method of Promoting Personal and Social Adjustment 14 8 4
The Lecture as a Method of Teaching Behavioural Skills 27 30 7

 

As Graham Gibbs recently wrote in the Times Higher:

More than 700 studies (referring to Gibbs work) have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.

For some educational goals, no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing, including, in some cases, no teaching at all. Studies of the quality of student attention, the comprehensiveness of student notes and the level of intellectual engagement during lectures all point to the inescapable conclusion that they are not a rational choice of teaching method in most circumstances.

A review by Hughes and Mighty written in the more recent past (2010) reinforced Bligh’s damning indictment of lecturing as learning events written over 40 years ago. The recent article in The Atlantic by Corrigan looks at the debate about lecturing and says about those defending and supporting lecturing:

In some ways these apologia accentuate the dividing line in the lecturing debate. They praise various aspects of lecturing, while criticizing alternative methods. These rhetorical moves reinforce the idea of a two-sided debate, lecturing vs. not lecturing. Their skirting of the research on the subject puts them on the less convincing side, in my view.

As academics, we need to decide if we base our working practises on gut feelings and the love of where we have come from, or look at what we do with a rational view of the effectiveness of our work.

As I read the reflections of my students who just completed my Science of Education module in the autumn, I actually had tears in my eyes as I read of their frustrations with the missed learning opportunities they had experienced (and paid good money for). They were lamenting the time spent wasted sitting passively through lecture after lecture, believing that they were engaged in an effective learning activity, only to find out, in my class, that lecturing is such a poor method of learning (they find this out themselves, I never actually tell them this – it is part of their self-directed learning experience into the Science of Education).

I believe that we can, and should, do better than this. It is really up to us.

 

Scholarship Of Learning Blog

February 21, 2014 Leave a comment

At the request of the University, I have started a new blog for teachers here, and have committed to regularly posting something to improve teaching and learning in the University. Here is my second post.

When teaching, we have to ask ourselves what we know about student learning.

Most teaching staff, if asked, could identify with the four points Maryellen Weimer highlights in her chapter about student learning in Taking Stock. Her four points are as follows:

  1. Students are passive
  2. Students lack confidence as learners
  3. Many students lack the basic study skills necessary for University
  4. The only thing that motivates students are grades and marks

The surprising thing for most of us is that we have a great deal of control over each of those four observations. The over-reliance on traditional teaching methods by many of us can be to blame for some of the ways students approach their learning.

Over the next few posts, I will present evidence about both how some approaches are not good for learning, and how we can change our approaches to be more supportive of student learning.

Before these posts, I would like each of you to consider the area of teacher cognition. Dan Spencer writes:

Borg, in a introduction to teacher cognition, outlined what is generally accepted today about the nature of teacher cognition and its relationship to what teachers do:

  • teachers’ cognitions can be powerfully influenced by their own experiences as learners;
  • these cognitions influence what and how teachers learn during teacher education;
  • they act as a filter through which teachers interpret new information and experience;
  • they may outweigh the effects of teacher education in influencing what teachers do in the classroom;
  • they can be deep-rooted and resistant to change;
  • they can exert a persistent long-term influence on teachers’ instructional practices;
  • they are, at the same time, not always reflected in what teachers do in the classroom.
  • they interact bi-directionally with experience (i.e. beliefs influence practices but practices can also lead to changes in beliefs).

All of us need to both recognise teacher cognition in ourselves, and what that means in terms of our own teaching practises. We need to be prepared to set aside our own beliefs and desires about teaching and learning and be willing to be guided by evidence. As psychologists, we need to keep in mind the difficulty of behaviour change, as illustrated by Charles Jennings post earlier this month:

Alan Deutschman, the author of ‘Change or Die’ makes a pretty stark statement about people’s reluctance to change:

“What if a well-informed, trusted authority figure said you had to make difficult and enduring changes in the way you think and act? If you didn’t, your time would end soon — a lot sooner than it had to. Could you change when change really mattered? When it mattered most?”

He goes on to say that even if you think you’d change, it’s unlikely to happen. The scientifically studied odds are nine-to-one that even if confronted with life-or-death decisions, people simply can’t change their behaviour.

One of the areas of psychology that helps me understand resistance to thinking and change is the study of racial prejudices (not that having teacher cognition is racist in any way). When I talk to lecturers (and others) about the evidence related to teaching practise, they don’t want to consider the evidence – they want to cling to their beliefs, in spite of the evidence. Beliefs are wonderful things, but beliefs that are not supported by evidence can constitute an irrational belief system – something that we are all familiar with, and can be comfortable with. However, we have to be willing acknowledge that what we have is an irrational belief system. In our professional lives, we need to do better than that.

Next week, I’ll post something about fostering passivity in our students, and then follow it up with a few posts about what we can do about that.

Categories: Education, Learning, Teaching

Teaching Malpractice

February 5, 2014 10 comments

Is there such a thing as teaching malpractice?

With all the evidence that would make up the corpus of the scholarship of learning, do we as institutions have a legal obligation to adopt best practise (in a real sense – not in an everybody does it this way sense)?

The current thinking in HE is that we are professionals, and we can approach our teaching in any manner we choose. It doesn’t matter that the approach we favour is ineffective as far as learning goes, we have a right to choose the way we want to teach.

Would this be acceptable in the medical world? When I go to a medical professional for treatment, they have some obligation to treat me with the most effective form of treatment (I would hope). If they don’t, and I find out that they haven’t, I can enter a claim for clinical malpractice. Is this a possibility in the world of higher education.

Let’s take lecturing as an example of teaching practise. In 1972, Donald Bligh wrote a comprehensive review of the research evidence on teaching in HE – curiously, the book title was What’s the Use of Lectures? In this review, he looked at over 700 studies that demonstrated the ineffectiveness of lecturing as a learning event. As Graham Gibbs recently wrote in the Times Higher:

More than 700 studies have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.

For some educational goals, no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing, including, in some cases, no teaching at all. Studies of the quality of student attention, the comprehensiveness of student notes and the level of intellectual engagement during lectures all point to the inescapable conclusion that they are not a rational choice of teaching method in most circumstances.

A review by Hughes and Mighty written in the more recent past (2010) reinforced Bligh’s damning indictment of lecturing as learning events written over 40 years ago. The recent article in The Atlantic by Corrigan looks at the debate about lecturing and says about those defending and supporting lecturing:

In some ways these apologia accentuate the dividing line in the lecturing debate. They praise various aspects of lecturing, while criticizing alternative methods. These rhetorical moves reinforce the idea of a two-sided debate, lecturing vs. not lecturing. Their skirting of the research on the subject puts them on the less convincing side, in my view.

When does the use of a teaching method with so much evidence stacked against it become malpractice in education?

More importantly, when does the wilful ignorance of the scholarship of learning in education become grounds for a malpractice claim? In October of last year, Corrigan highlighted the results of a survey showing that only 8 percent of college teachers reported “taking any account” of research on teaching and learning into preparing their courses.

This is unacceptable!

How could any institution or sector defend themselves in a court of law if a class action lawsuit were to be launched against them for malpractice.

As I read the reflections of my students who just completed my Science of Education module in the autumn, I actually had tears in my eyes as I read of their frustrations with the missed learning opportunities they had experienced (and paid good money for). They were lamenting the time spent wasted sitting passively through lecture after lecture, believing that they were engaged in an effective learning activity, only to find out, in my class, that lecturing is such a poor method of learning (they find this out themselves, I never actually tell them this – it is part of their self-directed learning experience).

In my mind, this is as unacceptable as allowing homeopathy practitioners access to state funds to treat serious diseases because they believe that what they are doing is effective.

I look for the first group of students who take on a HE institution in a civil suit over their collective wilful ignorance when it comes to evidence based practice for effective learning. Not being a lawyer, I have no idea what their chances of winning might be, but from a rational point of view, I wouldn’t bet against them.

How have we made something as exhilarating as learning, as oppressive as education?

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