Thursday, March 27, 2008

Advice to New Astronomy Professors

Lecture is often the process by which what is written on the professor’s notes gets transferred into students’ notebooks without passing through the brains of either.

It seems like all the hard work should pay off, doesn’t it? You’ve been working feverishly on preparing your lecture notes to carefully cover all the many ideas for the topic. You’ve been madly searching Internet sites to find just the right image or animation to share with the audience that you hope will make complex ideas crystal clear. You’re allocating considerable time to organize as many of these resources as possible into projected PowerPoint presentations that can be shared electronically with listeners and maybe even building multi-layered www sites with countless hyperlinks to even more detailed information than you’ll have time to adequately describe during lecture.
One has to wonder if all of this is really worth it? Faculty often report that, for the first time they give a lecture, they allocate at least three to five hours for preparing. Then, during coffee and dinner conversations after the lecture, even the most knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and dedicated lecturers find that too often far too many people missed the big idea. All the bases are covered, and yet no one is fully satisfied in the end. How could this possibly be?
It is possible that as you read this, you are saying to yourself, “oh, no, not me, not my lectures. Everything is going great in my lectures.” Well, that might well be true as there are some amazing teachers out there who are doing amazing things during their lectures. However, it is my position that every lecture can be improved. Sometimes it can mistakenly appear that everything is going just fine, when it really isn’t. In too many lectures, students quietly tune out using a strategy that they can just “copy it down now and try to figure it out later.” This is because many professors and students have a sort of “hidden classroom contract” with one another. In brief, this hidden classroom contract implicitly states something to the effect of, “the professor will tell the students what to memorize and will only ask students questions directly related to this list on the exams and, in exchange, students will dutifully memorize the material given during lecture and, if students fail to adequately memorize the material, students will not complain too loudly if a poor grade is assigned.”

Rethinking Your Lectures to be Learner-Centered

The first step is to accept that much of the responsibility for learning resides squarely on the listener—not actually on the professor. Faculty can motivate, inspire, and build a series of experiences that make the discipline more accessible; but, faculty can not do the learning for them. In fact, this notion has encouraged us to adopt the perspective, “it’s not what the instructor does that matters; rather, it is what the students do.” But, there is still plenty for the lecturer to do!! The role of lecture in a learner-centered teaching perspective still exists, but is radically shifted from dispensing knowledge in a conventional course to a focus on guiding students through meaningful learning experiences as a learner-centered experience. So, the pathway to giving great lectures is to change listener behavior from passive to active! Here, allow me to suggest some interactive teaching strategies that have been shown to significantly increase the amount of student comprehension. These approaches do dramatically reduce the number of words you get to say as a lecturer; but with a little preplanning, it does not drastically reduce the amount of information you can cover. This works incredibly well and few people who have gone down this alternative road have ever gone back to their old ways.

The most valuable role of an expert is not to simply tell students what they know; rather, it is to use their unique expertise to build rich scenarios for students to analyze using novel ideas.

Faculty in the sciences have the distinct advantage over faculty in other disciplines in that demonstrations, whether physical or computer-based, can be provocative, provide illustrative clarification, and, most importantly, excite the learner through direct experiences with unexpected physical phenomena. However, the research on the actual effectiveness of demonstrations is clear. The most important part of the demonstration is asking students to predict what they will see—predictions committed to in writing—and for students to predict what will happen when particular variables are changed. It is the act of predicting and rationalizing these predictions where most of the learning occurs from demonstrations and simulations. So, stop, and take the time to ask “what do you think you’ll see?”
The central part of a learner-centered approach is to ask questions. To be sure, a pointed suggestion of asking students some questions during a lecture might seem a tad silly. However, the number of faculty who actually pose non-rhetorical questions is surprisingly small. Probably the biggest mistake that faculty make is to pose cognitively low-level questions that are too easily answered by students relying on preexisting declarative knowledge. Students responding quickly, and in unison, is often mistaken for meaningful dialogue between a professor and the class. Questions should be intellectually challenging and be carefully crafted to lead the students to deeper levels of understanding or to illustrate the power of scientific ideas. In a similar way, questions such as “does everyone understand?” and “do you have any questions?” do not provide faculty with the desired insight into whether or not students actually comprehend the ideas being presented.
Particularly in the context of a large-lecture hall, it is very easy for faculty to hold a discussion with only the students in the first few front rows. It doesn’t take too many class sessions before students farther back in the classroom to realize that questions posed by the professors without accountability systems don’t actually need to be contemplated because only the first few rows are required to respond. As a result, some system that holds all students accountable needs to be implemented to be effective. Some faculty draw names at random from a hat to ask specific students questions and evenly ask all students to participate. One popular technique is to write names on popsicle sticks using a color code that distinguishes male names from female names so that faculty can evenly alternative between males and females even though the process appears random to students.
Probably the most easy teaching skill to understand, yet most difficult to actually implement is to ask meaningful questions and then patiently WAIT. The most common error in leading classroom discussions is a lack of wait time. Researchers that carefully track classroom dynamics have found that faculty who too quickly provide clarifying information or respond to the first person who answers a question completely squashes further discussion and divergent thinking. The common advice is to wait at least ten seconds before saying anything after posing a question. If everyone in the audience can answer your question in less than ten seconds, then the question isn’t conceptually challenging enough. When you pose a question, it is reasonable to ask students to think for a little while before raising their hands to offer answers. One particularly useful strategy to help fidgety faculty be certain that a full ten seconds elapses before accepting a range of student responses is to fill the time by turning away from the class, taking a sip of coffee, or flipping through lecture notes without looking at the class. Moreover, it is important to ask students to explain the reasoning behind their answers and not revealing if the offered response is correct before accepting several other answers.

Tim Slater
University of Wyoming CAPER Team

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