Thursday, December 14, 2006

Taking Notes in Science Courses

I tend to write a significant amount in my lectures and some students have expressed frustration that the act of note taking prevents them from actually learning. That is pretty much why I am going to the Tablet PC this year and will drop the course notes on the website. I would note however that the issue of learning and note taking has been the subject of academic research.

Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research,and Theory for College and University Teachers
by Wilbert J. McKeachie; D.C.Heath and Company, 1994
ISBN # 0-669-19434-4; pages 59 and 60.


"Several studies show that students who take notes remember material better than a control group not taking notes even though the note takers turned in their notes immediately after the lecture. Note taking involves elaboration and transformation of ideas, which increases meaningfulness and retention (Peper and Mayer, 1978; Weiland and Kingbbury, 1979). But note taking has costs as well as benefits. Student strategies of note taking differ. Some students take copious notes; others take none. We know that student information processing capacity is limited; that is, people can take in, understand, and store only so much information in any brief period of time.

Information will be processed more effectively if the student is actively engaged in analyzing and processing the information rather than passively soaking it up.

Students' ability to process information depends upon the degree to which the information can be integrated or "chunked." No one has great ability at handling large numbers of unrelated items in active memory. Thus when students are in an area of new concepts or when the instructor is using language that is not entirely familiar to the students, students may be processing the lecture word by word or phrase by phrase and lose the sense of a sentence or of a paragraph before the end of the thought is reached.

This means that lecturers need to be aware of instances in which new words or concepts are being introduced and to build in greater redundancy as well as pauses during which students can catch up and get appropriate notes.

Snow and Peterson (1980) point out that brighter students benefit more from taking notes than less able students. We believe that this is because the less able students cannot, while they write their notes, keep what they hear in their memories, so that their note taking essentially blocks them from processing parts of the lecture. But this is not simply a matter of intelligence; rather a student's ability to maintain materials in memory while taking notes and even to process and think about relationships between one idea and other ideas depends upon the knowledge or cognitive structures the student has available for organizing and relating the material. Thus the background of the student in the area is probably more important than the student's level of intelligence.

Some faculty members hand out prepared notes or encourage the preparation of notes for students to purchase. Hartley's research, as well as that of Annis (1981) and Kiewra (1989), suggests that a skeletal outline is helpful to students but with detailed notes students relax into passivity. It is better simply to provide an overall framework which they can fill in by selecting important points and interpreting them in their own words, Because student capacity for information processing is limited and because students cannot stop and go over again a confusing part of a lecture, you need to build more redundancy into your lectures than into writing, and you need to build in pauses when students can catch up and think rather than simply struggle to keep up."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Exam Design in the Physical Sciences

We are in the deepest, darkest part of our exam schedule and there is a fairly constant stream of students that come to my office with really one question on their mind and they cannot bring themselves to ask it directly so they ask a number of oblique questions that circumnavigate what they really want to ask.

What is on the exam?

In the Physical Sciences there is an expectation of content mastery that typically involves "problem solving" (now there is a term that by itself is a problem). The issue is always how much time do you as a professor allot for students to stare at the ceiling and think during a chemistry exam?

There are a number of aspects of this issue of exam design. Here in a small liberal arts and science college we have the luxury of being able to ask essay questions. This is because the numbers are small enough that we can cope with the marking. In larger universities, even if they don't just resort to multiple choice questions, quite often the questions are choped up into sub-questions so that the marking becomes a series of right / wrong decisions.

At its simplest level the expectation is that the professors will set an exam that the professors themselves can sit down and physically right out the complete, correct solution set in one third of the time allotted. Theoretically, this means that the average student (see below) will be able to write the exam in two thirds of the time allotted and still have one third of the time for thinking / correction / addition.

The real issue comes down to choice. In my exams there is typically choice, especially for the high value questions. Choice is also a luxury of the small liberal arts and science college. The issue with choice however is that there are really two kinds of high value choice questions: 1) the very long death-march question that wrings all the information out of the student that they have learned or 2) the shorter, thinking question that tests what the student understands. If a student decides to answer three death march questions they are going to run out of time and many a tear-stained final exam has ended with the ink trailing off the last page scrawling "ran out of time, exam too long". On the other hand if you have a student that is smarter than the average bear a canny choice of questions can have them out of the exam with a high mark even though they only wrote out one an a half pages of material.

No one ever said that life, or exams, were fair. A University is not a democracy, it is a meritocracy. Perversely, things get easier as you get smarter and harder as you get weaker. Almost Darwinian.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Deadwood in the Liberal Arts and Sciences

Deadwood is an expression referring to tenured faculty that have reached the point of burn-out and unfortunately it has occurred before they can retire early. These professors feel entitled to their paycheques (and let's face it what they do can hardly be called a job) because, back when the dinosaurs ruled the Earth, they did some amazing things, they developed new courses, had an active research program and served on committees that shaped the policy and direction of the whole University.

Now, well now is another story. They gather in each others offices and gnaw the dry bones of old arguments. They deliver their courses as if someone pulls a string out of their back and the lectures just roll out of them. They, in fact, have unlimited time at their disposal and keen intellects so that they can quickly move from "harmless old farts" to very dangerous foes. Their enemy is change, their call to arms is merit and their moto is tradition.

All Universities have them. They are a necessary evil of the tenure process. Indeed, the whole idea of tenure almost requires that the same system that is designed to form new faculty will leave some of them mangled and in the healing they become twisted versions of what they were before.

The problem that is particularly evident in the liberal arts and science university is that the committees that meet to review the files on tenure applicants are often multi-disciplinary. This means that each time they meet there is a requirement to re-define all the terms about what a peer reviewed article is and what value a book has to a chapter to a review to a journal article to a conference proceeding to a conference presentation. All of this becomes uniquely defined by the academic backgrounds of the committee members.

We all know, that in all situations, academics will draw the line between right and wrong, adequate and inadequate just microscopically less then their own position in the discipline. It is the very arbitrariness of this setting of standards that can get applicants upset. In the liberal arts and science tradition strict formulae for research + teaching + service are not favoured because they will always end up favouring activity of one sort over another or imposing the norms for one discipline over another.

That is where the deadwood grows.

Friday, December 8, 2006

New Teaching Methods in the Liberal Arts Classroom

Oh yeah, we had a slick talking, peer-study program selling guy blow through our school a few years back. A bunch of us got prepared and redeveloped our course and went into peer-study in a big way. We did the placement tests and followed the program for creating effective peer-study groups and then sold it to the students as if we were selling life insurance on commission.

It was a disaster.

In my case (I teach Chemistry) I had an almost twice as high drop-out rate. What happened over and over again was that the weaker students were forced into intimate contact with motivated, intelligent students. This did not cause them to aspire to a higher standard but in fact caused them to despair. By the time we put out the fires we decided that an important dynamic in our courses was "plausible deniability" for the mediocre to weak students and if they found out too early that learning was hard work they would all just fold up and switch majours to Business.

I Ate an Apple for Lunch Today

Just another post in my repository of the mundane.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

A Teaching Philosopy

I have taught at the University level since 1989 and have learned over the years that a self-referential style that focuses on what I found interesting and how I understood that material is a minimalist teaching philosophy that works for a very small sub-set of most classes. This, however, is exactly the way most science courses are taught.

Since my first years of teaching I have come to a couple of realizations about what creates the most effective learning environment.

Priority #1 The teacher must love what they teach

Priority #2 The teacher must love who they teach


This may seem to be backward but I have found over and over again that this has to be true. If the teacher does not love what they teach... if they are not somehow consumed by the subject then they will always be willing to compromise the principles of what they are teaching for who they are teaching. Especially in small classes where the subjective mentor - student interaction can overwhelm the objective mastery of content.

This, by the way, explains the elements of evangelicalism that people find in the different disciplines. This fervent, low-key evangelical spirit that whispers to the students "this is an amazing, wonderful world and there is a way to understand how this small part of it works, I understand this path and want you to know it too. I need you to respond by capturing for at least a moment the sense of wonder and lostness that I felt when I first understood this path to knowledge and truth. I also need you to hold this torch up when it is my turn to set it down". If the person who teaches does not feel that they are somehow in possession of a precious truth then I don't know how they force themselves to teach. I know over and over from talking to students that it was just such a teacher that first gave them the idea of advanced studies.

Yes, we have to love the students but we have got to love what we teach. We have got to feel that the truth that we have fought so hard to understand is worth passing on and worth maintaining.

Now, to be complete we do have to allow for the deadwood response "I do it for the money" but I doubt that anyone would be happy with that for a teaching philosophy.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

An Answer is not Always a Solution

Students benefit from the whole concept of part marks. There is of course a tension that immediately develops concerning the nature of a correct response to a question. Does the question require that a final correct answer is the key objective or does the question imply that the student should follow a path to the correct answer and that the path may in fact be more important than the destination itself. In my mind I have always distinguished between the answer and the solution of a question. This has everything to do with part marks.

The answer to a question is brief to the point of a single number with units. A solution describes a complete path from the question to the final answer.

If students expect part marks for solutions that have incorrect final answers then they must also be willing to accept only part marks if the solution is incomplete even if the final answer is correct. The problem of course is assessing where on the path did the student make a mistake and does that demonstrate a simple slip or actual lack of knowledge. On the other hand, does an incomplete solution indicate a quick mind that recognized a step as trivial or does it mean that when asked a different question where the step is not trivial they will fail to get a correct answer?

A solution may be brilliantly set up and sweep majestically to the wrong answer or a solution may be a crooked wreck of a thing that tails across the page as a yard of toilet paper stuck to your shoe but still gets to the correct answer.

In math the rigour is very high and it is assumed that all steps will be explicitly shown. A good solution at the end of a long path in math is therefore followed with the majestic Latin acronym Q.E.D. (quod erat demonstrandum "that which was to be demonstrated"). In physics, the handmaid of mathematics, it is expected that a solution will consist of a number of parts including a suitable diagram that establishes the frame of reference with the relative positions and magnitudes of the elements of the problem. This is followed by stating the relevant given information (converted if necessary to the form required for the solution). The standard form of the relevant equation is then given followed by the form that isolates the unknown variable. The symbols are then substituted with the numbers from the problem and the math completed to give a final answer. In Physics it is usual for the solution to be completed with a very brief statement of the final answer to the problem.

Chemistry is the wayward child of Physics and thus follows the intent, if not the complete form, for a solution as that in Physics. The structure is the same but usually a diagram is not required and a completing statement is generally not necessary as long as the solution sequence gives a clear final answer.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Student Classifications

There is just no way around it and that is the simple fact that students always seem to fall into a few basic catagories corresponding to their grade level.

Amazing A: Intelligent and disciplined. You are teaching a mind better than your own and when you give them what you know they understand it better than you. You wake up in the morning with the prayer that you don't mislead them

Tough A: The most frustrating class of student usually couples an amazing ability to memorize huge amounts of material with a startling work ethic. Will allow themselves to be consumed and overwhelmed by the subject matter and are often frustrated by trivial aspects of the topic. Real problem with this class of student is the almost complete lack of reflection or retention. Will often attempt to get a good mark not by getting the intelligent right answer but by overwhelming with all possible answers to take the marking decision out of your hands.

Thinking B: Smarter than the average bear and willing to work. Good attitude and is able to show a level of true understanding of the material. Not only will come to office and ask questions but about things related to course from their regular lives.

Unthinking B: Has not learned a thing in the course but is willing to work hard to memorize sufficient material to get desired grade and will complete all the assignments exactly as asked for. Will come to office for help but really wants you to answer question so they can just copy and memorize.

Average C: More rare than one would expect (see previous post).

Deadbeat D: Capable of much better work but has decided for whatever reason to focus on other things and has a built in compass that lets them find the minimum passing mark.

Thrasher D: Leftbehind F student with a work ethic.

Deadbeat F: Could care less about the course and refuses to do any work .

Leftbehind F: Really shouldn't be in the specific University course (and probably the degree in general) sometimes because of poor preparation or discipline and is not capable of handling the material.

Of course it is possible to mix-and-match these catagories. I have rarely come in contact with Deadbeat B students that qualified as geniuses but had the dedication of a three-toed sloth. That is probably why there is so much busy work in my courses (to goad these students out of a superior sense of "I could make an A if I cared" and put the fear of failure into them). On the other hand the busy work also gives the weaker students a place to shine (Wow Bobby, that graph is beautiful ... wrong data and sloped the wrong way .. but still worth something more than 0). In addition there is the Poisonous Student at all grade levels that just makes teaching the class a misery either by undermining your authority if they are smart or constantly slowing the class down if they are not.

Monday, December 4, 2006

The Average Science Student

The average science student does not exist except in a set of ideals that changes from faculty member to faculty member and from discipline to discipline. The way that I was taught, and was taught to teach, leads me to the following set of ideals:

It is assumed that the average student has a University degree as their primary immediate goal.

The average student should get a grade of C.

The average student should understand 2/3 of the material taught.

The grade should be independent of the actual work done and should reflect only what the student has demonstrated that they understand.

The average student should expect that their study for any course should be two hours of personal study for every hour of instruction. So an average student taking five lecture courses of three hours a week (15 hours of instruction) should expect to spend an addtional 30 hours a week on personal study.

The average student can do all the work necessary for their courses during the weekdays (8 AM - 5 PM, 9 hours a day and five days a week gives 45 hours) and evenings.

If an average student wants a better mark than C they have to work harder and longer.

If a below average student wants a mark of C they have to work longer and harder than and average student would to get the same C grade.

It is very common for above average students to "settle" for a grade of C or even lower so that they can live a more relaxed lifestyle with free time for jobs and a social life. There is nothing wrong with this but the student must live with the tension between their potential mark if they had have worked and their actual mark.

The most significant problem with students that "settle" for a mark lower than they could potentially achieve is that they often set the model for less able students that cannot afford the luxuries of ample free time and/or jobs with a high number of working hours a week.

If the average student wants to have a job they have to work more efficiently than an average student that does not have a job.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Friction Between Science and Humanities Students

At our institution the disparity in workload is obvious to everyone. The humanities core to all the degrees that we have means that the Science students are acutely aware of the lack of work and discipline that Humanities students can demonstrate and still pass their courses. The typical Science student, even one that just wants a 65% C grade, has a lab report and an assignment due each week in their Science courses. The incremental and cumulative nature of Science courses means that the student has to be constantly working at their courses even if they are doing poorly. The Humanities students on the other hand quite often do not attend their lectures and know that if they just pull a couple of "all nighters" they can get their C on the term paper and the final exam. This means that they can spend their time during the semester playing cards or groping their significant other in the Great Hall.

This stereotype truly bothers the Science students because they see it enough to believe the image. The truth is that these slacker Humanities students will often fail out of University, it is just that when they leave it is after a semester or two of relatively guiltless slacking off. The Science student that fails out however has been subjected to a corrosive sequence of failure that leaves them scarred and often ashamed of themselves.

It is one thing to not care, not work and be declared a failure. It is another thing entirely to actually try week after week and just not get it and then be told you are a failure.

That is the value of having Science buildings separate from the Humanities buildings. The students are not faced with the somewhat different ethos of other departments. The separation allows for a smaller, more homogeneous sub-community and more importantly a culture that values and encourages the week to week discipline. We do not have that luxury.

In addition to my Chemistry courses I teach a History of Science course and get Humanities students in that course mixed with my Science students. I have actually had students tell me that they were dropping my course even though they were completely happy with the course content but were unwilling to make a week-to-week commitment to the course. They expected to be able to serially focus on their courses.

It is true that for the top end of the class, no matter if it is a Science or Humanities course, the workload and ability of the student makes for a similar learning experience. The difference seems to be the learning experience of the average and below-average students. And that is where the bitter root truly begins to grow.

Chemistry in a Liberal Arts and Science Setting

Chemistry is a physical science where truth is often defined by how well you can relate what you have done to numbers. The better the numbers, the better the accuracy and precision of those numbers the closer you are to the truth.

In a liberal arts and science setting though truth becomes relative to ones starting position (or current one for that matter). This little blog will be an attempt at catharsis and dialogue and community all at the same time.

Welcome and say hello.

About Me

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.