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Cue the nous

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Getting students to cue recently learned material with self-generated questions is a useful form of elaboration (i.e., a way of re-running information through their meat computers).  It's essentially the method used by the Cornell note taking strategy: take some notes and then re-engineer this new information into study questions: What is confirmation bias?What are the five rights guaranteed by the first amendment?What is the difference between a chromatid and a chromosome? These kinds of questions spark recall or in some cases understanding, the two lowest rungs of Bloom's taxonomy of higher-order critical thinking skills.  But with some prompting and modeling, it's possible to bump students up the taxonomy by getting them to formulate questions that seek analysis, application, connection or contrast.  To be sure, a lot of these questions will be weak or ill formed, but success with this method isn't simply about the answers generated.  There's some value in the a…

Picking Up Your Cues

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One of the differences between experts and novices is the ability to self-cue relevant knowledge. Experts--consciously or unconsciously--are more likely to sense how the situation or problem before them connects to other things they know.  Students often struggle with this.  Indeed, anyone who has taught for a while has had the experience of teaching an idea or theory and having the class spit it back to you chapter and verse. So you toss out a problem or situation to which the idea or theory clearly applies and the result...
Eye blinks, crickets.  


Students just don't automatically make the connection because they know something.  So is there a way to jump start connections?   I don't know, but in my own teaching I've sure been trying the last several years.  For what it's worth, here's what I've been up to.

First, I try to drive home the first week of class that recall and an ability to demonstrate understanding are the the lowest levels of critical ability.  Wh…

The questions we want versus the questions we get.

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Why don't students ask more questions in class?   I asked for hypotheses on this from approximately 90 college and university professors at The Teaching Professor Conference in June 2016.  The results, while not a scientific sampling, were interesting.  The number one theory for why students don't ask more questions was fear of embarrassment (or some variant like shyness or lack of confidence).

I've posed this same question to my students and they offer similar ideas for why they and their classmates don't ask more questions.  But what if all of these hypotheses are wrong?  What if our students aren't holding back due to fear of saying something embarrassing?  Maybe there is an even more prosaic answer. They simply don't know how or where to begin.

Consider the images of superheroes below and ask yourself into what logical categories they might be sorted. 


If you have background knowledge of superheroes and comics, you probably sorted these figures using info…

You mean there's a name for that?

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One of the gimmicks I have been messing with over the years is student-generated questions.  I often have the class quiz me during the first five minutes of the period over what we talked about last time or the assigned reading.  Note: they don't have to answer any questions. They just have to formulate them. 

The ground rules for this exercise are to ask questions that make different kinds of thinking demands upon the person who has to answer them. I've broken these demands into three levels and I've given students "question stems" on which to build their own queries.  Level one questions, for example, concern context, definitions and clarifications:
What is the Copernican system?What's a specific example of 'conspicuous consumption?'Who wrote Satyricon and when?  What was going on at the time?What does the first full paragraph on page 217 mean?Level Two questions deal with applications, contrasts and connections. How do the traits praised in Matthew 5-…

The Opposite of Algorithm

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The late Harvard Prof Timothy Leary once advised students to "tune in, turn on and drop out."  I never made much of that remark except to view it as wanna-be transgressive marketing slogan, but it occurs to me that (setting aside the drop out part) it does capture two schools of thought about teaching.

Some of us try to tune in by making our subjects relevant to students' lives or interests: the semiotics of emojis, Zombie Economics, Philosophy, Death and Mortal Kombat. Anytime I've taken this approach it's been a wince-inducing failure.  A 56-year old white man whose interests include ancient literature, Northern Irish poetry, urban planning and fly fishing has little that's relevant to the 18-year old mind in the second decade of the 21rst Century.  

All I can do is try to turn on students to subjects and ideas that they usually aren't interested in or don't know exist.  It's a heavy lift because we live in a tune-in era.   Amazon, Netflix, I-Tune…

Don't look back

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Maybe 30 years ago I read a John Cheever story called "The Lowboy."  In it a typical middle-aged Cheever first-person narrator--well-spoken, flawed--is bequeathed an antique side-table long-coveted by his younger brother.  The brother badgers, recriminates and emotionally blackmails the narrator until he agrees to let him have the thing, but there is an accident while transporting it and the younger brother becomes apoplectic. He even accuses the narrator of deliberately sabotaging the table, which is damaged but repairable. 
In the final paragraphs of the story, the narrator imagines his brother painstakingly recreating the original setting for the lowboy in his home. No doubt, he muses, his brother will have tried to replicate the cut-glass vase that used to sit on the lowboy.  He'll have gone to great lengths to find an identical carpet on which to place it.  And suddenly the narrator finds himself recalling the petty, bickering, unpleasant reality of the family that u…

Random Dynamic Systems

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The old saw holds that you are doing well if you get a single new idea from attending an academic conference and I've usually found this to be true.  More often than not, however, the new idea isn't some grand sweeping theory.  It's likely to be a little gimmick, a way of passing out the syllabus or grading a paper.

This past June, for example, I attended the Teaching Professor Conference in St. Louis.  It's a three day teaching geek-fest for profs who want to share pedagogical methods and ideas.  On the first day I did a little workshop on how to get students to pose better questions and then spent the rest of the weekend hitting interesting sounding sessions.

One I attended concerned using improvisational theater techniques in the classroom.  The guy who led it was a former improv comedian turned math professor who uses on-your-feet improv techniques to demonstrate math concepts. Mathematicians, he explained, are very interested in random dynamic systems.  These ar…

The Satisfaction of Busting Suds

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It's heresy to say this, but teaching isn't really work. It's an activity and it involves effort, to be sure. But it isn't work.  That's a term that should be reserved for things that have discernible beginnings and satisfying endings.

Re-shingling a garage roof is work. Cleaning up the kitchen after a meal is work, but teaching?  I don't think so.  It just never gives you that satisfied sense of having definitively done something and done it well.

I am by reputation and student evaluations a "good teacher," but I never feel that way.  And I never get that sense of satisfaction you have when the last dish has been put away and the counter wiped clean. Indeed, I quite like to clean the kitchen, especially when I can let my partner stay at the table talking to friends over a postprandial cup of tea or glass of wine.  The bigger and messier the stack of dishes, the better I feel when everything is clean and squared away.

But why can't I ever feel t…

Umping close calls at semester's end

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Every semester there's always a few close calls.   The final grades are turned in and suddenly there appears in your office or email inbox a few students begging for just one more shot at a higher grade.  They are just a point or two shy of the promised land and they want to know if there is anything--anything at all--they can do to change the call.

You explain to them that in fairness you can't really amend the rules for one without opening that opportunity to all, which is impractical.  The semester simply has end at some point.  Besides, you say, the deadline for revisions was announced in class and on the syllabus.  (I even emailed each student with some strategic suggestions on what they might want to revise weeks ago).

For most, this response is enough.  They took their shot or made their case.  They aren't happy, but they accept it.  A few, however, want to re-litigate the grading standards or at least they want you to explain again why you gave this paper a C whe…

Outrageous as a sea, dark, wasteful, wild.

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Try as I might, I've never been any good at course planning.  That's not to say I don't have a plan, because I do in an inexcusably intuitive sort of way.  What I don't have is a clean, clear course map with each activity exquisitely linked to a well-articulated objective. And for years I've felt secretly guilty about this (but apparently not guilty enough to actually change my sloppy approach to teaching).

This year, however, I decided to take myself in hand and actually do something about this scandal.  Instead of pre-planning and course mapping, I decided to just map what I did each day.  Every morning I sat down and laid out the logic of what I was going to do in class.  I wrote the objective across the top of the page and sketched out the day's activities for getting there.

The goal was to externalize my courses and unearth the subterranean logic that made them a coherent whole.  Once it was all on paper, I theorized, I would be able could look at them o…

The Nancy Wilson/Dead Kennedys Connection

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You probably shouldn't be surprised that your teen-aged son has suddenly become sullen, uncommunicative and deeply embarrassed by the mere fact of your existence.  I mean you likely gave your father the same treatment at that age, right?

Nevertheless you are surprised.  How could this charming, interesting kid--with whom you formerly had deep, thoughtful conversations--be the same person who now views every interaction with you as some form of hostile interrogation?  You only hope that once the sturm und drang of adolescence passes, the two of you will reconnect, that it will be like it was again.  You hope, but you also wonder. Or at least I do because I never did reconnect with my old man.

Occasionally, though, there's a kind of re-connection.  The other morning, for example, I was driving to work with the Ipod jacked into the car and on shuffle.  Then up pops an old Nancy Wilson song.

Did you say I have a lot to learn?
Well, don't think I'm trying not to learn.
Since …

The Thief of Time

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