Learning Communities: Experiment I+

Eureka!  It works…better anyway.

It must have been a very affirming experience when Thomas Edison found that carbonized cotton was a good filament for a light bulb.  According to biographers he had tested several thousand plant fibers in his attempt to find a carbonized substance with sufficient durability to generate light, and this after testing a variety of other substances.  The cotton filament glowed for about 15 hours before burning out.  More experimentation discovered other types of filaments capable of glowing for hundreds of hours. The age of electric lighting was born.

For the past few years, my colleagues and I have been experimenting with a variety of different learning community strategies trying to hit on a model workable for us. My next few posts intend to document aspects of some of the experiments in learning communities we’ve been trying recently.

Most of us knew instinctively what the research suggests…that learning communities are power tools to promote student learning, enhance faculty development and bond participants together around a common cause.  We had been doing this quite successfully in our adult degree completion programs, athletic teams, and majors with sufficient incoming freshman students to make viable cohorts for years.  We even experimented with a couple of varieties of paired General Education courses, successes in which should have been assessed and documented better (for if they had been we might have gotten off to a better start sooner).

In 2007, we designed a freshman advising strategy that would automatically enroll incoming freshman into fundamental general education classes with goal of forming cohorts of students who shared something academically in common…their intended major.  The courses selected were composition, speech, computing, and Biblical literature.  Students had to take them; they were best taken in the freshman year; it made sense to short-circuit the “customer is always right” mentality of too many academic advisors who sometimes let students who expressed reservations about taking Comp I (because they might take in summer school at the JUCO next summer) off the hook for it.

There were several issues that made the process a little tricky.  The first was that we had a very decentralized course scheduling process.  Department chairs were responsible for scheduling faculty members in their department in a way that accommodated departmental needs, faculty life issues, and provided a sufficient number of general education student seats.  The notion was to create sufficient spread to accommodate lots of different student schedule needs.  The result was courses spread throughout the day.  This worked ok, but when one added cohorting students into shared sections, it got confusing quickly.  Since I believe in shared governance as much as is possible, I kicked off the process by meeting with Department Chairs. I handed out the section schedule for those classes, and asked them to identify the sections that didn’t conflict with classes necessary for freshmen in their major. Then staff in the Registrar’s Office worked out a set of schedules by major.  We took historical data for three years and got an idea of how many students we could expect in each major.  This helped us add a section here and there of composition or speech at a needed time.

When students became ready to enroll for Fall 2008, a Registrar’s Office staffer created an initial enrollment for the student that included a section of Composition, a section of Intro to Speech, and a computing class in the first semester.  In order to accommodate the restrictions of the number of sections that could be offered related to faculty staffing, we split the incoming students into three groups, provisionally admitted students, which we will call track I, who had a set of remedial courses, students who needed to take Composition I, who we will call track II, and students who for some reason waived out of Composition I (AP, high ACT score, etc) who we will call, you guessed it, track III.  Track II students would be enrolled in Comp I, Intro to Speech and computing. They would enroll in Composition II and Biblical Literature in the Spring. Track III students, who recall didn’t need Comp I, were enrolled in the second composition course and the Biblical Literature.  They would enroll in Intro to Speech and computing in the spring. Additionally, the Registrar’s Office enrolled the track II students into major courses identified by the department chair as must haves.  That typically resulted in a full-time enrollment schedule.  Track III students, because they were often bring in some AP credit, etc, were called and enrolled by advisers from the department in major courses.

From the outset, there were some known issues with which we decided we would just live.  We knew, for instance, that most sections would not fill with students in just one major.  Unfortunately, the decentralized schedule creation scheme under which we traditionally worked meant that we could not find a way to get anything like affiliate majors together in the same sections without more work than it was probably worth for an experiment.  So we lived with business and art majors in the same section of Comp I and Speech.  That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did mean that we couldn’t really leverage the power of common interest at a scale that would result in critical mass. We knew we had about 25% of an incoming class who declared themselves to be undeclared majors.  We we decided to filter them into sections with available space since we didn’t have a very good way of determining, through admissions contacts or otherwise, what might be appropriate sections to help them explore their potential interests and we didn’t have enough faculty to efficiently staff sections especially for undeclared students.

We told faculty teaching sections of courses grouped together that the students in their classes represented a subset of majors, that they were also all enrolled in another class together depending on their track, and so these faculty could, if the so chose, allude to what every else the students should be learning in the other class. They could, if they so chose, visit with the other faculty member(s) associated with there students to talk about what they were teaching, explore some common strategies or assignments, or share about student issues.  All that happened in a few cases.

There were not a few concerns expressed throughout the campus community about the potential negative effects.  Some faculty expressed concern over what this would do to faculty load balances and overall department scheduling. We also had to assure faculty in the Education and Nursing programs that this would not negatively impact the degree checksheet advising plans that their tightly prescribed programs of study required to be followed. Those interested in recruitment and student satisfaction, at the highest levels, expressed fear that restricting student choice and requiring students to enroll in particular sections of a course (even if they might have a preference for taking classes later in the morning or with a particular instructor) would have a deleterious effect on recruiting.  We also had difficulty with communicating to recruiting personnel how to explain to prospect what we were trying to do with incoming students.  That was in part due to the fact that while we had good intuitions and some research finding from other places backing us, we didn’t have the authentic anecdotal data that admission personnel have learned compel prospect interest.  Nor was what we thought we might accomplish with this capable of being phrased succinctly enough.

Toward the end of the first semester, we did a quick survey asking students in these groups how they felt about the cohorting, which, recall, was more or less just allowing students take a few classes with the same classmates, some of whom also shared similar occupational goals. Overall, students reported that they liked the social connectedness that they felt and that they saw that things they were learning in one course were related to things that they were learning in the associated courses.  Conversations with faculty suggested that students seemed more engaged, including to one faculty members dismay, that in one section, in which the students all shared the same major, the students were so familiar and bonded with one another that they disconcertingly violated the norms of freshman-level class behavior. Ah, how interesting.

Also interesting was that retention data for track I and track II students, the most heavily cohorted groups of students, showed an uptick in second to third semester retention.  That was not unpredictable based on the previous research, which suggested that learning communities helped less prepared students become more academically successful and thus more likely to stay in school.

Helpful to the overall project was the new VP for Student Affairs, who had been part of a student affairs staff that had been part of university-wide thematic learning communities.  He was tasked with chairing the Retention Task Force, and led the effort to getting the president’s cabinet to support piloting a more sophisticated thematic learning community, which could more intensively cohort freshmen around a common interest.  It took recognition of a retention “crisis” and some new blood at the VP level to get sufficient momentum on implementing this powerful concept for the traditional programs at college-wide levels to ramp up a proof of concept test. This project became the recipient of a small grant from a local foundation interested in the arts, and the planning process for an integrated curriculum began in the spring.  I’ll tell that story in a soon to be written subsequent post.


Gaming and Learning: An Interview with “Sims” creator

Will Wright, creator of “The Sims” and “Sim City” video games, suggested in a recent interview that video games can help inspire students to learn more, but that they do this best by approaching lessons with abstraction and subtlety.  By focusing on what he calls “strategic thinking,” which we might call “critical thinking” and providing less overtly didactic cases, students learn skills that can lead to later intuitive jumps to apply the logic of the game to real life scenarios.  Supporting the playful and subtle game lesson with links to factual resources (Want to know more about these kinds of things? Go to…) can provide immediate positive feedback to curiosity.

My sense of what he’s suggesting is that faculty can stimulate the desire for deeper learning by encouraging students to play with subtle simulations.  An application of Wright’s ideas could be for a teacher to create simplified case studies (reduced the level of complexity) based on the concept(s) that students should learn. Students are then provided with the opportunity to play around with adjusting the scenarios, taking different points of view, and trying to determine how things would work out if different decisions were made.  This can work out nicely in the exploration of concepts and theories that suggest physical consequences generated in response to particular behaviors.  Which ones don’t?

I think that designing such these kinds of games to support learning theories and concepts might be useful to theorists as well.  To have to work through the process of laying out the rules and their implications provides a great way to quickly test the logic and strength of a particular theory against the universe of possible and plausible actions the players might want to take.  Having students work through this process, to “wargame” scenarios related to particular concepts provides students with opportunities to learn how to think critically, solve problems, and learn actively. Theorists may benefit by having multiple brains work to test the concept using outside the box ways of thinking and with less ego-involvement and politcs on the part of both the investigator and reviewers than may be true of later formal peer review processes.

Overheard…need more real world applications!

Standing in the cafeteria line today, I couldn’t help but overhear the two students behind me discussing the test in some unidentifiable class. One said, “I wish they would ban those simulations from the test, I aced everything else, but couldn’t do the simulation part and so I got a 76.”

I turned around and said something to the effect of “But don’t the simulations demonstrate that you can actually apply what you’ve learned?”

He said, “Yeah, but I knew all the vocabulary, that shows that I learned the material.”

I responded with, “But isn’t that like knowing all the terminology about playing tennis. Just because you know the terms doesn’t mean you can actually play the game when you get on the court, does it?”

He and his friend gave me that, “Quit bothering us, you are an idiot” look.

I think that what I really overheard today was a student saying, “If you really want me to learn something, you’ll have to test more than just the vocabulary.  You have to test whether or not I can do something with it…and I’ll resent it if you do.”

It reminded me, I must design more application exercises, preferably real life kinds of simulationthat that utilize the knowledge I ask students to glean…if I can figure out how to. This little snippet of converation really reinforced for me the notion that educational best practices require intentional focus on active learning, critical thinking and problem solving. This is challenging for everyone at first, but useful and consistent with the real aim of 21st century education.

Wiki-gating Update

I’ve been using the wikigation assignment in two different classes…American West, which is an upper division history class, and World Civ, which is a lower division general education class. I have observed some interesting things.

Thing 1: Students do read the assigned wikipedia pages in preparation for in-class discussions. One student wrote in his learning log:

I really am enjoying the way this class is set up. It’s a really fun and interesting way to learn. These wiki hunts really make you think and you have to pick and choose what you believe is most important within the information then share that information with your group and once you hear what everyone else got out of the hunt you have learned the topic without a 60 minute lecture.

Thing 2: The critical thinking questions designed to help guide student reading toward critical thinking might get in the way of content acquisition. For instance a student wrote in her learning log:

This week, i think i got a hang of the WIKI hunts better and really found those helpful. i focused more on what the articles were saying and what i got from them. rather than on answering those questions we were given to help us. i think some of those questions confused me, therefore it made it harder for me to understand and focus on what i was reading.

This is something to grapple with in light of the intended outcomes for the assignment.  What do I really want the assignment to do…provide an opportunity for students to think critically think or to gather information with which they will later have an opportunity to process (as in during the class discussion).  I’m inclined at this point to think that it should be the latter.  I think this was a case of not clearly thinking through the process necessary to achieve the outcome.

Thing 3: Some students are able to see that Wikipedia is a very uneven source that suffers from credibility issues:

The one thing that I would say that is bad or not effective is the second wikipedia hunt for this week.  The Israel and Judah project is a little too much information and had too much contraversy to be discussed without a professor present to give some feedback.  I would also think that wikipedia is not the source to go to to learn about it either.

Another wrote

Finally, a few more comments about Wikipedia. I still really do not care for it. I never feel prepared after having read the article, even after looking at the history and some of the links. For the Homestead Act which we will talk about on Monday, I went to other sources as well, and I feel like a have a much better grasp. The thing about most Wikipedia articles is that there is often little background information. The article is not contextualized. However, that is what the links are supposed to be for. But those links have no background either, and it’s just a vicious cycle. I mean, I can get the basic information, but I can’t really find out what I deem to be the really important stuff.

This was one of my upper division students.  I encouraged her previously to get in and edit the entry if she found a problem…to be part of the solution rather than just railing against the machine.  She then related:

I did start editing Wikipedia this last week though. I must say it become rather addictive. Once you decide to correct one grammar mistake, it is amazing how many more one can find. I actually ending up completely re-wording most of one article. There was a nice sense of satisfaction, but I wonder how the personal who wrote it originally felt.

She continued this a week later…

Finally, I have to say that making my first major edit to Wikipedia this week has been very rewarding. The article about the Lincoln County War truly was awful when I read it. It made absolutely no sense and, after I looked up information from some more reliable sources, I realized that the article provided no sense at all of the actual story. I’m pretty sure I’ve read freshman fine arts papers that were better than this article. (And that’s really saying something, because those papers are excruciating.) Anyway, the article is still not great. It doesn’t have any flow, because I haven’t yet made any changes to the end of the article. I couldn’t find the information I needed to do some fact checking. Several people on the discussion page had pointed it out. I’m debating if I should bother correcting the grammar there, or just wait until I get a certain book in on inter-library loan to check the facts. And the opening section about the beginning of the Lincoln County War is much too long, but I haven’t yet figured out how to create a new section within the article. There are a lot of buttons and controls that one can press and I haven’t quite figured them all out yet. But I just couldn’t help feeling a perhaps inordinate amount of satisfaction when my fellow class members starting talking about our topic for the in day in the terms that I had chosen to describe it. I had taken something that was confusing and made it understandable… then of course the evil part of my nature rather wondered if I shouldn’t have left it like it was and made those lazy boys figure it out for themselves. But overall it was a nice experience to not just complain about “whoever wrote the article” and then move on.

Something tells me this assignment has real potential.  Here we see the power of wikipedia’s weaknesses to inspire and thus, like the Dao, reveal its strength.

Course Workload: What’s Reasonable?

What is normal (not excessive, reasonable to expect) in a General Education class?

In a General Education course, properly calibrated for a group of student’s level of ability, it would be normal for faculty to expect students to utilize and demonstrate critical thinking and effective communication skills in order to meet the minimum acceptable standard for completing an assignment or a course.

It would be normal, in a properly calibrated course, for students to engage in the work of learning along the following lines:

  • Students should understand that it is normal to be working together in class, on topic, for the number of hours equal to the number of credit hours assigned to the course.  In addition, students should expect to do about 2-3 hours of work outside of class for every hour students are in class together. Taking those together, it would be normal, in a three (3) credit course, for a student to spend 9 hours a week engaged in doing the work necessary to achieve the learning outcomes of the course.
  • For a course with a lab, it would be normal to spend 2-3 additional hours engaged in solving the weekly lab problem.
  • When students are in engaged in courses where the delivery system is not organized by the standard semester, it would be normal to expect the work load for the course to require that the student engage in learning activities for 40-50 hours over the instructional term for each credit hour assigned to the course (class + preparation and demonstration time). (For a 3 credit class, it would be normal for students to spend 120-150 hours engaged in class related work over the term).

While there are a wide range of learning activities and a range of tempos by which students complete those activities,

  • It would be normal to expect students to read critically 10-15 pages (2500-4000 words) in an hour.
  • It would be normal to expect students to compose 300-700 words of reflective writing to standard in an hour.
  • It would be normal to expect students to research and compose to standard a research paper (essay with sources) at a rate of 100 words per hour.
  • It would be normal to expect students to utilize 1-2 sources per page in a research paper. For those who like algebra, the equation might look like this: Number of Pages(Number of Sources X 2)= Normal.
  • It would be normal for students to spend 50-75% of the time together in class engaged  in active learning exercises that require them to collect and aggregate information (normally acquired outside of class) from one another and analyze it, either individually or collectively, in order to create knowledge for themselves.

Creating a common understanding among both faculty and students about what a reasonable workload is for a class has several advantages.

  • Faculty can evaluate the assignments they give and time frame in which they expect them to be done against some of the normal times it might take to complete the assignment.
  • If faculty are willing to commit to a shared set of criteria like these, will live by them when making assignments, and will communicate these expectations to students as the discuss assignments, it may have the effect of upgrading the overall educational culture of an institution. Some expect too little from their students and others too much. Evening that out might be beneficial for everyone.
  • Increasing workload from low levels to reasonable ones may increase student engagement in learning, but increasing workload beyond reasonable leads to diminishing returns in regard to student engagement and thus learning. If students trust faculty to make reasonable assignments, then perhaps students will be willing to engage the assignment.  This may be particularly true for reading in preparation for class.  I know that I have been guilty of making large reading assignments and then being frustrated that students didn’t read them.  After talking with students, I’ve come to discover that if they see 100 page a week reading assignments plus weekly writing assignments, they won’t read.  The load is too daunting.  By the standards above, I would be expecting 10 hours of reading and a couple of hours of writing a week in addition to class time.  That’s probably enough over the top to decrease student engagement in the course…exactly the opposite of what I want to do.

All of this is the fruit of putting together things I’ve heard over the course of my teaching career and then thinking though nuts and bolts and implications.  I think it would be great for folks to collect some real data in order to firm up the data on how much one can read and write in an hour in order to make the “reasonable” expectations even more reasonable by conforming them to findings drawn from a larger data set.

Tribal Leadership in Education

Faculty members make up a tribe.  Students make up a tribe.  It may be that the students and faculty in a course make up a tribe.  If you want to know how to make a tribe really work, then it is imperative that you read David Logan, John King, and Hallee Fischer-Wright’s Tribal Leadership.  In brief, the authors say this:

There are five types of tribes that identify themselves by the way they talk about their place in the world, which in turn indicates the way they interact with their world. According to Logan, King, and Fischer-Wright, these tribes are in fact people who live in a worldview that can be upgraded one step at a time toward the goal of a self-actualized community.  They categorize the tribal stages as follows:

  1. Stage 1 tribes believe and say things like “Life sucks.”  People in such tribes are often raging individuals who don’t think resorting to violence to get what they want is a problem.
  2. Stage 2 tribes believe that the world is made up of the “haves” and the “have-nots.”  Members of stage 2 tribes believe that they are among the have-nots and that their life “sucks” but they see all sorts of people around them whose lives don’t.  If you ask them why their life sucks, they claim to be victims of the oppression impressed upon them by the “haves.”
  3. Stage 3 tribes believe and say things like “I’m Great! (and you’re not).”  Members of stage 3 tribes are individuals on the make.  They are working hard to demonstrate to themselves and others that they are competent, in fact they want to be the most competent person in their line of work.  It seems amazing that such folks can live in proximity to one another, but stage 3 tribal members are willing to get along with other stage 3 folks as long as the other has a different (even if subtle) area of expertise.
  4. Stage 4 tribes are made of people who build teams that claim “We are Great! (and they are not).”  Stage 4 tribal members have networks of communication that rely on groups of 3 (triads).  Groups that work in this state are about 30% more productive than Stage 3 tribes.
  5. Stage 5 tribes, the rare few, live in a magical world in which members claim that “Life is Great!” and don’t see others groups as competitors.  They are out to change the world as we know it for the better.

How does this apply to education.  First, listen to your students.  What do they say?  I taught a group of students who had failed their college orientation class (go figure!).  I was stunned by the way they talked about themselves in context of the academic universe.  For the most part they existed in a Stage 2 tribe.  They weren’t succeeding, but it wasn’t their fault…that prof, that staff member, that….  A few of them were willing to make the cultural shift to Stage 3, but most were not…they were on their way out the door.  The only thing holding them to the university was their connection to the athletic program.  Maybe they were a Stage 3 athelete…I don’t know.

Many of my students are at Stage 3.  They are competent students.  They know how to learn, at least learn enough to get the grade they want without too much stress.  Set the bar, show it to them, and they’ll figure out how to jump over it.  Some of them are even highly competitive.  They get their self-esteem from being able to say, “I’m great,” and, while looking around the room, muttering under their breath, “(and your not).”  Faculty, and I’ve been one of them, figure out that some students can be highly motivated by messing with their “I’m great” self-image.  Grade them down a little and they get stressed and work harder.  Notice here the subtle claim by the faculty member…”I’m great, dear student, and, well, your not.”  According the Logan, King and Fischer-Wright, Stage 3 tribal members exist in a symbiotic relationship with Stage 2 tribal members.  In traditional education, the Sage-on-Stage needs those adoring and over-awed students who fawn after him or her…and the teacher’s pet needs the dumb kids.

According to the authors of Tribal Leadership, a few pockets in academia are conducive to Stage 4 tribal development, particularly scientific research groups.  For them, the problems are too big for any one person to solve them, so a team of three or more is necessary to get the job done.  This becomes the basis for the potential development of Stage 4 tribes.  Of course, low on the totem pole grad students in a research group answer to Stage 3 senior grad students, who are themselves caught in between 3 and 4 as they relate to the god-like PI.

Stage 5…Life is Great. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a thing in education…maybe Jesus on the cross…maybe Paul’s “to live is Christ to die is gain”… I don’t know.  But those aren’t really examples from education, are they?

The goal of 21st century skills proponents, though they might not know it, is to help students achieve Stage 4 tribal status.  According to Tribal Leadership, that’s not going to be possible until those students not only pass through, but own and discover the inadequacy of stages 2 and 3 tribes. Finding ways to get students from Stage 2 to Stage 3 is imperative to getting them to Stage 4. Is that a too linear way of thinking?  I don’t know.

I think it might be interesting to explore how upgrading tribal cultures among both faculty and students might be the real goal of 21st century education.

More on this later….

Upgrading Educational Culture: Rhee Plans Shake-Up of Teaching Staff, Training – washingtonpost.com

Michelle Rhee highlights a good practice for achieving educational excellence: train teachers to teach.  She’s proposing to do this by 1) providing new teachers with a competent mentor whose task is to help the new teacher become competent, 2) only retaining teachers who demonstrate that in fact they can teach effectively, 3) making decisions based on evidence of results, and 4) supporting teachers with further training that helps them use best practices based on good research to guide teaching practice.

Here are some excerpts from the story in the Washington Post.

“[District of Columbia Education Chancelor Michelle] Rhee plans to move the District away from the regimen of courses and workshops that have defined continuing education for teachers. Borrowing from best practices in surrounding suburban districts, she is building a system of school-based mentors and coaches to help instructors raise the quality of their work. She also wants to import a nationally prominent Massachusetts consulting firm with a reputation for improving teachers’ skills.

“But budget uncertainties, labor tensions and the timetable for the program’s rollout have sparked questions from teachers’ advocates about its effectiveness. At the same time, Rhee has dropped the school system’s direct support for instructors seeking certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a rigorous one- to three-year teacher development program, citing a lack of evidence that the training improves student achievement.

“Rhee’s five-year plan flatly stated: “There is no comprehensive professional development program for teachers.”

“George Parker, president of the teachers union, said this is especially true for first-year teachers, who sometimes struggle. “Great teachers don’t come into the system pretty much as great teachers,” he said. “They are developed. It’s going to take a teacher around three years to hit a stride.”

“Under Montgomery [County]’s program, operated jointly by the school system and the teachers union, novice instructors are paired with master teachers who visit them in the classroom regularly and monitor their progress. Within the first five years on the job, most enroll in The Skillful Teacher, a program of six day-long sessions devised by Jon Saphier of the Massachusetts-based Research for Better Teaching program.

“Saphier said the program fosters teachers’ belief in their power to lift student achievement despite conditions outside school.

via Rhee Plans Shake-Up of Teaching Staff, Training – washingtonpost.com.

It looks like the Montgomery County school system, and under Rhee maybe D.C.,  is upgrading its tribal culture, as per the model articulated by David Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright in Tribal Leadership (henceforth TL).  whether they know it or not.   To become successful, new teachers, who in their gut feel overwhelmed and incompetent, need to develop the skills necessary to be a competent classroom teacher in a hurry. They learned about some of those habits and practices in college, but they didn’t really learn them, because the were taught them in a largely de-contextualized environment.  Pairing the new teacher with a master teacher helps upgrade them from stage 2 (my life sucks)  to stage 3 (I’m Great) on the TL scale.  The Master Teachers, if they are forming teams to promote system-wide best practices that get results, then these competent teachers are upgrading to TL stage 4 (We Are Great).

I wonder if upgrading the culture of the teachers translates into upgrading the culture of students.  The last sentence about Jon Saphier seems to suggest that maybe it does.  That goes to the expectation of nation-wide education reform…except in unique situations, only competent teachers can help make competent students.

With the emphasis on 21st century skills (teamwork, critical thinking, communication, etc), it will take this kind of teamwork to model for teachers what they want their students to be doing in class.

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