Thursday, July 14, 2005

More on engagement in large classes

One of the other significant issues with using technology in a high enrollment setting is that it is hard to experiment. The requirement for manageability of the class cuts against the desire to try out new things in the course. It makes sense to do pilots in a smaller class setting first before ramping up to the new way of doing things in the large class. In some cases we offer the same course in both a large class and a small class venue. Then the smaller class can be used as the “lab” for the big class. We also teach many of these courses during the summer and typically enrollments are less in the summer. Summer implementation is another way to find a place to test out teaching approach ideas.

The issue here is that often it is not the same persons who are doing the teaching and when that is the case there must be coordination among all the principals to get the requisite knowledge transfer from the lessons learned as a consequence of the teaching experiment. Perhaps one mechanism for diffusion of such practices would be online write ups and perhaps blogs would be a good way to disseminate the practice. I’m going to try to model that here.

While I haven’t taught the big course recently, I have tried in my own teaching some things that might transfer. I’ve written about some of this elsewhere, so here I want to talk specifically about ideas to concentrate on based on what I learned in my own teaching experience. This was in the campus honors class, where there were only fifteen students, but I think some of this does scale. And much of this should be broadly applicable.

First and foremost, the class needs to have some exercise or assignment or what have you that features metaphor. In my particular case, I did these content surveys and the first one was on Maps. This was in an Econ course, with no particular interest in geography. The point was to use the idea of maps, something the students are familiar with already, to argue for the idea of a mathematical model, such as the model of supply and demand. I explicitly had them think through whether maps were an exact replica of reality or if there were distortions (yes there are). And then I had them answer whether maps are useful in spite of the distortions (of course they are useful). I also had them contrast maps with directions and have them consider when each is appropriate and the strength of each. (After I had written up this exercise on Maps, I was told that Paul Krugman had written a rather nice paper making essentially the same argument, but more elegantly than I had made. Maps are a good metaphor to begin with when considering economics.)

This overt reference to metaphor in the class needs to happen fairly early on in the semester, when the students are still forming their impressions about the course. And it obviously has to be relevant to the class, or it will achieve the opposite effect from what is intended – and that is to convince the students of the importance of reasoning with metaphor and coming to understand new ideas via construction of metaphors to more familiar ideas.

Later in the course the students have to do some research on their own, probably in teams of three, or four students, on some open ended topic that should be of interest to the class. My suggestion here is that the teams do different research projects, but depending on class size perhaps there could be some duplication. In my class, the students were to write up their research as content surveys rather than as term papers, but the format is not important for the point I want to make. There are two key ideas. First, in some way other students must be put in a position to react to this research and finding the right mechanism might depend on the particular course. Second, the students have to understand that they have a contribution to make.

This is the tough one. They are novices. They are reading works by professionals in the field, perhaps not fully grasping the meanings of those works. What of novelty do the students have to offer? The answer, it shouldn’t be a surprise now, is metaphor. The students are more expert than the professor on how they first come to think of the idea, what experiences have they had that they use as tie into the idea, and what metaphors they use to represent the idea. In other words, the student research is in part translation. It is a translation about how to get started on the idea. Part of what they do is discuss the idea itself and part of what they do is the translation.

These translations may not be good and they may not be what experts would use, but at the least now the students have something to contribute and they can be evaluated on how good their translation is. And in doing such an evaluation other students can be used as evaluators because they will be in a good position to comment about whether those translations helped them being to penetrate the idea.

This also means that the instructor can now be more explicit about her task, to add additional layers to this way of thinking about the idea, to suggest other possible experiences that the students likely have had that might tie into the ideas, and to bring out other metaphors, that might be more helpful in thinking about the ideas.

Timing-wise, this means the student research must be completed well before the end of the term. There is just no way to get the response to this research unless there has been time allocated for it. So the students must start on these projects fairly early in the term.

If that is to happen and the students are to make progress at the time they start, then they have to already have an idea what to do. The very beginning of the semester must prepare the students for this research work. In my view that means model for them what they are to produce. As I said, in my class the students were to produce content surveys. I modeled that for them by having them take content surveys that I designed and we did discuss their responses to the surveys in class.

Here is one other suggestion, and this one I got from the Discovery class I taught earlier, where the projects were not quite as successful. Give the topics to the students and give them some initial places to look for scholarly references on the subject. They can waste a lot of time trying to come up with a do-able topic. At some later points in their career choosing a topic may be an important skill to acquire. But in a large class setting (and even in small classes with freshmen or sophomores, the students shouldn’t be expected to have that skill. And having them initiate is incredibly important. They need to get some draft down on their research so they can make some real progress.

How much of this can be done in a large class setting? I don’t know. But I hope to have at least piqued the interest of ed tech folks that there are some interesting research questions for them to answer in this arena.

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