Misconceptions in Cell Biology

“Every living thing is made of cells, and everything a living thing does is done by the cells that make it up.”
L.L. Larison Cudmore

Cells are the building blocks of all biology.  Every living organism is composed of cells.  All cells came from preexisting cells.  If you are a trained biologist, you recognize the last two sentences as The Cell Theory, one of the core theories of modern biology.  A lot of The Cell Theory seems basic considering what we know.  However, remember cells are smaller than can be seen by the naked eye.  Until the invention of microscopes, we didn’t even know cells existed.  The word cell was first used by Robert Hooke in the 1660s while examining thin slices of cork.  Hooke used the word cell to describe the structures he observed because they reminded him of the rooms of monks.

Additionally, it wasn’t until Loise Pasteur’s famous swan-necked flask experiment in 1859 that the idea of spontaneous generation, life spontaneous occurring out of organic material, was disproven.  Therefore, every cell must come from a preexisting cell. With the importance of The Cell Theory, it is not surprising that students spend a lot of time learning about the structure, function, and behavior of cells.  However, because cells are not visible to the naked eye, it is not surprising that many students have misconceptions concerning cells.

What is a misconception? Scientific misconceptions “are commonly held beliefs about science that have no basis in actual scientific fact. Scientific misconceptions can also refer to preconceived notions based on religious and/or cultural influences. Many scientific misconceptions occur because of faulty teaching styles and the sometimes-distancing nature of true scientific texts.”  When we teach students biology, how good are we at dealing with misconceptions?  The critical questions are what the student’s misconceptions are and how do we deal with them?

Musa Dikmenli looked at the misconceptions that student teachers had in his article Misconceptions of cell division held by student teachers in biology: A drawing analysis.  In the study, Dikmenli examined the understanding of 124 student teachers in cell division.  According to the study, these student teachers “had studied cell division in cytology, genetics, and molecular biology, as a school subject during various semesters.”  Therefore, the student teachers had already studied cell division at the college level.

At a basic level, cell division is the process of a single cell dividing to form two cells.  Scientists organize cell division (the cell cycle) into 5 phases Interphase, Prophase, Metaphase, Anaphase, and Telophase.  The cell cycle is often depicted using a circle. 

Figure of the cell cycle at different levels of detail. Created by PJ Bennett
Figure of the cell cycle at different levels of detail. Created by PJ Bennett

Instead of answering quiz questions or writing essays, the students were “asked to draw mitosis and meiosis in a cell on a blank piece of A4-sized paper. The participants were informed about the drawing method before this application.” (Dikmenli) The use of drawing as an analysis method has several advantages.  The most important of which is that it can be used across languages and by students in multiple nationalities.

After analyzing the drawings, almost half of the student teachers had misconceptions about cell division.  Some of the most come misconceptions are, when DNA synthesis occurs during mitosis and mistakes about the ploidy, the number of chromosome copies, during meiosis.  The research results mean that individuals that are going to teach biology at the primary and high school level are likely to pass their misconceptions along to their students.

So, where does the problem with student misconceptions start?  Students learn misconceptions from their teacher about cell division.  However, the teachers all have biology degrees from colleges, and their college faculty failed to address their misconceptions. However, perhaps we are not asking the correct questions.  Instead of trying to decide who, K-12 or College, is responsible for correcting student misconceptions, we should ask why students get through any level of school with misconceptions?

I can hear all the teachers now, while obviously, students get through school with misconceptions because it’s difficult to correct misconceptions. However, we know a lot about teaching to correct misconceptions.  Professor Taylor presents one method, refutational teaching in the blog post GUEST POST: How to Help Students Overcome Misconceptions.  With a quick Google search, you can find other supported methods.  In all cases getting the student to overcome the misconception, the student must actively acknowledge the misconception while confronting countering facts.

It is unlikely that the problem is that it is hard to teach to misconceptions, let’s be honest most teachers at any level are willing to use whatever techniques work.  No, I suspect the real problem is that most teachers don’t realize their students have misconceptions. So, then the real questions are why instructors don’t realize students have misconceptions.  In this case, I suspect it is the method of assessment.

Most classroom assignments and assessments ask the students to provide the “right” answer.  The right answer is especially prevalent in the large lecture class where multiple-choice questions are common.  However, the fact that a recent review article A Review of Students’ Common Misconceptions in Science And Their Diagnostic Assessment Tools covers 111 research articles suggest that identifying misconceptions is not complicated if teachers use the correct methods.  Therefore, the incorporation of the proper assessment methods alongside teachers’ standard methods will help teachers identify student misconceptions.

However, it is not good enough to identify misconceptions. The misconceptions must be identified early enough in the course so the teacher can address them.  Finding misconceptions is a perfect justification for course pretests either comprehensively at the beginning of the course or smaller pretests at the start of unites.  In an ideal world, pretests would be a resource that departments or schools would build, maintain and make available to their teachers ideally as a question bank.  Until schools provide resources to identify misconceptions, think about adding a pretest to determine your student’s misconceptions.  It will help you do a better job in the classroom

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Double-Blind Education

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.”
Arthur Conan Doyle (via Sherlock Holmes)

Several years ago, I was attending a weekly Discipline-Based Educational Research (DBER) meeting. Two senior faculty members led and organized the weekly meetings.  Both faculty members had trained in STEM disciplines.  One had received their educational research training through a now-defunct National Science Foundation (NSF) program, while the other was mostly self-taught through multiple calibrations with educational researchers.

The group was discussing the design of a research study that the Biology department was going to conduct.  One of the senior faculty members said if they were serious, they would design a double-blind study.  The other senior faculty member said that not only should they not do a double-blind study, but a double-blind study was likely a bad idea. I don’t recall the argument over double-blind studies in education ever getting resolved. We also never found out why one of the faculty members thought double-blind studies were a bad idea in educational research.

Double-blind studies are a way to remove bias. Most people know about them from drug trials.  Educational reform is not likely to accidentally kill someone if an incorrect idea gets implemented due to a bias in the research.  However, a person’s experiences during their education will certainly have a lifelong impact.  While double-blind studies might be overkill in education research, there is the question of what is enough.  As I have said before, it is the job of educators to provide the best educational experience possible; this should extend to our research.

How do faculty know how they should teach? What research should faculty members use?  Should we be concerned with the quality of educational research? Let me tell you a story (the names have been changed to protect the useless).  A colleague of mine was looking for an initial research project for a graduate student. My college told me about a piece of educational “research” that was making the rounds on his campus.  Alice, a well-respected STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) faculty member, had observed her class.  She noted what methods of note-taking her students were using.  At the end of the semester, she compared the method of notetaking to the student’s grade. On average, the students that used the looking glass method of notetaking had grades that avraged one letter grade lower than the other method of notetaking.

Alice told this finding to a friend the Mad Hatter, a DBER (Discipline-Based Education Research) expert.  The Mad Hatter was so impressed with the result that he immediately started telling everyone about it and including it in all his talks.  Now because Alice did her study on the spur of the moment, she did not get research approval and signed participation agreements.  The lack of paperwork meant that Alice couldn’t publish her results.  With such a huge effect, my colleague thought repeating this study with the correct permissions so that it could be published would be perfect for a graduate student.

They set-up the study; this time, to assess what methods the students were using to take notes, they videotaped each class period.  Additionally, the researchers conducted a couple of short questioners and interviewed a selection of the students.  After a full semester of observation, the graduate students analyzed the data. The result, there was no significant difference between looking glass notetaking and all the other types.  Just a little while ago, I saw a talk by the Mad Hatter. It still included Alice’s initial results.  Now the interesting thing is neither Alice nor the Mad Hatter would have excepted Alice’s notetaking research methodology if it was a research project in their STEM discipline.  However, as an educational research project, they were both willing to take the notetaking results as gospel.

While there is a lot of proper educational research, researchers have suggested that a lot of faculty and policymakers have a low bar for what is acceptable educational research.  The authors of We Must Raise the Bar for Evidence in Education suggest a solution to this low bar in educational research.  Their recommendation is to change what we except as the basic requirement of educational research.  Most of the author’s suggestions center around eliminating bias (the idea at the core of the double-blind study) their first suggestion is,

“to disentangle whether a practice causes improvement or is merely associated with it, we need to use research methods that can reliably identify causal relationships. And the best way to determine whether a practice causes an outcome is to conduct a randomized controlled trial (or “RCT,” meaning participants were randomly assigned to being exposed to the practice under study or not being exposed to it).”

One of the biggest problems with human research, which includes educational research, is the variability in the student population.  As so many people are fond of saying, we are all individuals.  By randomly assigning individuals to a group, you avoid the issue of concentrating traits in one group. 

Their second suggestion is, “policymakers and practitioners evaluating research studies should have more confidence in studies where the same findings have been observed multiple times in different settings with large samples.”  The more times you observe something, the more likely it is to be true (there is an argument against this, but I will leave that for another time.)

Lastly, the authors suggest, “we can have much more faith in a study’s findings when they are preregistered. That is, researchers publicly post what their hypotheses are and exactly how they will evaluate each one before they have examined their data.”  Preregistration is a lot like the educational practice used with student response systems were the student/researcher is less likely to delude themselves about the results if they must commit to an idea ahead of time.

If we are going to provide the best educational experiences for our students, we need to know what the best educational experiences are.  However, it is not enough to conduct studies. We need to be as rigorous as possible in our studies.  The next time you perform an educational research project, take a minute, and ask yourself how I can make this study more rigorous.  Not only will your students benefit, so will your colleagues. Thanks for Listing to My Mussing
The teaching Cyborg

Virtual Education

“There are as many applications for VR as you can think of, it’s restricted by your imagination.”
John Goddard

Virtual reality is an exciting technology.  For the last several years, there have been numerous articles talking about Virtual Reality (VR) the emerging technology. As a small example:

What makes virtual reality interesting is that for an emerging technology VR is quite old.  While the term virtual reality was coined in 1987 by John Lanier devices and the idea at the core of the technology can be traced back to 1935 (The Very Real History of Virtual Reality (+A Look Ahead).) Therefore, VR is more than 80 years old, though the first working example didn’t appear until 1957.

One of the first custom-built educational VR programs I encountered was the Boise State Universities Virtual Reality Nursing Simulation with Custom Haptic System for Patient Safety at the 2015 WCET (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies) conference. This system was designed as a supplement or replacement to nurse training with expensive medical manikins.  Additional studies showed that students that used the VR system had comparable pass rates on practical skills tests compared to students that used the Manikins.

While we have seen a few of these educational VR programs developed over the last couple of years, A recent Chronical of Higher Education article, Virtual Reality Comes to the Classroom, presents a different approach (the article is also available here.)   Nhora Lucía Serrano added VR to her literature course at Hamilton College.  Professor Serrano’s students designed a virtual environment based on the novels they read.  The students used Unity and Tinkercad to build their virtual worlds.

Unity is a game engine which as Unity says, “A game engine is a software that provides game creators with the necessary set of features to build games quickly and efficiently.”  Unity also has a personal version that is free if you make less then 100K a year on your Unity projects.  Tinkercad is a free 3D modeling program. These two tools give students or faculty the ability to create and modify 3D objects and then build a VR environment.

Professor Serrano’s use of VR in the classroom reminds me of video essays.  While most people are probably familiar with the video essay, the idea behind a video essay is to take the analytical structure of an essay and build a video instead of a written essay.  It is probably only a matter of time before we see someone try and create a VR essay.  However, we do need to be careful that we don’t run to VR simply because we are attracted to the shiny new thing.

As the Chronical article says, “But what is the pedagogical value of a virtual or enhanced experience? Just because students may like it, does that mean they will learn more than they would through a simple computer program or a textbook and lecture?” Pedagogy is essential we need to use technology to solve problems.  However, the question “does that mean they will learn more than they would through a simple computer program or a textbook and lecture?” is not really the correct question.

There is nothing wrong with using technology, even if the outcomes are the same as a “simple computer program or a textbook and lecture.”  If that new technology is more accessible more engaging easier to use or more cost-effective, then there is nothing wrong with using it.  Additionally, even if the outcomes are the same, there is value in using a tool that engages the students differently.  There is always something to be said about using different approaches to relieve the monotony and potentially engage a broader audience.

While professor Serrano’s VR project appears to have been engaging and quite successful, it is posable even likely that the learning gains were not from VR as much as they had another way to access and think about the material.  It is quite posable that the pedagogical advantage of VR won’t be strictly speaking derived from the virtual world.  It is more likely that the benefits of VR will be the ability to do things that would otherwise be imposable or prohibitively costly.

As an example, it would be impossible to visit all the locations discussed in a course on the history of western civilization.  Even if it were posable to travel to all the places in the time frame of a single semester, the cost would be prohibitive.  High fidelity VR recreations would give students the ability to see and explore these sites.  Additionally, it would be impossible for every student in an architectural class to build a multimillion-dollar building in real life.  However, in VR, not only could they build the building, other students and faculty could walk around explore their structure.  Another example in an astronomy class VR would make it possible for students to stand on the surface of the Sun or Mars.

While it is possible, we will develop a VR pedagogy.  It is also important to remember that sometimes, a tool is just a tool.  We don’t talk about the pedagogy of the hammer, yet it is an essential tool in building a set for a theater production or collecting a rock sample in geology.  Whether or not we develop “Pedagogy of VR” and whether it’s better than existing technologies, there is always a place for tools that let us do the otherwise imposable.

Thanks for Listing To my Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Technology and Cheating Two: The Rules

“The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.”
B. F. Skinner

In my last blog post, Does Technology Change What It Means to Cheat?, I discussed the question of whether modern technology fundamentally changed what it meant to cheat.  The article was about an online anthropology course and the instant messaging app GroupMe.  I concluded that the problem was not with technology changing what it meant to cheat but misuse and incomplete rules concerning the technology.  The situation discussed in the GroupMe “scandal” is also representative of the reason why a lot of schools only want their faculty and students to use approved applications.

So, if technology has not changed cheating, then what went wrong in this case?  How did 70+ students end up in trouble when only two students directly cheated?  The Chronical article says:

“More broadly, the scandal highlights the difficult issue of expanding technology in the classroom, students in the Google generation who view the free exchange of information without citation as not problematic, and faculty members who are wary of the use — and perceived abuse — of new digital tools.”

Now let’s be clear. I think this statement confuses issues in the article.  Nowhere in this GroupMe scandal would the addition of a citation fix the problem.  According to the professor, a student posted information about a test that is not allowed.  It would not have mattered if the student added a citation.  Also, we are talking about an online class, so it is doubtful that the professor is wary of technology.  Additionally, research is the core of the academy. These researchers want their discoveries disseminated.

The research community has been at the forefront of the movement to make research articles free to the public.  Also, the Google generation uses citations; writers of Wikipedia articles use citations.  The problem is whether students are using valid sources.  Modern technology gives everyone the ability to create content.  Some of that web 2.0 content is incomplete or invalid.  Contrary to how it is often presented, it has always been necessary to teach students that they need to cite their references.  Modern technology means we need to teach students not only to cite but validate their references.

So, if it is not a change in what it means to cheat, and it is not a conflict of generational beliefs then what was the problem?  It could be that the students did not think the question was cheating.  However, I think the problem is more fundamental than that.  The course rule the professor accused the students of violating is, “Students are not permitted to ask about, discuss, or share information related to exams and labs.”  The question that caused the violation is “a student had posted in the GroupMe asking what might be on the test.”

Another student responded with a list of all the textbook concepts the class had reviewed up to the exam, she said.”  Now let’s be clear faculty have the right to establish and enforce rules based on their judgment.  However, in this case, I think the instructor might be better suited to a rule that is not quite so broad.  Suppose the student had asked a different question “What topics have we covered in the course so far?” The answer would be the same list.  I would not find anything wrong with that question, and I suspect that question would not have led to charges of cheating.

If we accept that there is nothing wrong with the second question, even though it produces the same response, then the only reason for a cheating charge is because the question contained the word “test.” In this case, I think the professor needs a rule or set of rules that are not quite as broad.

While the rule might be too broad, did all the students violate the rule?  In the previous article, I discussed how it was not clear that all 70+ students saw the post.  However, the students are not able to prove they did not see the information.  Additionally, did the professor tell the students what to do if they encountered a violation?  Did the students ask what to do if they encountered a violation?  Technology makes it faster and easier to disseminate information; both faculty and students need to think about protecting themselves. 

Why should students protect themselves and why should faculty provide instructions on what to do if their students encounter a violation.  Let’s look at a potential scenario, I’m a student taking the same anthropology class, and I have signed up to the course GroupMe.  I have a terrible time in the course and become disgruntled.  I create an alternative account on GroupMe and ask the questions, “Does anyone know what is going to be covered on the next exam?” Then using my primary GroupMe account, I post, “Here are the answers for the next exam.” along with a list of the answers.  Now I have not explicitly said it in the post, but the reason for these posts is to sabotage the course.

Would it be fair to fail all the students in the GroupMe?  Of course, not, but how do we determine if something like that is what happened?  It could be hard to prove.  So instead of trying to figure out what is going on after the fact, we need rules and instruction ahead of the time.  As a faculty member, you need to not only have rules concerning what students can’t do but what the students should do if they encounter a problem.

As for technology, schools need tools that work for their needs.  Apps like GroupMe get used because they meet the requirement of students.  However, GroupMe has no way for a moderator to delete a post from all the accounts.  There is also no way to flag posts as inappropriate. 

Technology has changed our life in a lot of fundamental ways.  However, the fact that faculty member’s rules don’t fully account for a situation doesn’t mean we need to change what it means to cheat.  As I have said before, schools need to be proactive in the review and development of technologies for use in education.  Beyond that, it is more important than ever for schools to provide resources and training for faculty and students. 

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Does Technology Change What It Means to Cheat?

“The first and worst of all frauds is to cheat oneself.”
Gamaliel Bailey

I came across an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education A Professor Wants to Fail Students for Sharing Information in an Online Chat. But Has Tech Changed What Qualifies as Cheating?  The article’s title proposes a question about what effect technology has on the meaning of cheating in education.  I’ve previously written about how technology makes it easier for students to commit plagiarism and gives faculty better tools to catch plagiarism (Technology and Plagiarism.) I didn’t address the issue of whether technology changes plagiarism or cheating.

When we talk about technology and cheating, we generally talk about how technology makes it easier for students to cheat.  We talk about training faculty to use technology and tools to catch students that are cheating.  We rarely talk about whether technology changes cheating.  So, what does it mean to cheat?  Some things are apparent or should be, plagiarism, copying another student’s answers off a test, and submitting somebody else’s work as your own is cheating.

However, at a fundamental level, what does it mean to cheat?  Like many of the words in the English language, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the word cheat has lots of definitions, specifically 12.  The definition that works best for education is “: to violate rules dishonestly.”

Using the definition from Webster cheating, therefore, is anything that the rules of the course say.  With these definitions in mind, we can ask the question, does the technology in the chronical article change what it means to cheat? 

The technology in question is the messaging app GroupMe.  The app allows students to send messages to small or large groups of individuals.  GroupMe appeals to students because it is free, and it enables students to communicate without sharing personal information.  The students in question were in an online anthropology course at the University of Texas at Austin.  The professor, John Kappelman, Ph.D., has a course rule “Students are not permitted to ask about, discuss, or share information related to exams and labs.”

One of the students in the anthropology course shared exam information in the GroupMe.  In response, the professor recommended that the dean fail the 70+ students using the GroupMe app for his class.  At the time of this writing, the 70+ cases are still under review, and because of ethical rules, we may never learn the outcome of most of the cases.  However, most schools would agree that a faculty member has the authority to set rules, expectations, and consequences in their course.

If we accept the fact that faculty have the right to set their own rules and expectations, then the student posting exam information has violated the rules and therefore cheated.  What about the other 70+ students using the GroupMe app do they also deserve to be failed?  Did all 70+ students in the GroupMe app cheat? Let’s leave aside the question of whether a failing grade is a correct punishment, something I suspect would generate debate and ask did the other students cheat?

The chronical article is a little short on the facts. However, a report from the Huston Chronical, 70 University of Texas students face discipline for group message about exam offers a little more information.

“Around the time of the Anthropology course’s second exam earlier this month, she said a student had posted in the GroupMe asking what might be on the test. Another student responded with a list of all the textbook concepts the class had reviewed up to the exam, she said. A few hours later, she received Kappelman’s email [this was the email were Kappelman said he was recommending that the dean fail all the students].”

With the information from the Huston Chronical, we can now put the students into three groups. Group One is the student that requested proscribed information.  Group Two is the student that provided the proscribed information.  Group Three is all the other the students in the GroupMe. Again, leaving aside any debate as to whether this question should be considered cheating, following professor Kappelman’s rules, the students in Group One and Two have cheated.

What about Group Three? The other 70+ users from the class that saw the list of topics.  Let’s propose a theoretical alternative.  Suppose the professor did not have access to GroupMe, and instead of posting a list of topics covered, the student posted the answer key to the exam.  If other students read this information and then took the exam, a reasonable person would say they cheated.

However, let’s suppose that instead of being a real-time app, the student had to log-in each time to see their messages.  Suppose the student posted the exam answer key.  What if a student never logged-on to the app in between the time the student posted the answers and the time of the test?  Again, I think it is clear they didn’t cheat; they never saw the answers.

Let’s also think about a third situation.  Again, using the situation in which a student posted the exam key.  Suppose a student logged into the app and saw the exam key.  Instead of taking the exam, the student immediately contacts the professor and explains to them what happened.  One could technically say by reading the message, the student participated in a rule-breaking conversation.  However, they were not dishonest about it, and they did not seek to gain from the illicit knowledge they gained, so no, they didn’t cheat.

So, the real problem here is that most of the students, Dr. Kappelman, is punishing nether requested or posted rule braking material. Additionally, we don’t know what the students would have done or even how many saw the message.  It is also not clear if there is even a way to determine who saw and who did not see the information.

However, does the fact that it is not clear whether 70+ students cheated mean that technology has changed what cheating is?  I don’t think so; this entire situation could have happened without the GroupMe app.  Suppose instead of the instant message app, students used an old-fashioned telephone and answering machine or even paper letters mailed to each other.  One could also imagine a situation in which students posed notes on a contact board at a local coffee shop.

Suppose there is a coffee shop that all the anthropology students use.  A student posts a note on the contact board at that coffee shop saying, “Does anyone know anything about the exam coming up?” Another student posts the answer key on the contact board.  If a student comes in and reads the answer key and then goes and takes the exam, they would be cheating.  If a student comes in the coffee shop and never looks at the contact board and, therefore, never sees the answer key when they take the test, they would not be cheating.  Additionally, if a student reads, the contact board sees the answer key and then goes and tells the professor they are also not cheating.   Just like in the GroupMe case, the hard part would be finding a way for the students to prove whether they had seen the information on the contact board.

If you spend some time and think about it, you will see that modern technology rarely creates new situations.  Modern technology makes things easier and faster than previously posable.  Therefore we are not facing a situation in which students are cheating in fundamentally new ways. It is simpler, faster, and easier for them to cheat.  The problem at the core of the GroupMe scandal is the misuse of technology and incomplete rules, not changes to cheating.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Much Ado about Lectures

“Some people talk in their sleep. Lecturers talk while other people sleep”
Albert Camus

The point of research is to improve our knowledge and understanding.  An essential part of research is the understanding that what we know today may be different from what we know tomorrow as research progresses, our knowledge changes.  Conclusions changing over time does not mean the earlier researchers were wrong. After all, the researchers based their conclusions on the best information; they had available at the time.  However, future researchers have access to new techniques, equipment, and knowledge, which might lead to different conclusions.  Education is no different. As research progresses and we get new and improved methods, our understanding grows.

Out of all the topics in educational research, the most interesting is the lecture.  No subject seems to generate as much pushback as the lecture.  A lot of faculty seems to feel the need to be offended for the lecture’s sake.  Anyone that has trained at a university and received a graduate degree should understand that our understanding changes over time.  Yet no matter how much researchers publish about the limited value of the lecture in education, large numbers of faculty insist the research must be wrong.

I suspect part of the push back about the lectures is because lecturing is what a lot of faculty have done for years.  If they except that the lecture is not useful, then they have been teaching wrong.  Faculty shouldn’t feel bad about lectures; after all, it is likely what they experienced in school.  I think it is the faculty member’s own experience with lectures as students that lead to the problem.  I have had multiple faculty tell me over the years some version of the statement “The classes I had were lectures, and I learned everything, so lectures have to work.”

The belief that you learned from lectures when you where a student is likely faulty.  The reason this belief is defective is that you have probably never actually had a course that is exclusively a lecture course.  I can hear everyone’s response as they read that sentence, “what are you talking about as a student most of my classes were lectures.  I went into the classroom, and the teacher stood at the front and lectured the whole period. So, of course, I have had lecture courses.”

Again, I don’t think most people have ever had an exclusive lecture course. Let’s braked down a course and see if you really can say you learned from the lecture.  First, did your course have a textbook or other readings assignments?  Just about every course I took had reading assignments.  In most of my classes, I spent more time reading then I spent in the class listing to the lecturer.  Most of my courses also had homework assignments and written reports.  Many of the courses also had weekly quizzes, and one or two midterms were we could learn from the feedback.

Can you honestly say that in a lecture course, you didn’t learn anything from the course readings?  That you didn’t learn anything from the homework assignments and papers. That you didn’t learn anything by reviewing the graded homework assignments, papers, quizzes, and midterms, the truth is even in a traditional lecture course, there are lots of ways for students to learn.  As a student, it is next to imposable to determine how much you learn from any one thing in a course.  So, with all these other ways to learn in a “Lecture” course, can you honestly say you learned from the lecture?  In truth, the only way to have a course where you could say you learned from the lecture is if you had a course that only had a lecture and final, no readings, no assignments, no exams with feedback, only a lecture.

However, there is an even deeper issue with the lecture, then the faculty insisting it works (without any real evidence.)  As faculty members, what should our goal as a teacher be?  It is quite reasonable to say that anyone teaching at a college, university, or any school should attempt to provide the best learning environment they can.  So, even if we accept the argument that students can learn from, let’s call it, a traditional lecture (I don’t) if the research says there is a better way to teach shouldn’t we be using it?

If faculty approach teaching based on what is the best way to teach, it does not matter if students can learn from lectures if there is a better way to teach, we should use it.  The research says we should be using Active Learning when we teach because it benefits the students.  A recent article, Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics from PNAS show that students in classes that don’t use active learning are 1.5 times more likely to fail the course.  At a time when universities and the government are pushing for higher STEM graduation rates, active learning would make a big difference.

So how much of a problem is the lecture?  I know a lot of faculty that say they use active learning in their classrooms.  In a recent newsletter from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Can the Lecture Be Saved? Beth McMurtrie states, “Most professors don’t pontificate from the moment class starts to the minute it ends, but lecturing is often portrayed that way.”

However, a recent paper from the journal Science Anatomy of STEM teaching in North American universities might refute this statement.  The Science paper shows, at least in the STEM disciplines, that when classroom teaching methods are observed rather than reported by survey, 55% of all the course observed are traditional lectures.  Only 18% of the courses are student-centered active learning environments.  The rest have some amount of active learning.

Regardless of whether you think the lecture works or not, it is long past time to change.  There is no reason to feel ashamed or think poorly about faculty that used lectures in the past.  After all, for a lot of reasons, lectures where believed to work.  However, we are also long past the time where anyone should be offended for the lecture’s sake.  We need to use the best teaching methods currently available.  The best methods are the techniques called active learning because students measurably learn better than in a traditional lecture.

Thanks for Listing To my Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

In Education What Does It Mean to Be Competent?

“What you know is more important than where or how you learned it.”
Tina Goodyear

While competency-based education (CBE) has been part of US education for 40- or 50-years, interest has been increasing over the last couple of years.  A faculty member I was working with once described a problem they were having at his school.  He worked with a system of schools that used a common course system across all their campuses.  A common course system can solve a lot of issues. The common course system allows students to transfer between schools smoothly.  It also lets the system office negotiate guaranteed transfer agreements with other universities for all the schools in the system rather than each school having to negotiation individual transfer agreements.

However, how the system he worked at maintained their common courses system was causing problems.  The system office maintained a central list of the learning outcomes of the common courses.  When a school taught a class, they only needed to teach 80% of the outcomes that were on the common list.  If the common list had 26 learning outcomes, you only need to teach 21 (20.8). Faculty don’t have to teach five of the learning outcomes on the common course list.

To pass a common course, the student must earn at least a C (70% of the learning outcomes taught).  That means a student can pass while only learning 15 (14.56) learning outcomes.  Therefore, a student can pass without knowing 11 of the 26 learning outcomes on the system’s core list. Taken to the extreme, it means that two students each from a different school that both earned a C and transferred to the same school might only have four learning outcomes in common between them.

The committee my friend was working with suggested the implementation of competency-based education as a solution to the problem with their current common course system.  I asked how they were planning on implementing CBE.  He answered, “well, we already have learning goals all we need to do is turn them into competencies then modify our assessments a little, and we will be doing CBE.”

I remember asking, “are you changing how you assign grades?”  “If you’re not changing the grades, are you going to change how your transcript?”  If you don’t make changes like “grading” differently or list mastered competencies on your transcripts, you will still have the same problem. A lot of people that are trying to jump on the CBE bandwagon are just rephrasing their learning goals into “competencies.”

Implement of CBE requires changes to the whole system.  One of the core ideas behind competency-based education is that given enough time, most people can master any concept.

“Supporters of mastery learning have suggested that the vast majority of students (at least 90%) have the ability to attain mastery of learning tasks (Bloom, 1968; Carroll, 1963). The key variables, rather, are the amount of time required to master the task and the methods and materials used to support the learning process.” (How did we get here? A brief history of competency‐based higher education in the United States)

This one idea turns the current educational system on its head.  In most schools,’ students’ progress is measured by the number of credits earned.  Students earn credits by passing a class.  If a student passes the class, they get the credits whether they get an A or C. Institutions assign the number of credits to a course based on the number of hours the course meets.  This system, the Carnegie Unit, was established over a century ago by the Carnegie Foundation.  Therefor students earn credits based on time.

However, the Carnegie Unit or Credit Hour was initially created as part of a program to determine eligibility in the Carnegie Pension Plan (today is known as TIAA-CREF).

“To qualify for participation in the Carnegie pension system, higher education institutions were required to adopt a set of basic standards around courses of instruction, facilities, staffing, and admissions criteria. The Carnegie Unit, also known as the credit hour, became the basic unit of measurement both for determining students’ readiness for college and their progress through an acceptable program of study.” (The Carnegie Unit A Century­ old Standard In A Changing Education Landscape)

While the Carnegie Unit brought standardizations to a nascent US educational system, it is possible, if not likely, that we have become too focused on the easily measured like the Carnegie unit.  In the CBE system, students earn credits based on mastery of concepts. Therefore, students take as much or little time as they need to master concepts and move forward at a pace that best suits them.  CBE puts the information learned as the central component used to earn credits, not the length of time spent in a course.

Beyond restructuring the educational experience to focus on mastery, there are questions about assessments.  It is not merely a matter of rewording learning goals into competencies.  Course designers build competencies around what students should be able to do, or vice versa.  The assessments must be carefully thought out to match the desired outcome and then ascertain whether the student has mastered the competency.  While the process of assessment creation is involved, the fact that schools like Western Governor’s University and the University of Wisconsin’s Flexible Option program are using CBE can provide examples and a knowledge pool to develop new programs.

I don’t know if most of the educational system will adopt CBE.  The changes need to the standard system are enormous. After all, if students can learn at their pace, semesters, and time to degree will have to be rethought. However, the thought of competency-based education changing the focus back to learning over sorting is appalling.  The CBE system could also help alleviate student frustrations over a course moving to slow or too fast, leading to higher matriculation rates.  In the long run, I suspect the degree to which CBE is adopted will depend mostly on the success of the institutions currently leading the way.  Regardless of the success or failure of CBE, it will be fun to follow the developments in CBE over the next several years.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg