Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Multitasking = multifailing

We've talked here at ISW about students using technology in the classroom and how to address the issues that arise therein. But increasingly, the research shows that such technological multitasking inhibits learning -- no matter what tech savvy students say to the contrary!

From a teaching note at my campus' faculty center:
Don't believe it when students argue that they can pay attention to what's happening in class and supplement the class material as they surf through the internet. Research is abundantly clear that people cannot pay productive attention multiple cognitive inputs at one time. “Heavy” media multitaskers, or people who frequently pay attention to multiple media inputs at once, are particularly bad both at paying attention to the multiple inputs and recognizing that they are not paying attention.

Some students argue that having other stimuli, such as music or tv in the background, helps them to concentrate on a task at hand. This may be true, but in a limited way: If the stimulus does not compete cognitively with the task at hand, it may be helpful in improving mood and time on task. So if students want to listen to music while doing their calculus homework, and it works for them, great – but reading texts while they're supposed to be reading and writing about what is going on in class, not great at all.

The ultimate result of paying poor attention is poor memory, which equates to poor learning. If a person does not pay attention to something, there is no way he can learn it.

So how do we sell multitasking students on the idea that they're not just distracting others and annoying their instructors — they're actually shortchanging themselves?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Falling into the 'teaching trap'

At Inside Higher Ed, Kerry Ann Rockquemore engages in some intelligent self-diagnosis about why she ended up burned out about teaching. Here's her description of this "teaching trap":

The trap is when new tenure-track faculty spend the vast majority of their time on teaching at the expense of their research and writing and then find that their limited research productivity endangers their ability to be promoted at their current institution, or move to another one. And if you are at an institution where your advancement will be based largely (or entirely) on teaching, the “teaching trap” occurs when you fail to manage your boundaries around teaching so that you have no time or energy for the other things that matter in your work and in your life. If you find yourself coming to campus early and staying late, if you’re spending every weekend grading and preparing for the next week’s classes, if you’re sacrificing sleep and/or pulling all-nighters in order to get ready for the next day’s class meeting, and – as a result -- you haven’t spent any time moving your research agenda forward or investing in your long-term success, then you may have fallen into the teaching trap.

Kerry then offers a set of indicators for when you've fallen into this trap. I won't reproduce them all here, but these two merit special attention, I think.
  • You believe it’s somehow possible to please everyone so if you just spend more time, you will teach better and receive unanimously positive evaluations.
  • You have never thought about how you're spending your time and have unconsciously fallen into the teaching trap because of the built-in accountability that standing in front of a classroom full of students several times a week provides.
In my observation, these are the factors that sometimes push conscientious teachers over the edge. For most in the profession, teaching is a constant stream of responsibilities. The next class meeting, the next batch of papers, the next term; they're always just a day or two away (or so it seems). There are breaks, yes, but attending seriously to the tasks of teaching tends to underscore the "built-in accountability" Kerry mentions. And since the time investment is already significant, it's easy to think that the solution to a teaching challenge is to do more of what you already do. One thing I've noticed here at ISW is that while everyone acknowledges that teaching well is hard work, success as a teacher is not linearly proportional to effort or time spent. There is a technique or a craft to teaching, and perhaps those who excel at the craft succeed as educators more effortlessly than those who think of teaching as more like manufacturing, as if the amount of product created is a direct function of the labor and other inputs.

I've recently shared an idea for working better by working less. And I'd be interested to know if others see themselves at the precipice of Kerry's teaching trap and how you are working to avoid it. More deeply, how can we, as teachers, work better but not work more?

AAPT/APA Seminar on Teaching and Learning in Philosophy

I wanted to pass along this call for applications for an upcoming seminar on teaching and learning in philosophy at Coastal Carolina University. It's co-sponsored by the APA and the AAPT, and the application deadline is May 1. Eligibility criteria and other information below the fold.


2010 Seminar on Teaching and Learning in Philosophy
Co-sponsored by
The American Philosophical Association (APA) and
The American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT)

Location: Coastal Carolina University
Date: July 29-August 2
In conjunction with the AAPT’s 18th Biennial Workshop/Conference on Teaching Philosophy
Eligibility: Current or recent (PhD 2008 forward) Philosophy Graduate Students
Seminar Leader: David W. ConcepciĆ³n (Ball State University)
Seminar Facilitators: Stephen Bloch-Schulman (Elon University)
Andy Carpenter (Ellis University)
Betsy Decyk (California State University-Long Beach)
Participants: Maximum of 20
Application Deadline: May 1, 2010

Through readings and interactive experiences, seminarians will explore issues, experiment with approaches, and engage in a community of reflection in order to strengthen their pedagogical choices. Topics will include preparing to teach (for example, course design and textbook selection), developing learning-centered philosophy classes, using traditional and non-traditional methods of assessment, and engaging in the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Seminar Selection
Rank preference will be given to applicants who will be (1) teaching their own courses, (2) teaching discussion sections, (3) grading for courses taught by others during the 2010-11 academic year. Balance among fields of interest will also influence selection. Accepted applicants will receive materials to prepare for the seminar with their notification in May.

Participants are required to attend all sessions, which will be held each morning, July 29-August 2. Participants are encouraged to attend the regular AAPT Workshop and Conference sessions in the afternoons and evenings.

Fees & Waivers
The registration fee for the AAPT conference is waived for graduate students accepted into the seminar. The cost of meals and lodging, approximately $200, will be the responsibility of participants or their departments.

The American Philosophical Association will offer travel grants of up to $300 for each participant. Recipients of APA travel grants must be members of the APA.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The merits of collective feedback

This quarter, I tried a new approach to giving students in my General Education courses feedback on their assigned essays. I think it went OK, but it met with grumbling among some students. So I'd be interested to know how I might make the approach more effective and more satisfying to students.

The background: This quarter, I had 123 students in my intro to ethics sections. This is about 50% more than I'm accustomed to having. I assign them two 1,000-word essay assignments during the quarter. (They are required to revise one of these essays and turn it in at the end of the quarter.) Needless to say, the grading burden for me is great. Just reading 120,000+ words is time consuming enough. Evaluating the work and giving feedback only adds to the workload.

So here was the approach I took: I read about one-quarter of the student papers carefully, and took a quick glance at the other three-quarters. (Since the students can choose to write on different topics, I made sure that the sample of papers I read carefully reflected the number of papers written in response to each topic.) All the papers were evaluated on a pass/fail basis: A paper passed if it was broadly on-topic and suggested minimal effort. Each of the two papers was 5% of the students' quarter grade (the revised essay was 25% of the quarter grade). I then developed collective feedback based on the one-quarter of the papers I read carefully, highlighting common organizational, logical, and interpretive problems in these papers. I provided both general feedback, based on all of the papers I read carefully, as well as feedback specific to each topic. I then made all of this feedback available to students via Blackboard.

So here are the merits to this approach as I see it.
  1. It obviously reduces my workload, as well as decreasing the turnaround time for students. If I had graded and given feedback on each of the 123 papers, it would have taken me at least ten days, I suspect. With this approach, students get a pass/fail grade and some feedback within five days.
  2. I use rubrics and comment codes on papers, but I still find I make many of the same comments on student papers anyway, so this approach saves me the time of repeating the same point, say, fifty times.
  3. The pass/fail grading essentially turns the essay assignments into first drafts. As a result, they are relatively low risk, but they prepare students for the more high-risk task of revising and resubmitting one of the assignments later on. It also has the positive benefit that students' grades end up turning more on their best performance rather than on their worst, i.e., the grade reflects their capabilities. In an introductory philosophy course, where students are confronting something wholly new to them, letting their best work represent their learning (instead of their early struggles) strikes me as equitable.
  4. This approach also requires them to revise, which I believe to be at least as important to the overall writing process as initial drafting.
  5. It sends a realistic and accurate message to students about the economic situation within the public university system I teach in. Faculty workloads are increasing, and our educational model is increasingly off-the-rack rather than customized. Wholesale feedback for wholesale education!
  6. It makes the students do some self-diagnosis with their writing in that they have to identify which elements of the collective feedback apply to their own essays and which don't. My hope is that they then have to look at their own writing with a careful and discerning eye. Ultimately, this self-diagnosis is part of being a skilled and autonomoous writer, so my aim is to give them practice at such self-diagnosis. Indeed, one thing I worry about with individualized feedback is that it is too helpful in a sense. I the instructor diagnose the problems in the paper, the student 'fixes' the problems, and the process is over without the student really developing the capacity to see their own writing from a critical perspective. This 'jump!'/'how high?' dynamic runs against an important long-term goal of teaching writing.
As I said, I think this approach worked OK, but there was grumbling from a few. The grumblers wanted individualized feedback. Some weren't sure about how to apply the collective feedback to their own work (point 6 above). But since I think this approach is pedagogically sound, as well as being in my own considered interests, I'd be interested to know how the approach could be tweaked or modified.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Menand on philosophy and the decline of the humanities

Discuss!: Below the fold is a snippet from a TNR review of Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas:Reform and Resistance in the American University, discussing how various academic disciplines responded to the attacks on disciplinary boundaries in the mid-20th century. Note how philosophy (allegedly) reacted to this crisis of disciplinarity:

Wracking intellectual crises followed these social and institutional changes. Critics--Kuhn, Geertz, Rorty, White--reared in the old disciplines taught generations of younger scholars that the boundaries of their fields were arbitrary. By doing so, they helped to create Theory--even if a number of them felt, when they saw what became of their ideas, like Milton’s Sin after she gave birth to Death. Meanwhile, younger scholars and students insisted on exploring and settling new territories: social history; literature by women, by people of color; the collaboration of social scientists with government. By a familiar paradox that Menand nicely brings out, the harder anyone tried to defend the old boundaries of the disciplines, the more arbitrary they now appeared. Innovation took root outside the disciplines--in programs and centers, rather than departments--places where scholars from varied disciplines could meet, teach, and debate, and that were vested with glamour and drama, but usually did not become power bases with jobs to fill. And after the anti-disciplinary revolution came the settlement: a mixed one, with interdisciplinarity reigning in English, an eclectic postdisciplinarity in anthropology, and many flowers blooming in history--and traditional rigor in philosophy.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Survey of Topics in Ethics Courses

I have created a survey to try to identify which topics are most commonly addressed in introductory ethics courses that have a contemporary moral issues or problems component. If (and only if) you teach a course that focuses on practical issues (with little to no discussion of moral theory) or has a mix of theory and problems (either a unit on theory and then problems or a mix of theory and problems throughout), please fill out this survey below: