Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Gamifying the Classroom

Recently I have learned of 'gamifying' courses. I shouldn't have been too surprised, as gamifying is everywhere these days. Consider fantasy football, frequents flier reward programs, or points credit card for purchases. There is an interesting TED talk on the phenomena that can be found here, and recently a research program designed as a game has help increase our understanding of AIDS. Now it is popping up as an educational strategy, one Penn State seems to be taking seriously. The Chronicle has had at two articles about here and here, and more recently a four part series on games in the classroom. (1 2 3 4)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Assessing Ethics

I've recently taken on a new job/role - the 'coordinator' for the ethics component of the general education curriculum at my university. Part of this role requires figuring out how to assess the ethics courses we teach. Although I have thought about ethics assessment before in the past, it was never my role to formally take it on, so I'm starting from scratch in many ways.

Since so many people here teach ethics, I'm hoping that some of you have suggestions about where to look to read about best practices in ethics assessment. I'm also hoping to hear some of your thoughts on ethics assessment in general. What do you take to be the greatest current mistake in how it is typically done? If you had your druthers, how would you do it? Of course, these questions all circle around the most central and core question: what should the goal of a general education ethics course be?

Thank in advance, and looking forward to your thoughts.

On complaining and losing faith

Throw a rock on the Interwebs and you're likely to find teachers complaining about their students (here, here, here). I've never wanted ISW to degenerate into a venue for such griping — and for the most part, I'm happy we keep the tone here constructive, even as we recognize how exasperating teaching can be.

Maryellen Weimer suggests that complaining about students is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a recipe for cynicism that undermines the faith we need to continue teaching energetically and effectively:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

David Foster Wallace's Syllabi

I just came upon copies of David Foster Wallace's syllabi thanks to this article in Slate. The level of detail and explicitness is astounding. For example, Wallace gives the statistics of his grade distribution based on every student he has ever had! Of course, there is plenty more to comment on, enjoy.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Resisting Interdisciplinarity

First, apologies for not having posted for some time.

One might think that philosophers have an in-built reason to celebrate interdisciplinarity. After all, many of us do philosophy of x, where x is science, or language, or mind or some other object of study to which one more disciplines that is not philosophy is also directed. As a philosopher of mind, for example, what I do counts as part of an interdisciplinary endeavor called cognitive science that includes psychologists, biologists, linguists, computer scientists, etc. In addition, philosophers take themselves to be an a position to ask and consider questions that particular disciplines can't answer, for either principled or practical reasons. For example, neuroscientists take for granted that in studying the brain they are thereby studying the mind. All this is to the good.

However, interdisciplinarity is not an unalloyed good. Indeed, there is a trend towards interdisciplinarity that I will call anti-disciplinarity: a trend towards rejecting the value of expertise, the value of pursuits with a history, the value of collective intellectual pursuits that transcend spatial and temporal boundaries.

My worries about anti-disciplinarity have to do with our larger conversations about the purposes of higher education and the centrality of student learning. I break my worries into two concerns: first, the role of anti-disciplinarity in the deprofessionalization of higher education; second, the effects of anti-disciplinarity on student learning.

Why are administrations so eager about and interested in so-called interdisiplinarity? One explanation may be just that it is a new buzz-word or concept that is required to look like a viable candidate for a position as an Associate Dean, Dean, Provost, President, etc. Another explanation is that some simply view interdisciplinarity as a good thing. Another, compatible, explanation is that it is in the fiscal interest of the higher educational industry to deprofessionalize the workforce. In this latter guise, interdisciplinarity is really just a stand-in for anti-disciplinarity. If there are no disciplines, no experts, no actual set of practices by which scholars and teachers ought to be evaluated, then faculty are simply so many movable pieces, whose credentials stand for nothing other than an antiquated mode of identification. There is no reason to pay faculty as professionals, for they have no profession. There is no reason to hire faculty in permanent positions, for there are no permanent questions, no permanent pursuits, no common projects that require anything other a generic person to teach generic courses.

What about the effects of anti-disciplinarity on student learning? There are the immediate practical effects of an itinerant faculty: student learning is best pursued over time through long-standing mentor-mentee relationships. But there is a less immediate but very real effect that I am beginning to see in my own students: they believe that pursuing a topic, question, issue, puzzle, problem, etc. consists in a very broad, very superficial sense of the territory and does not require expertise. It does not require discipline. In addition, they believe that a topic, question, issue, puzzle, problem, etc, can only be treated at this very generic, superficial level. But part of the joy of being a scholar is that one may contribute to and connect with a much larger field of inquiry by working very diligently on one part of it. I should add that there is here a built-in incentive towards anti-disciplinarity for our students, especially when it is being touted by the institution: diligently working away on a technical and challenging portion of a long-standing problem is more difficult and time-consuming than painting broad, elliptical impressions about impermanent worries. Most importantly, students learn when they are asked to go through the paces of disciplining the mind towards a focused, collective effort. When students are asked to participate in the gestures of anti-disciplinary activity, they are asked to participate in a collective illusion that masquerades as student learning.

Should we resist interdisciplinarity? How may we do so as faculty, as scholars and as teachers? Is there a way to celebrate true interdisciplinarity without being complicit in the deprofessionalization of higher education and the substitution of appealing and illusory forms of entertainment for real student learning?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How to motivate students to seek help

I'm continually baffled as to why students who are clearly in need of help in my courses rarely seek it — or if they do seek it, they seek it so late that I really can't help them. It's easy to see these students as indulging in a kind of magical thinking, hoping that somehow the very patterns of academic behavior that got them into trouble will somehow lift them out of trouble. It's Einstein-insane.

But maybe not. For as the work of Stuart Karabenick and his colleagues suggest, an aversion to seeking help is, unfortunately, normal.

After all, seeking help means you're not adequate. It's a blow to your pride. And in the classroom, it means you don't get it. And what could be worse than acknowledging that you don't get it?

As some of you know, Carol Dweck is one of my favorite educational psychologists. Dweck's core insight is that learners tend to have either a mastery-oriented mindset or a fixed mindset. Those with the mastery mindset believe that learning is both possible and desirable, and hence respond positively to academic adversity. They see such adversity as an opportunity to increase or reconfigure their efforts and put success within their grasp.

Those with the fixed mindset respond to adversity by concluding that the adversity reveals their (in)ability. Since ability is fixed, the only role for adversity is to point out where you're deficient (and perhaps to guide you away from those subjects you struggle with and toward those you learn more readily).

Naturally, the former group is much more likely to seek help than the latter, so perhaps the infrequency with which students seek help is evidence of how regrettably frequent the fixed mindset is.

But Karabenick et al's research indicates that there are pedagogical approaches that can help students who need help help themselves.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Post-Secondary Assessment

Thank you Michael for the introduction, I am excited to be a part of In Socrates Wake. For my first post, I want to discuss an issue I have been thinking quite a bit about since I became in charge of learning assessment for my department this year.

One of the buzzwords in educational circles in the past few years has been accountability. No Child Left Behind cemented standards of accountability into educational policy for K-12, but the drive for accountability is no longer limited to elementary and secondary education (and might even be moving into graduate education). However, in order to be held accountable, student learning has to be assessed and assessing student learning at the post-secondary level is tricky. CCNY, where I teach, belongs to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and as a part of our membership we engage in regular assessment, which is meant to give us the tools to measure our teaching efficiency at the institutional and departmental level. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"A normal student nowadays"?

In an evenhanded review of a number of recent books on higher education, including Academically Adrift, Anthony Grafton identifies a variety of factors that converge to create the current worrisome state of higher ed in the U.S.

This paragraph hit me hard, as a sad truth about the situation of many students:
Imagine what it’s like to be a normal student nowadays. You did well—even very well—in high school. But you arrive at university with little experience in research and writing and little sense of what your classes have to do with your life plans. You start your first year deep in debt, with more in prospect. You work at Target or a fast-food outlet to pay for your living expenses. You live in a vast, shabby dorm or a huge, flimsy off-campus apartment complex, where your single with bath provides both privacy and isolation. And you see professors from a great distance, in space as well as culture: from the back of a vast dark auditorium, full of your peers checking Facebook on their laptops. It’s no wonder, in these circumstances, that many students never really internalize the new demands and standards of university work. Instead they drift from course to course, looking for entertainment and easy grades. Nor is it surprising that many aren’t ready when trouble comes.

Steppin' up to the mic, parts 10 and 11

ISW is happy to welcome two new contributors to our roster:

First, we're happy to welcome Jennifer Morton. Jennifer is assistant professor of philosophy at City College of New York and a graduate of Stanford's Ph.D. program. Jennifer writes on action theory, moral philosophy, political philosophy, and philosophy of education. She also regularly teaches the intriguingly titled course 'The Rational Animal.'

She'll be joined by Jim Spence, assistant professor of philosophy at Adrian College. Jim received his graduate degree from Bowling Green and writes on both theoretical and applied ethics.

We're looking forward to Jennifer's and Jim's contributions.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Replacing participation points with preparation points?

We've talked a lot about participation and points for participation on this blog in the past (see herehereherehere, and here).

I had an idea come out of nowhere today when I was driving home. I'm not sure if I've read it somewhere before (Teaching Philosophy, maybe?) or not. I can't imagine it's original, but it's very simple: replace "participation" points with "preparation" points in my syllabus. Four distinct advantages came immediately to mind:

  1. It distinguishes nicely between "good" and "bad" types of participation in the classroom. Idle banter doesn't show preparation, so it doesn't count. Socially adept students don't get points just for joining the discussion.
  2. It's a bit more of an incentive for actually preparing by doing the reading than just rewarding participation. And really, the whole point of rewarding participation in the first place was to encourage preparation. In fact, it might be worth ramping up participation points to 15 or 20 percent of points available in the class if the incentive turns out to work well enough.
  3. Students who are shy or uncomfortable talking in class can prove preparation in other ways: one-on-one, perhaps. Conversations with me in office hours would count for preparation. One could even count students who show you notes over the reading (imagine: people might take notes on the reading to get points!). 
  4. You don't have to prove preparation in every class -- just like you wouldn't have to participate in every class -- in order to get preparation points. But if it looks like someone hasn't done the reading for quite some time, his or her grade would suffer.

So this sounds like a great change to make. What does everyone else think? Are there downsides to this I'm  not thinking of?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

From twice per week to once per week?

A longtime ISW reader writes seeking counsel about how to move from more frequent, but shorter class meetings to a single long weekly class meeting:
I am a graduate student who has only taught courses that meet twice a week for an hour and a half. I am getting ready to teach my first course that meets once a week for three hours, and it is not an advanced seminar but an introductory class for first-year undergraduates. I am unsure how to think about changing my approach to course design in this context. How much reading should I assign for each class meeting? How do I keep things moving along and change up the class activities during the three hours so that I don't lose everyone and don't get caught in the quagmire of directionless discussion for hours on end? I'm particularly lost on reading assignments -- it's much more intuitive to me to assign bite-sized articles or chapters for classes that meet twice a week, and much less intuitive how to cover roughly the same amount of material when meeting once a week, without worrying that my students will not pace themselves and will find the workload to seem like it has doubled. I could go on, but I hope this indicates some of the questions that are floating around in my mind.
 Advice for our correspondent?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Teaching students how to stand up for their values

Last semester was the first time I used Mary Gentile's excellent Giving Voice to Values in the classroom. While I'd been teaching business ethics pretty successfully for five years, I still had one set of comments in student evaluations that kept coming up: all of this talk about ethics from the commanding heights of a business was all well and good, but they wanted to know what they should do when an ethical problem comes up at work. How does one deal with a co-worker who wants to lie to regulators about a product defect, or a manager who is using her position to give perks to friends and family?

An R1 faculty member spills some beans on teaching and learning

Michael O'Hare, a professor of public policy at UC-Berkeley, shares some intriguing observations about how his colleagues perceive teaching. Since Berkeley is the sort of Research 1 place where you get brownie points almost exclusively for research rather than for teaching, it's gratifying to see O'Hare being candid about the issue and why his R1 colleagues are wary of calls for accountability or improved teaching quality at the university level. Curious to know reader reaction to his observations ...

Like many, O'Hare laments the lack of serious, formal training for faculty about how to teach, as well as "the complete absence of a quality assurance program for teaching that anyone from industry (service or manufacturing) would recognize":