Monday, June 28, 2010

Short Answer Questions: A Great Middle Ground

by Susan Codone

Short answer questions, no matter how well-formulated, cannot measure divergent thinking and subjective or imaginative thought.
Allan Ornstein, The ClearingHouse, 1992

Student Taking TestDid he really say that?  Did Allan Ornstein really just savage a staple of the test arsenals of many college professors, the short answer question?  Stronger than multiple choice, yet not quite as revealing (or time consuming to grade) as the essay question, the short answer question offers professors a great middle ground – the chance to measure a student’s brief composition of facts, concepts, and attitudes in a paragraph or less.  In spite of what Allan Ornstein says, the short answer question is indeed capable of measuring divergent thinking and both subjective and imaginative thought and is used widely by many professors.

Leave it to Wikipedia to offer a pithy definition of the short answer question – couching it as an “extended-response question with more than one right answer” or “more than one way of expressing the right answer."  The University of Wisconsin Teaching Academy calls short answer questions “constructed response”, or “open-ended questions that require students to create an answer.”   The Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign says that short answer questions allow students to present an original answer.  Going further, Karen Scouller of the University of Sydney, in an 1997 Advancing International Perspectives article, says that the greatest difference between multiple choice and short answer or essay questions is the measurement of surface vs. deep learning, indicating that longer-response questions tend to assess learning that is deeper and more tightly held in long-term memory.

Elizabeth Badger and Brenda Thomas, writing in Open-ended Questions in Reading, Practical Assessment: Research and Evaluation (1992), claim that a gradual change has resulted in teaching, with professors moving from teaching content alone to instead helping their students learn the ability to use and interpret knowledge critically and thoughtfully.  They recommend that assessment measure not just the product of learning (the content), but also the process students go through to acquire information.  Alexander Maxwell, a history professor from New Zealand, states in a 2010 article that methodological diversity in assessment is helpful, and says that in history, at least, the short answer question is very valuable (Assessment Strategies for a History Exam, or Why Short Answer Questions are better than In-Class Essays, The History Teacher).  The short answer question is well-positioned to capture both subjective and imaginative thought that occurs as students learn, as well as provide professors with a glimpse into the writing skills and idea expression of students.

Like all assessment items, a short answer question should clearly assess a specific learning objective.  It should ask students to select relevant facts and concepts and integrate them into a coherent written response. Question 1, below, is a typical example of a short answer question requiring such a constructed response.

This question, while a little long, sets up a scenario with an expert role, a community history, and an environmental problem and asks the students to use a specific problem-solving strategy -- the 4 A's (attain facts, alternatives, assessment, action) to frame a response, which can most likely be completed in 4-6 sentences, or one paragraph.

Question 2, below, is slightly more problematic because of a very common error in constructing short answer questions.

This question, while well-intended, actually asks two questions.  This likely will leave the student confused as to which question is more important.  Additionally, the student will have to write a longer response to answer both questions, leading this particular test question more toward an essay response than a short answer.  Short answer questions should always ask one clear question, rather than confusing the issue with multiple queries.

Finally, one strategy many professors use is to post a rubric or scoring guide in the test so that students will know how points will be distributed based on their answer.  Question 3, below, both shows such a rubric and demonstrates another common problem in short answer question development.

Note in this question, a scoring distribution is provided to the students -- not only do they know the question is worth six points, but they also know immediately that three points will be awarded for fully answering the question and two points for legibility, with the final point for spelling and grammar.  This tells them that not only do they need to answer the question completely -- they must also be neat and watch spelling and grammar.  Question 3 also demonstrates another common error -- writing questions that close off the extent of a student's potential answer.  Notice the second sentence -- "Do you think that two accidents..." -- what might the student's answer be?  Yes or No?  This is not the answer for which the professor is looking, but it might be the one given.  A better question would ask "How might two accidents be an acceptable level of risk...", in order to promote a more meaningful answer.

Ornstein (1992), who was more a proponent of essay questions than short answer in his article Essay Tests: Use, Development, and Grading, delineated a hierarchy of question verbs, as follows:

Type 1: Open  -- Why, How, Predict
Type 2: Directed -- Explain, Discuss, Examine
Type 3: Closed -- Identify, Compare, Contrast

According to Ornstein, Type 1 questions result in more meaningful answers, while Type 3 generate more specific, less creative responses.  So, whenever possible, even short answer questions should begin with an open verb, inviting students to be thoughtful and deliberative in their answers.

Short answer questions are a great middle ground for professors.  They are easier to develop than multiple choice and generate a more in depth answer as well.  Because of their brevity, they are easier to grade and they encourage student to integrate information into a coherent written answer, revealing much about what the student knows and how they express responses.  They can measure many types of knowledge when phrased correctly -- even divergent thinking and subjective and imaginative thought. Best of all, they can provide professors with a open window into student learning -- the real purpose of assessment.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Real College Teaching

by Susan Codone

Everyone has a favorite teacher.  I had two in college.  Both professors were always prepared, passionate about what they taught, and eminently practical.  Both were a great model of what a teacher should be and I adored them.  In fact, I've patterned much of my current teaching philosophy on their styles.  After I graduated, I sent one of my favorite professors this quote from John Dewey -- I felt it really captured his approach to teaching and I wanted to remind him of his importance to the world as a teacher.  During my college preparation, he was always engaged; he was always dignified; and I believe that he, and all of us who teach, is a prophet, bringing in the kingdom of God in the lives of whom we teach.

Maybe you’ll agree with Stanford Ericksen of the University of Michigan, who wrote that the public stereotype of a good teacher is a charismatic spellbinder who arouses listeners.  In his 1983 article Private Measures of Good Teaching in Teaching of Psychology, he says the other extreme is the mental disciplinarian who requires hard study and rote memorization for success.  I had professors of both stereotypes in college, but I remember little about them or what they taught me.

In 1993 another professor, Philip Tate, of Boston University, described two "worlds" of teaching that exist in our educational system.  The first world is made up of college professors and the second of elementary and secondary teachers.  Both approach teaching so differently that Tate assigned each a separate "world" of practice.  Tate, in The Two Worlds of Teaching (Journal of Education) describes professors as disciplinary specialists with a top-down instructional style whose only instructional mode is the direct transmission of knowledge.  He believed that knowledge was made up of large ideas held outside the mind.  In contrast, Tate says that secondary teachers work within an ethic of caring that rises above intellectual concerns.  They place their relationship with students just above teaching, which involves a very practical approach using a varied repertoire of instructional methods that they switch between easily. 

Tate contrasts professors with secondary teachers by saying that the latter are more "teachery" in nature.  Should college professors be more teachery – more instructionally varied?  More caring? Tate goes on to say that no one, college professor or high school teacher, who teaches without thought for how the students are learning will be successful, despite how teachery they are.

Much study has been devoted to effective teaching, especially at the college level, and organizations like the American Association of Higher Education and Accreditation and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching exist to further improve the field.  In 1987, Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson published seven principles of good practice in higher education -- a landmark list that has been studied and cited repeatedly by authors writing about good teaching.

Furthermore, in 1989 Kenneth Feldman published a meta-analysis of studies on student ratings of teacher quality in Research in Higher Education and identified 17 dimensions of teacher behavior that rated highly with student achievement.  Clearly, instructional behaviors and skills lead to effective teaching.  So, in short, there is research, lists of techniques, best practices, evaluation instruments, meta-analyses of research, and recommendations for good teaching that are readily available.  With all this research, what do we know about what makes a good teacher?  What defines a real teacher?  Why aren't there more really good teachers?  Why do most of us remember only one, or maybe two?

Peter Seldin, from Pace University, says the following in Improving College Teaching:

“…the argument has been raised by some that we still lack the final answer to the question of what constitutes effective teaching.  That may well be true, but the key ingredients of effective teaching are increasingly known.  We have no reason to ignore hundreds of studies that are in general agreement on these characteristics.”

As Seldin says, are all our questions answered?  Do we really know what makes good teaching?  In my experience, one issue is still unresolved.  Parker Palmer, in Good Talk about Good Teaching  (Change, 1993) talks about the privatization of teaching and says this:

"No surgeon can do her work without being observed by others who know what she is doing, without participating in grand-round discussions of the patients she and her colleagues are treating.  No trial lawyer can litigate without being observed and challenged by people who know the law.  But professors conduct their practice as teachers in private.  We walk into the classroom and close the door -- figuratively and literally -- on the daunting task of teaching.  When we emerge, we rarely talk with each other about what we have done, or need to do.  After all, what would we talk about?"

Technique, skills, motivation, relationships with students, content mastery, teaching skill repetoires -- all matter and are important because they prescribe effective teaching.  But we have to admit – we are a private profession, which can sometimes negatively affect our instructional effectiveness. 

open doorWhat do I remember about my two favorite teachers?  I remember openness. They taught with the doors open, and their office doors were always open.  They were open and reflective with us on their teaching, and they knew when we were learning -- and when we were not, they changed course.  Their openness led to personal relationships with many of us, and the ability to observe them not just as professors, but people, and to remember what made them great.  I hope that I remain open as a professor, and that one day my students may remember me.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Instigators of Academic Student Engagement

By Susan Codone

Engaged StudentIf you are a typical professor, you probably try different pedagogical techniques to try and activate and maintain student engagement.  Engagement is known by many descriptors.  This article focuses on academic student engagement -- that state of being that students reach when they are fully involved in an  academic task, rather than student engagement outside the classroom, as often talked about by college administrators and measured by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).
Let’s be clear; we’ve all seen engagement, and  we know it when we see it.  Anyone who has watched a teenager play videogames or a college student post a new status to Facebook has seen some indicators of engagement – total attention, a suspension of time, an immersion into the event.  For professors, the difficulty lies in getting those students who are so easily engaged in other environments to engage in the classroom.

Some see engagement as the integration of intense pedagogical techniques designed to coach students to lose themselves in a task.  Some writers link student engagement directly to active learning, like Jo Williams and Susan Chinn, writing in 2009 in the Journal of Information Systems Education.  In their article, Using Web 2.0 to Support the Active Learning Experience, these authors say that teachers are paying more attention to the crucial relationship between engagement and active learning in the classroom and are rolling out a variety of pedagogical methods, including technology, to stimulate engagement. 

There are so many definitions and descriptors of student engagement that it would be difficult to catalog them all.  The graphic on the right lists descriptors pulled from multiple sources that describe academic student engagement.

To cut through those descriptors, focus instead on three major instigators of student engagement that appear ubiquitously in the literature:  intense pedagogical techniques, deep learning, and social media and networking technologies.

Intense Pedagogical Techniques

Chen, Lattuca, and Hamilton (2008) say the apex of engagement is full and unbroken immersion in demanding activities.  What kind of activities cause such immersion?  Many professors rely on active learning and other cognitive techniques to spur students into engaging with course content.  Techniques such as reading, writing, discussing, metacognition, solving problems, systems thinking, constructivist thought, meaning-making, engaging in higher order thinking, and working in Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development all can influence engagement.

Engaged Brain
But by themselves, not one of these pedagogical techniques instigates engagement automatically.  There must be a mental toggle into a state of immersion, and acceptance on the part of the student to think differently about the content.  Colin Bryson and Len Hand, in their article The Role of Engagement in Inspiring Teaching and Learning (2007) in Innovations in Education and Teaching International, say that the perception of the student regarding the teacher and the content is a precursor to any form of engagement.  They also say that a positive disposition in the teacher makes an enormous difference in students' ability to engage.

Higher order thinking, deep information processing,  active learning,  proximal development, systems thinking, constructivist thought, meaning-making and other cognitive factors are all important in getting students engaged – but ultimately, students must agree to buy into the academic task in order to become engaged.  How else can we get them to do that?

Deep Learning With Technology and Social Media

One way is to use the drawing power of technology to pull students in and make them lose themselves in the learning process.  Van B. Weigel, in his book Deep Learning for a Digital Age: Technology’s Untapped Potential to Enrich Higher Education, makes a push for a radical infusion of technology into the classroom.  Written in 2001, Weigel’s book predates such tools as sophisticated learning management systems (LMS's), easily-created websites, and social knowledge and social media.  His argument, though, is that technology can be used to create communities of inquiry in which conditionalized knowledge and metacognition can develop – which is his definition of deep learning, and thus, engagement.

Building on Weigel, the website Learning and Teaching Info goes further to differentiate deep learning from surface learning, describing deep learning as

  •          linking prior knowledge to new knowledge
  •          focusing on significance
  •      relating information across courses
  •          relating theory to everyday experiences
  •          organizing and structuring content
  •          emphasizing the internal learner
But again, like pedagogical techniques, these deep learning strategies will only encourage “deep learning” or student engagement if the student accepts the task and builds internal motivation to accept it. Is deep learning a precursor to engagement, or a result of engagement?  Or both?  How else can technology be used to engage students?

Social Networking Technologies

The recent phenomenon of social networking is lauded for its universal appeal, ability to draw young people in and allow them to openly display their lives, and its supreme networking service that even reminds you of your friends’ birthdays.  Are college students engaged when on FaceBook?  Miikka Salavuo, writing in the Journal of Music, Technology, and Education (2008), notes that social media is an excellent platform for learning. In Social Media as an Opportunity for Pedagogical Change in Music Education, she recommends that social networking platforms like FaceBookElggMySpace, and Ning be used as an alternate to LMS's because they offer increased participation, presence, and ownership, as well as the ability for students to use the expertise of others, create lasting connections, and network widely.  For example, Sarah Palin's Facebook page is noted as an example of a social media content repository; using the FaceBook Notes feature, Palin writes political articles and posts them on her page for her Facebook fans.  In the same way, professors could generate written course content and use Facebook Notes to post this content for students to read  and comment on -- while they're already in Facebook perusing other pages.

social networking

Then, of course, there is the excellent means of social networking provided by FaceBook and other applications that can allow students and professors to create online communities of practice, with regular dialogue, posted material, and other media such as video and photographs.  While the technology and tools recommended in Weigel's Deep Learning will likely continue to change regularly, the era of social media is on us, and will evolve but probably not be totally replaced. The evidence is in; we know that students can become engaged using technology like social media applications; why not use it in and outside of the classroom?

In a June 14, 2010 email correspondence with Dr. David Jonassen, Distinguished Professor of Education, Director for the Center for the Study of Problem Solving, and eminent cognitive science researcher at the University of Missouri Columbia, he responded to these questions.

"What happens cognitively when students engage in the classroom? What are the indicators? What are the precedents?"

His answer:

"That’s a complex question. Neurologically, the cerebral cortex lights up, especially the caudate nucleus. Motivationally, students engage and persist on task. Why do students engage? Personal relevance, necessity, curiosity, etc. There are no really valid measures. Only behavioral.

While we may indeed need more research on which neurological switch to throw to instigate engagement, in the meantime we know we have tools.  Intense pedagogical techniques, deep learning with technology, and social networking encourage students to engage.  All are complementary tools.  All can be used simultaneously or as single powerful tools.  All require professors to step out of their traditional pedagogical training and teach differently.  All, ultimately, depend on the student's intrinsic motivation for success.  Finally, all can encourage engagement, making it less elusive and much closer to reality in our classrooms.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Wetware: Evolving Online Learning

by Susan Codone

Wetware and online learning -- how do those terms relate? Wetware, coined by the science fiction writer Rudy Rucker in his 1998 book by the same name, describes the resources of the mind that are analogous to hardware and software.  These are the thinking and reasoning mechanisms we bring to our studies, and are what online learners rely on to synthesize the hardware and software they must work with and the mental effort they must expend to successfully navigate online learning. Wetware is an apt term for what learners bring to online learning, even if it is a little odd.  Note Wikipedia’s definition:

"The term wetware is used to describe the embodiment of the concepts of the physical construct known as the central nervous system (CNS) and the mental construct known as the human mind. It is a two-part abstraction drawn from the computer-related idea of hardware or software."

Academic resources for both online learning and online teaching are widely available.  In fact, the U.S. Department of Education reports that between 1996 and 2008 over 1,000 empirical studies of online learning were published.  Undoubtedly, more were also published on online teaching.  The population for online learning has been growing, too; the Sloan Consortium reports that as of Fall 2006, 20% of higher education students were enrolled in at least one online course (3.5 million students) – a 9.7% growth rate.  Four years later in 2010, those numbers must be dramatically higher.

Yet one key issue that many studies and reports on online learning overlook is the actual condition of the consumer of online learning – the wetware.  Students are physically counted, surveyed, and evaluated to be sure, but their essential status as a combination information-seeker, risk-taker, and open-minded  learner has not been fully explored.  While we spend much time talking about the hardware and software of online learning, we often forget the significance of the wetware.  

Online learning is changing because the technology and the wetware of online students is changing.  The diagram below shows a delta in four major characteristics of online learning that each confer new conditions on the online learner.
Increased Sophistication of Tools and the Changing Nature of Student Engagement

When I began teaching online courses in 2000, my university used webpages to host written instructor lectures with links to PowerPoint presentations narrated by the professor.  Learning management systems had yet to build a comprehensive presence. We used a free online chat tool for class discussions, but because that was seen as unusual, we didn't require students to attend - relying more on passive threaded discussions for student input.

In 2002 I began working at another university that used early versions of WebCT as a rudimentary course management system, mainly as a content repository.  We also used its text chat feature as a way to hold a weekly class discussion.  Each week, we held a directed chat in which we discussed certain questions and scenarios that we provided to the students in advance.  Students couldn’t see each other, or hear each other talk, but they could read the text threads in the chat discussion.  Elsewhere in WebCT, we usually posted a table with student pictures and bios so that they could visualize each other.

Now, in 2010, we use Blackboard for its content repository feature, but we’ve migrated to Webex, an online conferencing program, for class discussions.  Now students can simultaneously talk to the professor and each other, and they can also see and talk to each other via the transmission of webcam video.  The interactivity of the course has improved significantly, and the opportunity for students to know and recognize each other has also increased.

Shufang Shi, an assistant professor of Childhood and Early Education at the State University of New York Cortland, writes in E-Conferencing for Instructors: What Works (Educause Quarterly, 2006) that professors use online conferencing tools for voice communication, sharing browsers, polling, application sharing, a whiteboard, presentation and document sharing, and recording and archiving meetings.  For these services, subscription prices for universities have stayed affordable, and the only requirements for students are an Internet connection, earphones, a microphone, and a webcam – or sometimes just an Internet connection and a phone.

The question is whether online learning in 2010 is changing because of this technology and the students using it.  Will students, formerly comfortable being less inhibited in more anonymous online environments of text chat and discussion boards, adapt well to Internet communication that demands voice and video?  Will they now become more inhibited since barriers to disclosure have fallen?  Will their wetware change as they adapt to this new interaction?

Jane Cole and Jeffrey Kritzer in Strategies for Success:  Teaching Online Courses (Rural Special Education Quarterly, 2009) suggest that students feel more comfortable participating in electronic discussion boards because they can be more anonymous in their postings.  Kyong Jee-Kim and Curtis J. Bonk, writing in The Future of Online Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (Educause Quarterly, November 2006)  predict that collaboration, case study learning, and problem-based learning will likely become the preferred methods for online teachers – greatly increasing the degree of student interpersonal engagement in online courses.

As technology and teaching style continue to evolve and converge, will the degree of student engagement change?  Will student inhibitions affect their level of involvement and disclosure even though the technology offers more openness?  Will they accept a more demanding interpersonal role that requires increased disclosure and overt collaboration with others?  Will the wetware students bring to online learning evolve along with the technology to make them more active consumers?

Psychology and Active Learning

Psychology applies to wetware, too.  Using well-accepted tenets of psychology can help maximize the learning potential of online content. Cole & Kritzer (2009) note that there are specific strategies professors can use to psychologically increase student chances for success in online courses -- discussion boards, scaffolding, and modules.  Scaffolding occurs when instructors stretch out an assignment and break it into parts, so that students can get feedback on small pieces of the project and use that to assemble the final project – kind of like a long paper or proposal submitted intermittently in parts for grading.  For online learning, when instructor feedback is markedly different than the classroom, scaffolding can be a source of structured learning and encouragement for students as they build their assignments in steps rather than all at once.
Using modules means grouping content together in small units and having students complete each unit separately, slowly converging the knowledge as they make their way through the course.  In my university, we “module-ize” online instruction in Blackboard by assigning “weekly” content that must be completed consecutively.  

 Cognitively, this helps students schedule their work throughout the online semester and gives them a visual representation of the calendar.  All content for each week is included in each weekly module and is thus united around a single set of objectives for each week.  Again, it gives the students’ “wetware” a structure on which to work, thus helping information processing and ultimately, long-term learning -- to make a psychological and cognitive imprint.

Emerging Social Knowledge and Media

What is it about college students and adults that leads them to post party pictures on Facebook and boast of 1,000 or more friends, yet also causes them to clam up in an online discussion about history?  Why are their inhibitions different in social media than educational technology and online learning?  What can social knowledge and media offer to online learning to help students participate more fully?

A search in Academic Search Complete with the keywords “online learning” and “social media” reveals just one article, and it’s from Helsinki, Finland.  Miikka Salavuo, writing in the Journal of Music, Technology, and Education (2008), suggests that learning management systems are bad because they are hierarchical and allow instructors to simply copy course structure and content to the Internet. In Social Media as an Opportunity for Pedagogical Change in Music Education, she recommends that social networking platforms like FaceBook, Elgg, MySpace, and Ning be used as an alternate to LMS’s because they offer increased participation, presence, and ownership, as well as the ability for students to use the expertise of others, create lasting connections, and network widely.  She also believes students need to be actively involved in creating socially-based communities of practice.

Clearly, more research needs to be done regarding the disparity of student inhibitions and participation in LMS-driven online courses and social media.  We have much to learn from the evolving social knowledge efforts currently pursued by Google, Wikipedia, and others, and from the social media outlets that so easily draw participants to open their lives to others.  The wetware of social media participants doesn’t change when they enroll in an online course, but students typically respond differently, somehow, and it would help us to know why.  Making online courses that appeal to students' cognitive, psychological, and social interests -- their wetware -- would doubtless lead to richer and more lasting learning.

Online learning is changing.  The wetware students bring to online environments is influenced by constantly changing technology, psychology, and social media experiences.  As professors who teach online courses, we should consider these issues as we plan and deliver courses to students who cognitively are prepared for much, much more than what we traditionally offer.  We need to tap that potential!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

What is Social Knowledge? Does it Have An Academic Role?

By Susan Codone

David Weinberger, a technology blogger, describes Wikipedia content as “social knowledge” in his book
Everything is Miscellaneous: the Power of the New Digital Disorder (2007). It’s true that Wikipedia thrives on collecting and organizing socially-produced and vetted content. As professors, many of us disdain such information. Why? While we wall off our scholarly world from the advance of social knowledge, many of us  at the same time are instructional adherents of constructivism, where the creation of socially constructed knowledge through experience is highly valued and considered to be authentic and retained longer in long-term memory because of its richer meaning. Is there a disparity here?

There are several websites collecting and organizing socially constructed information:Veropedia (currently down), Citizendium, Wikipedia, and Google Knol. Wikipedia has survived and is very successful largely due to its depth and peer reviewing feature, in which (usually) experts comment on each article and “approve” its content. There are many examples of Wikipedia articles that have been thoroughly and exhaustively vetted by experts in the field. Because some articles exist with errors, and some articles are changed by content vandals, many academics dismiss Wikipedia and its competitors from consideration as viable sources of academic knowledge.

Jeff Maehre, a reference and instruction librarian at Frostburg State University, offers a recent thought-provoking article about using social knowledge in academic writing and how we may need to grasp a new paradigm about what information is acceptable even within rules of traditionally accepted academic rigor.

His article, “What it Means to Ban Wikipedia – an Exploration of the Pedagogical Principles at Stake”, written in the fall of 2009 and published in College Teaching, offers professors compelling arguments for teaching students to evaluate and use social knowledge in the process of becoming a researcher and writer. Maehre poses this pedagogical question – is it better to teach students how to recognize an academic article or how to evaluate good information, no matter what its source?

In my university, we offer a junior level technical writing course in which students write feasibility reports comparing 3 or more technologies or innovations and then recommending one for use. Most of these students are studying engineering, and the technologies they examine are often not “academic” in nature; some are so new that they have very little available documentation. Because we want the report to be engineering-based but academically sound, we ask them to find peer-reviewed scholarly articles about their topic. What if their topic is the processor chip to be used in the newest, fastest computers? In this example, they are hard-pressed to find academic sources that relate exactly to their topic. While this information may be “socially” available, we often tell them that the quality of the content of most websites is debatable and Wikipedia may be full of errors. Where should they turn?

Maehre would say that in my example, we teach students how to recognize an academic, peer reviewed document as part of a directive action with rules – use 5 peer reviewed articles in your reference list along with correct APA style. At the same time, we often tell students to stay away from using websites and sources like Wikipedia and Google Knol. What if we taught students how to evaluate good information – using basic information literacy techniques – to make source choices more widely?

The University of Idaho Information Literacy Portal says that: “Information Literacy is the ability to identify what information is needed, understand how the information is organized, identify the best sources of information for a given need, locate those sources, evaluate the sources critically, and share that information. It is the knowledge of commonly used research techniques.” Maehre poses this question – what happens if we teach students information literacy skills and then make them responsible for the quality of their references? The University of Idaho doesn’t say that Wikipedia is bad and academic journals are good – it says that we should evaluate sources critically and share that information. Would students be better served by learning such skills to make content quality decisions themselves?

A paradigm changes when a new way of doing things proves superior to the old ways. Many of us, including me, have been stuck in an old content gathering paradigm. Maybe it’s time we open our toolkit to teach students how to use the tools of information literacy and critical evaluation to widen the pool of information available, especially that of social knowledge. If we don’t, we may be left behind.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


When I walk into the classroom, I look at my students and smile, but as I’m doing so, I’m performing a closer assessment of the state of their eyes.  I don’t really look at their expressions, but instead focus on their eyes.  On the first day of class, my quick scan of their eyes usually tells me that they are ready, interested, and willing to maintain eye contact – at least for the first few minutes – if I don’t blow it!  Throughout class, I constantly scan their eyes so that I can know instantly how and if they are paying attention.

This is what I hope to see:

  • Bright eyes
  • Upturned eyes
  • Focused eyes
  • Eager eyes
  • Receptive eyes
  • Eyes that follow me across the room

When I see this, I know I need to make an immediate change:

  • Downturned eyes
  • Eyes focused elsewhere
  • Eyes unfocused and empty
  • Glazed eyes
  • Sleepy eyes
  • Droopy-lidded eyes
  • Tired eyes
  •  Eyes carelessly looking around the room
  • Eyes looking at each other

Or, when I see this, I immediately respond!

  • Eyes focused on texting
  • Eyes focused on their laptops for a long time (Facebook and email!)
  • Closed eyes

Eye states change quickly.  Bright eyes can suddenly change as the students quickly assess the appeal of your material and change how they feel about how class is going.When I see a drift in the eyes of my students, I know I have lost them temporarily, and I make an intervention to get them focused on me once again.

To intervene, I change my tone and volume, walk toward them and through the classroom, change the screen if I’m projecting, quickly assign a group project, or change the topic if it’s time. When I get their eyes back, I resume instruction in the new manner.  Sometimes I just say “Look at me!” while other times it takes a more subtle approach.  Sometimes a change of course happens every ten minutes; if I’m doing well, I can keep their attention for twenty before making a change.

Assess eye states when you come into the classroom, when you open your lesson, and as often as you can after that.  Use your assessment to determine if most of the students are with you or if you are losing them.  Eyes will tell you more than anything else if a student is with you.  Eyes will tell you the degree of interest, the extent that they are listening, and even how much they are processing (if you look closely).

One Exception!
Once I had a student whose eyes were almost always closed from the time he sat down until class ended.  The progression would be toward his chin tilting up and the back of his head dropping down, and then his mouth would fall open in a giant O.  Now this was obviously way past my ability to just watch his eyes and detect his degree of tiredness.  My favorite technique in this case was to take a few textbooks and drop them in front of him and he would jerk to attention.  No matter what I did instructionally, though, he fell asleep like this every class period for the entire semester, and predictably, failed.  In this case his closed eyes were a clear signal!

Watch their eyes – and watch your instruction come to life!