You Write Really Well for Someone Who Studied Math

writing-828911_1280A few years ago, I had written an email to a teacher at my child’s school. The response I got was quite unexpected: you write really well for someone who studied math. When I first read the response, I chuckled. Over time, I became more and more aware of the same reaction from others.

What does it mean to write “well” anyway? As a person who is a self-proclaimed math geek, do people expect me to make grammatical errors or use simple sentence structure? Do we have different expectations of writing competency for those who are strong in the maths or sciences? Should I expect gifted writers to have trouble with basic calculations?

There is a big difference between writing well and being a creative writer, in my mind. I am not sure that I would ever be able to weave a story togetheronce-upon-a-time-719174_1280 like some of my favourite authors. Robertson Davies could paint a picture with the details in his stories. John Irving captured my imagination with A Prayer for Owen Meany. If you haven’t had a chance to read that novel, I recommend that you do. He truly weaves together an amazing story. While I can put sentences together and communicate ideas, I don’t have the gift of storytelling. However, according to some, I can still write well.

I always credit my ability to write with my love of reading. Yes, I love to solve a math problem and I still find calculus exciting and fascinating (I am sure there are those of you who shuddered at my reference to calculus), but I also love good writing. I was the kid who had the flashlight under the blankets because I HAD to finish the novel. I would become so immersed in the stories that I would forget about everything around me. I would laugcrying-146425_1280h. I would cry. I would finish the story and then read it again. I loved new words, and I tried to write like some of the authors I read.

Just as with most math skills, I think writing (especially good writing) takes practice. In high school, I took an English credit that focused on grammar and writing. At the time, I hated it. There was no reading in the course. We had to learn grammar rules. We had to edit. We had to share our writing. Looking back now, I know that I learned a lot in that class, but at the time it seemed like torture. I wonder if I should thank Mr. Winterkorn for his patience with me. Probably.

So go and write. I hope that I can continue to write “well”, even though I don’t consider myself a writer (or a mathematician for that matter).   I will also try not to hold any preconceptions about writing ability based on math skills. How about you?

Sue Guesuenther
Special Projects Coordinator, Academic Zone Resource Developer and “Math Guru”
A-Z Learning Services, Student Development Centre, Brock University

Entrepreneurial Thinking—Student-Centred Learning with a Grown-Up Twist

I’ve been thinking of another session I attended during the Cowordlennect 2015 conference: Think like an Entrepreneur by MARS, a member of Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs .

Entrepreneurial Thinking: The conference session was for K-12 teachers, but I found the strategies exciting and relevant for any learning environment. Why? Well, I thought about student buy-in, excitement, and engagement. Students sometimes resist student-centred learning: Can’t you just tell me what to do? This just seems like more work. What’s the answer, the formula? 

Fair statement and questions. Essentially, I think students just want to know WHY. . . an important question. Renaming student-centred learning as  Entrepreneurial Thinking gave me an answer to the question, “Why student-centred learning?”. . .  an answer that makes sense to university students because it has real-world application–inherent in its very name.

During the session, we participated in a Design Thinking activity.

Step 1: In groups, we explored a general problem (our “problem” was student engagement). We were given sticky notes, markers, and a large paper divided into three sections labelled classroom, administration, and national.

Step2: We explored the “problem” from the three  perspectives, writing our ideas on the sticky notes and placing them in the related sections.

Step 3: We clustered the sticky notes according to theme and their relatedness.

Step 4: We identified one underlying “problem” that we felt we could address, and then we explored potential solutions. To guide us, we watched a video of  Clay Christensen’s Milkshake Marketing strategy which frames products (or solutions) as doing a “job” for people. For example, as a teacher choosing an instructional strategy, I might ask myself, “What job am I hiring this Design Thinking activity to do for my students?”.

Download a copy of the activity template

Hopefully you’re getting ideas.  Personally, I thought of our programming for our at-risk students (i.e., students who are at risk of being on academic probation). Using this Design Thinking strategy, students could explore a problem (like social networking and  privacy) in a way that not only develops their research skills but also builds their confidence–confidence that they can  make a real difference in the world.

I also thought of our academic-zone.com online programming and asked myself, “What job did we hire academic-zone to do?” . . . for students, for teachers, and for administrators. To our clients: “What job did you hire academic-zone to do?”. To our future clients: “What job would you hire academic-zone to do for you and your students?”.

The question is direct and focuses on outcomes.

Please share your thoughts.

Cheers,
Margaret

3c94c98Margaret Groombridge
Coordinator Learning Skills Instruction
A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

Gamification: Making it more than just a good idea

Gamification. Games can stimulate, motivate, and challenge. I remember my own frustration and borderline-obsessive need to conquer Tetras and Phoenix in the 80s.

I failed. I learned. I persisted. I succeeded.

phoenix

You’re reading this post, so I’m sure that you feel the same way as I do . . . and would LOVE for students to feel this same enthusiasm about their course work. I’ve thought a lot about gamification—and about incorporating gaming elements in teaching and learning. For me, the challenge has been to make the learning authentic (for students) and do-able (for me, the teacher).

A couple of weeks ago, at the CONNECT 2015 conference in Niagara Falls [i], I attended a session by Dina Moati, Professor of Education at Sheridan College: “Level Up! Gamifying the 22 Century Classroom”. Moati presented a program they developed at Sheridan to engage students in personal development: a badging system with a virtual map offering students a variety of “quests”. The program tracks successful completion of these quests, highlighting students’ achievements and motivating them to take on new quests.

A virtual map? A badging system? Sometimes the idea of Gamification is overwhelming. Do I see the potential benefits for students? Yes. Do I feel that I, as an individual teacher, have the skill and time to gamify my lessons? “Yes and No”.

As a member of Brock University’s Academic-Zone team, “Yes”. Academic-Zone provides students with online interactive learning modules to develop their skills in writing, science, and math. Academic-Zone is part of A-Z Learning Services at Brock University and is comprised of a team of professionals. As a team, we can develop amazing things.

As an instructor for Brock’s A-Z Learning Services, however, “No”. Well, maybe not a definite “No,” but I certainly find it more challenging to gamify my one-to-one work with students.

An example of my attempt at in-class gamification: Last week, I led a workshop on Time Management with grade 10 students from DSBN’s Niagara Academy[ii]. I created a time-management game (with input from my colleagues. . . thanks for the red card idea, Sue!). The game is essentially a stack of cue cards, labelled with various activities and time allotments (e.g., 1-hour study cards, sleep cards, entertainment cards, eat cards, class cards, emergency cards etc.)time management game. In groups of four, students plan “two days as a university student”.  As students work, I hand out “red” cards. The red cards are the “stuff just happens” cards (e.g., USB falls in toilet, computer crashes, friend’s birthday, flu etc.). Sometimes good stuff happens, like “you form a study group and save 2 study hours”. I was surprised by the students’ level of engagement. Students were strategic, creative, and collaborative. Also, students became increasingly engaged as they received the red cards. They didn’t want to end the “game” because they wanted to “win”.

I realized that I don’t need to compete with gaming companies and create a course version of Minecraft or World of Warcraft (although that’d be awesome).  What I do need is to stay connected (with other educators, for ideas, and with my students, for authenticity), to be creative, and to keep the following principles in mind: provide low risk of failure, choice, challenges with increasing difficulty, and opportunities for problem solving.

What about gamifying an entire course?

I just read an interesting post in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Want to Make Your Course Gameful: A Michigan Professor’s Tool Could Help”. In the post, Casey Fabris outlines the work of Professor Barry J. Fishman from University of Michigan who developed a learning management tool, GradeCraft. GameCraft allows instructors to organize their courses in a “gameful” way: Students can explore course concepts and demonstrate their learning in various ways. The tool uses  game “design” rather than superficial gaming elements “like points and leaderboards”.

I was encouraged by Fishman’s work because tools like GradeCraft (1) can help support instructors implementing game design approaches in their classes, (2) can help support wide-spread change,  and (3) don’t gamify in a superficial gimmicky way. Just making something into a “game” doesn’t work. Students will call my bluff: “You’re not World of Warcraft, so stop trying to be.”

What are your thoughts on gamification in formal education?

Cheers,
Margaret

3c94c98Margaret Groombridge
Coordinator Learning Skills Instruction
A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

[i] CONNECT 2015, Canada’s Learning and Technology Conference, K-12 to Higher Ed, May 5-8 2015. http://www.canconnected.com/

[ii] Article on District School Board of Niagara’s Academy http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/2013/08/30/dsbn-academy-opens-new-chapter-in-st-catharines

Ready to Connect at CONNECT 2015?

Several of our Brock University A-Z Learning Services team will be attending the CONNECT conference next week in Niagara Falls, May 5-8. We hope to see you there!

niagara-falls-205380_1280Niagara Falls, Ontario

 CONNECT is a Canadian learning and technology conference that connects education professionals from kindergarten to higher education, drawing “passionate educators, leaders, chief information officers, directors of education, IT experts, business managers and government sector institutions . . . [to gather] once a year to learn, debate and exchange ideas, network and be inspired through a smorgasbord of world class speakers, presenters, exhibits and seminars. It is the only event in Canada that brings together the complete life-cycle of learning, from kindergarten to Higher Education, libraries and workplace learning” (Connect, 2015).

A-Z Learning Services is offering a poster session, Thursday May 7 from 10-10:50am: Breaking Boundaries with Technology: Creating a Safe and Independent Student Experience . Stop by to explore the Academic-Zone modules and learn about Academic-Zone—Our story of development, our challenges and triumphs, and our strategy to increase student engagement and success through service and faculty partnerships.

Feel free to stop by and chat or just say, “Hi” :).

Cheers,
Margaret

3c94c98Margaret Groombridge
Coordinator Learning Skills Instruction
A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

Superman, Spider-Man, and Me

I really liked Superheroes as a kid. Okay, I admit it- I still really, really like Superheroes. I’m one of those people who will stand in line for hours to catch a midnight showing of a new Superhero movie.   I like that they lead ordinary quiet lives, but when needed, take on their alter egos and use their powers to help people. My favourites are Superman and Spider-Man.

comics

I lead a pretty quiet “Clark Kent” life. I’m a design engineer for a small company that makes motor controllers for electric vehicles and am pretty much a “stereotypical” engineer: detail-oriented, analytical, and meticulous in my work.

Recently, I was presented with an opportunity to work a few hours a week as a Learning Services Instructor in a drop-in help centre offering help in Physics, Computer Science, and Technical Writing. At first, I was reluctant to take on this challenge. It’s been over 20 years since my own “university student” days, and I was concerned that I had forgotten how to study and learn, let alone try to guide others. But my spouse works in A-Z Learning Services at Brock, loves the job, and thought that it would be a good idea for me to get out of my comfort zone and share my knowledge, so I agreed.

I was pretty nervous the first day of work. What if I didn’t know how to solve a problem? What if students didn’t understand my explanation? What if they asked me about a lab I hadn’t done?

I have to say, it was a good learning experience for me (hopefully for the students as well). Here are some of the things I learned over the two terms.

  1. Physics and math haven’t changed in 20 years, but technology certainly has! With the software that professors have available, students can often get instant feedback on their answers. While that’s great, I find it leads to impulsivity. When students get three tries to get an answer, they tend to guess the first two tries and then read the hints before really starting to think about the problem.
  2. The problem solving techniques that got me through university and that I continue to use in my day job, still work. I’ve always approached every big problem as a bunch of smaller problems linked together. So if I can break a bigger problem down into its smaller sub-problems, then it seems less daunting. Solve the smaller problems, and the bigger problem practically solves itself, kind of like putting a puzzle together.
  3. Students don’t take the time to “show their work”. Since they often only get marks for the correct answer, they think it saves time to not put in units and show their work. Unfortunately, this often leads to the incorrect answer.   I tried to model problem-solving including all the units, showing all the steps, and explaining my thinking to help students see the value of showing their work, regardless of whether they got marks for it.
  4. Students are appreciative of the help, either from me or from other peers who had grasped the subject and were enthusiastic to share their knowledge.
  5. Offering learning support is an energizing and rewarding job!

Admittedly, I’m not “Faster than a speeding bullet”, “More powerful than a locomotive” or even “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”, but I can help students calculate the speed of a bullet, help them figure out when the locomotive will arrive at the station given its speed and distance traveled, and guide them to the formula to calculate how much time it will take for an object to land from a tall building. Not really superpowers- but I am happy that I was able to help students learn.

Now that my contract is over, it’s back to my quiet “Clark Kent existence”. I’d welcome the opportunity to take on the role of Learning Instructor again, a little wiser about what to expect.

For those of you who have more experience working with post-secondary students, what is the best piece of advice you would give to someone new (or relatively new) to this field?

SupermanIdentify withheld to protect writer’s alter ego

Part-time A-Z Learning Services Instructor (Physics, Computer Science, Technical Writing)

Grade Forecasting: Can a “Reality Check” Motivate Students?

“Optimism is generally a good thing, but it can sometimes interfere with learning,” states Dr. Michael J. Armstrong in his submission to Teaching Professor, February 2015, in which he outlines his grade forecasting strategy for students.[i]

Dr. Armstrong, an associate professor in Brock University’s Goodman School of Business, provides students with an opportunity to predict their final course grade (using test scores early in term and linear regression). This process addresses students’ tendency to be “overly optimistic about their learning process and anticipated course grades,”[ii] encourages a proactive approach (to increase study times or seek support, if needed) and, ideally, improves students’ ability to forecast and self-assess.

Optimism . . .

“can hinder their academic success. There’s no reason to adjust their behavior (say, by studying more) if they believe they are already doing well.”

Dr. Michael J Armstrong, Associate Professor
Goodman School of Business, Brock University

 As a student support provider, I am interested in Armstrong’s strategy as well as his research showing that “weaker students [are] more likely to overestimate how well they are doing in the course”.[iv]   Armstrong’s survey results present an interesting picture of student motivation and behaviour and invite further study:

 “As for the impact of these grade forecasts, 31 percent of the respondents said the forecasting experience made them feel more positive or confident about their course progress, while 35 percent said they felt more negative or worried. Fifty-six percent said their motivation had increased, while 7 percent said it had decreased. Forty-seven percent said they were subsequently studying more than they had previously planned, while 3 percent said they were studying less.”[v]

 These findings illustrate the complexity behind student behaviour. Discovering that they may get a lower grade than expected doesn’t always motivate students to be proactive (e.g., to study more). However, one student commented that “after seeing his forecast, he worked harder to “beat the number,” and was very pleased when he did.”[vi]

screen shot forecasting tool

Student View of Forecasting Spreadsheet

Above is a screen shot of the spreadsheet available to students to forecast their grade. Students fill in their term marks (in red) and the forecast is calculated automatically. My initial reactions to the tool? It’s easy to use and understand. Honestly, I was excited. However, I was also a little shocked and remember saying, “Well, that’s blunt.”

I’ve been thinking about students reactions to the tool: how some are motivated to “beat” the score and how some become anxious or less motivated. I believe that this response relates to students’ confidence and sense of agency. Students with low self-confidence and sense of control may accept the grade as a “done deal,” much like someone might read and accept their horoscope. Other students with higher self-confidence and sense of control may accept their “reading” as a challenge and take steps to improve. Why? . . . perhaps because they believe that they can “do something about it”.

This snapshot of student behaviour relates to my previous blog, 6 Reasons for Student “Apathy,” in which I explore the reasons why many students don’t take advantage of student support services.

Reason #3

Self-Concept and Confidence: Students often make closed statements about their “abilities”, saying “This is how I write” or “I can’t do math” or “I am a 60s student”.  If I don’t believe that I can do better, why would I assess and revise my current strategies? Why would I invest more time and energy?

During an academic-zone.com webinar last month, Tricia from Conestoga College added to my list of reasons why students aren’t taking advantage of what’s available: because students often don’t know what they don’t know.

 So, is the forecasting tool harmful? Will many students crawl back into bed and say why bother?

Overall, I feel that the tool is a fantastic resource to increase students’ awareness—a necessary step for students to become more empowered in the learning process. I also feel that providing students with strategies to improve and information on available services is key. Online resources work well because they can be available at that “Oh oh, I’m in trouble” moment. This was definitely a consideration when our Learning Services team developed Academic-Zone modules to complement our in-person support and offer on-line support 24/7/365.

 I’m also thinking about student control.

 I know the challenge of helping struggling students realize that they have the power to change their behaviour and, consequently, their future. One-on-one, I help students reflect on their past and help them see the role of their choices and actions in the process. I have witnessed their surprise and, as a result,  their excitement and motivation to persist. Is there a way to facilitate this reflective process with the forecasting tool?

I wonder . . .

For more information on Armstrong’s work:

YouTube video describing the application of grade forecasting in a course

YouTube video describing the results of the research study

3c94c98Margaret Groombridge, MEd, BEd, BA, OCT
Lead Designer, Academic-Zone
Coordinator Learning Skills Instruction
A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

[i] Armstrong, M. J. (2015). A grade forecasting strategy for students. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/educational-assessment/grade-forecasting-strategy/

[ii] ibid

[iii] ibid

[iv] ibid

[v] ibid

[vi] Armstrong, M. J. (2013). A preliminary study of grade forecasting by students. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 11(2), 205. doi:10.1111/dsji.12003

Riddle Me This: I search. I find. I copy. I paste. What am I? Transforming cheating skills to information skills

riddler

Photography by Alexa Rae, published by reliken at http://imgur.com/gallery/8lU1m

Monday, an article in University Affairs Magazine by Alex Gillis led me to a study by Julia Christensen Hughes and Donald McCabe (2006). The study showed that 53% of nearly 15,000 Canadian undergraduates “reported having engaged in one or more instances of serious cheating on written work” in the previous year (p. 10). Although the study was published in 2006, the data was gathered during the 2002-03 academic year, which means that the ‘cheaters’ made up the majority of students a full 12 years ago. According to Gillis, the researchers are preparing to release a follow-up study that shows that cheating has ‘likely’ increased still more.

Institutions struggle to combat these numbers through awareness campaigns, strict academic misconduct policies, and expensive plagiarism detection tools. Still, the numbers suggest the problem is far from conquered.

It’s easy to attribute the increase in cheating to the advances in technology that have facilitated access to information, but I’m not so sure that’s the real problem.

Maybe the reason why these numbers keep going up is that we haven’t yet adapted our instruction and assessment measures to reflect the ways that we engage with information now. The classic model, still employed by some instructors, is that the instructor holds and controls the course information. The assessment that follows measures how well the students have stored and processed that information. However, this model may conflict with student experience which tells them that they can find any information they want any time they want it.

Maybe a new model needs be developed, one that surrenders the illusion of control over information and instead empowers students by teaching them how to find, understand, evaluate and productively use the information out there.[1] Assessment, then, would be less about the answer and more about the process for finding that answer.

Who better than Google, the company whose name is now a verb that means ‘to find information on the internet,’ to explore this idea further?

google
Once a day, Google asks a question that Google itself can’t answer–a stroke of beautiful and deliberate irony, in my opinion, and a clear statement about what Google perceives as ‘true’ information skills. It’s not what you know that matters. It’s what you can discover.

Here’s one Google-a-Day: ” An 11-foot bird lives less than two miles from 30.891383,-102.885032. What’s his name?”
This isn’t a question. This is a puzzle. It’s learning in its most active form. It’s problem solving and critical thinking. It’s the stuff that actually matters and makes it possible for us to live productive, successful, and meaningful lives.

So riddle me this: why are we asking questions that Google can answer when Google itself knows that that’s not what really matters?[2]

ally1Allyson Miller, Learning Skills Instructor and eLearning Developer, A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

[1] In actuality, problem-based learning is far from new. For more see Queen’s University’s overview.
[2] This line of thought was inspired by a session I plan on attending at Connect 2015, Canada’s Learning and Technology Conference. The presenter is Kendra Spira and the title of the presentation is “If you can Google the answer, are you asking the right question?”

Hughes, J. C., & McCabe, D. L. (2006). Academic Misconduct within Higher Education in Canada. Canadian Journal Of Higher Education, 36(2), 1-21.