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.

Preparing for Chemistry Exams: Get an “A” using one quick trick?

Sorry, it’s not that easy, and guess what, it shouldn’t be. Chemistry isn’t called one of the “hard sciences” for nothing.  :)

At this time of year, I’m busy running exam review sessions for first-year chemistry students as part of our A-Z Learning Services support at Brock University. I’ve worked at Brock since 1970 as a lab demonstrator, lab coordinator, first-year chemistry instructor, and now (after retiring, ha ha) as an instructor for Learning Services.

A question I’m asked frequently: “Have students changed over the years?”

Pixabay

Sliderule – The precurser to calculators

In my experience, students have always had a tendency to skim information to“look for answers” rather than read for understanding.In the 60s and early 70s, there were no calculators, no cellphones, no online lecture notes, no Google for answers, and no internet (The Horror!).

So, rather than seeing a change in students, I’ve seen an increase in tools that facilitate this skimming approach. Learning can be work. Learning can be hard. Learning can be satisfying (when you finally get it).

When students ask me what they can do to do better in Chemistry, this is what I tell them:

1. GO TO LECTURE-because it is helpful to hear as well as see and write down information.

2. MAKE MINI FLASHCARDS-with definitions of terms, concepts, formulas, and symbols, and carry them around in your pocket. (You are learning while you make the cards, and it is fun.). When waiting in line (for coffee, bus, etc.) pull them out and test yourself (rather than texting). Put the cards you know back in your pocket. Those you miss go on the bottom of your stack. This is the fastest way to learn material.

3. KNOW YOUR VOCABULARY – because knowing your Chemistry vocabulary will make the rest of your studying much easier

4. REVIEW ALL YEAR – because Chemistry exams are cumulative. Your review should be ongoing starting from the beginning of the school year.

5. PRACTICE – because practicing calculations, understanding the use of units, studying with friends, turning in assignments and reading the textbook are important to do too. Remember, ten minutes per day is much more effective than one hour per week.

So . . . Enjoy the good feeling that you will get when you work hard and finally understand.

BRAIN OLYMPICS FEB 2009 033Gail Neff
Learning Skills Instructor
A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

6 Reasons for Student “Apathy”

Did I get your attention? Are you up in arms? Good!

If you’re a student, let’s hear from you. If you provide student support, please share your wisdom on this question: Why don’t more students take advantage of the resources we provide?

people-431943_1280This question has been bouncing in my head since last week’s Academic-Zone webinar, Supporting at-risk students transitioning to post-secondary: Study skills and writing focus.

During the webinar, I chatted with representatives from Loyalist College and Royal Roads University about our respective student support initiatives. The bottom line? We offer students many opportunities. We’re on-campus. We’re on-line. We’re creative, resourceful, flexible,  determined, and approachable. . . IMO :P

The problem? Student engagement.  Don’t get me wrong. Many students use our services (approximately 5,000 last year); however, some don’t and those who don’t are often those who would benefit most. Based on my own experience at Brock University, I have listed several common reasons why students do not use  support services:

  1. Time management and self-regulation: Procrastination, over-scheduling, or an inability to break down complex assignments often results in poorly researched/written assignments or inadequate studying (let alone time to ask questions or explore support services)
  1. Independence: Many students see “help-seeking” or question-asking as a weakness rather than a strength. No judgement here: I think independence is an admirable quality.
  1. 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?
  1. Embarrassment: If students are unhappy with their work, they may not want to show it to anyone.
  1. Strategic Decision Making: Students make choices based on “value”. What value are we giving to the extra time and effort needed to improve assignments that require several revisions, like essays? Can we blame students if we accept poor quality?
  1. Motivation: Last, but certainly not least. Everyone is motivated to do what they’re doing, and to not do what they’re not doing. John Hope Bryant raises the question: Have young people “‘checked out’ of the traditional educational system”? Check out his post, A Bold New Approach to Education: Aspiration-Based Learning (ABL).

Our webinar session reminded me of a 2009 post on The Chronicle of Higher Education by Bob Kunzinger, Associate Professor of English and the Humanities at Tidewater Community College: “The $5,000 Approach to Teaching Writing”.

Obviocalculation-390319_1280usly, this post left an impression on me. In a nut shell, Kunzinger argues that many students basically decide to submit poorly written papers—that they know that their professors have to read it, regardless of quality, and that they “know there are usually ways to avoid putting forth a gallant effort on a paper.”

(Selection from Kunzinger’s post)

“What if I had a check on my desk for $5,000? And what if I rewarded the writer whose introduction most caught my attention, who most effectively made me want to continue because of a solid and clear thesis, with a check for five grand? Would your introductions improve even more?”

Cries of “Absolutely!” filled the room —to which I replied, “Then you always could do it. You just couldn’t be bothered.”

Silence followed.                                                    See full article

From my perspective, “you just couldn’t be bothered” is a complex statement and relates to reasons in my “why students do not use our support services” list. So what do we do? Unfortunately, I don’t have $5,000 kicking around.

One of the strategies we’ve employed at Brock University is to develop close partnerships between teaching faculty and student academic services, through which students are rewarded for successful participation in service skill-building activities (e.g., participation or assignment bonus grade for scoring over 70% on an academic-zone academic writing, numeracy, or lab report on-line quiz). Then, we draw students into other resources and supports that are available on a self-select basis, either on-line or on-campus.  This strategy provides an additional “value” to developing skills and increases students’ awareness of services.

Now, back to the list . . .

Your challenges? Strategies? Thoughts?

(I’d love to hear from students, staff, and faculty!)

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

Perseverance is the Name of the Game

JesseBarrazaOne of the most gratifying things about working with students at a post-secondary institution is seeing them achieve their goals. There is nothing more satisfying than suddenly being stopped in the hall by a student who just wants to say, “Thank You!”

Working with university students has definitely changed over the last few years. One main factor: Technology. I like to consider myself part of the generation that saw the birth of technology as an integral part of our every day life. I remember the first video game consoles and playwolfensteined very archaic PC games with very simple goals and streamlined objectives. I remember my copy of Wolfenstein that consisted of a case of twelve, yes TWELVE, 3.5-inch floppy disks. Floppy disk. How is that for “dead vocabulary”? I also remember my first cell phone and found a copy of my first cell phone bill from when I first moved to Canada in the early 2000s. There were no data plans or texting. You simply called someone and did it again and again if the line was busy.

Although the complexity of video games and the pace of communication have changed drastically, I still remember what inspired me to play thefootball-606235_1280 Pixabay http://pixabay.com/en/football-clip-football-boots-soccer-606235/se games or what drove me to call the girl I liked, again and again. Perseverance. I just kept going and going until I got what I wanted or until I got “it” done. Perseverance is a term I use often when working with our student athletes. It’s a term they understand well in their sport and that they strive to apply in their academics.

Now, I am part of a team that is proud to create technological resources for students. Resources that help them achieve their academic goals at university. I truly enjoy my work, and I observe students working hard to reach their goals. Although technology has changed dramatically, I feel that some things have not changed: Success means perseverance!

Whether the goal is to get into one particular class or to achieve the ultimate prize of their degree, I find that it’s the students who don’t give up who achieve academic excellence, sooner or later. You support students, either directly or indirectly through the resources you built. You may not see those students for days, months, or years. Then one day, they cross your path. You see their success and then you know that they never stopped. They persevered.

JesseJesse Barraza, Hons. BSc, MEd
Retention Programs Coordinator
Systems & Services Coordinator, Academic-Zone
A-Z Learning Services, Student Development Centre Brock University

Illiterate vs. Innumerate: Why is one okay?

mathematics-327488_1280 (1)Last week, a friend shared an article with me from the Globe and Mail. In it, the author stated that she was “never ashamed of [her] limited numerical skills”. Over the years, I have often ranted about the pride people take in saying that they were never good at math. I have a secret to share: while I love math, I wasn’t always good at it.

There. I said it. My secret is out. I have always found the patterns of mathematics comforting. There was also comfort that there was a right answer. While I worked at math problems, my stubbornness would kick in. I knew that if I worked at it, I would get it. When I did master concepts, I felt a certain pride in my accomplishments. My parents can verify my initial cursing over calculus. Most people think you need to be “smart” to do math. I think you just need to be tenacious.

I firmly believe that ALL people can do math. I also acknowledge that not everyone will enjoy math. However, in order to do math, some of us will require more effort than others. Some of us will have to work hard at addition and subtraction. Others will need to start working harder when algebra is introduced. There will be some people that only start working at math when they are doing graduate level research in a new number theory.   That being said, I think that most people, with a little effort and patience, can get to a point of competence with numeracy.

Admittedly, practicing multiplication tables or solving equations may not be as exciting as a team practice, a new video game or a good book. The excuses of “I will just use a calculator,” or “I am not good at math” don’t preclude you from still requiring math in life. Most people will wonder when they will need to find “x” in real life. However, almost all college and university programs require some type of mathematics course. With the basic numeracy skills, the courses become less of a struggle.

Let’s get rid of the notion that it is okay not to be good at math. We work hard to achieve literacy – let’s put the same effort into numeracy and abolish the idea that just because it doesn’t come easily means that you can’t do it.

Bayless, Maureen. (2015, February 12). A grave mathematical error. The Globe and Mail, p L6.

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