Tag Archives: academics

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)

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 😛

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

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

Teaching the Science of Writing

eis-01Figure 1. How scientists see writing a paragraph.

I teach a mandatory Scientific Writing course for Chemistry and Physics PhD graduate students to help them write their thesis or dissertation, and hopefully publications.   The funny thing is that I don’t have a PhD, and when I first started teaching the course, I didn’t even have a Masters!

Surprisingly, in the 7 years I’ve taught the course, my lack of a PhD has never been an issue. The problem has been getting students to believe that they can work on their writing while in grad school. I’m not saying that they don’t recognize or value good writing, but with their courses, TA work, lab demonstrating, supervising undergrads in the lab, group meetings, seminar presentations, let alone their research, adding one more task seems overwhelming, even if they know that it’s something that they need to work on.

horses-01Although we can lead horses to water, how do we make them drink? Or in my case, although academic regulations lead them to my writing class, how can I make them think (that it’s worthwhile)?

What do I do? I try as much as possible, to talk their talk. Every example is scientific. Use non-science examples and the class tunes out. Show the same example with chemicals or lab terms and I get buy in. These students need to see the direct relationship between the examples and their writing. It’s a simple thing, but surprisingly effective.

I also try to show that writing is like any lab skill. There are specific steps and rules to follow, but at the same time they can improve with practice and reflection!

Finally, I tell them that I’m their litmus test. I know about as much as a new Masters student who might pick up their thesis for background reading. I might not understand their research, but if I can follow their thinking and believe their argument based on the evidence- their writing is clear! I might not know if the science is correct, but at least their ideas are clear.

How do you inspire your science students to “drink”?

eis photoElizabeth Ilnicki-Stone, MSc (Chem), BSc, BEd, OCT
Academic-Zone Resource Developer
Instructor, A-Z Learning Services
Brock University, Student Development Centre

*Figure 1. Formula for a good paragraph. Elizabeth Ilnicki-Stone, A-Z Learning Services, 2015.

Writing Woes and Maintaining Perspective

Write about what you know. . .

Good advice. Right now, I feel the familiar tug of despair, but I have hope! Working with first-year university students in our transition program has its joys and challenges.  At the moment, I’m reviewing their writing (challenge) and I’m planning the editing sessions for January (oh, the joy).

First steps? We’ll be tearing through the writing methodically: identifying claims, evidence, analysis and transitions. Rip it up and then glue it back together. We use the acronym PERT to identify points, evidence, relevance (how the evidence supports the point) and transitions (words and phrases that make connections). The Where’s Waldo of academic research writing. The answers to “what is the point?” and “how do you know?” and “how do these ideas relate?” that are often missing in student writing.

The approach may be mechanical, but I find that it increases students’ awareness of their role in the academic writing process. It’s not about sounding smart and throwing some fancy terms and long sentences together. It’s about communicating their thinking clearly, synthesizing existing research, presenting well-researched arguments, creating meaning from existing research and questioning current understanding.

In our Essay-Zone module, we’ve placed an emphasis on analysis so that students can analyze their own writing–to see what they’re doing well and what they can do better. It’s about empowerment.

(Writing this post inspired me.  I needed a little inspiration!)

Margaret

Image meLead Designer, Academic-Zone and Coordinator Skills Instruction, A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

The Flipped Classroom

(Source)

A popular concept in education, which is reviewed on Inside Higher ED’s website, is the idea of a “flipped classroom.” The basic definition of a “flipped classroom,” which varies depending on your source, is that the typical lecture and homework elements of a classroom are reversed. This means students would listen to a pre-recorded lecture at home and do homework in the classroom. Several different business models and organizations already promote this idea, like the well-known Khan Academy non-profit model, but is this model optimal?

Benefits
Don’t get me wrong; the “flipped” model has its benefits. (1) Students can go through the material at their own pace in a comfortable environment. This approach allows students who blaze through the material to be more efficient with their time and less confident students to spend as much time as they need to understand the content. (2) Students who are struggling with a problem or concept in class can ask an instructor for assistance who will guide them to the answer. Speaking from a student perspective, it is much easier (and memorable) to have an instructor work with you to solve a problem than it is consulting a textbook or searching for the answer online. (3) Plenty of opportunity to discuss and compare approaches with other students while in class. Students often solve problems and run into the same issues while working through problems. It can be very helpful and time efficient to collaborate with other students to achieve I higher degree of understanding. These benefits all contributes to a greater understanding of the content and a stronger awareness of troublesome areas that require greater attention.

Weaknesses
So why hasn’t everyone adopted this model? Simply put, it’s in our human nature to resist change. The traditional method of suggesting material to read over before class, lecturing during class, and assigning homework after class has been in place for centuries. This traditional “teacher experience,” arguably, can never be replaced. As a student, one fatal flaw I’ve experienced in the current system occurs at home. I often find it difficult to concentrate and motivate myself to read from a textbook or learn a new topic that doesn’t particularly interest me, especially if the content isn’t specifically brought up in class. I relate this experience to a chore I never liked doing, but is required for a greater cause, like my parent’s satisfaction (or graduation). Of course, it isn’t a perfect system, but we implement support initiatives to redeem its shortcomings. Many of these initiatives mirror the benefits of the “flipped classroom,” for example Academic-Zone’s personalized online approach. Lecturing for more than 50 minutes may not maintain student attention and be effected by diminishing marginal returns. However, the lecture still plays an important role in highlighting the key information in a mountain of text. Instructors also make themselves available after class to clarify information.

Final Thoughts
Similar to the article written by Pamela E. Barnett, a potential solution would be an integration of both systems. Taking the best of both models with the help of modern technology can improve the effectiveness of teaching. For example, having a short lecture, in-class exercises, and relevant online material/assessment could be a possible layout for the lectures of tomorrow. With this model, we have the opportunity to try a new approach and personalize learning for students of the 21st century.

What are you thoughts?
–     Do you think this “flipped classroom” model could work?
–     Would it be easier for students to learn information using this model?
–     How about instructors to teach?

I look forward to your opinion!

A Simple Recipe for Effective Teaching

Educational institutions are constantly looking for initiatives to improve the quality of education provided to their students. Traditionally, an educational lesson has been taught in a physical classroom where the student’s perception and understanding of the material highly depends on the educator’s presentation and explanation of the material. The current trend of an “online classroom,” provides students with access to infinite amounts of information, at any time, any place, and with additional features to enhance their academic learning.

What does it take to become a good teacher?

An interesting article on the Rule Number One blog outlines a simple recipe for being a good teacher. In the article the author, Kevin Michael Klipfel, includes a quote from an educational psychologist, Daniel Willingham, who quotes his book: “Why Don’t Students Like School,” which depicts this recipe perfectly.

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“Effective teachers… are able to connect personally with students, and they organize material in a way that makes it interesting and easy to understand…”

Can this approach still work online? We think it can. Innovative online resources, similar to Academic-Zone, promote an engaging, interactive, and more effective learning environment.

What makes the “online classroom” different?

  • Students have the opportunity to pause, rewind, and play information which is unique to the online learning environment.
  • Facilitators can measure, respond, provide and record feedback much easier and quicker than in a traditional sense.
  • The online platform can be tailored to each student’s unique learning style. Not every student’s learning styles are satisfied in a one-size-fits-all lecture room.

I encourage you to visit our online demonstration so you can decide for yourself if the online approach to learning can be effective.

Thanks for reading!