My students vary all over the place in background and skills, and there’s just one of me. What am I supposed to do? (RF)

I’m writing this from 37,000 feet on what feels like an endless flight from Doha to New York. If you’re like 100% of the people I told where I was going before the trip, you’ve probably just thought “From where???

Glad you asked. Doha is the capital of Qatar, a small country on a peninsula growing out of Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf. Rebecca and I were there to give a new workshop for faculty at Texas A&M University‒Qatar (TAMUQ) on how to teach effectively in courses filled with students who stretch the limits of the term “diversity.” To most of us academics, diversity means mainly variations in race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. To the faculty members at the workshop, it means all those things plus massive variations in math and science backgrounds, command of course prerequisites and of English (the language of instruction in all TAMUQ courses), and interest in the course subject. Designing a workshop to address all that was an interesting challenge for us, made even more interesting by our having only 3½ hours to present it.

We love a good challenge, and a colleague of ours who had given a workshop in Qatar told us that the staff members of the TAMUQ Center for Teaching and Learning (our host) were competent and friendly and treated their guests royally, so we accepted their invitation. (All of what our colleague told us turned out to be true.) We gave the workshop once on each of two successive days. The first time we had to just wave at some of the content, since we had been much too optimistic about how much we could cover in 3½ hours. We did some ruthless cutting that night, and the second offering was better but still too ambitious. When we give this workshop again, we expect to get it right.

So, out of the almost limitless array of topics we might have covered, what did we settle on? Here are the questions we addressed and some of our suggested answers, along with citations of where in our book [Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide] you can find details on the answers. You can find even more details in references cited in the book and in papers archived on my website.

  1. How can I identify and correct gaps in my students’ prior knowledge and understanding without spending a lot of class time reteaching course prerequisites?
  • Give a test on the prerequisites about a week into the course after handing out a study guide on Day 1 and holding one or two review sessions. (TLS, pp. 60‒61)
  • Give ConcepTests (in-class multiple-choice quizzes on important course concepts) and use them to correct common student misconceptions. (TLS, pp. 162‒163)
  1. How can I specify what the students should be able to do if they have learned what I am trying to teach? How can I maximize the chances that those with the necessary study habits and skills will meet my expectations?
  • Write learning objectives—clear statements of observable tasks the students should be able to complete if they have mastered the knowledge and skills the course teaches. The objectives should include some tasks that require high-level thinking and problem-solving skills and—for programs accredited by ABET—address specified ABET outcomes. Share the objectives with the students as study guides for exams. (TLS, pp. 19‒34)
  • Be sure that assessments of students’ mastery of the learning objectives (assignments, projects, quizzes, and exams) are both rigorous and fair. (TLS, Ch. 8)
  1. How can I motivate the students to work hard to learn what I am teaching?
  • At the beginning of the course, try to establish personal rapport with them (TLS, pp. 54‒56). Then preview the course content and outline how it relates to students’ goals, interests, and prior knowledge and to important authentic (real-world) problems. (TLS, pp. 58‒59)
  • Consider using inquiry-based learning, preceding coverage of each topic with a relevant authentic problem and presenting the course content in the context of solving the problem. (TLS, pp. 59‒60)
  1. How does active learning help students who span the full range of diversity? How can I get my students actively engaged in class, no matter how many are in the room?
  • Define active learning (interspersing lecture segments with brief course-related student activities) and review the research that shows how well it works. Describe mistakes instructors commonly make that limit its effectiveness and outline how to avoid them. (TLS, Ch. 6)

Rebecca and I were pleased with the workshop content, as were the participants judging from their end-of-workshop evaluations. We have added the workshop to the list of programs we offer.

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What does “balanced instruction” mean in the context of learning styles? Why is it important? (RF)

Good day Dr Felder,
I hope this finds you well. I’m a graduate student conducting research into learning styles and blended learning. A question was raised in my discussion group and I thought I could ask you for your thoughts.
Throughout literature there is an abundance of articles that state that learning styles are about balance; however, none define what balance really is, and I was wondering if you’d be able to shed some light on this for me. Is a balance a completely equal distribution among techniques that might address different learning styles, or is it mainly about teaching each student in a way that matches his or her learning style? If  I’m teaching a class of students in which, say, 80% of the time I present facts and data (sensing) and 20% of the time I discuss fundamental principles and theories (intuitive), would this be considered balanced instruction? If so, under what circumstances? Any information would be greatly appreciated.
Have a good day.

I wrote some of the articles Steven mentioned, and so his questions weren’t a total surprise. I don’t remember ever getting them quite that directly, though, and they forced me to clarify the concept of balance in my own mind. I’ll pass along my response to him in a minute, but first here’s a little background.
Learning styles are students’ preferences for different types of instruction, usually expressed as opposing categories. For example, one learning style dimension Steven mentioned is sensing/intuitive. Intuitive learners tend to prefer teaching that stresses general principles, theories, and mathematical analysis, and sensing learners prefer concrete facts and observations, hands-on experiments, and real-world applications. The preferences are just that—preferences, which may be strong, moderate, or almost non-existent, not either-or labels. While certain skills tend to characterize sensing learners and others are more linked to intuitors, knowing that students prefer sensing tells you nothing about their intuitive skills, or for that matter, about their sensing skills.
For reasons I’ve never understood, some academic psychologists are hostile to the concept of learning styles. Every year or two they publish papers announcing that teaching to match students’ learning styles has never been shown to improve learning, so learning styles should never be taken into account when designing instruction.
As I pointed out a few years ago in a short article [“Are learning styles invalid? (Hint: No)”],  there are several flaws in that proclamation. Most of them are off the topic of this post, and if you’re interested you can check them out by clicking on that link. The one relevant one is that modern proponents of learning styles don’t propose matching teaching to students’ learning styles. In fact, they explicitly advise against trying to do so (for one thing, it’s impossible in a class of more than about two), suggesting instead that the goal should be to teach in a way that balances style preferences rather than matching them for individual students.
And that gets us back to Steven and my response to his questions.

Dear Steven,
The point of seeking balance among learning styles when designing instruction is to avoid heavily favoring any category of a learning style dimension. In balanced instruction, students are taught sometimes in ways that match their preferences and sometimes in ways that don’t. When that approach is taken, the students are not too uncomfortable to learn, as some would be if they were never taught in the ways they prefer. At the same time, they’re all sometimes taught against their preferences, which helps them build important skills they might never develop if they were only taught as they prefer.
Balancing instruction doesn’t mean distributing it equally between opposite categories of learning style dimensions. There’s no simple recipe: the appropriate balance in a course depends on the course subject and level. For example, if I’m teaching an introductory undergraduate course in a STEM subject, I’d be inclined to put a heavy emphasis on real-world applications and basic computational methods (sensing), and a lower emphasis on abstract theories and mathematical modeling (intuitive). On the other hand, if I’m teaching an advanced undergraduate or graduate course on the same subject, where I can presume that the entering students have a pretty good understanding of the basics and now I want them to dig deeper into theory and high-level analysis, I’d flip the balance—heavy on intuition, light on sensing. I still need some sensing, though: every body of knowledge, no matter how abstract, is in the curriculum because it’s ultimately needed to address real-world problems. Also, I always have some sensors in the class who are helped by the real-world anchoring to learn the theory.
The need for balance applies equally well to other learning style dimensions. If all you normally do is lecture in class sessions (ineffective for most learners but possibly more so for active learners than for reflective learners), your teaching effectiveness can be increased by adding some individual activities (reflective) and small-group activities (active) to your classes. Knowing that about 80% of the students in most classes are visual learners (see “Applications, Validity, and Reliability of the Index of Learning Styles”), to whom a picture is worth a thousand words, should prompt you to replace a lot of those bullet-point lists in your slides with visuals—diagrams, plots, photos, videos, animations, simulations, etc. And so on.
So how can you determine the right balance for a class you teach? The way you learn to do almost everything in teaching—trial and error. The first time you teach a course, pick a learning styles model (such as the one at the web link in the last paragraph) and take your best shot at striking the right balance for each dimension. What happens in that offering will give you good clues about how to modify the balances next time you teach that course. By the third time you teach it, you’ll probably have it pretty much where you want it.
Finally, when you make changes in a course, make them gradually. If you abruptly try to switch an entire course from, say, mostly intuitive to mostly sensing and mostly verbal to more evenly balanced between visual and verbal, you’re likely to be overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes and the challenges of teaching a whole course in a new way. Make the changes in more gradual steps, never going too far out of your comfort zone, and your teaching will steadily improve, which is all you really need.
Good luck.
Richard Felder

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Use a Prerequisite Exam to Help Get your Course Off to a Good Start (RF & RB)

When you teach a course that builds heavily on previously-taught material, you have a dilemma. Should you assume that all of the enrolled students start out with a solid grasp of the prerequisites? You’d better not! Some students may have taken the prerequisite courses years ago and have long since forgotten what they learned, or some of the prerequisite content may be really hard or was rushed through so few students really understood it. On the other hand, you don’t want to spend the first three weeks of the course re-teaching material the students are supposed to know. The question is, how can you help your students quickly pick up whatever they’re missing without spending a lot of valuable class time on it?

An effective way to achieve that goal is to give an early exam on the prerequisites. Here’s the process.

  • Before the first day of class, write out a set of learning objectives that specify what the students should be able to do—define, explain, calculate, derive, critique, design,…—if they have the prerequisite knowledge and skills you plan to build on in your course. That last phrase (“you plan to build on in your course”) is critical: if you announce that the students need to know everything covered in the prerequisite courses, you’ll just overwhelm them and the exam won’t serve its intended function. Put the objectives in the form of a study guide for an exam (“To do well on this exam, you should be able to.…”). Except for facts and definitions the students should be prepared to reproduce from memory, the items on the study guide should be generic, not specific questions that might appear verbatim on the exam.
  • On the first day of class, announce that the first midterm exam will be given on ___ (about a week from that day) and will cover only prerequisite material. Hand out the study guide and briefly review it, assuring the students that every question and problem on the exam will be based on items in the study guide.
  • Hold a review session before the test date at which students can ask questions about anything in the study guide. Alternatively, tell the students that they are free to raise questions in class or during your office hours.
  • Give and grade the exam. Count the grade toward the final course grade. (We’ll say more about this later.)
  • (Optional) Give the students a take-home retest to regain up to, say, half the points they lost the first time.

When you adopt this strategy, most students will do whatever it takes to get the specified material into their heads by the exam, and you won’t have to spend more than one class session reviewing prerequisites. Students who do poorly on the exam will be on notice that unless they do something dramatic to relearn material they missed, such as getting some tutoring, they are likely to struggle throughout much of your course and are at risk for failing. If many students have problems with a particular topic on the exam, then consider additional review of that topic.

The idea of testing on course prerequisites at the beginning of a course is not new, but instructors who do it commonly make one or both of two mistakes: (1) they make the test purely diagnostic and give it on the first day of the course, and (2) they don’t count the test grades toward the course grade. What’s wrong with those practices? If the test is given on the first day, the students have no time to remedy deficiencies in their knowledge of the prerequisites and not much incentive to do so after the test. Even if the test is given after the first day, if the grades don’t count many students will spend little or no time studying for it. Either way the grades are likely to be low, indicating that extensive review is required, and the instructor has little basis for knowing what to review and what to leave for the students to relearn on their own. If you use the procedure suggested here you avoid both mistakes; your students will have time to learn or relearn prerequisite material on their own and will have a strong incentive to do so; the study guide will enable them to concentrate their studying on the material you will be building on; and you’ll easily find the sweet spot between insufficient and excessive review at the beginning of your course.

Drawn from R.M. Felder and R. Brent, Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide, pp. 60–61. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (2016).

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How to determine course grades fairly (RF & RB)

Note: The material that follows is drawn from pp. 49–51 of Teaching and Learning STEM:
A Practical Guide

It’s headache time again.

The semester (or quarter or summer session) is over at last. You gave and graded your final exam and entered the grades in the spreadsheet, right next to the ones for the midterm exams and assignments and whatever else counts toward the final course grade. The spreadsheet instantly calculated the weighted-average numerical grade for each student, and you sorted the sheet to put the numbers in that column in descending order. You’re now looking glumly (no one likes grading) at a column of weighted-average numerical grades, with a student’s name next to each number. Your only remaining task is to put a letter—A, B, C, D, or F—next to each name, possibly (depending on where you teach) followed by plusses and minuses next to some of the letters. That may sound simple to a non-educator, but as all educators know, it’s anything but.

There are two ways to assign course grades: curving (or norm-referenced grading), in which the primary basis for a student’s letter grade is the ranking of her numerical (weighted-average) grade in the column, and absolute grading (criterion-referenced grading), in which the numerical grade itself is the primary basis.

Curving also comes in two flavors: (a) the top 10% of the weighted-average numerical grades get A’s, the next 25% get B’s, the next 35% get C’s the next 20% get D’s, and the bottom 10% get F’s (those percentages are just illustrative), and more commonly, (b) the numerical grades from the top of the column to the first moderately-sized gap between grades get A’s, those from that gap to the next one get B’s, and so on down to F’s. In contrast, the letter grades in absolute grading are determined entirely from the numerical grades. For example, the letter grades and their corresponding ranges of numerical grades might be A(90–100), B(80–89.9), C(70–79.9), D(60–69.9), and F(<60). If pluses and minuses are given, there would be a larger number of narrower ranges.

This blog post (more accurately, this series of linked posts) addresses three questions:

  1. Should I curve or not? (Spoiler alert: Not!)
  2. Suppose I use absolute grading and one of my students gets a weighted-average grade of 70 (which gets a C in the course) and another gets a 69.9 (which gets a D). I know the performances of those two students in the course are virtually identical. Do I still have to give them different course grades? (Spoiler #2: No!)
  3. Suppose I use absolute grading and I give a test on which most of the students get failing marks, bad enough to lower most of their course grades by one or two letters and to cause many of them to fail the course. Do I have to give them those grades? (Spoiler #3: No, especially if you decide the test wasn’t fair.)

OK, let’s look at the detailed responses to those questions. You can view them in any order you choose.

There are of course other important questions related to course grades, including these:

  • How much should I count midterm exam and quiz grades toward the final course grade?
  • Should I drop the lowest exam grade?
  • How much should I count the final exam grade?
  • How much should I count homework assignments? Should I count them less if students work on the homework in teams?
  • What else should count, and how much? Lab and project grades? Attendance? Class participation?
  • When and why should I give an incomplete?
  • What, if anything, should I do about seniors who failed my course and would graduate if they passed it?

We may devote blog posts to these questions in the future, but in the meanwhile you can find suggested answers on pp. 47–49 of Teaching and Learning STEM.


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“Is Ohm’s Law a lie?” Using provocative questions to promote critical thinking

I just read a terrific piece, Ohm’s Law Is a Lie, by Kundan Nepal and Greg Mowry in this month’s ASEE Prism. The piece was sponsored by KEEN Engineering Unleashed and describes the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), an inquiry approach developed by the Right Question Institute. The authors describe using the QFT with electrical engineering students as they presented the provocative statement, “Ohm’s Law is a lie” to the class. The students then generated in groups their own questions to drive their learning including: Why is Ohm’s Law commonly accepted if it is false? What is a law in science? What would make this one a lie, and how do we know whether or not it is? Students then refined and prioritized the questions in preparation for doing their own research and presentations on the topic. A final step was having students reflect on the process of scientific validation.

You’ll find more examples for provocative questioning that are sure to spark your own ideas, whatever you teach. If you’re looking for something new to try in your classes, give this a try!


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