Stupidity – Does it hurt?

I stumbled upon this article by Ben Orlin What It Feels Like to Be Bad at Math. I absolutely enjoyed reading it and would like to share it with the GRAD 602 community.

Here is an excerpt as a teaser:

“As a math teacher, it’s easy to get frustrated with struggling students. They miss class. They procrastinate. When you take away their calculators, they moan like children who’ve lost their teddy bears. (Admittedly, a trauma.)

Even worse is what they don’t do. Ask questions. Take notes. Correct failing quizzes, even when promised that corrections will raise their scores. Don’t they care that they’re failing? Are they trying not to pass?

There are plenty of ways to diagnose such behavior. Chalk it up to sloth, disinterest, out-of-school distractions—surely those all play a role. But if you ask me, there’s a more powerful and underlying cause.

Math makes people feel stupid. It hurts to feel stupid.”

(Ben Orlin, 2013)

Connecting the dots…

In the midst of finals, I have connected the dots. I don’t know why I have not seen until now. On the other hand, sometimes all it takes is some time to marinate before it hits you… Here is what I am talking about…

My research interest (at least over the last 12 months) has been heavily focused on team learning, communication, and collaboration in work environments; how they affect clinical and organizational outcomes; how psychological safety and group composition comes into play. From a management or leadership perspective, knowledge about how people learn (individually and collaboratively), how learning can be motivated, initiated, and improved, and optimized is a crucial tool to enhance performance.

So, while I have been relating our class discussions and materials to the classroom environment only, I may well extend them to inform my research. This is a neat little epiphany for me that made me realize (once again) how everything is related and connected.

Go beyond what you (think you) know and expand your horizon.

Allergies and BB…

What is the LAST thing you need during the final weeks of a semester? Yes, allergies. Nothing gets done. I feel like my brain functionality is severely compromised. And I apologize for posting late this week – I blame whatever is making its way through the air-conditioning into my lungs.

My favorite reading from last week’s topic was “Mind over Matter” on Course Management Systems (CMS) and their role in creating effective learning environments. They are useful tools to support the principles of deeper learning. That is, a deeper, more engaged learning experience occurs when learning is social, active, contextual, engaging, and student-owned. Blackboard (BB) can be used to create this type of environment – but only to a certain extent. I have had experience with this platform both as a student and as a TA. As a TA, I found it rather cumbersome to navigate, and it takes quite some time to determine which features are available, which are most useful, and so forth. As a student, I have mostly come to understand that its role is to make information accessible, such as articles, documents, assignments, and to check grades. I have used the discussion board feature in two online courses – with rather unsatisfactory results. I don’t think this format can really be used to trigger discussions among students and instructors. Blogs, for example, are much more engaging, social, student-owned, contextual, and active. BB is clearly instructor-led. And unlike blogs, only temporarily available to the student. Once the semester is over – the content is gone. This is very unfortunate. I would be interested in testing other content-management systems to have a better idea of what else (other than BB) is out there. But, in the end, aren’t instructors typically bound by what the university or at least the department requires or recommends to use…?

It is everywhere…

It is EVERYWHERE… Active Learning. At least now that I have been introduced to it. I find myself searching for it in my own classroom experience as a student. Since last week, I have come up with a multitude of successful (and unfortunately) not-so-successful examples of active learning. I want to call this my Baader-Meinhof experience (aka frequency illusion) of the week.

One of my best active-learning experiences occurred in one of my Economics classes. Although I am an Economist by training, I do recognize that the class material taught in Economics classes may be considered dry, boring, and hard to digest for many students. Topics of this particular course included supply and demand (Yes, Father Guido Sarducci got that one EXACTLY right), moral hazard, adverse selection, incentives, elasticity, externalities, rationality, opportunity costs, and so forth. Alongside traditional teaching methods (e.g., lectures, problem sets), students were selected into groups to work on an assignment called The Group Fiction Project. The assignment read as follows:

  • Watch a movie (not a documentary) or read a book of fiction and prepare a presentation of it.
  • The presentation will include a brief description of the main plot of the movie/book and an outline of its economic content (either how the events of the movie/book were triggered by economic forces or how the events of the movie/book affected some economic market or markets).

What a great idea, I thought. Our group decided to go with Ocean’s 11. Here is the trailer as a reminder:


I do remember being a little skeptical in the beginning. How in the world were we supposed to identify economic principles in a movie?

We agreed upon watching the movie independently, coming up with initial ideas, and sharing them with the group afterwards. Ideas started to develop quickly,  and we enjoyed not just having to read a textbook. Instead, we could discuss a great movie while applying economic concepts. How cool is that? The more we talked about it, the more we found “economically-influenced” scenes. We called our project “The Economics of Crime – A Criminal Mind and his Rational Choices.”

In a sense, the instructor triggered a Baader-Meinhof experience of economic principles by connecting them to something many of us enjoy doing in our free time – watching movies. Active Learning 101. Well played, Professor. Well played.

What? Can you repeat the question, please?

Active learning is an appealing concept. This week’s readings provide an interesting introduction to the topic. I see valuable applications of active learning techniques to catch and then keep students’ attention in the classroom. I found Felder’s introduction to active learning particularly amusing and educational at the same time. A nice little laundry list of how to create an active learning environment!

I do wish that some of my undergraduate and even graduate courses  had made use of some of these techniques. It would have saved me a lot of frustrating, tiring, and – in the end – wasted classroom time… In my opinion, 3-hour evening classes could benefit from these activities. There is absolutely NO WAY that students can pay attention for that long in a traditional, lecture-focused class format.

Thinking back to some of my evening courses, I argue that the last 60 minutes were usually completely lost. As an individual who enjoys learning, this is a truly frustrating experience. I kept wondering why professors structure their class time in such a way… Don’t they see that students drift off? Do they not care? Have they tried other – more engaging – techniques  in the past but weren’t successful? I also remember feeling a little guilty and like a slacker when I found my mind wandering off to other (more or less) important topics.

Sure, asking questions is a form of encouraging active learning through engagement. In that sense, many traditional professors may be considered promoters of active learning, even if they don’t see themselves as such… But the true sense of active learning goes beyond asking questions, in my opinion. How engaging and effective is it really when a professors throws out “Are you with me?” every five minutes?

Learning is…

The three learning taxonomies were a helpful tool to classify processes of thinking and learning in a systematic way.  I liked aspects of each of them, which made it difficult for me to pick sides during last week’s class session. Although I do agree with grad602‘s statement about their similarity, it did see some subtle differences between them.

In my opinion, Bloom’s taxonomy was the most intuitive way of thinking about encouraging and facilitating students to climb to the highest level of thought. The six cognitive process dimensions (Remember-Understand-Apply-Analyze-Evaluate-Create) describe the learning cycle by emphasizing that each dimension must be mastered before moving on to the next level. I find this to be a useful basis to create curricula, syllabi, and evaluation methods.  

Despite the rather confusing visual representation, I identified several valuable aspects of the SOLO taxonomy. I liked the fact that it focused on different levels of “informational connectivity” to depict the evolution of learning. Moving from identifying unconnected pieces of information to creating multiple (new) connections between them is particularly important in today’s world, in which information is abundant, freely available, and at times contradictory.

I like Shulman’s Table of Learning, because it emphasizes that learning begins with motivation and engagement. It sets the stage for fruitful learning. The following levels (i.e., knowledge and understanding, performance and action, reflection and critique, and judgement and design) are comparable to Bloom’s cognitive process dimensions. Finally, Shulman’s last step of “commitment and identity” stands out to me. It highlights that successful learning shapes students’ identities, the way they view the world.

Shortcuts don’t work…

WARNING: This week’s post will be quick and dirty.

Daniel T. Willingham’s article on strategies how to improve a student’s memory really resonated with me. First of all, I have to admit that I am a sucker for ANYTHING that helps me memorize, retain, and recall relevant information (I am scatterbrained by nature… runs in the family).

I had a good laugh when I reached the section about “memory myths”, especially myths #3:

“Herbal supplements or pharmaceuticals that can enhance memory or attenuate the cognitive decline associated with aging” (p. 21).

I felt a hint of embarrassment, as it reminded me of a purchase I had made a couple of months ago:


So, wait…. You are saying, Ginkgo will NOT help me study for my comprehensive exam? Bummer.

Okay, now I am alerted. How about these Lumocity-loving people (actors?) who use the software to – for example – “remember people’s names”?

But joke aside. Although I am clearly exaggerating (i.e., the Ginkgo bottle is still unopened), for me it simply highlights the fact that learning and maximizing the ability of memory cannot be achieved by taking shortcuts. Recognizing how students learn, how information is retained, processed and converted into tacit knowledge and how this can shape teaching is a complex endeavor – a pop of Ginkgo can hardly do much…

Making the case: From subjectivity to objectivity

How do we, as instructors, know how successful our teaching is? How can we determine the efficacy of technology use in the classroom? How do we measure student learning outcomes?

The majority of our last in-class discussion on Making the case I evolved around these very important questions… While some colleagues expressed the need for more qualitative, constructivist approaches (e.g., learning is  subjective), others emphasized the importance of quantitative positivist approaches (e.g., focus on generalizability of results) to capture the status quo of student learning. Burrell & Morgan’s four paradigms of social theory immediately came to mind (see figure below).


Research in the functionalist and interpretive paradigm tend to explain, understand, and observe the status quo of phenomena (e.g., student learning), while research in the radical humanist and radical structuralist emphasize action, change, and societal conflict. I believe that the class discussion was in part about whether the status quo of student learning can be explained with subjectivist or objectivist approaches. From an epistemological point of view, objectivist view the world as a concrete, external structure, which can be identified and measured, whereas subjectivists aim to understand  the world from a subjective point of view. I don’t know which paradigm is most appropriate to study student learning… But in the end, it comes down to what the research goal is. What do we want to accomplish? If we seek to develop testable hypotheses and aim toward generalizable results, a positivist approach may be more appropriate… Just some things to consider.

RSS and other things on my mind…

Originally, I was going to blog about my thoughts about RSS feeds. I was going to write about how I set up My GoogleReader and how I have started to unsubscribe from my various email newsletters (none of which I seem to be able to keep up with anyway). I was going to talk about how the initial excitement and motivation after signing up for a new email newsletter typically wears off pretty quickly. And about how I am left with an email account full of too many unread emails. I was also going to elaborate on how I usually end up reverting back to accessing webpages the old-fashioned way – through my bookmarks toolbar….

But instead I am going to reflect on my learning experience in this course so far. This week, to be honest, I feel a little bit out of the loop. After frantically working on several other deadlines, I came home last night, sat down it my papasan chair, and browsed to our Learning Portal to catch up on the newest blog posts about RSS feeds. I was surprised to see that the two most popular posts where not on RSS but on student learning, engagement, and motivation in general.  I read 2centsblogger’s post who referenced Laura’s Blog. I read Laura’s post right after. My first reaction was something along the line of “Wait… What happened? What did I miss?” I did take this opportunity to reflect on my own learning experience and on what I have been taking out of this course so far.

Grad 602 has introduced me to several interesting technologies, which I have found to be useful for my own learning and for potential integration into the classroom. While some of them are only “nice-to-know-ofs” (e.g., Twitter – sorry!), others are absolutely great (e.g., GoogleReader, Diigo). Getting my hands dirty with each of them allows me to make a sophisticated, informed decision about whether they will be of any use now, later, or ever. Although I appreciate the collaborative nature of the course, I don’t see it as a necessary element to maximize my learning, as others appear to do. Commenting on each other’s blogs, tweeting each other, etc. can definitely be fun and interesting. I like to read and react to comments related to my posts. But I don’t mind if nobody reads/comments on them. For me it is all about the exposure to new forms of technology and about experimenting with them in a safe learning environment. The interactive, collaborative piece to it is secondary (although not unimportant!) to me. Is that selfish? Maybe.

Now, back to my initial blog idea: RSS is such a convenient way of aggregating, customizing, and rerouting information. I feel as enthusiastic about RSS as I do about Diigo (see last week’s post). Definitely a useful, time-saving, and an efficient way of staying up-to-date. My email account will thank me.

Just tagging along…

While I am still not entirely convinced of the usefulness of blogging and networked communication (e.g., Twitter), “social bookmarking” hit the nail right on the head for me.

My current use of bookmarking consists of crowding my browser toolbar with all kinds of links to websites I find interesting and/or use frequently. Clearly, the application is just the tip of the iceberg of bookmarking, which I learned during last week’s class discussion. However, I think that for many academics and students this is the only type of bookmarking there is and that they are aware of (also discussed by Jon Udell).

Jon Udell discusses the four major uses of social bookmarking, which I can relate to my own daily academic life as a graduate student (at least partially)- in particular, using Diigo as a tool to answer questions with URLs and to use Diigo as a database.

  • Answering a question with an URL.

Copy-pasting URLs into an email to share relevant sources with colleagues, professors, and students is common practice in my world. If a question or a topic emerges, I often find myself “googling” websites, which I have come across at some point to then share it via email. I sometimes (actually pretty often) have a difficult time finding these sources again and waste my time searching for information I have located before but not properly documented (so frustrating!). Diigo is a great way of compiling websites, blogs, and other online sources related to a particular topic.

  • Diigo as a database.

This is the most compelling argument for me to start using Diigo. It reminds me of RefWorks, which I started to use in 2011 to organize and keep track of relevant references for research articles. What started out as a way to facilitate and automate citing and creating bibliographies, I have started to use RefWorks as a general database. However, I found that, especially for online sources, this software is not the right tool to use. Unless I want to cite a particular blog, website, or other online source, RefWorks is rather unsuitable. Diigo seems to be a nice complement to traditional citation management systems.

Is there a way to combine those two? If you come across anything that may answer my question, please send me an email with links to relevant sources… Oh wait… I know a better way: Create a shared Diigo list. 🙂