How to get snake people to speak in class

[Cross-posted from CELT Blog]

Why is it so hard to generate the kind of class discussion where everyone contributes, and everyone learns, with a minimum of cajoling, policing, and teeth-pulling by the instructor? More to the point, why was it so hard for me to generate discussion in the second week of my social ethics class this semester?

I asked questions. Nothing. I had students think-pair-share. They thought, they paired, but when it came time to speak to the whole group? Nothing. I don’t like cold-calling, because I didn’t like being cold-called. What was I supposed to do? I want to promote active learning, but I don’t want to spend several hours of the week in the only life I have to live in awkward silence in a room of quiet students.

On Twitter recently, the writer and academic Freddie deBoer admitted a similar concern:

The quick-n-easy answer is to blame the snake people — I mean, millennials — themselves. (There’s a Google Chrome browser extension that automatically, and hilariously, converts any instance of the word “millennials” on a webpage to “snake people.”) Kids and their gizmos! They’re so self-centered! They have only ever lived in a post-9/11 world!

Snake people
Snake people: They don’t eat cereal, but they vote! The horror!

That sort of hand-wringing bothered me when I was in college and commentators fretted about Generation X. So even if it’s true that kids today really are more reticent to speak in class than my peers were, knowing that won’t magically make my classroom discussions livelier. It will always be easier to change my pedagogy than to remake an entire generation’s upbringing.

To generate ideas for what changes to make, I turned of course to social media, where my question was met with a lively and instructive discussion. I heard from current colleagues, old friends who teach far away, even former students who are now college teachers (and some who aren’t teachers but who chimed in on what they found helpful about discussions). Later, I moderated a conversation among faculty at King’s about this question. The result of all of this was a raft of ideas, drawn from decades of collective wisdom. Here are some of the ideas people shared in these forums:

  • There are lots of good reasons to hold discussions in class. Discussions help students think and talk through ideas. They foster the idea that scholarship is a conversation. Through discussions, an instructor gets a real-time view of what students are learning and can guide students toward better understanding.
  • What counts as “discussion” may vary by discipline. Faculty in the humanities (like me) may think that discussion looks like a large-group conversation, with the instructor moderating. A science faculty member said that if he asks direct questions in class and students raise their hands and give the right answer, then that’s a successful discussion.
  • It’s OK to cold-call students, especially if you give them notice that you might do so and you give them the opportunity to pass sometimes. One way to do this is to warn students that you’ll just call on them in sequence, around the circle or up and down the rows, so they can have time to formulate ideas to share when it’s their turn.
  • If kids really are attached to their gizmos, then let them hold a discussion via gizmo. A middle-school teacher friend suggested Chatzy as a free, simple way to host online conversations via mobile devices.
  • Small-group work is of course a tried-and-true means of getting students to talk in class. One down side is that you can’t monitor every conversation, leaving the door open for conversations to head in the wrong direction. To keep conversations on track, you might assign every group a task with a specific outcome and give every member of the group a role (lead writer, fact-checker, devil’s advocate, etc.).
  • Ending class with a “minute paper” can cement the day’s learning, provide an opportunity for quieter students to let you know what they’re thinking, and set the stage for the next class meeting’s discussion.
  • Because human beings fear being lone voices in a silent crowd, the best way to foster discussion may be to build up the sense of community in class.

This last approach is the one I tried in my class. First I distributed a survey to all students, asking them what forms of fostering discussion they would be comfortable with and what obstacles there were to them participating more fully in discussion. Because several students said they would be willing to meet in small groups outside of class to discuss course material, I set up those meetings.

The most often cited obstacle to discussion was fear of “saying the wrong thing.” Several students said they felt like they didn’t know enough theology to say anything. (Well, of course, I thought, that’s why you’re taking the class!) To address this fear, I decided to do two things. First, consistently send the message that it’s OK to make mistakes like “saying the wrong thing.” In fact, making mistakes is a necessary part of the learning process.

Second, in order to make the classroom feel like a space where it’s OK to make the mistakes that learning requires, I spent a full week of class time meeting with students in pairs, in the classroom, just to talk about anything. If this seems like a “waste” of class time, I ask you to consider how much class time I might have wasted in unproductive, painful silence over the rest of the semester if I hadn’t tried to foster a better learning community.

From these conversations, I learned a lot about my students, including that most of them chose to come to King’s because they would be known by their classmates and professors and could have a voice in their classes. Several said they learn a lot by tracking discussions among their classmates. On some level, the students really want to participate actively in classroom conversation, but, as they said on the survey, there are obstacles.

So did these conversations make a difference? Maybe. This week’s discussion was a lot closer to the ideal I have for discussion. Participation was broader. Students responded directly to each other. I could hear students learning. There was more side chatter in class (which I don’t see as a bad thing, even if the chatter isn’t on topic). I hesitate to declare the experiment a success yet, because things could still shift after spring break. But I’m much more optimistic now.

Theology courses are not magic

In the world of Catholic higher education, the Core curriculum review occurring at Notre Dame is getting a lot of attention, especially because there is speculation that the committee will remove the standard requirement that all students take two courses in theology. As a theology professor at a college founded by priests and brothers who migrated east from Notre Dame in the 1940s, I am (no surprise) all in favor of a strong theology requirement in the Core curriculum at Catholic colleges and universities. My life plans changed pretty radically because I was required to take four courses in religion & theology in college.

But some of what is being said by people on my “side” of the debate over theology’s place in ND’s curriculum is unlikely to convince anyone on the curriculum committee itself. I can say this because for the past two years, I chaired the committee that is reviewing the Core curriculum at King’s College. What typically gets left out of public discussion of curricular requirements — but should be integral to any discussions inside the curriculum committee — is pedagogy. Lots of claims by advocates of the two-course theology requirement speak of what theology does to the mind of the student, but theology (or any other discipline) cannot do anything to the mind of the student if it isn’t taught well.

For example, Margaret Blume argues that “Notre Dame’s current core curriculum requirements … ensure that students have at least encountered [theological] sources that unlock the mind’s capacities.” She says that her undergraduate alma mater, Yale, by contrast, did not ensure this, because Yale’s general education requirements are distributional and focus on “‘learning goals’ rather than disciplines.” (Some of Blume’s claims about disciplinarity are dubious. I may be able to address them later, especially once I’m through reading Chad Wellmon’s book, Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University.)

I agree that the study of theology can “unlock the mind’s capacities.” But simply handing a student a bible, or a bible plus Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, does not unlock anything. There is nothing inherent in the sources themselves that expands the student’s mind — this is true even of the bible, which, according to Catholic teaching, is a source whose meaning is inseparable from the tradition and community of the Church. Students who are unfamiliar with the bible (or perhaps all-too-familiar with it) are unlikely to undergo the sort of mental transformation Blume describes unless they are taught in a way that engages them.

This means that their professors need to figure out what combination of lectures, quizzes, papers, small-group discussions, in-class writing assignments, and YouTube videos are going to train the students to think about the bible in a mentally expansive way. And we can’t just leave it up to each individual instructor, in the name of “academic freedom.” There are better and worse ways to teach this stuff, and some standardization of pedagogy will help a university graduate more students who, like Margaret Blume did by accident at Yale, learn to think theologically and develop a passion for that thinking.

In short, theology isn’t magic. As important as it is to talk about how long students should sit in a theology classroom, it is at least that important to talk about what students do during the 40-some hours of seat time that a 3-credit course entails.

Just yesterday the theology faculty at King’s (six of us teaching full-time, and one part-time) met to assess students’ learning over the just-completed semester. We had each rated students’ work in our classes against common rubrics, presented the results to each other, and discussed how to help students reach our (yes) learning goals for theology. Three of us read each of our majors’ and minors’ term papers in their modern theology seminar and assessed their research, reasoning, and writing abilities. We were glad to see that, compared with the previous semester, the students were looking more carefully at key primary sources (in this case, Newman, Bonhoeffer, and von Balthasar) to answer their questions, but we needed to do more to help them define a theological question that would be answerable in 3,000 words.

The point is that we do not take for granted that just enrolling in a theology course and completing the work is enough to effect the changes in the student that our discipline is capable of making. Requiring each student to take two, or three, or four theology courses guarantees nothing if we don’t also promote and even require that instructors employ pedagogies that are well suited to the students’ actually learning theology. It is even possible that a single course, expertly taught, could have more impact on students’ learning of theology than two or more poorly taught ones.

So learning goals matter. A curriculum is just a tool (I’d even go so far as to say it’s a trick) to get students to attain them. The real work is pedagogical, not curricular.

An experiment in using Twitter to foster student engagement and information literacy


This semester I am attempting two very different experiments in my classes, though both aim to foster greater student engagement with course material. One experiment — which I will write more about later — involves developing a role-playing scenario modeled on Reacting to the Past to teach the intellectual and political conflicts of the Reformation in 16th century European Christianity. The other is to require students in my Core course, Theology of Work, to tweet about their reading and writing between classes.

What possessed me?

A couple of experiences coalesced at the right time to make the Twitter experiment seem appealing. First, I had an exchange via Twitter with a couple of bloggers who are, like me, interested in how to make theological sense of work. By the end of the conversation, I had gained a new way to think about the issue, and I realized that this was exactly the…

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I am not a labor economist, but I play one on the internet

In case you needed more evidence that a Google search is not a good means for discovering reliable information produced by experts on technical matters, run a search for “minimum wage elasticity.” As of this writing, the #2 result is this blog post, which I wrote as a homework assignment for a microeconomics MOOC. My blog doesn’t get a lot of traffic, but this post is far and away the most popular item on the site, getting viewers from all over the world. I assume that most of them are students in intro economics classes looking for some help on a standard problem in the field — does raising the wage floor increase unemployment?

I admire their interest in the question and my answer to it, but I’m no expert on this issue. This was the only economics course I had ever taken, and the professor in the course did not grade this work. It may well be a decent homework answer. It got a good grade from the peer graders in the MOOC . But given that my peers were other people who don’t know economics, that is little comfort.

The internet democratizes information in important ways. But as anyone who has observed American democracy recently knows, democracy does not always produce optimal results. When it’s important to get the facts right, as in academic research, we’re better off looking to the experts.

MOOC students learn a lot, if you don’t count all the ones who fail [Update appended]

Imagine a health study claiming that patients exposed to a new, controversial therapy had outcomes slightly better than those who got the tried-and-true therapy — except for the 94% of patients in the experimental group who died.

That’s more or less what a just-released study of a massive open online course (MOOC) in physics at MIT shows. Only the abstract for the study claims that “The pre- and posttesting showed substantial learning: The students had a normalized gain slightly higher than typical values for a traditional course.” And the study is being promoted in a BostInno article with the subheading, “Skeptics beware: Online courses work.” These claims are misleading.

Indeed, the students who took both the pretests and posttests last summer in MIT’s open online course, 8.MReV, Mechanics ReView, fared at least as well as students in the in-person version of the course. Trouble is, only a very small percentage of the students who enrolled in the MOOC actually completed it. Here’s the MOOC-World candidate for Caveat of the Year:

Most of those completing less than 50% of the homework and quiz problems dropped out during the course and did not take the posttest, so their learning could not be measured.

Alternative interpretation: the students who dropped out did not learn anything. Again, it would be disingenuous to say in a health study, “We cannot comment on the health outcomes of the 94% of patients who died during the study.”

Of the 17,000 students who initially enrolled in the MOOC, 3,899 (about one-fourth) took the pretest. Of those, 1,117 (29%) took the posttest. And altogether, 1,080 successfully completed the course — that’s 28% of the pretest-takers and 6% of the initial enrollees.

A professor teaching an in-person course with a dropout rate between 72% and 94% would be called in to have a frank conversation with the dean. Something must be wrong with that class, if so few students stick around to learn anything in it. MOOC proponents keep telling us not to look at the courses’ completion rates. But if the goal of a MOOC is for students to learn, then students who give up must be counted in the course’s measure of success (or failure).

The problem with MOOCs is not that the pedagogy is inherently bad. In my experience, the modules are often well thought-out and clear. The problem is that the massive online environment is one that enables only very few students to learn. Mostly those students are ones who are already very experienced learners — in other words, not typical undergraduates. It takes a highly disciplined, autonomous student to keep up with the work in a MOOC, where you don’t have the social pressure of the traditional classroom to keep you going. Sure, if you can keep up with the work, you will learn a great deal. It’s just that not many people can keep up.

MOOCs have been touted as potential substitutes for in-person education. The MIT study shows, in its deeply-buried lede, that 8.MReV is not an adequate substitute, because it is set up for most of those who take it to fail. MOOCs may one day attain their promise, but for that to happen, we’d have to see big changes not in technology, but in human nature.

Update (9/26/2014): Betsy Barre of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University noted in a Facebook thread another big problem with this study:

I think this is the most important takeaway from the study, though: “The students had a normalized gain slightly higher than typical values for a traditional course, but significantly lower than typical values for courses using interactive engagement pedagogy.”

So even the 6% only did better relative to poorly taught courses; that’s not really a fair comparison, either.