Teaching: July 2008 Archives

Don't Forget the Definition Box

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Now that I've worked with several technical courses, I realize that one of the more important and tricky parts of building a course is making sure students are properly introduced to new terminology in the correct sequence.

This may seem stunningly obvious, but I'm noticing there are a few interesting challenges such as

Forgetting What Students Don't Know Yet

A basic, but surprisingly common mistake, in forgetting that students are often starting at ground zero. For instance on the reality hair stylist competition Shear Genius, one of the Nexus professionals described a very easy style using just your difussor. Huh? I don't what a difussor is, but I'm pretty sure I don't own one. Of course for professional hair stylists, this is probably a basic tool - but for the rest of us...maybe not.

For the record, a diffusor is an extension for your hair dryer which lessens the air flow. It is recommended for curly hair.

The same thing happens to all instructors actually - they've lived in their own knowledge domain for so long that they really can't remember not knowing these "basic" concepts. Speaking for myself, I do have a sense that students don't know about fricatives (a type of consonant) yet, but somehow I expect that most people are familiar with the concept of the English Great Vowel Shift (the blank stares do cue me in to that fact that not all students are).

The Unending Path of Definitions

Depending on where you are in your curriculum, a definition for one term is basically a gateway a related definitions, which your students may or may not know.

Take béarnaise sauce for instance - many cookbooks say to make a hollandaise but use shallots, vinegar and tarragon instead. Which then leads you to hollandaise, "an emulsion of butter and lemon juice using egg yolks as the emulsifying agent" (Wikipedia Hollandaise, 18 Jul 2008). An an emulsion would be...?

I think you see the point - the more technical a course is, the more related definitions there are to work with, and it's difficult to judge what a student knows or doesn't know. Maybe a student understands emulsion, but has never heard of tarragon.

Shouldn't They Know that By Now?

How much do you have to review you teach an intermediate or advanced class? For instance, if you're teaching Accessble Web design and knowledge of HTML is a pre-requisite, shouldn't everyone already about HTML? Ha!

Unfortunately, there's always more review than any instructor wants to deal with. In my universe, even if I am teaching a 400-level class in phonetics and phonology, I know I will have to review all the phonetic symbols for the English vowels...again. The students all nod their head in class if they have already seen and memorized these symbols, but their homework says otherwise. It never hurts to review if you can.

On the other hand, it is amazing what students have forgotten. My favorite example was a statistics class in which many students had to be reminded that < is "less than" and > is "greater than." Even I say ugh.

Defining the Modern Student?

The good thing about the modern educational system is that it gives students from a wide variety of backgrounds the opportunity to learn what they want. The bad thing about the modern educational system is that it gives students from a wide variety of backgrounds the opportunity to learn what they want.

I think a lot of us still envision formal education as an orderly sequence of curricula. You take Widget 100, learn the basics, then move to Widget 200, 300 and so forth. But the reality is that an orderly sequence is not what happens. Some of us come back to school after a long absence. A lot of us transfer (moving between school systems, I missed World history but got American history two years in a row). And finally just about all of use change instructors between courses (it's a fact that you will see Welsh data sometime in my course while my advisor always had data from Southern Italian dialects). And sometimes an advisor recommends a 400-level class to a sophomore even though it's a 497 Special Topics class (Argh!!!).

It's no wonder that most instructors are forced to spend part of their time in review. On the other hand, there is an opportunity there...for students to learn from the specialists and for instructors to learn from their students.

A Formal Study of Online Social Loafing

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An important, but not always acknowledged, aspect of team work in social loafing or the tendency in some individuals on some teams to slack off and let others fill in the gaps. I think we've all experienced it from either end.

It's not a pretty aspect of team work, but since it can impact overall performance, I'm glad there is research on this topic such as this article on social learning on online student teams. If nothing else, I think it gave me some real insights on why some conflicts seem to recur on almost every team and what I may be able to do to mitigate it.

In the "Literature Review" section, the author pointed out some findings from non-online teams, namely that:

  • Effect of Size - The larger the team, the larger the temptation to loaf. A smaller team may have more productive members than a large one.
  • Distributive Justice - Members who felt they were more likely to share in rewards and recognition were less likely to loaf.
  • Sucker Effect - Actually more like avoiding being a sucker. If a team member senses that they may be "stuck" with a lot of additional work from a social loafer, then that person will become resistant to taking on too much work (possibly to the point of loafing).
  • Task Visibility - Members who felt that outsiders (an instructor, supervisor, audience) were more likely to examine the final product were less likely to loaf.
  • Dominance - If a team leader or dominant team member devalues a member's task/position/contribution, then loafing is more likely to increase. Interestingly, this can lead to a feedback loop because Dominant Person A can either try to do everything or assigning task elsewhere while Person B starts to loaf and gets a reputation of not being able to perform.

Do these sound familiar? They do to me. I think there are strategies a team leader can take to mitigate these such as making sure recognition comes to the entire team, taking on largish tasks if possible and understanding and acknowledging every member's contribution (and maybe bring cookies every so often). Instructors in courses can build anti-social loafing strategies into team tutorials.

To these, I would also add that if you feel that some is "loafing", it may be important to check with that person if something you don't know about is going on. I remember scheduling a weekly meeting that a student was always late for only to find out he was leaving class on campus and trying to get downtown in 10 minutes - Oops.

I think the one thing that does NOT work is asking people to be "a better team player" without acknowledging that social loafing is a real and ever-present hazard of team work and a major source of conflict.

P.S. - I should point out that I think many of these findings assume that many team members are more extrinsically motivated (looking for external rewards) than intrinsically motivated (doing it for the love of it), but I think many teams in school and work are powered by extrinsic motivation. We can't love all our duties/courses equally.