I have the opportunity to regularly meet with colleagues and discuss one of my favorite topics: Feedback. Providing effective, constructive feedback in a way that avoids a visceral sense of fear or admonition is one of the greatest challenges we face as academicians. Just the word “feedback” can incite palpitations, diaphoresis, breathlessness, and nausea—not that dissimilar from the heralds of a heart attack, right? Additionally, learners can feel vulnerable to feedback, and when feedback is given inappropriately, it can induce a frightening fugue-like state, where the feedback provided neither improves the performance of the learner in a lasting fashion nor engenders trust that the institution has an investment in watching for the improved learner performance. So, what can we do to embrace the best practices of feedback?
When I ask faculty or students to list their most ineffective learning experiences in college or professional life, some aspect of the use of PowerPoint is always on the list. “Death by PowerPoint”, they commonly say. In fact, if you search for “death by PowerPoint” in GoogleTM, you will find more than 3.5 million hits. So, it’s not surprising that it seems like everyone has an opinion on how to make a better PowerPoint presentation; search for “PowerPoint tips” and you’ll find more than 26.7 million links. What is astounding, however, is how much of this web-shared wisdom recycles myths and ignores the research on design of visual aids for learning during an oral presentation or even the legibility of the slides. What does the evidence actually say for the maximum number of bullets to include on a slide? Zero. Isn’t it true that we should use blue background because blue is calming and increases a sense of pleasantness? Try again.
When criticizing “PowerPoint-enhanced” presentations it is important to separate the fault of the presenter from the fault of the program. The program can actually accomplish a great deal to support effective learning during a presentation, primarily by supporting visual learning. The problem rests with how it is used, especially when the presenter applies default templates that encourage meaningless titles, bullet lists of text, and distracting color-graphic backgrounds that have nothing to do with the presentation content. Bullet lists are arguably most useful for the presenter, giving him or her something to read or to prompt memory. The development of bullets in the software was a response to the original buyers of the product – the business world. Catchy marketing phrases and lists of a few take-home productivity points were key aspects of the 1980s business meeting. Slide templates that met the needs of this original PowerPoint market were then utilized, due to ease of access, by all PowerPoint consumers. Henceforth, bullet lists became the socialized norm for visual presentation in everything from elementary-school book reports, to battlefield preparation, to the uninformative technical briefing that is partly implicated in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. There is no indication that such brief outlines actually facilitate learning so why should educators use these templates? Even one of the inventors of PowerPoint, Robert Gaskins, is baffled: “The real mystery to me is why PowerPoint, including its default presentation style based on traditional business presentations, has been adopted so widely in other contexts.”
Take a moment to complete this true-or-false quiz:
- The flipped classroom means that direct instruction, such as lecture, is moved online for pre-class completion, and homework is moved into the scheduled face-to-face instructional time.
- The flipped classroom model is new, originating only about a decade ago.
- Effective flipped classroom instruction involves the production of videos for students to watch before class.
If you answered “true” to most or all of these questions, then you likely see the flipped classroom as something that is radically different from college teaching as it was practiced more than a decade ago, requires use of technology, and expects considerable commitment by faculty (and perhaps, support staff) to generate videos, animations, or other technology tools for online delivery. Does that view motivate you to flip your instruction or does it seem intimidating and not a teaching approach that you feel that you have time to implement or confidence to commit to?
I will make an argument for answering “false” to each of these three statements in order to show that “flipping” has a track record longer than the popularity of the term and can be implemented without dedication of extensive time or money to the use of technology.
Do you assign small-group exercises because you understand that interactivity fosters greater learning? Do you assign team projects as preparation for workplace expectations? Do you discourage students’ resistance to group work by pointing out that their future employers expect the development of teamwork skills? If you answered “yes” to two or more of these questions, are you confident that your execution of cooperative/collaborative learning is consistent with your responses?
A case in point: A pharmacy faculty member dropped by my office to explain pushback from colleagues in response to a best-practices list for implementing cooperative learning strategies. Of particular concern was the recommendation that student teams should be permanent for the duration of the course. This practice is supported by the resilience of research regarding Bruce Tuckman’s team-development stages – forming, storming, norming, performing – in group settings ranging from psychotherapy to classrooms to diverse workplaces. The evidence points strongly to the benefit of group members working together for periods of months before reaching high levels of performance output while recognizing intra-team tensions as expected storming rather than a symptom of group dysfunction. So what was the problem? “Interprofessional healthcare teams consist of different people on almost every shift,” my colleague appropriately pointed out. “So the pharmacy faculty feel that changing team membership frequently, perhaps every day, would be more effective preparation for the students’ upcoming clinical training and future careers.” Indeed, an apparent paradox.
What is our goal, as educators, for assigning work to small groups or teams? For meeting course learning objectives, we likely focus on the learning achievement of the individual student while leveraging the benefit of interactive learning, perhaps in a cooperative-learning approach. When we consider the workplace expectations for our learners in the future – and, perhaps for us at the moment – the focus is usually on the performance of the team that takes advantage of specific, differentiated expertise and roles within the team that require collaboration. The first approach favors meeting the learning objectives of the course whereas the second favors workforce preparation.
Is there a right way to teach with clickers?
2016 is the 25th anniversary of audience response systems in higher education classrooms. Commonly implemented with “clickers”, responses are increasingly collected by utilizing personal mobile devices and early approaches simply used lettered flashcards. With such a long track record, it is worth asking: “Is there is a right way, and hence also wrong ways, to teach with clickers?”
An initial answer might be that there are many ways to use any technology tool and that whatever feels comfortable to the teacher, fits in with the instructor’s existing pedagogy, and is compatible with course objectives must be right. Perhaps there is a better question: “Is there a best way to learn from using clickers?” The unambiguous answer to that question is, “Yes; peer instruction.” The remaining paradox is that very few faculty members know or practice this research-based strategy. As depicted in the metaphorical image, many directions may seem right but they may actually not lead you to the intended destination and running off road into the sand may unnecessarily taint your view of the technology.
Although many instructors use clickers to assess student learning, peer instruction (PI) uses clickers as a tool to activate learning through peer discussion while determining the course of subsequent instruction through instantaneous formative assessment. As originally developed and researched by Harvard physics professor, Eric Mazur, the PI process (1) begins by having students respond individually with their clicker to conceptually challenging multiple-choice questions, followed by (2) discussion and debate among nearby peers to resolve differing answers, proceeding to (3) a second collection of individual responses, and (4) a concluding debrief led by the instructor who is now aware of the challenges to student comprehension. The whole process requires about 5-7 minutes per question and leads to improved understanding as indicated by typical increases in correct responses from 50% or fewer students prior to peer discussion to 80% or more following the discussion. The peer discussion part is critical. A recent meta-analysis of clicker use in higher education shows that the effect size for learning when including peer discussion is three times greater than when clicker questioning does not provide the discussion opportunity.