Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Strategies for Lighting the Fire for Learning

On December 4, I attended a public presentation that was put on for the Seminar in University Teaching, a graduate course at Carleton. Popular psychology professor Tim Pychyl gave the talk, even though he is currently on sabbatical. This post summarizes my take on some of the takeaways of that inspiring hour and a half.

You will always feel like an impostor. Especially in the classroom.

Huh? That's an interesting way to start a talk... but, you know, it's not entirely untrue. We all tend to get pretty worked up about getting in front of a class. Will they ask a question I can't answer? Will I remember the main points I wanted to make? Will my group activity go over well? That's why the first lesson is to choose one's words with care and abandon. Learn to trust that your words will come when you need them, and learn to stop worrying.

Ok, now on to the lighting that fire. The official title of the talk was actually this:

Psychology of Student Engagement and Self-Regulation: Strategies for Lighting the Fire for Learning

This fire has to begin with the us, the teachers. Students aren't going to light it themselves. The retired school teacher in LA who continues to work for free knows this. He had students from way back in the 1960's come to his retirement party.

Interest is an emotion, just like fear. It has motivational properties, causing people to approach or avoid a situation, or engage or disengage. Contrary to what some people may believe, it's our job, as teachers, to interest students. Besides, we have the best jobs in the world - why not share the interest we already have in what we do? In fact, one of the biggest differences between teachers with low and high ratings is their enthusiasm. We have to know the content, but we also have to remember who is in the classroom (the students).

Good teachers focus on the nature and process of learning. As poet William Butler Yeats said,
Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.
We have the power to create the conditions necessary for a fire!

Here's what's needed: Skill, Will, and, at the intersection, Engagement. It's a juggling act to balance all of this, but it's doable. Here are some things to think about in terms of generating will and skill in a way that results in engagement (this is the part that's based on psychology).

Will (Interest)
  • Need for achievement. Can be fostered with moderate challenges and high expectations. Show students how to achieve success with these challenges.
  • Expectancy times value. Create the expectation of success and the value of learning by giving value and purpose to lectures.
  • Autonomy. Students need autonomy, but not too much. Foster it with choice.
  • Attributions. Model positive attributions, give alternatives (e.g. when someone attributes success to luck, suggest that perhaps it was a result of their hard work).
  • Mastery and performance orientation, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. These don't have the polar opposites. Show students what they can get out of the course, give context, internalize with their values. Start lectures with an interesting hook.
  • Social goals/motivation. Students want to connect with people in the class. Fulfil their goals in the name of learning, or else they'll fulfil them themselves (for example, by texting).
Skill (Understanding)
  • Existing knowledge. Think about preconceptions, previous ideas, etc. Are you drawing on these experiences at all? Get at it through class discussion.
  • Goal setting, strategies, and self-monitoring. Students don't know how to do these things right away, so we need to teach them. Make them explicit, and state what should have been mastered by now at various intervals in the term.
  • Discipline differences. What is different between disciplines? Why is it different? Vocabulary? Make it explicit, for example, when you teach them how to write a journal paper for their discipline.
  • Meta-cognition. Let students get into your head and see how you think. Make it explicit. Show how you work through problems.
My plan is to take these ideas and make them concrete in the context of computer science. I hope to incorporate this into a TA Mentor workshop on lecturing next semester. I'll be sure to post what I come up with here.

In the meantime, take a look at these books recommended during the talk (which, incidentally, are now on my Wish List):


Anonymous said...

I'd say that time is also a big factor. I was talking to one of my professors about revamping our CS curriculum, especially the intro courses. I realized that it's really hard to get anyone to be really excited about CS in an intro course unless they already some attraction to it. I think if you want to attract someone to a particular field, you have to invest a lot of time in gradually introducing them (ideally many years starting at a young age).

There are the cases where people just come into contact with a field and then fall in love with it, but those aren't the norm and we can't let our field depend on them.

Additionally, I've also realized that coming up with good CS intro courses is really, really hard.

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