Time for me to embrace being less helpful

Last night I was wide awake in the middle of the night thinking about changes I will want to implement in my courses next fall. Eventually I started to think about the study resources I provide my students and started to realize how counter-productive some of them are. The two specific examples that come to mind are providing solutions in the post-class notes to the clicker questions and whiteboard work that we do in class, and providing solutions to practice questions for the weekly quizzes.

It’s time for me to embrace being less helpful (thanks Dan Meyer).

Virtually none of my students take notes in my courses and it’s been getting worse as the terms pile up. The main thing that I do in class is use a lot of clicker questions, supported by some whiteboarding. I use a tablet PC to ink up the clicker question slides as we discuss them in class. And then after class I go through and further annotate all the slides so that there is a clear explanation of the correct answer to each clicker question that I used. And then I post these notes for the students.

What a great idea! This makes sure that, when studying, the students have access to a correct and coherent solution for each clicker question.

What a terrible idea! Knowing that those solutions will be posted, students feel no need to try to take notes.

I have tried on multiple occasions to pause for a couple of minutes to give the students the chance to write down their own explanations to the clicker questions after the whole-class discussion, but I only ever get a very small fraction of the students that take advantage of this time. It only occurred to me last night that the issue isn’t that I don’t usually give them time to write down their own explanations. The issue is that almost none of them feel the need to write down their own explanations because I provide “better” ones to them after class. Considering how much I try to communicate to them the importance of being able to communicate their own understanding, this is quite the sabotage job. Oops.

And it also dawned on me that the solutions to the practice questions I give them are also shortcutting their learning. It makes it way to easy for them to scan those practice questions instead of actually having to reason and work their way through those questions.

The expectations are already set in my current “lecture”-based course, but in the fall I’m going to embrace being less helpful and provide only the answers to the clicker questions and practice questions.

13 Comments on “Time for me to embrace being less helpful”

  1. I’ve put a lot of thought into this recently as well. With my standards stuff, I’ve been careful not to have a single screencast that basically completes the standard (from me). If that existed, I’m sure I’d get nearly identical copies from my students. In my most recent class we made it clear that the word “interesting” meant that it wasn’t ever worked by me nor worked by them in class. One day students asked me to stop explaining something so that they could use it in a (re)assessment.

  2. Scott Thomas says:

    I had somewhat similar issues last year. I found Eric Mazur’s style very helpful (or at least my understanding of it). Ask the question and have students submit their answer. Display the results to the class without revealing the correct answer. Now let the students discuss their reasoning openly. Have students submit the answer a second time (and if you so choose), “count” that response. I’ve found, once the students have gotten used to the style, their explaining how to do it. I’ve even had kids grab a whiteboard or come to the smartboard to show their work. If everyone has the correct answer after round 1, accept it and move on. If most still don’t get it after round 2, now the teacher steps in and helps explain things.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi Scott. I use a lazy version of Mazur’s peer instruction where I let the students chat before their initial vote, but then do a revote if needed. Either way we always have a whole-class discussion afterward where at least one student explains why they chose their specific answer. I think in the fall I might try “vanilla” peer instruction with the full-on solo vote to see how how the two flavours differ. And I’m always working on getting students to feel more comfortable explaining the incorrect answers even if it is framed as “why would somebody choose answer x”.

      • Derek Bruff says:

        I’m a proponent of having students respond to a clicker question individually first, without conferring with their neighbors. It sometimes feels weird to tell my students NOT to talk to each other about a clicker question, but I think it’s important that each student have the chance to think through the question independently before hearing from any classmates. The solo votes also give me a better sense of what my students know about a topic without any assistance from peers.

        Back to your original point, I’ve noticed that few of my students take notes during clicker questions. I don’t post solutions after class, however, so it may be more a function of the active learning environment (no time for notes! must discuss!) than you think.

      • Joss Ives says:

        Hi Derek. Thanks for you input.

        Every time I have tried to use the respond first individually without talking method, it has been in the middle of a term where that wasn’t already the norm, and the students thought I was off my rocker. But I think it is worth trying it out that way from day 1 in a future course because I do think your points are valid regarding it being good to know where the students stand individually AND it being good to let them think through the question individually.

        In terms of taking notes, I have had a few upper-year students that have taken multiple courses with me tell me that they feel that they would like to have more of a record of what happened in class. But when I have asked them for suggestions they didn’t have too much to offer beyond wanting to be able to get some answers down in their own words.

        Derek, after class do you post the answers, but not the solutions, or no answers at all?

    • Scott Thomas says:

      I agree with Derek, I think it’s important to make the students answer on their own. If you open up to discussion right from the start, you come back to a few kids dominating the conversation (from my experience). To me, that takes away from the power of using clickers. I like to see what the students think, and then tell the kids to defend their choice. When I first heard this style, I was thinking it would waste time, I’ve found after doing it all year, this year’s students are performing much better than last years. It takes a little more time, but from what I can see so far, it’s worth it.

      • Joss Ives says:

        The thing that I have noticed with the way I have been doing it is that if it is a fairly straight forward question, they don’t bother to discuss but if its a little more challenging they read it, think about it for a bit and then start chatting. I think that I fell into the camp of “solo vote first = a bit of a time waster” when I first started using clickers and then just never gave it much thought after a few course cycles.

        I had two sections of the same course last term and, in hindsight, it was a lost opportunity that I didn’t try the solo vote -> discuss -> group vote format in one of the sections and stick with my lazy way in the other.

        Thanks Scott and Derek for helping me reflect on this. In the fall I will commit to vanilla Peer Instruction for at least one of my courses.

        As a side note, my students quickly become terrible at not talking to each other so the quiet solo vote might help them embrace moments of silence a bit better.

      • Scott Thomas says:

        I saw the same thing in regards to the “easy” questions. The quick fix is to not ask those as a clicker question, but rather an example. Only use the technique with “hard” questions.

      • Joss Ives says:

        I tend to use a lot of easy clicker questions to have students help me step through derivations and examples, but that should work finw with vanilla Peer Instruction. We just get 80%+ on the solo vote, have a quick chat about it and move on.

  3. Bret Benesh says:

    Hi Joss,

    It seems like you are assuming that it is better for students to take notes than to look at solutions online after class. Are we sure this is true? What if students can pay more attention in class knowing that they do NOT need to take notes?

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi Bret, I’m planning to spend the entire term sticking to my guns in terms of giving them a couple minutes after every clicker question to write down their own understanding of the correct answer. That way the worry isn’t about them taking notes at the expense of paying attention or participating.

  4. Joss Ives says:

    I just realized that getting them used to taking a couple of minutes to write down their understanding after a clicker question also gives me time to write down any observations or thoughts of my own related to that clicker question.

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