On Leaving the Circus

Circus_poster,_1890

Circus poster, 1890. (Library of Congress)

My last day of work at Athabasca University was Friday, June 3. That weekend was the most relaxing I’d had in… ever. Even finishing my PhD didn’t come close to the sensation of lightness. For the two weeks prior, it was almost impossible to concentrate because I felt like a kid about to start summer holidays.

If I had stuck around until September, it would have been 8 years. Unlike most schools, Athabasca University does not break up its year into terms or quarters. It has a continuous enrollment model, where new students start the course every month. Students can submit their assignments at any time during their contract period. The result is that there is no way to predict workload. There is also no way to predict income, because it depends partly on monthly enrollment, as well as the number of papers graded. For me this meant my life was in a perpetual holding pattern to accommodate the irregular income and schedule. Eight years is a long time to stay in an unproductive holding pattern.

The message I got upon being hired by Athabasca was that my position was intended to be a small auxiliary source of income, kind of like babysitting is for a teenager. Nevertheless, I would be expected to offer the highest possible standard of customer service. If I could coin a phrase, it would be “work like you’re full-time.”

But I managed this. I also had the opportunity to revise my courses, which made me feel like I was actually in a teaching position. However, Athabasca’s financial concerns soon came to the forefront. There was the email requesting that employees take unpaid vacation to reduce the burden on payroll. AU entertained the notion of laying off all tutors for a day to save money. Large-scale layoffs happened. There was the move to digital textbooks, where savings realized from the lower cost of digital textbooks were not passed on to students as a decrease in fees.

And then there was the call centre. This news came in the form of a sternly worded email from the acting president that a) tutor costs were unsustainable, and b) this problem would be solved by getting rid of the system of tutors and replacing it with a “one stop shop” for all inquiries.

The claim was that students contacted their (unhelpful, unprofessional) tutors infrequently, and when they did it was mostly with administrative questions that tutors were not equipped to handle. Therefore, there should be a call centre that students would contact first. Knowledgeable and professional call-centre operators (in sharp contrast to tutors) would then connect the student with appropriate resources. If it were deemed necessary, a highly qualified Academic Expert (former tutor) would be contacted and informed that the student had a question. The Academic Expert would then contact the student within 2 business days.

They argued that the centre could be open for longer hours, and on weekends, whereas there were limited office hours during which students could contact their tutors. First of all, these office hours were limited because AU was not willing to hire tutors full-time—so it’s hardly fair to blame the tutors for that. But second, and far more importantly, who uses the phone anymore? If I got more than 30 phone calls in the time I worked there, I’d be surprised. But I did get emails at all hours of the day and night, 7 days a week. The vast majority of those questions were about the course material.

The call centre would save money because the Academic Experts would be paid only for specific activities, rather than the “block pay” determined by the number of students assigned to a tutor. Getting paid would require filling out time sheets to document those activities. You can see a list of what counts here, in the appropriately named Outsider newsletter of CUPE 3911 (the tutors’ union).

And that’s were my self-respect threshold came into view. The notion of having to subdivide my job into the most miniscule bits and pieces, and keep meticulous track of them in order to get paid, seemed incredibly burdensome. That’s not why I teach. Add to that rumblings about Academic Experts having their time sheets rejected, and the suggestion that I could expect a 40% decrease in my income, and it just didn’t seem worth it anymore.

My initial plan was to wait until my courses were moved to the call centre. I would see how things went, and then resign if the situation got as bad as I thought it would. But I got tired of waiting for the axe to fall. I got tired of there being an axe. I started to feel like a chump for staying there.

I might have been able to tolerate the problems if I had felt valued, but I didn’t. Even before the call centre, I had the sense that AU felt its tutors needed to be scolded into doing a good job. On an employee pulse survey, someone commented that tutors as a whole lacked professional development. This is in spite of the fact that no-one had bothered to ask what kind of professional development tutors had done. There also seemed to be a pro call-centre PR strategy to denigrate the abilities and work of tutors, as a means of emphasizing that AU was making the tough choices and seeking solutions.

So I felt about as valued as a piece of chewing gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe. I didn’t realize how deeply that feeling went until I received a 5-year service pin in the mail. I was surprised and confused because I honestly didn’t think tutors counted as employees for purposes of service recognition.

I’ve never quit a job before. I expected that quitting this one would happen when I was angry and bitter, but instead I was completely blissed out. If this post sounds like an angry rant, it isn’t. It is more of an exorcise- an exercise in exorcising those demons so I can leave them behind and begin whatever healing is required. Being chewing gum is hard on a person’s psyche.

My resignation letter was one sentence saying only what date my resignation would be effective. I didn’t say why I was quitting, and no-one asked. I was a little surprised that they didn’t ask for a hand-off overview of how the courses were going. They should have. Maybe I could have offered that information, but there would have been a lot to say. I’ve tried to communicate issues and solutions before, only to be disregarded, and I didn’t have it in me to try again. And anyway—not my monkeys, not my circus.

I don’t have a new job lined up, per se, but I do have a project that I’ve been meaning to start. I will get to use my research skills, and learn new things. I will have an opportunity to progress rather than being trapped in a holding pattern. I won’t have to read messages from administrators about how I’m not worth what they’re paying me. I won’t have to be afraid of decisions others are making about my future. I won’t need the approval of people who are less qualified than I am to make decisions. I’m not leaving higher ed just yet, but I am branching out and trying to make my own opportunities. What comes after remains to be seen.

Why Open Science Daily?

In February of this year I started a new project: a Twitter account called Open Science Daily (@journal_365). I started after reading about Sci Hub, a project of systematic piracy of research articles from behind journal paywalls. This matters because such articles are the lifeblood of academic work, but the cost of journal subscriptions is keeping them locked away. You might not think it’s a big deal whether or not a scientist has access to the Antarctic Journal of Annelid Research but what about journals publishing the latest findings on cancer?

Contemplating a Life Without Truth

I had the jarring experience myself of discovering that one of the universities I work for had forgotten I existed (at least for staff computing privileges) and cut off my access to electronic journals. It felt like I’d lost a limb or a smartphone. I wondered how anyone could possibly survive without being able to find out stuff whenever the out of stuff needed finding. What do you do without access to truth as filtered through the peer-review process? Those were dark days indeed.

After reading about Sci Hub I thought that it should be doable to establish some sort of framework where a journal could offer content freely by using on the fact that its input (research) comes to it for free, its reviewers are free, editors may be unpaid, and there is no longer the overhead of producing materials in hard copy. As I contemplated how this might work, I suddenly remembered that it already existed, and was called open-access publishing.

Now I’m not the most up on my open-access resources, but I’d like to think that I have at least a little more knowledge than the average Jane. Yet I forgot these things even existed! Free peer-reviewed knowledge, and I forgot! It occurred to me that if I didn’t remember these things existed, then (barring explanations including but not restricted to teaching-related stress, lack of sleep, and lack of caffeine), how many other people don’t know or forgot? And so Open Science Daily was born.

So What, Exactly, Are You Doing?

Using the OSD account, I’ve been tweeting about one open-access science journal a day (more or less- but my track record is pretty good). I include the name, the url, and some key hashtags, but my strategy for maximum attention-getting is to use images. Initially I started off doing this sort of thing:

Earth System Dynamics

But then it got a little fancier,

Paleo Electr

and fancier (this one makes my eyes happy),

TWBul.png

and now they’re mini art projects. (Note the superposition of the semi-transparent storm clouds over the melting glacier to give the whole thing an ominous feel.)

EarthFut

While making pretty pictures is fun, I’m cognizant that my images might be the first thing someone sees of a given journal. In other words, I’m making the first impression, and I don’t take that lightly. That means I try to make the images look clean and professional, and take cues from the journal’s homepage about what might be appropriate, or what those running the journal might like to see. Sometimes they make it easy, such as by putting a tiny Mars rover at the top of their page, so I can do this:

GeoIMDS

The descriptive text in my images comes verbatim from the journal’s homepage whenever that is possible. This is primarily because I’m dealing with many topics that are new to me, and I don’t want to make paraphrasing errors. It’s also much faster. If I had to go through each journal to come up with my own succinct descriptions I simply wouldn’t be able to do this project. It seems reasonable that the journals should speak for themselves in this way.

Which science journals?

I’m working from the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), and it’s likely this will keep me busy for a while. I’ve covered the journals they’ve filed under “Geology” and am working through categories which are also related to the Earth system and space. I choose journals which use English to describe themselves, so I can avoid cutting and pasting information in a language I don’t understand. The journal must also have a clear description of its focus and scope. Many do, and helpfully label this information “Focus and Scope.” But others have thwarted by best attempts to find a snippet of description that is pithy enough for my images.

Who is this for?

Awareness of open access journals matters for people who are not affiliated with an institution having deep enough pockets to afford journal subscriptions. That could mean people who are members of the general public, who work independently of an institution, or who belong to an organization that simply doesn’t have the cash. It also matters for the researchers and academics whose work is being published, because they might not otherwise consider whether their journal of choice is open access. It matters because institutions can begin to consider open-access publishing in their policy-making, and take steps to encourage it.

This is also for me, because I love the brain rush accompanying the sudden realization that yet another universe of ideas exists, of which I had been completely unaware. It’s like feeling your way around a dark room and encountering an unexpected doorway. Looking at a new journal each day has made me aware of new fields, and allowed me to make connections between seemingly disparate concepts. I sometimes wonder if my little band of followers will become bored if I stray too far from their areas of interest. But I find myself exclaiming, “That’s actually a thing?!” at least once a week, and having that opportunity must appeal to at least a few of them.

Update

After a run of 8 months or so I have deactivated Open Science Daily. I still think it’s a worthy project, but I have other projects right now that need more focus than I was giving them. In the end I evaluated 177 open-access journals for this project, and tweeted about 137 of them.

Online Courses and The Problem That No-One Is Talking About

There are two kinds of online courses: those which are taught, and those which are facilitated. The distinction does not apply to the task of interacting with students. I’ve been both “teacher” and “facilitator,” and it’s exactly the same job from that perspective. The difference is one of autonomy, and it is a big difference.

The Gwenna Moss Centre is about to run another offering of their Introduction to Teaching Online course. Although I am a co-facilitator for this course, I would describe it as a course which is taught rather than facilitated. My co-co-facilitator and I discuss the course as it is running, and make adjustments on the fly when necessary. We take note of what worked and what didn’t, look at participants’ evaluations, and then modify the course as necessary for the next offering. Not only do we have the autonomy to make the necessary changes, it is expected that we will.

In Intro to Teaching Online, we assume that the participants will also be able to teach their online courses- that they will make pedagogical and logistical choices to respond to their students’ needs, and to make the course run as smoothly as possible. Also, that they will have the ability to revise as necessary and try new things. That’s how you teach an online course.

When you facilitate an online course, while you might take on the task of assisting students and grading their papers, what you can do beyond that is tightly restricted by a delivery model over which you have very little control. How little control will vary, but most likely it will be difficult or impossible to make substantive changes to what is taught, or how it is taught. Even if you designed the course in the first place, that “you” and facilitator you are completely different people as far as control over the course goes, and designer you lost any input as soon as the design contract was up.

If you are lucky enough to be able to request changes, the process is rather like having completed a painting, then being told you aren’t allowed to touch it anymore. If you want something to change, you must fill out a form describing in detail where the paint should go and how to move the brush. Someone more qualified than you will make the change. They might send a note back to you saying that they plan to improve your painting of a cow by adding spots. You must then explain at length that it is in fact a dog, and should not have spots. When the painting is finally modified, the dog is the wrong shade of brown. You decide it is best to not request modifications to your paintings in future.

Why does this matter? I don’t care how good you are- you never get a course exactly right the first time. If there aren’t any outright problems, then it soon becomes apparent where improvements can be made. Facilitator you gets to see the problems or areas for improvement, but must be content with grading papers and answering questions. If facilitator you is like facilitator me, this will drive you nuts. If facilitator you is subject to the same kinds of course evaluations as someone who can teach their course, and make it the best it can be, then this is not only unfair, but professionally dangerous.

While course quality is affected by this- especially if no-one sees a need to consult with facilitator you about how the course is going, or there are no mechanisms for facilitator you to communicate issues and be taken seriously- there is a bigger problem: the very integrity of the course.

At one time distance education was mostly intended to serve those who could not go to a brick-and-mortar institution for one reason or another. Maybe they had a family or a full-time job and couldn’t leave to go to school. Maybe they just couldn’t afford to move. Now things are different. While I don’t have any hard numbers, from what I can tell, at least 70% of my students are already taking classes at a brick-and-mortar school. They take an online class because they can fit it into their schedule better than one on campus, or it isn’t offered on campus at a time they need it, or they’re trying to get ahead/ complete their degrees over the summer.

What this means for the big picture is that students are far more likely to communicate with each other about the course than in the past. It might be two students who take the course together, or it could be someone who took it previously sharing information with someone currently enrolled. In the case that is causing me problems right now, a substantial number of students from one department at one school take the online course to fill a requirement. This is a facilitated course, so perhaps you can guess where this is going.

The students talk to each other. Some of it might be innocent enough, but some of it involves passing on assignments that I’ve graded to the next group of students who take the course. The course has not been updated substantively in some time, so the same assignments and exams still apply.

The problem has become ridiculous of late, with students submitting near-perfect assignments, all exactly alike plus or minus a few careless errors, and within record time. They get things right that no-one ever gets right. Clearly they are working together, but they are also referring to older assignments. I know this for certain for a few reasons: First, the correct answer will frequently appear after incomplete or even nonsensical work. They submit solutions with the answer that would have resulted if a typo, long since removed, was still in the question. They also plagiarize my comments from old assignments, sometimes reproducing them verbatim.

This course has a must-pass stipulation on the final exam. Normally that would be some comfort, because students who haven’t learned anything on the assignments would fail the exams. I’ve seen students with 95%, 99%, and 100% on assignments unable to break 20% on the final. (The exam isn’t that hard.) But over the past few months it has become apparent that the content of the exam has been shared. If not an actual copy, then a very good description of what it contains is in circulation. Exam grades have gone up, and students are regularly answering questions correctly which were rarely answered correctly in the past.

Ideally, if so many students who know each other are taking the course, the assignments should change frequently. In our hyper-connected world, it is almost certain that this kind of communication between students will happen. I even know of a homework-sharing website that has some of the solutions posted. The problem is that in order to change this, someone has to keep on top of the course full-time, and have the autonomy to make the necessary changes. The main consideration should not be the logistics of altering course materials. There’s no excuse for that when the relevant materials are or can be delivered online, and everyone and their dog knows how to upload a file to an LMS.

Nevertheless, the issue is that facilitators cannot be empowered in this way without disrupting the underlying structure of course delivery. Even more problematic is a culture amongst those who do run things- those who are not subject-matter experts but who handle the day-to-day operations- which views facilitators as incompetent, and unable to handle this responsibility. Not long ago I was handed an in-house guide to designing distance education courses. It warned readers at the outset that most faculty would be uncooperative and not understand how a distance education course should run. I felt ill, the way you would feel if you overheard your co-workers complaining about how useless you were. As I recycle that book I will contemplate with irony the damage this attitude has caused to distance education, and wonder if maybe I should take a chance and start the dog-washing business I’ve been thinking about.

There are many reasons to disempower facilitators, not the least of which is the cost savings from having them as casual workers instead of full-time ones. So here’s where I’m going to get in trouble for this post (if I haven’t already): if your concern is the bottom line, what happens when the ease with which students can cheat in your course makes other schools, employers, professional certification organizations, etc., decide that credit for your course is no longer meaningful? Even if cheating is less of a risk, what if word gets around that the course is hopelessly outdated or has problems? You don’t get enrollment, that’s what. And the people who communicate this aren’t going to be disgruntled facilitators. I’m the least of your worries. You need to worry about the students themselves who joke openly about cheating, and how little can be done about it, or who are discovered to lack skills or to have learning that is outdated.

There is a fundamental disconnect between what schools view as the appropriate way to structure a distance education program, and what actually works on the ground, when you’re expecting learning to happen. One involves online teaching and the other does not. There is a cultural gulf between those who have the power to do something about it, and those who can only look on in frustration. There are a lot of dogs to wash, but with most of them you have to spell out B-A-T-H rather than say the word, or they run off. A waterproof apron is useful, but not foolproof. You’ll need lots of towels.

Dear Ed Tech: This Is What You Don’t Understand About Higher Education

I am the kind of tired that makes you feel hollow inside, so maybe this isn’t the best time to be writing this, but then again, maybe it is. I just got back from my Monday-Tuesday teaching overnighter out of town. I’m a hired gun in the world of higher education—sometimes we’re called adjunct faculty, sometimes sessional lecturers, and a number of other terms that are beyond my ability to recall at the moment—but you know who we are.

The problem is that being able to learn about educational technologies is really a luxury for my lot. I’ve been able to take many free courses which I’ve enjoyed very much, but I was only able to take them because I could afford to not fill that time with paid work. Full-time faculty on campus who opt to attend a course are doing so during the work day, but hired guns do it on their own time. Many of my colleagues simply wouldn’t be able to take the time. I’m thinking of you, Elaine, with your 8 courses this term in at least three different communities. So the first thing you need to know, Ed Tech, is that a substantial number of the people teaching courses at universities are hired guns like me, and many of those are on the razor’s edge of being able to support their teaching habits.

Part of being a hired gun is not having job security. You should care about this, Ed Tech, because the many wonderful tools you offer require a lot of work up-front. It’s a big decision whether or not to use a technology when learning it and preparing materials happens on your own time. It’s an even bigger decision when access to a tool depends on your employment status, as it often does with institutional subscriptions to software.

My blog, for example, started out on a university WordPress service, but after the jarring experience of having my computing access cut off between contracts, and facing the loss of the materials I created, I moved it and absorbed the costs associated with making it ad-free.

The same university is working on updating their in-class response system. I’m using one now, Poll Everywhere, which also happens to be something I can afford out-of-pocket, and the chance that I would adopt the system the university chooses is zero. It doesn’t matter how good the system is. What matters is that it takes a lot of time to set up questions and to embed them into presentations. Is it worth spending the time if I only get to use those questions once, or, assuming I’m teaching a similar class elsewhere, am unable to access them? This more or less guarantees that whatever system the university chooses will be utilized far less than they would like.

I came face to face with this issue more recently when discussing a home for the open textbook adaptation I’m working on. First of all, I’ve spent 131 hours on this adaptation so far, according to the timer I use to track my various ill-advised activities. That doesn’t include the 65 hours I spent writing a chapter for the original version of the book (for which, I must add, I was compensated—something I appreciated as an acknowledgement of my work as much as for the income.).

My free Pressbooks account didn’t have enough space for the media library, so I upgraded at my own expense. I then learned that the university is setting up its own version of Pressbooks, but faced with the possibility of losing access to what now seems like a ridiculous amount of work, I would never consider using their account to work on my textbook. I would also be nervous about having my students use a version hosted on the university’s system because I’m not clear on whether I would have access to edit it once it got put there. (I have no idea how authors of print materials aren’t driven nuts by being unable to edit at will.)

In my present state of near-faceplant exhaustion, it appears that I’ve made a great many poor life-choices. I can justify this in my better moments as things that are important to do for my students, but on days like today, all I can think of is why oh why am I killing myself with this?

Ed Tech, you need to realize that many of the people teaching in higher education are not in a position to be as frivolous with their time as I have been. In the push to get instructors to adopt various kinds of educational technology, it isn’t just a matter of convincing them that it’s good for students. They very likely know that already. The challenge is convincing them that they should commit to a technology in spite of the personal and financial burden, not to mention being treated like the education version of a paper plate (it works, it’s cheap, it’s disposable, there are lots more where it came from) by the schools that would benefit from their labour.

The commitment you’re asking for isn’t the same as it would be for full-time faculty, and I don’t think you realize how frustrating—even insulting—it is when you discuss the problem of adoption in terms of instructors being resistant to change, too lazy to change, or just not getting it. Especially when you yourselves are comfortably ensconced in a full-time position. For hired guns like me, the only compensation is warm fuzzies. When you’re a dead-inside kind of tired, warm fuzzies are entirely inadequate.

INTJ Teacher: An Alternative Approach to the Teaching Philosophy Statement

Some weeks ago I attended a workshop on designing a reflective teaching portfolio offered by the GMCTE at the U of S, and facilitated by two of their excellent instructors, Kim West and Wenona Partridge. The workshop was about making a written record of one’s ideas about teaching, of the methods for accomplishing teaching goals, and of evidence of how that was going. The starting point was a statement of teaching philosophy, which is exactly what it sounds like- a written description of how one views teaching, and how those views inform one’s approach to teaching. (You can find some examples here.)

Kim and Wenona had us do a number of activities to help us articulate a teaching philosophy. I found those activities useful, but what really helped me was something that appeared in their slides, but which we didn’t really discuss in the workshop: the Myers-Briggs survey. Myers-Briggs is a set of questions used to classify people into one of 16 personality types described by four letters: I or E for introvert or extrovert; S or N for sensing or intuition; T or F for thinking or feeling, and J or P for judging or perceiving. The figure below is a nice summary.

 

Chart of Myers-Briggs personality types

Chart of Myers-Briggs personality types. (Source: Jake Beech, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

I don’t know what motivated me to do the test, and from the figure, it doesn’t seem like the classifications should lead to any earth-shattering revelations. But I did do the test (I used the one at 16 Personalities, because it seemed to have the best interface and descriptions of personality types), and the outcome was something I would never have imagined: relief! It felt like a huge burden was lifted!

I learned that many of the things I though were dysfunctional about me, and which I’ve worked hard to overcome so that I could interact with “normal” people are actually themselves normal characteristics (albeit for a very small segment of the population). They are so normal, in fact, that they comprise a stereotype in an online quiz.

On the one hand, nothing has changed. And why should it? It’s an online personality survey, for goodness sake! But on the other hand everything has changed because my perspective is different. I suddenly feel like I’m allowed to be myself, which I would describe as someone with mildly misanthropic tendencies. The kinds of things that frustrate me are quite predictable, if you’re going by the type. This is consistent with the fact that very few people seem to feel as cranky as I do about a number of things which I find blatantly objectionable (some of which I’ve discussed at Petragogy).

Whether you believe that Myers-Briggs is a meaningful or not as a way to determine someone’s personality is one thing, and maybe you’ve done the test and found it to be completely off base. But if you’re looking for scientific rigour, you’re missing the point. When I did the test, some things didn’t seem to match me either. There’s no way I’m disrespectful of authority! I never get in trouble! I just expect that authority figures should be competent, and authority in and of itself is not a thing to respect intrinsically… Oh. Never mind.

See, it’s about having a starting point for questioning your assumptions about yourself.

After a sense of relief, the next thing that occurred to me is that INTJ-ish types would, on the surface, not seem to be particularly suited to teaching roles. The phrases “does not play well with others,” and “does not suffer fools kindly” come to mind. But teaching is something I feel very strongly about, and something I put a lot of effort into getting right.

So naturally, I made a comic. It’s a remarkably efficient way to communicate that I will get things done, and I will do them right. Someone might not like how I do things, but there are solid reasons behind my choices, and I can promise you that I’ve thought it out thoroughly from every angle possible, and you would get bored long before I’m done enumerating the reasons. I will still make you listen, however, because you should have all the facts.

It’s difficult to articulate the implications of that in a few paragraphs in a teaching philosophy statement. One would think a cartoon would be limiting as a means of communication, but somehow it’s just the opposite. I can get more across with a few lines of text and some pictures than I could in several pages of writing.

I’m calling my comic INTJ Teacher (as far as I can tell no-one on the internet has claimed that yet), and using the tag line, “For those who are, and those who should know what they’re dealing with,” because that pretty much sums it up. My first installment (below) is an introduction, and I will post subsequent installments from time to time. With the small number of INTJ-identifying folks out there, and the fraction of those who are educators, I’m not expecting a huge interest. That’s fine, though. I just like the idea of being able to point someone to a url and say, “You’ve been warned.”

INTJ Teacher webcomic

Introducing the INTJ teacher

Update for 6 September 2018: I’m moving my comic from a separate blog to this one because I have too many  tentacles in online space. I’ll file posts under the category INTJ Teacher.

The Levitating Wiener Standard of Formative Assessment

Formative assessment, or informative assessment, as I like to call it, is the kind of evaluation you use when it’s more important to provide someone with information on how to improve than it is to put a number next to a name. Formative assessment might or might not include a grade, but it will include thoughtful and actionable feedback. Formative assessment of teachers is no less important than formative assessment of learners- both are needed for the magic to happen.

I struggle with how to get truly useful formative feedback from my students. There are different instruments for evaluating teaching, including SEEQ (the Students’ Evaluation of Educational Quality), but the problem with the instruments I’ve used is that they don’t provide specific enough information. Sure, there is a place where students can write comments to supplement the boxes they’ve checked off elsewhere on the form, but those spaces are often left blank, and when they’re not blank, they don’t necessarily say anything actionable.

I’ve concluded that I need to design my own questionnaires. But when I get down to the business of writing questions, it feels like an impossible task to design a survey that will get at exactly what I want to know. I do have a pretty high standard, however: the levitating wiener.

The mentalist and magician Jose Ahonen performs a magic trick where he presents a levitating wiener to dogs. You can watch the videos How Dogs React to Levitating Wiener (parts 1 and 2) below. These are fascinating videos… have a look.

The dogs in the videos have one of three reactions:

  1. It’s a wiener! Gimme that wiener! These dogs react as one might expect, focusing on the existence of the wiener rather than on the fact that it is levitating.
  1. How the heck are you doing that? These dogs ignore the wiener and focus on the palms of Jose’s hands instead. It’s as though they’ve decided that it doesn’t make sense for a wiener to be levitating, and he must be doing it by holding strings. In other words, these dogs are trying to figure out how he’s doing the trick, and they all seem to have the same hypothesis. (Incidentally, it’s probably the first hypothesis most humans would come up with.)
  1. This is wrong… it’s just so wrong. These dogs watch for a moment and then get the heck out of there. Like the dogs in group 2 they also don’t think wieners should levitate, but they are too appalled by the violation of normality to formulate a hypothesis and investigate.

To my mind, most of the teaching assessment instruments are more like having the dogs fill out the questionnaire below than watching them interact with a levitating wiener.

Formative assessment for levitating wieners (loosely based on the SEEQ questionnarie)

Formative assessment for levitators of wieners

If the participants checked “agree” or “strongly agree” for “Weiners should not levitate,” it could mean something different for each dog. A dog from group 1 might object to having to snatch the wiener out of the air as opposed to having it handed to him. A dog from group 2 might think the question is asking about whether wieners are subject to gravity. A dog from group 3 might be expressing a grave concern about witchcraft. If the dogs wrote comments (we’re assuming literate doggies here), their comments might clarify the reasons behind their responses. Or they might just say there should be more wieners next time.

Now contrast the questionnaire with the experiment shown in the videos. Because of the experimental design, I learned things that I wouldn’t even have thought to ask about- I just assumed all dogs would react like group 1. I learned things the dogs themselves might never have written in their questionnaires. A dog from group 2 might not have noted his interest in the engineering problems surrounding hovering hot dogs in the “Additional comments” section. It might not have occurred to a dog from group 3 to mention that he was frightened by floating frankfurters. Maybe neither dog knew these things about himself until he encountered a levitating wiener for the first time.

A formative assessment tool that is up to the levitating wiener standard would tell me things I didn’t even consider asking about. It would tell me things that students might not even realize about their experience until they were asked.  Aside from hiring a magician, any suggestions?

The Open Textbook Arrives- For Real This Time!

Textbook coverApparently I’m not the only person who has seen a need for an open textbook for introductory physical geology. BCcampus has just released one, and I was lucky enough to get in at the tail end of the process and add a chapter on the origin of Earth and the solar system.

In case you haven’t heard of open before, these are resources which are free to use, and are available with non-restrictive or minimally restrictive licenses, or released to the public domain.  This particular book has a CC-BY license. That means anyone can use the book in any way they please, so long as they give the creator appropriate credit, and note whether any changes have been made.  Quite simply, it’s a free textbook.

A lot of work went into this book, and that is evident when you look through it. The author, Steven Earle, not only explained a wide range of topics in an enthusiastic and conversational style, but he also drew or adapted a great many figures. From my own experience, I can tell you that figure drawing takes up a lot more time than the actual writing. (But then again, I’m the sort to vacillate between shadow settings or tweak a font for 5 to 10 minutes before I’m happy with it.)

This textbook has a special focus on the geology of British Columbia.  That’s a Canadian focus that many commercially available physical geology textbooks have lacked until recently, judging by the regular shipment of freebies I get from the textbook companies.

The textbook is not only accessible as an online resource, but it can also be downloaded in a variety of electronic formats- you could put it on an e-reader, for example.

The online version of the book is built in Pressbooks, and I was immediately enamored of the aesthetics and ease of navigation… so much so I got my own Pressbooks account for experimentation. I’m finding it a bit slow, however my internet signal fails on really windy days (one of the perils of a rural home office), so maybe it’s not their fault.

The one feature of this textbook which has had the greatest impact on me is the fact that I can edit it- all by my lonesome, no permission required. In its current form, the book presents some of the topics differently than I do in my course, so I inquired about making the changes. The result? Amanda, a lovely lady from BCcampus, emailed me the latest version of the XML file, and I imported it into my Pressbooks account. It was that easy. (The XML file is one of the download options as well.)

I was pleasantly surprised at how straightforward it was to get something I could edit, but what surprised me most of all was the immense sense of relief I felt when I discovered that there were no barriers to making the textbook fit my needs. I’ve always been a bit of a control freak when it comes to my course materials- on a bad day that translates to downright resentment at not being able to fix things that need fixing- but I had no idea that I was so stressed out about not being able to control my textbooks.

Help for Students, Part 4: Exam Panic

Exam panic is a tricky problem, because once you experience it, it can make you worry about panicking in the future.  Once you are anxious about panicking, that makes it all the more likely. Fortunately there is a way to fix this. The solution is, go ahead and panic… sort of.

Brain sees exam monster

The problem: you see an exam but your brain sees certain death.

Your brain is an amazing bit of biology that has evolved over millions of years to serve the needs of our ancestors. Unfortunately, somewhere during that evolutionary process it became a toddler-like entity that, regardless of your good intentions, is willful, easily bored, and prone to inconvenient emotional outbursts. It learned a few good tricks that were suitable for helping our ancestors to escape from predators and each other, but since then it has stubbornly refused to acknowledge that those same tricks can be counterproductive when dealing with anxiety over situations that are not likely to kill you.

Brains in a panic

Brains do not react well to certain death.

When you see an exam and feel anxious, your brain sees something else entirely. As far as it’s concerned, that exam is actually a large carnivore about to eat you for lunch. Your brain will try its best to persuade you that you are about to die, and that you should run for your life. Your brain is wrong, but it is also convincing.

Expect some exam anxiety or even outright panic, but realize that you don’t have to accept what your brain is telling you about the situation. Sit back and let it have a fit, like you’re waiting out a child’s temper tantrum. Without your complicity, your brain will not maintain its high panic state, and will settle down again in a few minutes. If you happen to imagine it as an obnoxious pinkish-grey wrinkly thing running back and forth, waving its arms in the air, and screaming at the top of its lungs, that might speed things along.

Brains exhaused after their panic

Sometimes you just have to wait them out.

Exam panic is only a disaster if you think it is. If you begin to panic, and mistakenly believe that the panic is the result of an accurate assessment of your situation, then more panic follows. Even worse, when you panic, your cognitive functioning can diminish: amongst other things, you can forget what you’ve studied. So now you’re suddenly unable to remember anything you studied, and becoming convinced that you are facing catastrophe. This leads to the all too common experience of blanking on an exam only to suddenly remember all of the answers 30 minutes later, once you’ve begun to relax.

Brain not committed to behaving itself in future

Unfortunately, you can’t leave it at home.

Fortunately, this can be managed by expecting that your brain will do stupid things in response to stress, realizing that you might have to let it freak out for a while, and then just waiting until it has regained its composure.

Help for Students, Part 3: Reasons for Miscalculating Course Expectations

After running into difficulty on an exam, some students will contact me to complain that there was an unreasonable amount of material to memorize for the course. So why did they not try to understand the course material rather than just memorize it? Maybe they thought memorizing would be easier and faster, or maybe they weren’t far enough along to transition toward understanding. They might also have underestimated how much they would be expected to know, and how well they would have to know it. As a result, they prepared too superficially.

1. Approach to the Assignments

In the course this has caused the most problems, students do assignments which are often accomplished by paraphrasing the textbook in a way that is only slightly better than copying it outright. (Not my assignment design!) Because of this approach, they can get the right answers (and therefore good grades) without actually understanding key parts of what they’ve written. There seems to be a chain of reasoning that runs: “I didn’t really understand the assignments, but I still did well on them. Therefore, I will be able to do well on the final exam with a similar level of understanding.”

In fact, it is never safe to take one’s performance on assignments at face value unless one can be confident that the conditions of the exam will match the conditions of the assignment. For example, if you refer to your textbook while solving physics problems, this is not the same as having to solve a physics problem on an exam without your textbook and while under pressure. A good grade on that physics assignment would tell you very little about how you will do on the exam. In the case of the course mentioned earlier, students’ performances over many offerings of the course show that there is effectively no correlation between assignment grades and exam results.

Another problem with paraphrasing the textbook very closely is that while I suspect that students who do so are not clear on what they are writing, I have no way of knowing for sure what they do and don’t understand. That means I may give a student full points on a question even though that student might have misunderstood the text that they paraphrased. In that case, getting full points might convince a student that their understanding is correct, when in fact it isn’t. That student has eliminated any chance for me to find the error… until I grade the exam, that is. Then I hear from them.

2. Reasonability Assumption

When filtering out what is and isn’t necessary to study, a starting point might be the assumption that an instructor will not be unreasonable and will avoid demanding complex details, or asking questions about extremely difficult topics. One problem with this assumption, however, is that someone who is new to a field of study will not have the same perception of what is difficult or complex as someone who has worked in the field for a while. An idea that might seem complicated to the uninitiated could be a very basic principle in that field. A second problem is that sometimes a complicated or difficult topic can be very important for a particular area of study, and therefore necessary to learn even though learning it might seem nearly impossible at the time.

You may think that another problem with the reasonability assumption is that some instructors are unreasonable and use exams to punish students. I can’t say that’s never the case, but I will point out that a “reasonable” exam is not an exam that any student can pass; it is an exam that a student can pass if they have done a reasonable job of covering the stated course objectives.

In the end, if you’re not sure about whether something is important or not, and you can’t determine that from the learning objectives or course objectives, just ask your instructor.

3. Perceived Importance of the Course

In my introductory level courses, I sometimes hear from students who are unhappy about having to take the course. These are students for whom the course is the last one they need to get their degree. They might feel that the course is a pointless hoop to jump through, and they just want to get it over with and get on with their lives. Understanding the course material is not a priority, and feelings about how much work they should have to do for the course can colour their perspectives on how much work is actually required.

Nevertheless, even if a student’s reasons for taking the course colour their expectations about what the exam will be like or should be like, it does not affect the reality. The requirements will be the same regardless of why a student is taking the course, and students should expect that there could be the same kinds of demands as in courses that they view as more serious, or more important for achieving their goals.  Put another way, no-one should expect to get credit for a course without fulfilling its requirements.  I would also recommend against telling your instructor that they should pass you because their course doesn’t matter.

4. Learning Is What Someone Else Does to Your Head

Every now and again I run into students who prefer to be passive participants in their own learning. These are students who think that I should put more effort into helping them than they are willing to put into helping themselves. “Frank” was a classic case. Before assignments came due, he would email to ask what pages the answers were on in the textbook. An email exchange with Frank would look like this:

Frank: “I can’t find the answers to questions 1b, 1c, 2a, 2b, 3, 5, and 7. Can you tell me where I should read in the textbook?”

Me: “For question 1b asking what igneous rocks are, you can find the answer in the section titled “What Igneous Rocks Are” starting on page 53.”

Sometimes it is hard to find a specific topic amid other details, so I explained to Frank how he could look up the page numbers in the index of the textbook. Frank disregarded my explanation, and continued to ask similar questions.

I want to be careful to distinguish between students who take a passive approach, and those who ask a lot of questions about different topics, those who ask for help with the same topic repeatedly, or those who need assistance deciphering their textbooks. By definition, these students are not taking a passive approach because their questions have arisen out of an effort to understand the course material. In fact, I would prefer that more students contacted me with those kinds of questions. But this is very different from asking me to look up pages for you in the index.

Students who are passive about their learning will inevitably underestimate the amount of understanding that is required because they believe on some level that learning and understanding are things that they are given. That’s just not the way learning works.

Help for Students, Part 2: Memorizing vs. Understanding

After a recent exam I received an email from a student who claimed the exam was unreasonable difficult. They blamed the difficulty on the fact that it was a short-answer exam, meaning they didn’t have multiple options to choose from. The student argued that more information was required than a student could reasonably be expected to memorize.

The exam did require more knowledge than a student might reasonably be expected to memorize, and that was because the students were expected to understand the course material rather than just memorize it. Memorization is a very inefficient way to attempt to store information. Understanding is much better. It’s the difference between learning the lyrics to your favourite song by trying to remember the words in random order, or learning them as they fit into lines and verses and tell a story.  One is next to impossible, and the other you can do after listening to the song a few times.

That’s not to say there is no memorizing involved, but ideally the situation would look something like Plan A in the diagram below. The diagram is a sketch of what part of your knowledge would depend on memorizing, and what part would depend on understanding as you progress through the course. Initially, there is quite a lot of memorizing required as you encounter new terms for the first time, but at the same time your understanding is increasing. Eventually, you are able to add new knowledge by building on your understanding, and less memorizing is required.

Memorizing versus understanding

If a substantial amount of learning gets left to the last minute, then to be as prepared as in Plan A, learning must happen a lot faster. In that case, we’re looking at Plan B where memorizing and understanding are condensed into a small amount of time. Unfortunately, you can only learn so much before you need a break, so what actually happens is C. There is insufficient time to prepare, and that time is taken up mostly by memorizing because you don’t yet have enough of the individual puzzle pieces to start to build the big picture.