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Scholars’ Seminar, Abbreviated (#1245)

Topics/tags: Teaching, Grinnell, longish

I spent my mornings this week at one of Grinnell’s summer workshops. For those who don’t know [1], summer workshops provide opportunities for Grinnell faculty and staff to get together to learn about and discuss topics of value, guided in their learning by other faculty and staff members. This summer, there are a wide variety of workshops on Advising/Mentoring, Tutorial, Community-Engaged Learning, the Global Learning Program, Rewriting the Reading Assignment, Fostering International Student Success, ChatGPT, Special Collections, Coachability, the Intro Math Curriculum, and Designing and Sequencing Writing Research Assignments.

Oh, there’s also the one I was in this week, which I refer to as Scholars’ Seminar, Abbreviated [2], a workshop on metacognition that draws upon the content of ASC-101, Scholars’ Seminar. Scholars’ Seminar is an awesome course that all students should consider [4]; in essence, it is a course on learning how to learn (or how to learn more effectively). The course covers learning theories, issues of metacognition, strategies for managing the Grinnell workload, and more.

The workshop provided an opportunity for the participants to learn a bit about the course, to learn some of the content of the course, and to spend some time discussing the various issues raised, often in the context of our work. Plus, it was taught by the amazing Belinda Backous and Kate Ferraro. As I’ve said before, I learn something every time I talk to Belinda and Kate.

I also particularly appreciated the variety of people who participated in the workshop; there were only three faculty out of the fourteen or so participants. We had people from Academic Advising, the Writing Lab, the CTLA [5], the IGE [6], the LAPP [7,8], the President’s Office, and more. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to hear such a wide variety of experiences and perspectives [9].

So, what did I take away from the workshop? Mostly, action items. I’m going to start with the things I can recall without looking at my notes [10], then list all the things I starred in my notes, and finally see if there’s anything else in that list that I want to recall.

Off the top of my head …

I plan to add a question about struggles and failure to my introductory surveys. It’s going to go something like this.

Computers are great at telling you when your program is wrong (and not so great at telling you when you’re right). The computer will first tell you that it can’t understand your code. When you address that issue, it will crash when trying to run your code. When you address that issue, it will give you the wrong answer on the first inputs you try. When you address that issue, it will give the right answer on some inputs, but not all. And so on and so forth [11].

How do you normally deal with these kinds of challenges, which may feel like the computer is telling you You failed at the task?

What strategies can you use to reduce the impact of this excessive negative feedback.

I’ve always tried to prepare students for these kinds of issues. However, there’s value in addressing the consistent failure as early as possible.

It’s time to revise my pre-assignment, post-assignment, pre-exam, and post-exam forms. Many moons ago, my colleague Janet Davis taught me that students develop metacognitive skills if you ask them to reflect on larger pieces of both before they undertake them and after they finish them. I’d already planned to revisit these forms, but I now have many more things to think about as I ask students to prepare for work (e.g., there may be reasons to ask them for a brain dump) and to reflect on what they did (e.g., how can you do better next time?). In the near term, I plan to write new versions of the forms and then ask Belinda and Kate for feedback.

I should add a guide to How to read CS textbooks (or at least How to read the CS textbooks that Sam has written) [12]. I’ve tried discussing this issue in class; nonetheless, students will benefit from clearer guidance. However, before sharing the guide with students (maybe in week two or three), I’d like to ask students about their reading strategies. Or is that a bad idea? Early guidance may be better than later guidance. Still, I prefer to see students try (and maybe fail)—as well as to share their approaches—before I tell them. Perhaps I’m too much of a constructionist [14].

I want to find ways to talk to my students about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (and the surrounding zones) and some version of Bloom’s Taxonomy [15]. I’m still determining how to incorporate this discussion in my classes. One place is in the metacognitive forms. For example, after an assignment, I can ask students whether the assignment was in their ZPD and, if not, what they or I might have done to help it reach that zone. It’s also worth reminding them that the course challenges them to work at multiple cognitive levels.

I remain uncertain about the role of flashcards in my classes. Learning a new programming language is a lot like learning a natural language; there’s a lot of vocabulary to learn. And flashcards are great for things at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy, particularly remembering and understanding. At the same time, I consider it less essential that students memorize most of the vocabulary; even professionals keep references at hand.

_I want to look at the latest version of The Grinnell Guide to Writing (and other stuff) [16]. I don’t plan to use The Grinnell Guide in my classes this fall, but I’d like to see how it’s evolved.

From my notes …

These are things I starred or otherwise highlighted in my notes. I’ll present them as bullet points. In some cases, I’ll add italicized follow-up comments.

  • Sharing with students helps them share with you. The comment came in a discussion about sharing challenges we faced in our academic careers. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that I’m a good model. In College, I had a fixed mindset. I’m one of those people who enjoys writing [17]. But I have experienced many failures [18], so those can be good to share.

  • It’s hard to remove the emotional context from learning.

  • Potential exercise: What advantages does each student have? This note followed a discussion of the considerable variation in background students have. For example, in entering an introductory course in chemistry, some students might be entering with, say, AP Chemistry and a high-school Chem Club experience, while others might have a short, online Chem course. In CS, some students come in with a lot of experience, while others come in with almost none., I tell my students about this range at the start of the semester and assure them that everyone can succeed. I use a mastery grading system to help ensure that everyone can succeed. However, I’m not sure I ever talk about the advantages students with less prior background might have, such as an openness to new approaches. I’m still not sure whether or not I’ll use this kind of exercise; we only have so much class time, and each thing I add requires me to remove something else (or reduce time on that other thing).

  • Idea: Show this [the Vygotsky Zone of Proximal Development diagram] to students. _Yup, I remembered this one.

  • How do we help students navigate the difficulty? The question was a follow-up to a discussion we had about things that started out easy and then became hard. Writing. Math. Collaboration. Things like that. I think I starred this to remind myself that the question should be central to my teaching.

  • How do you deal with failure? (In CSC-151/207). Discussed above.

On to day two …

  • Me: Warning about failure (negative feedback). Positive reaction from the group. In case you couldn’t tell, this was a follow-up to the prior bullet point. The prior point is from day one; this one is from the start of day two, when we discussed our takeaways from the first day.

  • Where did you feel in the Zone diagram? (Q for my regular meta-responses) How do you help yourself (or get help) to move toward the ZPD? Discussed above.

  • Reminder: Good interactive textbooks give students the opportunity to work on [the Awareness-Regulation-Feedback] loop. Particularly for things at the lower end of Bloom’s taxonomy, small interactive test problems are the way to go. I suppose that should remind me that I should move my textbooks to a platform that supports such activities. I wonder if I’ll have time. Maybe not immediately, but definitely over the long term.

  • A set of things for things to attempt. I have no idea what I was trying to say.

  • Checklist of studing on academic advising site. Something else for me to look for.

  • Close the metacognitive equity gap. _Another great underlying principle. Also, the title of an article that I should read.

  • Babbs & Moe 1983 is recommended. Another article to read. This one is Metacognition: A Key for Independent Learning from Text by Babbs, Patricia J. & Moe, Alden J. from Reading Teacher, v36 n4 p422-26 Jan 1983.

  • Value of quiet breathing exercises. Some of my colleagues start class by having students do breathing exercises for a minute or so. (Carolyn Lewis, Karla Erickson, and Celeste Miller are the names that come to mind.) We were considering classes in which the intersection of emotions and academics was discussed, and someone noted that they’d heard from a student how important the breathing exercises were in preparing them emotionally for each class and how it affected their learning. I might consider these. I should review my notes and check with my colleagues [19].

And on to day three …

  • Are open-book tests bad? _This note came from my viewing of a video on retrieval. Closed-book tests force students to do retrieval. Retrieval is good. So are open-book tests bad? In a follow-up discussion, we decided that there are situations in which students need to remember basic facts and vocabulary, and for those situations, closed-book tests may be better. I’m still sticking with open-book, untimed exams, at least in the situations in which I give exams.

  • Show them Bloom’s taxonomy. Mentioned in the first section.

  • Anki for flashcards? (Approved) We received a list of flashcard software. Anki appears to be open source. It’s also the only one of the options on the ITS Approved Software list. I suppose students aren’t required to follow that list [20].

  • The metacognition cycle: Assess the task -> Evaluate strengths & weaknesses -> Plan the approach -> Apply strategies -> Reflect -> Assess the task -> …. ’nuff said.

  • retrieval A site with resources for retrieval practice. I need to take a look at it.

  • Look for the current version of the Grinnell College Guide to Writing. See above.

  • Don’t forget to discuss pre/post metacog assignments with Belinda & Kate. See above.

  • Handout: Break It Down. _A handout on the Academic Affairs site, used to help guide students through the metacognition cycle. I might borrow parts of it for my pre/post metacog assignments.

  • Metacognition pre/post on the site? A note that I might put the forms on the course site so that students can see them in advance (and so that others can see them). It seems like a good idea.

Those are the starred notes. Most are action items rather than things to remember. And these are just a few of the notes. Although there’s also a lot of knowledge in the other notes, I always try to find things to change [21] in my teaching. I often star those.

What about all the great content? You should visit one of Belinda and Kate’s workshps, take Scholars’ Seminar (if you’re a student), or audit Scholars’ Seminar (if you’re a faculty member) to learn more.

Thank you to Belinda and Kate for a great workshop and to all the participants for all the great ideas you shared. I apologize to those who got stuck working with me; I know I sometimes dominate.

Postscript: I think we should require every Grinnell faculty member to take Scholars’ Seminar, or something like it. (And yes, I mean faculty member.) We’ll all teach better if we learn more about learning.

I also encourage every student to take it.

[1] For example, because you’re not at Grinnell or new to Grinnell, and you haven’t read my past musings on summer workshops.

[2] The official title is Mini Scholars’ Seminar, but that feels a bit ambiguous. Is it a smaller version of the Scholars’ Seminar, or is it a seminar for Mini-Scholars? [3]

[3] Yes, I know that the binding of adjectives suggests the former.

[4] Hint, hint, hint.

[5] Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.

[6] Institute for Global Engagement.

[7] Liberal Arts in Prison Program.

[8] Not to be confused with the LAPD.

[9] Of course, the variety of participants also reinforced the inequity of summer workshops. Most faculty receive compensation for participating in workshops. However, faculty on twelve-month contracts don’t. Unfortunately, work doesn’t go away when you’re in a workshop; most people need to find other times to catch up on it. I look forward to a day when Grinnell finds a way to compensate everyone for workshops.

[10] Retrieval practice?

[11] Some folks will tell you that if students do things right, they won’t encounter these issues. Those folks are wrong. Negative feedback, and lots of it, is a natural consequence of software development for most students.

[12] That’s right. I write textbooks for my classes. Or at least I write sets of readings that often serve as textbooks. More on that another day.

[14] Constructivist? Deweyian?

[15] Something in the back of my head tells me that Bloom’s Taxonomy has evolved.

[16] Since I’m pulling from my brain, rather than from my notes or the Web, I don’t remember the full title. Now that I look online, I see that it’s The Grinnell College Guide to Writing, Research, and Speaking.

[17] Or at least musing.

[18] I’ve failed, frequently?

[19] Unfortunately, Celeste has retired from Grinnell and moved away to bring her talents to the broader world.

[20] There was a point at which ITS informed us that we could not recommend software not on the approved software list. Once someone pointed out that such a policy violates academic freedom, it was removed.

[21] Improve?

Version 1.0 of 2023-08-03.