Designing Transformative Learning Activities

How to best facilitate my learners’ processes in moving from a disciplinary novice to a practitioner? in shifting their default thought processes away from identifying context-specific information and more towards considering big picture principles/concepts at play whenever confronted with problems?

In our last GCP session on Disciplinary Transformation, we were invited to design participatory learning activities to help “transform” our learners from disciplinary novices to practitioners.

From my personal observation and learning experience, there is a tendency for disciplinary novices to be fixated on one macroscopic aspect of the disease, whether that is the pathogen or the most clinically affected organ system, thus often finding it difficult to explain the multifactorial process of pathogenesis and disease progression. The disciplinary problem I shared was: Explain the pathogenesis and disease progression of a given disease (e.g., atherosclerosis). The designed activities for each are as follow:

Notice Frame of Reference:
Large Group Brainstorm
1. What comes to mind when you hear the term, atherosclerosis?
2. What are some risk factors for atherosclerosis?

Learn Frame of Reference:
Expert Groups – assign each small group with a risk factor of said disease and ask them to explain how each risk factor contributes to the development of atherosclerosis.
1. high blood lipid content (hyperlipidemia)
2. endothelial damage
3. chronic inflammation (immune function and regulation)
4. thrombotic risk (coagulation and complement components)

Transform Point of View:
Creative individual assignment to integrate what they learned in the expert groups and to identify at least one other mechanism (with appropriate references/scientific evidence) that may contribute to the multifactorial processes of pathogenesis and disease progression of atherosclerosis (e.g., illustration of pathogenesis and disease progression with caption, review paper, or video)

Transform Habit:
Student led in-class group presentations and discussions on pathogenesis and disease progression of different diseases

I think this metacognitive process very useful in keeping my learner-centre focus when planning lessons and in aligning my teaching intention and actions. This is most definitely something I’d like to experiment and play more with!

Observation: Two-Stage Exam

A two-stage exam is when students individually complete a test and then immediately complete the same, or very similar, test in groups (usually with the individual test weighted more heavily, e.g., 80%+, for the final test score).

I have had personal experience with this testing format as an undergraduate – I distinctly remember the energetic debates and thoughtful arguments we had about various concepts as we tried to reach consensus for the group answer. I’d like to think that I learned better with this two-stage summative assessment (while I don’t have any personal evidence, Gilley and Clarkson’s SoTL research supports the effectiveness of two-stage exam in enhancing student performance), because I deeply appreciated the immediate feedback and enjoyed the peer-teaching aspect of the examination. It is an assessment method that I would love to integrate into my teaching practice – I needed the know-how in administering a two-stage exam.

I visited Psych 101 again. When I walked into the classroom 5 minutes to noon, it was already filled with students. The atmosphere felt tense and almost anxious. The four TA’s were running up and down the aisles to direct and accommodate the students still filing into the class. On their desks, alternating coloured exam booklets (a total of 4 versions) on top their scantrons. On the projector, written instructions on stowing their belongings, on filling the bubbles for their respective exam code on scantrons. The instructor repeated these written instructions and promptly gave permission to begin their individual test.  For the next 30 minutes, the teaching team took a head count, accounted for empty booklets, and invigilated the exam.

The transition seemed chaotic from the individual to the group exam. Silence vanished within seconds and was immediately replaced by movement and chatter as soon as the teaching team begin to collect the individual tests. Students were already shifting into their small groups (of four to six) before all of the individual tests were collected. The group exams were almost simultaneously handed out and the students dived right into their discussions.

The buzz and energy generated from these conversations were electrifying. I was amazed at the level of engagement and motivation each student demonstrated as I walked around the room – polling for group consensus, challenging their peers’ reasoning, explaining their own rationale. While ensuring the academic integrity of this examination, the instructor was mindful of time and of possible midterm in students’ next class. Students rushing to their next exam were asked to line up at the door once their group exams were collected, while others were instructed to remain seated.

It was surprising how structured and timely the two-stage exam was executed.  Clear instructions, both verbal and written, are key to its successful execution. Effective communication between members of the teaching team was also paramount to maximize resources, ensure academic integrity, and to minimize chaos. I think it is necessary for me to cultivate some comfort around organized chaos – it is a small cost for the potential benefit of enhanced learning, student engagement, and sense of camaraderie!

Observation: A Large Classroom

Engaging 300+ students in a large classroom is simply a reality of teaching at most, if not all, of today’s post-secondary institutions. Since I want to continue to pursue teaching despite my anxiety around teaching large classrooms, I decided to be acquainted with and maybe even consider embracing this inevitable and horrifying classroom setting from an instructor’s perspective.

I sat in on an introductory psychology class of almost 400 students and got a sneak peek behind the scenes. Cheerful tunes blended in with students’ chatter while the instructor switched on lights at the back of the room and cued up her presentations on the screen. The class started off with a quick reminder of office hour after class, with special invitations to a random selection of students from the class. A think-pair-share discussion question pertaining to last class’ material helped bridged into the day’s lesson on consciousness. Throughout the class, the instructor invited student participation through her body language and active movement around the classroom. Frequent references to the textbook, previous course materials, and relevant real-life examples were made whenever she addressed students’ questions. The use of the Top Hat teaching platform allowed for different types of questions (e.g., fill in the blanks!) to gauge student comprehension and to spark discussions. Three videos were also skilfully employed to illustrate the concept at hand. (I’d be interested to see what students’ reactions were to the number of videos shown in a 50-minute lecture – I felt quite overwhelmed by the number of videos shown in such a short period of time and found it challenging to link the concepts together real-time.) The class ended with yet another reminder of the invitational office hour immediately after class, topics of upcoming lectures and midterm exam.

It was eye opening to witness how the instructor weaved a variety of teaching techniques to actively engage students in a large classroom throughout the entire 50-minute class. It was interesting to observe students’ receptivity to each teaching technique – the questions that they pose against one another for clarification and the depth of their exchange during their individual discussions showed me the power of small informal discussion in a large classroom (granted, I sat in the front of class, which the students could have a different dynamic than those at the back).

Overall, what stood out to me in this observation was not how the instructor delivered content in a diverse and engaging manner – it was how she interacted with the class as an authentic human being. By sharing herself and demonstrating respectful conduct throughout the class (e.g., relevant personal experiences, high level of preparedness, high expectations for the students, active presence during lecture, attentiveness to student questions), the instructor was able to convey genuine care and sincere wish to help her students succeed and was able to establish connections with her students on a more personal level. I’d imagine this would indirectly increase students’ sense of accountability and of ownership in their own learning. Going forward, I think I will consciously remind myself of why I want to teach and how I could best create (self-) exploratory adventures in learning.

 

SoTL: Through the Learner’s Lens

During last week’s GCP session, we explored scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) and considered the various methods that we could employ to answer our own questions re: our teaching practice and effectiveness.

With goals to enhance and augment learner’s processes, SoTL is a useful tool to inform us about the overall alignment between our intention, belief and action. Its dissemination is a by-product of our continual efforts to improve our discipline-specific pedagogical approach – its core value lies within the process of these systematic investigations (e.g., self-reflection to identify specific issues of teaching and/or learning, critical appraisal of said issues using appropriate methodology and analysis, and application of results to practice).

To immediately apply what we’ve just learnt, we were asked to identify areas we’d like to learn about our current teaching practice and to develop a research question based on our personal reflection. I noticed that all of the questions that I had about my teaching practice were through my own lens as an instructor! I totally neglected to consider the other, and arguably more important, side of the “teaching and learning” equation – where was my learner’s lens?

This exercise really illuminated my blind spots as a developing instructor – it is not about me! In order to truly assess my teaching effectiveness (i.e., alignment between my intention, belief and action), I’ll have to actively involve my learners, seeing that they are the only credible source to comment/provide feedback on the impact of my teaching!

My key take-away from this session was: to consciously prioritize my learners’ learning above my own eagerness to “perfect” my teaching practice – to actively use their lens to inform how I approach teaching to deepen their learning. Another note to self – this is a learning process that requires a whole lot of self-compassion, patience and honest reflection!

Learning Science vs Learning to Become a Scientist

I finally met my fellow Fearless Rainbow Unicorn Musketeers last Friday! It was a fast-paced, interactive session on pedagogical content knowledge*.

In one of the many activities, we were asked to generate a list of seven qualities of practitioners in our own respective disciplines. This task proved surprisingly challenging for me, despite the fact that I am a research scientist who works at the bench and interacts with numerous other scientists on a daily basis. I think it was partly because this important, big-picture question was never explicitly posed to me; while I have reflected on how I would like to engage with the world as a scientifically-trained individual on occasions, I haven’t spent much time in verbalizing/identifying the qualities that I value in a scientist.

It took me a while, but these were some fragmented thoughts that I managed to capture:

  1. detail-oriented
  2. unbiased observers
  3. critical appraisal of evidence
  4. formulate and defend opinion/ideas anchored in evidence
  5. seeking creative ways to improve current medical interventions
  6. logical thinking and analysis
  7. good communicator

I think one important quality that I missed to include here and one that I try to spark in my learners was curiosity. I think curiosity or the thirst for a more coherent understanding of the world around us is one of the key intrinsic motivations for one to pursue science. It became apparent to me that these qualities I value (and would expect) in a fellow scientist explain why I am involved in various science-related extra-curricular activities (e.g., knowledge translation, high school student mentoring, and community educational outreach).

The jolt of panic kicked in when we were then asked to eliminate four qualities from our lists, because it proved even more difficult than the first task! It required even more introspection around what is my definition of a responsible scientist – one who is able to critically evaluate and objectively interpret evidence, formulate opinion or make informed decision based on evidence, and to engage in discussions with others who are not scientifically trained.

  1. detail-oriented
  2. unbiased observers
  3. critical appraisal of evidence
  4. formulate and defend opinion/ideas anchored in evidence
  5. seeking creative ways to improve current medical interventions
  6. logical thinking and analysis
  7. good communicator

The last instruction was to further distill the list down to one single quality, at which point I wished that I had a shorter list to start with or that I could create a word that combines all qualities of a scientist! I think this process helped to illuminate what I truly value in a scientist, as a scientist:

  1. detail-oriented
  2. unbiased observers
  3. critical appraisal of evidence
  4. formulate and defend opinion/ideas anchored in evidence
  5. seeking creative ways to improve current medical interventions
  6. logical thinking and analysis
  7. good communicator

To me, science is not merely the pursuit of knowledge about the world around us; I think science represents a diverse set of tools or an ever-evolving model that guides us in how we adaptively and responsibly interact with the world as a collective. This activity emphasized my personal objective in engaging with science and highlighted how the scientific community – the good, the bad, and the ugly – influenced my view about the discipline.

Now, the lingering question is: how could I create space and encourage my learners to explore what science means to them and reflect on their own position in the discipline? how could I effectively facilitate their learning processes in integrating and in embodying these important qualities of a scientist?


* my working definition of pedagogical content knowledge is: knowledge about how to reorganize and transform discipline-specific concepts/ideas/information in such a way that is accessible for diverse learners’ comprehension/integration and how to select appropriate educational methods and strategies to facilitate their learning processes.