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Weekly Blab

The Weekly Blab

Volume 6, Issue 20—February 6, 2012


Super Bowl Weekend…

There are no football fans in the Szafran household.  When I called my folks up on Sunday, my father had no interest in the Super Bowl, but was hunting around for a basketball game to watch.  His love for basketball still surprises me, since I don’t remember him ever watching a game when I grew up—this is an interest he picked up well after I went to college. 

Meanwhile, I was following the Chelsea-Manchester United game as the big game of the year, and while Chelsea was off to a 3-0 lead, it ended in a 3-3 tie thanks to two Wayne Rooney penalty kicks and a goal by Hernandez in the 84th minute.  Blah!  Chelsea is still in 4th place though, and hopefully things won’t get any worse.   

Mark, Jill, and I then went off to a comic book show in Atlanta, where I indulged one of my more effusive passions and picked up a couple of hundred additional comic books to join the 50,000 or so I already have.  I’m not sure of the exact tally, but I’ll soon know since I’ve got a new comic book database that keeps track.  I’ve entered DC comics up through the letter “F”, and the current tally is 8,877.  I’ll report the final number in a future BLAB.  Jill and Mark also like comic shows, to see the costumes, look at the toys, and to observe that I’m not the only geeky guy in the world.

Jill was actually the only one who watched the Super Bowl, rooting for her hometown team, the New England Patriots.  And you all know how that came out.  “At least,” she said, “the commercials were good.”


Cross-Cultural Conversations

Several folks from around campus had a meeting last Tuesday to talk about coordinating the various Black History Month activities on campus, and to discuss how to broaden such activities so that they don’t only happen in February.  Our goal is to embrace SPSU’s full cultural diversity, and to promote a broad mix of activities: intellectual, celebratory, and “courageous conversations” on some more difficult issues. 

Two of the conclusions reached by the group were to work together to produce a full-year calendar of events available by August, and to invite the broader campus—faculty, staff, and students—to join the planning group.   So, if you’re interested in joining us on this Cross-Cultural Events planning group and helping flesh out these ideas, we’ll be meeting on Tuesday, February 14 at 2 PM in the ATTIC conference room.  Pop me an email if you plan to come—if enough people are interested, we’ll need to get a bigger room!



A topic that was scheduled for last week’s Deans Council meeting (though we never actually got to it) was “Continuing discussion on Disruptions to current teaching and assessment models and potential responses”, and some folks who saw the agenda asked what that was about.  Here’s the scoop:

An article appeared in the Chronicle, entitled: “A Disrupted Higher-Ed System” by Jeff Selingo (the Chronicle’s Editorial Director).  While I talked about the article in last week’s BLAB (and you may want to see what I wrote there), the major point was that higher education (like many other “industries”) was being disrupted by technology (innovations in online course delivery) and alternatives to traditional universities for people wanting to acquire advanced credentials such as StraighterLine and MITx (for more about MITx, click here).  Seligo argues these changes amount to a potential future where introductory courses are commodities offered for free, and colleges are forced to shift their focus to “validating such learning by being the gatekeeper at the end by offering capstone, upper-level courses and granting degrees.”  He concludes that if we don’t figure out a way to incorporate these new players and ideas, “the innovators will figure out a way around the credentialing hurdle that will be acceptable to students, parents, and, most important, employers. And when they do, a part of the higher-ed market will be disrupted and rebuilt with students at the center.”  This is a pretty serious set of topics, and we’ve begun discussing them, their ramifications to SPSU, and some potential responses, in the Deans Council (and an interesting discussion has begun to develop within the School of CSE as well).  That was the topic in the Deans Council agenda.

As it happens, another article appeared in the Chronicle this week on an interesting variation on this theme.  The article is entitled “Harvard Conference Seeks to Jolt University Teaching” and written by Dan Berrett.  The main topic of the conference was one we’ve all seen many times before—there’s a lot of evidence from the classroom and from research in cognitive psychology about how people learn, but that teaching at most colleges hasn’t changed much in decades (or centuries depending on who you listen to).   In large part, the article says, the problem arises because grad students are taught how to do research, not how to teach.  When the grad students become faculty, “they might think about the content they want students to learn, but not the cognitive capabilities they want them to develop.

This conference is the first event in a series to be offered by Harvard’s Initiative for Learning and Teaching, and is supported by a $40 million grant.  While it’s hardly uncommon for colleges to offer seminars about teaching and learning, the fact that Harvard is worrying about the growth of online and for-profit providers and therefore trying to improve what happens in its classrooms is enough to make one sit up and take notice. 

Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, compared higher education’s current situation to that of General Motors and Toyota, noting that new businesses enter the bottom of the market and claim customers through some technological innovation.  They then move upstream and often overtake the (formerly) dominant player.  Higher Education was immune to this until the current slew of low-cost online providers appeared.  “Higher education,” he said, “is vulnerable to disruption.”  Hmm…there’s that word again.

What were the solutions offered at the conference to improve what goes on in the classroom?  The suggestion is that we need to get rid of some myths we hold about teaching.  Some of these myths are pretty widely held.  Among them is: since students have different learning styles, we need to employ different teaching styles.  “There’s no evidence, zero, that teaching methods should be matched up with different learning styles,” said Mahzarin R. Banaji, a professor of psychology at Harvard. “It’s intuitively appealing, but not scientifically supported.”  Hmm…what, no evidence?  Seems to me I’ve observed quite a bit of evidence for this—some students learn quite well from lecture, some from analyzing graphs or diagrams, and others don’t get it until they do it in a lab or a project.

So what is there evidence for?  Another psychology professor, Henry L. Roediger III from Washington University (St. Louis) discussed an experiment he had conducted about testing.  He divided students who were studying a list of words into three groups:  Group A studied the words eight consecutive times, Group B studied them six consecutive times and were tested twice, and Group C studied them only four consecutive times but took four tests.  Group C did best, recalling words at twice the rate of Group A.  Frequent low-stakes quizzes (not multiple choice) give rise to the best results, but often “hit a wall of disdain among both faculty and students…  We hate grading tests. Students don't like taking them, so we don't give them very much.

Other suggestions from other speakers included asking students to explain concepts, teach each other, and to write more (and to write using less jargon). 

One commenter sarcastically posted: “This sort of work is being done in many places; it’s called the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Perhaps it isn’t news until Harvard does it?”  While there’s a lot of truth to this (for example, our Center for Teaching Excellence offers lots of activities in this area, and I’d like to get my hands on $40 million to support any number of worthy initiatives), there are a couple of important points that shouldn’t get lost in the ozone: 

  • A rapidly changing paradigm will cause disruptions that will compel us to reexamine our current way of doing things.  Change will happen whether we want it to or not.
  • All of the recommended changes to improve student learning can be implemented in the traditional classroom, but also in the online environment (whether it is “free” or otherwise).  Rapidly improving online media and software will make it easier and easier for some students to learn on their own.  Don’t shoot the messenger for pointing this out.
  • Universities increasingly will be called upon (by the public, by the states, by the federal government) to assess and grant credit for non-traditional learning.

The one thing that won’t change is that our focus should remain on doing whatever it takes to help our students learn and succeed.


Last Week’s Trivia Contest

Last week’s contest was all about candy, and drew a good number of entrants.  The winner was Jessi Jones (Civil and Construction Engineering’s administrative assistant).  Here are the correct answers:

  1. The town of Derry Church, PA got this new name because of the large chocolate manufacturer based there. Hershey
  2. This candy got its name because it looks like a life preserver.  The original flavor was peppermint.  Life Savers
  3. What brand of candy bar originally contained three pieces:  one vanilla, one chocolate, and one strawberry?  (It doesn’t any more.) Three Musketeers(so obvious when you see the answer!)
  4. What brand of candy bar was, according to the company that made it, named after president Grover Cleveland’s daughter? Baby Ruth
  5. What brand of candy bar was named after its inventor’s family’s horse? Snickers


This Week’s Trivia Contest

This week’s challenge deals with miscellaneous trivia.  The first with the most gets the prize.  No looking up the answers now!

  1. Queen Elizabeth II is the second longest reigning monarch of the United Kingdom.  Who is the longest?
  2. What is the origin of the word “testify”?
  3. Name one of the two national monuments in the United States that is mobile.
  4. The second-to-last object is called the penultimate object.  What’s the third-to-last one called?
  5. What famous musician’s mother invented liquid paper?