Daniel Dennett’s seven tools for thinking

Daniel Dennett is one of the leading philosophers of our generation. Here he offers seven tools for thinking.
One that I thought especially good advice for young scholars was first offered by Anatol Rappaport: how to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said). Following Rapoport’s rules is always, for me, something of a struggle…

Online great lectures

In this post about learning to become a great lecturer, Zaid Alsagoff posts a long list of online lectures that he thinks are outstanding, many by luminaries. He also provides an extensive list of links to online lecture resources, for many universities.
Somewhat surprisingly, his own article, for someone pursuing a PhD and wanting to “rid the world of crappy lectures”, is pretty dreadful. But this extensive link collection is useful.

Effective bulletpoint presentations

I’m generally pretty critical of the traditional bulletpoint style for a presentation. But most people, of course, use them anyway. They might as well do it well.
Here is a presentation by former SI communications manager, Frank DeSanto, that he did for our summer undergraduate research program (REU) last year. He makes a number of good suggestions.

Connective learning

I’ve been running into some discussions about “connectivist teaching”. The term apparently was coined by George Siemens [1]. Siemens and other refer to it as a “learning” theory, but Plon Verhagen points out that it is not so much a theory about how people learn, as it is a method of pedagogy for the digital age.
The central idea seems to be to teach through a process of having the learner build a network of nodes and connections, drawing together various resources and various ideas. In practice, the focus seems to be on “know-where” instead of “know-how” or “know-what”: learning where to find information, and how to move through a network of varied sources, assessing quality and reliability as you go.
Here is a simple class project presented as a YouTube video that illustrates the practice.
Siemens and Downes have offered an ongoing online course called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge“. Siemens presents ideas and resources for e-learning at his elearnspace site.
[1] ”Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age”, International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, Vol. 2 No. 1, Jan 2005

Learning objectives

I released a new policy on stating learning objectives to my colleagues this week:
As of Fall 2008, all syllabi or course policy documents for SI courses are required to include a section defining learning objectives. Learning objectives are not the same as a teacher’s course goals, as usually written:

Instructional goal statements, it should be noted, are written from the teacher’s point of view. [T]hey serve to indicate what topics, issues, facts or principles will be taught and emphasized. The … advantage of spelling them out is that they serve to draw attention to, and help emphasize, the most fundamental and ultimate purposes of a course (understanding, knowing, appreciating something). The problem, however, is that there usually exists no direct, straightforward way of ascertaining whether or not they have been achieved once the course is over.
Learning objectives, on the other hand, are more precise and specific statements of what it is a student will be able to do — what performance outcomes will be possible — once learning has taken place. Learning objectives are written from the learner’s point of view and employ concrete action words such as “identify”, “solve”, “construct”, “compare”, “estimate”, “measure”, “contrast’, or “demonstrate”. (Lucas, Christopher J.~ and John W. Murray, Jr., New Faculty: A Practical Guide for Academic Beginners (Palgrave: New York, 2002), p.~53.)

Explicit learning objectives serve several valuable purposes. First, they help a student answer the question “Am I going to acquire knowledge and skills that correspond with my needs and interests”? Second, they are a valuable guide to the instructor in preparing course material: “What readings should I assign, what should homework assignments look like, what material should I cover in lecture to help students reach the learning objectives?” And third, they provide a benchmark against which to evaluate the success of a course offering, from which revisions and improvements can be made.
Indeed, one characteristic of good learning objectives is that they be stated in terms that are measurable (qualitatively or quantitatively), so that the performance of the course may be assessed. Our goal at SI is continuous improvement in our curriculum and instructional methods. Though we have not adopted a formal assessment and improvement policy, the following policy from the Twin Cities (Minnesota) Learning Assessment Council is a reasonable description of our practice (Twin Cities Learning Assesment Council, “Statement of Foundations for Learning Assessment”, http://academic.umn.edu/provost/teaching/cesl_statement.html, 2003.):

Effective assessment thus involves:

  • making our goals explicit and public;
  • setting appropriate criteria and high standards;
  • systematically gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to ascertain how well performance matches those expectations and standards; and
  • using the results to document, explain, and improve teaching and learning.

For advice on how to prepare effective learning objectives for your course, you might consult:

Active learning

There is a large body of research testing the hypothesis that, all else equal, people learn more through “active” than through “passive” learning.
Active learning is a loose concept. The version that I find most convincing, and I think the research best supports, is that learners who are cognitively active acquire and retain complex material better. (An early view pushed “behaviorally” active, but the evidence does not support this as well.)
For some bibliographies on active learning research, see “The Active Learning Site — Bibliographies“. The same site presents three summaries of early, influential studies (done in the 1980s).
Cognitive psychology supports many of the intuitive ideas behind active learning. For example, information is encoded more effectively into long-term memory — and thus is more retrievable — through elaboration and deep processing, more so than through repetition and massed practice. John Sweller at the University of New South Wales is perhaps the originator of “cognitive load” theory, and has done many studies indicating that simultaneously presenting an audience with the same material both orally and written — precisely what we do when we lecture from text-dense bullet point slides — reduces comprehension. Our brains experience conflict and overloading from the two separate, simultaneous presentations of nearly identical but slightly different words. One glaring example we all know: simultaneously displaying multiple points on a slide almost guarantees that most of the audience WILL NOT LISTEN to the speaker during the time they spend reading the content on the slide.
McKeachie’s book (see image) is one of my favorite books of teaching advice that emphasizes active learning methods (and much else).

My use of slides in teaching

Over the past two years I have drastically changed the way that I use slides while teaching. (Some students still see some “old style” slides because I haven’t finished replacing all of my teaching materials — it takes a lot of work!) I have noticed that in course evaluation comments many students appreciate my presentation style, but some criticize it. One of the criticisms I’ve seen a few times is that my slides are not very helpful *after* class.
I think, from the comments, that the students want me to provide them with a lecture outline that they can use as a set of pre-written notes to study. That sounds nice, and might be a good idea sometimes, though I worry that providing everything (the readings, the lecture, the lecture notes, the sample problems and sample exams with solutions) pre-written is not good for learning: where is the *active* learning that research has shown to be essential? In any case, I don’t feel an obligation to provide lecture outlines and notes that I have written (though some student comments suggest that they think they are entitled to this).

Norman teapot: afforandanceThe obligation I do feel is to teach effectively, so that students learn successfully. And I have been convinced that the very standard approach to classroom slideware is ineffective. The standard approach, of course, is to provide a detailed set of bullet points: essentially, a lecture outline with notes. Many faculty more-or-less use the slides as their script, if not quite reading from them nonetheless going through each bullet as displayed. Gosh, as students sometimes say on a related topic: “I read the reading assignment in the textbook — why just repeat it in class?”

The problem is deeper. First, putting a detailed outline and notes on the screen, and then talking through them creates a cognitive overload that decreases learning. Second, it promotes passive learning, which is less effective than active learning.
In my new presentation style I have worked hard (and believe me, it takes a lot longer to develop one of my new presentations than to prepare a standard bullet point outline presentation: I basically have to do the former first, to figure out what I want to say, then start from scratch to prepare the accompanying illustrations) to support learning by using multimedia material to complement the spoken words. I present material to illuminate, provide associative material, or provoke.

Leverage with incentives Some concepts are better understood (at least by some learners) visually, so I illuminate with a graph or a figure or an animation. Other times, I provide material — often with cultural references (though I perhaps overdo this, since many of my students are foreign and may miss some of the cultural references) — that I hope will trigger associative links, prompting students to more active processing and elaboration of the material. Yet other times I try to provoke them (with humor — often self-deprecating since that’s usually less likely to offend *others* — sarcasm, surprising mental leaps or associations), again to get them to think differently and more deeply (or simply to wake up :).

I use a mixture of visual and auditory material. Get the good stuff in The visual includes photographs, words (but rarely more than one sentence per slide, and often just one word or phrase to EMPHASIZE a point, not repeat verbatim what I’m saying), paintings, graphs and figures, etc. I occasionally include a video clip, but I’ve not developed good skills at finding video illustrations appropriate to my lectures. Pity: dynamic visuals usually attract attention better than static. I do make use of color, contrast, size and other variations to increase the impact of my visuals. For auditory material I often use clips of popular music (sometimes classical or jazz), but have also created a few auditory demos.
These presentations do not make for good outline/lecture note handouts! I agree with the students on that. But I think they make the lectures themselves much more effective. I also provide the students with readings, sometimes supplemented with pre-lecture “reading guides”. I put some lecture notes in the “presenter notes” section of my slide files, and then publish collapsed versions of the slides with the notes to provide partial lecture outlines.
Yes, I could do even more class preparation than I already do, creating in addition a lecture outline / notes document to handout (or post after class). But I don’t want to do that instead of my more kinetic, dramatic, and complementary visual presentations. I think the loss in cognitively active learning in the lecture would be a much greater loss. So, I put the priority on trying to give effective lectures, rather than bad lectures accompanied by slide outlines to review after class.
And finally, I really do believe that students learn better if they take some lecture notes, take notes on the readings, and then after class, use those (and the slides, such as they are, and the audio or video recordings of lecture that I usually make available for my large lecture classes) to make one’s own annotated outline. The activities of reviewing, distilling, organizing and summarizing are precisely the sort of learning activities we know are most effective.
I don’t mean to claim that I have any special genius at lecturing in large classes, or that my way is necessarily best. I think (and my course evaluation scores over the years support this) that I am a better than average classroom teacher, but that there is substantial room for improvement. That’s why I keep reading the research on teaching, and keep working to improve my pedagogical methods over time. I’ve put a lot of hours into analyzing, critiquing, and ultimately completely changing my visual presentation aids the past two years, and I’ll keep putting time into improving my lecture skills.