Tag Archives: ASTRO101

How to Make ASTRO 101 Classes More Memorable

Tim Slater, tslater@caperteam.com

At the end of the year, the perennial question ASTRO101 astronomy professors quietly ask themselves, “Well, what exactly did my students learn this year?” Yet, the answer of “what learning is occurring?” is often more elusive than one would hope. Perhaps surprising, one might think the question of what was learned is an easy intellectual pursuit. It seems only natural to assume that one could readily test students about their knowledge of a particular topic as they enter the class on the first day, and then again as they leave their final examination and subtract the difference to arrive at a quantitative measure. Although it sounds easy in theory, it turns out to be much more difficult in practice. As Michael Bennett, a previous Director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and DeAnza College professor likes to quip, “the only difference between theory and practice is that in theory, there is no difference.”

The first challenge is how to determine what to use as a fair pre- and post-test. Although some exist, like the Test Of Astronomy STandards–TOAST, these tests are notoriously difficult to create that actually measure what you want to measure. A second problem, even more challenging than the first, is that students don’t usually being enthusiastic to take a pre- and post-test and often require cajoling to participate. Although there are notable astronomy education researchers around who are very good at systematically managing confounding variables, sampling difficulties, and measurement validity issues, they rarely often allocate considerable intellectual energy to this particular version of querying learning.

We’ve known for decades that students fail to retain significant information when attending an hour-long college astronomy lecture. It’s not just today’s millennial students either, but was true even when we professors were college students years and years back. Few of us learned our astronomy by listening to a lecturer go on-and-on about the wonders of the universe, even when using Kodak slide carousel projectors. We didn’t learn much of it watching Carl Sagan on television either. Instead, for many of us, it was the outside of class work, pouring over the textbook, and talking with our peers and professor out of class, perhaps even long after sunset in the observatory, where we learned most of our astronomy. And, for the vast majority of us, we didn’t actually learn our juiciest astronomy until we began to formally teach astronomy in a classroom, share the night sky under the dome, or in the park talking with the public. The real learning of astronomy, as it turns out, is much more about social transmission than solitary book learning or listening.

Insights from the field of cognitive science provide tremendous insight into helping professors increase the amount of learning that can occur in ASTRO101. However, in order to leverage these insights, it helps to reframe our departure point from “What did students learn?” to the far less depressing and more action-oriented question of “What can I do to enhance what students remember about my ASTRO101 class?” In other words, my thesis is that informed ASTRO 101 professors can dramatically increase their success by focusing on memory, rather than on learning. As it turns out, memory is much more malleable than you might think.

From the perspective of the cognitive scientist, our human brain memory system is composed of two distinct components: working memory and long term memory. Working memory is the highly fragile and quickly fleeting notions and concepts that we keep in our head for a very short period of time before they are dismissed. Where did you last see your car keys? What was the name of the check-out clerk at the grocery store? How much was a gallon of milk when I was last at the store? What did I have for lunch yesterday? What was the name of the fifth brightest star in Aurigae. These are things we “know” only for a short-time. They are best characterized as things we don’t dwell on very much.

At any one time, human beings on average can manage only about seven things in their working memory. That’s how many digits are in a telephone number sans area code. That’s about how many variables you can monitor simultaneously when driving a car. You’ve probably noticed that if you’re driving in a rain storm, you usually can’t do extra things easily like talk on your cell phone that you can normally do in good weather. If you want to watch your working memory in action, multiply in your head two 2-digit numbers: 12 times 37. With some concentration, many of us can do it. But, instead, if I challenge you to multiply in your head two 3-digit numbers—123 times 456—most of us will quickly give up in frustration because that multiplication problem exceeds our working memory size, whereas the two 2-digit multiplication problem did not.

A critically important thing for upcoming master ASTRO 101 professors to become cognizant of is the nature of expertise. Experts are uniquely characterized by cognitive scientists as people who can collect and chunk information into packages to better squeeze more into their working memory. Novices, by definition, do not have the ability to chunk information into their working memory slots. As an example, consider when I say, “stars of Orion” to an experienced ASTRO 101 professor, that professor immediately loads as one single unit the location, shape, star colors, brightness, and star names into a single working memory slot occupying only a small 1/7-sized portion of their available working memory. A novice, on the other hand, fills all seven working memory slots with the seven brightest stars of Orion, and is unable to attend to colors or brightnesses let alone right ascension, declination, hour angle or even mythological origin of its name. This is a tremendous problem for ASTRO 101 professors, who can easily talk about Orion’s parts and compare it to other constellations or asterisms as well its altitude at different geographic latitudes when a novice is simply overwhelmed. The end implication here is that professional research astronomers are naturally inclined to label some astronomy education research-informed curriculum innovations as too simplistic for their students when in fact it instead presses the limits on students’ ability to comprehend. This is an intellectually precarious predicament. Our expertise gets in our way of understanding that we are fundamentally different than our students. My point is that there is a limit to how much information you can force feed students, and it is far less than most new astronomy professors initially think.

The other component of memory is long term memory. Long term memory permanently holds the names, numbers, images, cartoons, movies, and stories that are burned so deeply into our brains that we are loath to forget. You might recall things that happened to you decades ago— the birth of a child, advice an elder shared with you, or how you felt about the unique smell of a special place. These long term memories are also those things you’ve rehearsed time and time again—the names of stars, the sequence of moon phases, and the start-up sequence of your favorite dome. These are notions, both positive and negative, that you couldn’t forget if you tried.

Before you quickly jump to the natural question of how does one move things from short-term working memory into long-term permanent storage memory, let’s consider how these two things are different. Working memory is characterized by information flowing into it and then rapidly flowing out of it when the brain perceives it is no longer needed. This is partially to explain why we have few memories of the first years of our life—we simply don’t need the information cluttering up the mental works. (It is quite probably related to our infant-selves not yet having a sufficiently developed language to describe and encode those experiences into long term memory, but that’s a different article.) It also explains why we are able to completely ignore than thousands of individual pieces of irrelevant information that enter our sensory system when driving, and only pay attention to the most relevant. Here is the rub: For many students, decontextualized factual information delivered rapidly in the lecture hall often easily flows in and out of working memory without sticking around long enough to be stored in long term memory. The key to getting things to soak around in the working memory area of the brain long enough to at least have a chance of getting stored into long term memory is that the audience must have sufficient time to think about it, to mull it over, to see how it relates to other thoughts, previous experiences, and emotions, all without being distracted by new information or images that crowd their way into limited working memory. What cognitive scientists tell us is that memory is the residue of thought.

Perhaps surprising, we’ve long known how to get ideas to stick inside people’s heads long enough for them to think about it deeply enough to produce memories. This seemingly simple keystone is through the long-held tradition of telling stories. Allow me to advance a seemingly unrelated but perhaps powerful example that has been widely used elsewhere: Consider as a person living in Western civilization, you are probably aware of a widespread book generally known as the Bible. You don’t need to be a spiritual person or brought up in a strictly following Jewish or Christian family to have heard of this book and know some of its important contents. Simply living in a westernized society is enough to consider this example. Here is your task: List the Ten Commandments the Lord gave his followers. Grab a piece of paper and make alist.

  • Yes, list all of them.
  • Yes, there are ten.
  • Yes, one is about murder, and another about adultery.
  • Keep going.
  • Don’t worry, take your time ….

Ok, by now you’ve probably grabbed your cell phone or computer or even a Bible and looked them up. How did you do? Unless you have developed a mnemonic device, most people reading this probably struggled with getting all ten, or perhaps, even half. Don’t worry if you didn’t get them all, this is common even among people who identify themselves as regularly attentive Bible students.

Instead, consider the answers to these questions: What happened to Adam in the Garden of Eden? What happened to his son Abel? How long did Noah spend in the Ark? How did Jonah try to hide from his omnipotent god? How many following disciples did Jesus have? (And, for bonus points: Where were the Ten Commandments handed down and to whom?) My experience seeing many people take this informal quiz is that people growing up in Western cultures generally remember most of these things. This seems to present a contradiction: How is it that people cannot readily remember 10 simple rules of life listed in the Bible even when raised in deeply religious homes whereas most people of widely varying faiths and experiences can often readily answer these and an surprisingly wide array of questions about perhaps not so important details about religious doctrine to which they sometimes rarely pay any attention to? The answer is again, stories. We most easily carry information within ourselves through stories, and have throughout much of history.

Humans are innately able to internalize details within stories much more efficiently than even the most eloquently presented facts. This is because stories contain elements that force the listener to engage in thinking, and this thinking results in storage in long term memory. The underlying mechanism is that if you have to think a lot about a notion, your brain decides that it must be important and stores it for later recall. Alternatively, if you don’t attend to an idea for very long, then your brain decides it probably isn’t very important to come back to it, and discards the briefly considered notion.

What are the elements of a story that cause one to ponder it long enough to remember it? First, stories usually follow a logical sequence of events—a sequence is easier to follow than randomly disconnected facts. Second, stories are characterized by cause and effect. Characters do things and there are consequences to those actions. Sometimes a listener agrees with the actions, and other times a listener disagrees with decision a character makes. This is important, albeit narcissistic—an engaged listener must decide if he or she would do the same thing in a given situation or not. Moreover, stories can’t possible relate all of the precise facts that an observer would see, so the active listener must make inferences. What’s fascinating here is that these emotional connections to the story sequence, the characters questionable actions, and inferences from the left out details that combine to make one’s brain decide to commit the story to long term memory. The bottom line is that engaging in a story requires active thinking, which is why stories are better remembered than rapid firing of precisely articulated and cleverly illustrated facts that leave no room for students’ interpretations.

Although the idea that it is what is left unsaid in a story that makes it more memorable can be a bit unsettling initially, it does hold up to examination. Imagine for a minute a series of powerful images you might have recently shown an audience: Hubble Ultra Deep Field, Martian Surface Water, Pluto’s IAU Vote, or TMT atop Maunakea. Its only natural to tell students about the images. What if, on the other hand, the images were used in conjunction with questions, rather than the facts? In the spirit of being provocative, consider alternative captions in the below:


IMAGE: Hubble Ultra Deep Field
-This picture shows more than 10,000 galaxies in a tiny region of space vs  Do astronomers compete against one another for highly limited telescope time?

IMAGE: Mars Phoenix Lander discovering water
-Water observed on Mars vs  How could a Faster-Better- Cheaper Mars Phoenix Lander, created from spare parts, find water beneath rockets?

IMAGE: 2006 IAU Vote on Pluto
-Pluto is now classified as a dwarf planet vs  Pluto is still there; but, why can’t smart humans agree on its category?

IMAGE: Artist’s Conception of Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea
-is being built in Hawai’i vs  Where should the next great new telescope be built?

My thesis here could naturally be misinterpreted as suggesting that facts are unimportant or that students don’t really care about hearing cool facts. In stark contrast, I am convinced that students really do want to hear about what’s it called, how big is it, how far away, and how did it get that way? What I am advocating here is that although precisely articulated and cleverly articulated facts are definitely cool, they are insufficient on their own to deeply engage the audience in a memorable experience. Given that memories are the residue of thinking, it behooves the compassionate ASTRO 101 professor to be sure that the students has the opportunity to ponder questions, make inferences, and be positioned to welcome the facts and figures available to them when they’re primed and ready. The implication from cognitive science is that astronomy lectures should be filled with ponderous questions and connected stories that the students can hang on to during each class. Taken together, all of this means that with purposeful effort, ASTRO 101 classrooms can be uniquely created to make meaningful and memorable connections between students and the cosmos.

Bibliography for Further Reading (Check Out the CAPER Team Amazon Book Store):

  • Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press.
  • Levitt, S. D. (2014). Think like a freak: The authors of freakonomics offer to retrain your brain. Simon and Schuster.
  • Slater, S. J., Slater, T. F., & Bailey, J. M. (2010). Discipline-Based Education Research: A Scientist’s Guide. WH Freeman.
  • Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. John Wiley & Sons.

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Should I Teach ASTRO101 With Metric Units or US-Standard Imperial Units?

Tim Slater, Senior Scientist, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, tslater@caperteam.com; http://www.caperteam.com

A long-standing debate in the teaching of astronomy at the college level—and science in general—is whether to teach using metric SI units or customary US-standard units.  At first glance the argument seems to be based on two juxtaposed positions.  On one hand, US college students are largely unaware of the metric system and therefore need to be provided values for distance in more familiar units.  On the other hand, real science is actually done in metric units and students studying in a science class should use the language conventions of science.  It is this second position—authentic science uses metric units—that most college science faculty adopt.  A cursory survey of most astronomy textbooks reveals that most distance values are given in metric units (with US-standard units often provided parenthetically) in the narrative sections, with data tables using metric units most frequently. Upon further reflection (or perhaps being urged to think more deeply from a learning and cognitive science perspective), one wonders if there is a more nuanced situation here and a more thoughtful approach is warranted?  Cognitive science provides at least two boundary conditions to be considered in a more nuanced version of this debate: (i) issues related to novice-vs-expert learning and (ii) issues of cognitive overload.

To take a step back, we should acknowledge that the question of which system of units to teach under has been a raging debate for decades (1, 2, 3) . The United States’ historical efforts to go-metric have been a complete failure and are relatively well-known.  I don’t have space here—in any unit system—to delve deeply into our metrification attempts, such as unfruitful efforts to change all US highway road signs to metric, which I believe only still exist south of Tucson). For the passionately interested reader, Phelps (4) has written about much of that history.

In recent years, however, education researchers have taken up the task of studying how learners conceptualize size and scale with the explicit goal of helping teachers teach better and helping students learn more.  Much of this education research work was funded under the banner of rapidly advancing nanotechnology because educators needed to figure out how to help students learn about this new technology.  Their work extends to astronomy educators because what NC State’s Gail Jones and her collaborators learned was that many students, nor K-12 teachers, fail to accurately conceptualize many distance values at all, big or small. (5-7) This is alarming because much of teaching and learning in astronomy is about “how big and how far.” (8)

Some professors have found it fruitful to use videos to help teach relative scales, using videos like Powers of Ten. (9- 11)  Perhaps narcissistically, Jones and Tretter’s ongoing research suggests that this video works so effectively because the video starts with what people are most familiar with – the size of a human body.

Most people understand sizes and scales based on benchmark landmarks and mental reference points from their experiences. K-12 students tend to think of the world in terms of objects that are: small, person-sized, room-sized, field-sized and big.  High school and college students also sometimes include shopping mall-sized and college campus-sized objects in their listings.  Further, people’s out of school experiences involving measurement of movement have the greatest impacts on their sense of size and scale—walking, biking, car travel—as opposed to school experiences where they have rote memorized numbers from tables. Consistently, it is to these common experience anchors that people use various measurement scales.

For us teaching astronomy, this is where the cognitive science issue of novice-vs-expert rears its ugly head (13).  Compared to a novice, an expert uses their experiences to automatically and often unawareingly change between scales.  For example, when measuring the distance between Earth and Neptune, would one describe it in meters, astronomical units, or light-travel-time?  The answer is, of course, it depends on why an astronomer would want to know such a distance.  For an expert, using meters, AU, and ly is readily interchangeable whereas for a novice, these are three totally separate determinations.  When I ask my students how far it is from where they are sitting to the front entrance of the building, or to the city with the state capital, they can usually give me a reasonably close answer using units of their OWN choosing, often it is time in minutes or hours, or in distances like American football field-yards or miles.  If I specify the units their answers must be in, such as feet or kilometers, my college students generally have no idea.  Experts are fundamentally different than students.  We readily move between parsecs and light-years, whereas our novice students cannot—no matter how much we wish they could.  As it turns out, if students could easily move between measurement systems, they wouldn’t be novices, they’d be experts and we teachers might be out of a job.  In other words, we can’t simply tell students that a meter is about a yard, and two miles is about 3 kilometers and be done with it—if it was that easy, we’d have done that already and there would be no ongoing debate.

One might naturally think that astronomy students should be able to easily memorize a few benchmark sizes (e.g., Earth’s diameter is 12, 742 km and an astronomical unit is 1.4960 E 8 kilometers) and then they could handle almost anything by subdividing or multiplying.  The problem is that the characteristic of an expert, as compared to a novice, is that experts chunk ideas more easily, allowing experts to make quick estimates.  Novices have no strategies to be able to do this.  Moreover, Hogan and Brezinski (14) aggressively argue that an individuals’ own spatial visualization skill level is the most important component in measurement and estimation by portioning and estimating distances.  Unfortunately, these do not appear to be directly related to one’s calculation skills and teaching students to convert between units using dimensional analysis heuristics is mostly fruitless.  The bottom line here is that students rarely enter the classroom with well-developed sense of scales going beyond their human-body size and experience with movement from one place to another.  The cognitive science-based perspective of a novice-verses-experts teaching problem is well-poised to interfere with any instruction where students are being given sizes and scales in units with which they are highly unfamiliar.

As if this weren’t challenging enough, there is also the cognitive science-based problem of cognitive load.  Cognitive load is the notion that students only have so much working mental capacity at any one time available to apply to learning new ideas. (15).  That means when a professor says a comet is 10,000-m across, the Sun’s diameter is 1.4 million-km, the Virgo cluster is 16.5 Mpc, and a quasar is at a “z of 7”, students either have to stop being active listeners to your lecture for 30-seconds and figure out what those units mean and miss what you really wanted them to know, or they have to ignore any referenced numbers all together so that they can keep paying attention.  The teaching challenge here is that I suspect the most important thing you want students to take away from a lecture about a quasar at a z of 7 isn’t precisely how far away it is, but instead what it tells you about the nature of the universe.  The risk here is that introducing numbers and unfamiliar units gets in the way of the ideas you are most likely trying to teach.

The research alluded to earlier points to using relative sizes as being more fruitful for helping students learn than absolute, numerical sizes.  I try to rely on things they are most familiar with and then help them to use simple, whole number ratios.  For example, North America is about three Texas’ wide, the Moon is about one North America, Earth is about four Moon’s, Betelgeuse is 1,000 times larger than the Sun, and …. Notice I don’t have to say very many of these ratios before you starts skimming to the end of this paragraph yourself : That’s the same experience your students too often have. Fortunately, many modern astronomy textbooks now give planet sizes in Earth-radii, just like we have long given solar system distances in astronomical-unit Earth-orbit sizes (17).  I think this is a really good starting place. After all, five years from now when you run into an alumni student, do you really want the one thing that they most remember about your class to be the distance to the Crab Nebula in parsecs?

As astronomy teachers focused on student learning, we seem to be left no longer with the seemingly simple question of “should I teach with metric or US-standard?”, but with the more robust question of “do I seriously take on the semester-long task of teaching scales and measurement or do I teach using ratios using familiar distances, which vary widely from student to student in my diverse classroom?”  Re-framing the question this way is much more actionable and diminishes the less productive “science versus the rest of the world” notion.  I contend that this new either-or question is much more worthy of research and debate.

Personally, I have a lot of astronomical ideas with which I want my students to engage.  My personal belief is that I’d rather students deeply engage in physical processes and causality of astronomy, stimulated by wonder and curiosity.  I further want them to engage in how astronomy is deeply entrenched in society and technology.  To do this, I choose to give up on allocating the time necessary to fully teach the metric system and focus my efforts on teaching things in terms of relative sizes and avoid using a self-defeating calculator-task whenever possible (16).   Experienced mathematics teachers will tell you that you can’t really teach the metric system with a single 15-minute lecture to novices: Teaching the metric system takes a commitment throughout the entire course.  The notion that metric is easy because it is all base-10 is nonsense when it comes to teaching astronomy, despite my desire for it to be otherwise. The bottom line is that I decided that I want to teach astronomy rather than teach the metric system, and I don’t have time to teach both well.

My textbook writing solution (17) is that I provide sizes in both metric and US-standard units where it makes sense.  Against the common convention, we have made the agonizing choice to include the US-standard units first (with the metric units parenthetically) so as not to unnecessarily put off neither the students who find US-standard units to be less off putting, nor the vast majority of professors who desire their science course to be characterized by the metric units characteristic of science. My eventual, downstream goal is to provide size and scale referents for as many common anchor objects as possible without overloading the students, and focus on allocating serious class-time to teaching the sizes of a few core anchor-sized objects.  These anchor objects include sizes of Earth, Sun, Earth’s orbit, average distance between stars, Milky Way diameter, distance to Andromeda, and light-year, to name a few.  Fortunately, teaching the distance of a light-year is not either a metric unit or a US-standard unit, and is thus elevated above the present debate no matter what your perspective.


  1. Helgren, F. J. (1973). Schools are going metric. The Arithmetic Teacher, 265-267.
  2. Vervoort, G. (1973). Inching our way towards the metric system. The Arithmetic Teacher, 275-279.
  3. Suydam, M. N. (1974). Metric Education. Prospectus. URL: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED095021.pdf
  4. Phelps, R. P. (1996). Education system benefits of US metric conversion. Evaluation Review, 20(1), 84-118.
  5. Jones, M. G., Gardner, G. E., Taylor, A. R., Forrester, J. H., & Andre, T. (2012). Students’ accuracy of measurement estimation: Context, units, and logical thinking. School Science and Mathematics112(3), 171-178.
  6. Tretter, T. R., Jones, M. G., Andre, T., Negishi, A., & Minogue, J. (2006). Conceptual boundaries and distances: Students’ and experts’ concepts of the scale of scientific phenomena. Journal of research in science teaching43(3), 282-319.
  7. Jones, M. G., Tretter, T., Taylor, A., & Oppewal, T. (2008). Experienced and novice teachers’ concepts of spatial scale. International Journal of Science Education30(3), 409-429.
  8. Slater, T., Adams, J. P., Brissenden, G., & Duncan, D. (2001). What topics are taught in introductory astronomy courses?. The Physics Teacher,39(1), 52-55.
  9. Eames, C., Peck, G., Eames, R., Demetrios, E., & Mills, S. (1977). Powers of ten. Pyramid Film & Video, available on YouTube at: http://youtu.be/0fKBhvDjuy0
  10. Cox, D. J. (1996, January). Cosmic voyage: Scientific visualization for IMAX film. InACM SIGGRAPH 96 Visual Proceedings: The art and interdisciplinary programs of SIGGRAPH’96(p. 129). ACM.  The IMAX Cosmic Voyage Video, narrated by Morgan Freeman, available on YouTube at: http://youtu.be/cMRoDyc8W2k?t=7m10s
  11. Jones, M. G., Taylor, A., Minogue, J., Broadwell, B., Wiebe, E., & Carter, G. (2007). Understanding scale: Powers of ten. Journal of Science Education and Technology16(2), 191-202.
  12. M.G. Jones (2013). Conceptualizing size and scale. In Quantitative reasoning in mathematics and science education: Papers from an International STEM Research Symposium WISDOMe Monograph (Vol. 3).  Available online at: http://www.uwyo.edu/wisdome/publications/monographs/
  13. Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999).How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press. Available online at: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=9853
  14. Hogan, T. P., & Brezinski, K. L. (2003). Quantitative estimation: One, two, or three abilities?.Mathematical Thinking and Learning5(4), 259-280.
  15. Sweller, J. (1994). Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty, and instructional design.Learning and instruction4(4), 295-312.
  16. Slater, T., & Adams, J. (2002). Mathematical reasoning over arithmetic in introductory astronomy.The Physics Teacher40(5), 268-271.
  17. Slater, T. F., & Freedman, R. (2014). Investigating astronomy: a conceptual view of the universe. Macmillan-WH Freeman Higher Education. (available in the CAPER Team Book Store)

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FIVE things you need to teach #ASTRO101 this year

Tim Slater, Senior Scientist, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research


This is a great time to be teaching introductory astronomy. ThTop Five List Iconere are an overwhelming number of astronomy and planetary sciences teaching resources available to professors and teachers.  To help you navigate this astronomically large universe of astronomy teaching resources, we provide our TOP FIVE list of ready-to-use, high-quality, FREE ASTRONOMY TEACHING MATERIALS as a starting place.



ONE:  IMAGE LIBRARY. You need a readily available source of high quality astronomy and planetary science images and explanation to share with your students.

  •  BEST STARTING PLACE: –> Astronomy Picture of the Day “Editor’s Picks”    APOD has most comprehensive image library of excellent pictures with readily intelligible descriptions available. Many of these fantastic pictures are subject to copyright, so they don’t often appear in course textbooks, but they can be shown to your students.  The APOD Index page provides links to what the editors consider the “best” pictures, but if you want more, there is a giant library available if you use the SEARCH function.  http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/lib/aptree.html



TWO:  CLASSROOM QUESTIONS. You need a source of classroom-ready questions to pose to your students to start discussion and to give them feedback on their developing understanding.

  •  BEST STARTING PLACE: —>ClassAction Think-Pair-Share Questions   ClassAction is the first stop for obtaining classroom-ready, think-pair-share voting questions – also known as PeerInstruction and clicker questions – because many of these include attention capturing images as well as available “hints” and “simulations” you can use to help students develop deeper understandings of tough astronomical concepts.  http://astro.unl.edu/classaction/questionsList.html



THREE:  GRADING SYSTEM. You need a homework assignment strategy to help students engage with astronomy concepts outside of class time.

  •  BEST STARTING PLACE: –> High Performance Grading System   If you’re not using an online, automatic homework grading system such as Sapling Learning, WebAssign, or MasteringAstronomy, among many, you need a grading strategy that allows you to assign students homework tasks but not overwhelm you with grading.  An easy to implement “High Performance Grading System” dramatically reduces grading time by giving students’ feedback by assigning students with a grade of: 0-no meaningful effort; 1-errors worth discussing with instructor; or 2-few substantive errors. http://astronomy101.jpl.nasa.gov/teachingstrategies/teachingdetails/?StrategyID=3


FOUR:  CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES. You need a collection of collaborative group activities to use during class-time to interrupt your lecture and improve student learning.





FIVE:  TEST-QUESTION LIBRARY. You need a giant test-bank of well-written, multiple-choice questions either for creating exams or for students to use in studying material.





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Would a Cognitive Scientist Recommend a Flipped Classroom? – Ramblings about Flipping the Astronomy Classroom, Over Easy

Over the years, many professors have conceded that a teacher-centered, information-download, sage-on-the-stage, lecture is probably not the best way to get introductory astronomy students excited about science.  Even when precisely illustrated, articulately delivered, and cleverly constructed, most professors realize that most students aren’t able to absorb everything that a professor could say during an hour long information-download lecture simply by listening and taking notes.

There are, of course, some brilliant and notable exceptions.  Sometimes, these folks are so good that their lectures have been video recorded and sold on DVD—I even purchased a few.  These professors are highly talented story tellers who can capture students’ attention and hold it for almost hour at a time.  Unfortunately, I’m not one of them; although I sure wish I was. And, I suspect most folks reading this aren’t either one of those either.  (Of course, far too many of us believe we’re good drivers, fantastic chefs, and great lecturers mostly because we haven’t received a statistically significant number of authoritative complaints.)

Not too many years ago, it used to be the case that when a professor earned lousy teaching evaluations from students, their Department Chair would assign that professor to go sit in on some graduate courses—not courses on how to teach, but graduate-level science courses.  The misconception was that the only way to get low teaching evaluations would be if one didn’t know the material deeply enough, to which the solution was to re-experience Jackson-level E&M lectures.

We know today that the solution to improving teaching rarely is about the teacher achieving a better understanding the concepts.  In fact, it could be far worse than this.  For instance, in K-12 mathematics, mathematics education research has clearly illustrated that the more advanced mathematics classes one takes, the lower their students’ test scores. Imagine a graph of student’s math scores plotted against the number of mathematics courses their instructor has taken.  Common sense might suggest that the result would be a monotonically increasing line with positive slope; however, perhaps surprisingly, there is a maximum inflection point given by the first derivative test and student test scores start to decline pretty rapidly the more mathematics their instructor has taken.  We’re not sure the degree to which this is true across the sciences and in astronomy in particular—anyone looking for a great research project, here you go!—but we assume it does and we have strong suspicions about why this might occur.

Allow me to digress for a moment and present some evidence from the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics at Cal Tech in the 1970s.    Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman is famous for a number of things ranging from quantum mechanics to philosophy to his work on the Manhattan Project to his gregarious personality.  If you haven’t had a chance to read Feynman’s trade books, I’d start with Surely You’re Joking; if you haven’t had a chance to listen to Feynman’s interviews, I’d start with YouTube.  There was even a movie made about his life staring Mathew Broderick, but I digress too far.  The point I’m trying to get around to make is that professors who deeply understand physics enthusiastically believe his lectures are brilliant, insightful, creative, deeply engaging and, most importantly, make physics concepts very easy to understand.  But, at the same time, undergraduates who were in that class decades about only really remember that they could barely understand what in the world Feynman might have been talking about.  It seems reasonable to assume that undergraduate physics majors at Cal Tech were mostly talented and high aptitude students—many of which went on to become professors.  Yet, they struggled to understand what the expert of experts was trying to simplify for them.  Feynman was definitely brilliant and is fun to listen to; but was he a great teacher of undergraduates?

The principle reason that deeply knowledgeable professors are in perilous danger of being lousy teachers seems to be because of fundamental differences between how novices and experts cognitively structure their understanding.  And, it isn’t just that experts know more than novices, experts really do have physically different brains!  Consider for one that novices trying to learn new concepts are not able to readily distinguish what is relevant from what is irrelevant.  For example, the common situation where an undergraduate physics student tries to memorize every single equation listed in a textbook chapter.  As experts we know this is silly because most of the textbook’s equations are simply derivations steps explaining how to get from one really important formula to another really important formula.  In the case of astronomy students, we are flustered because astronomy students don’t readily distinguish between comets and meteors or sometimes even between stars and galaxies.  This is because to novices just starting to learn astronomy, it’s all just a bunch of indistinguishable stuff that’s beyond Earth.today, we'll do homework in class and you'll watch lectures at home

Another difference between novices and experts has to do with how go about approaching end-of-chapter problems. As an example from physics, consider when a professor asks a student about why they used a particular formula to answer a particular end-of-chapter homework question, students are apt to state that they used the previously listed formula for the previous homework question, so they assume that the next homework problem must use the equation following the previous one in the book. This is illustrative of novice students grabbing at every formula rather than following principles.  This happens in astronomy when students don’t seem to read the book; rather, they just flip through the pages trying to figure out where the answer is to their assigned end-of-chapter questions which, of course, are sequenced in the same sequence as the chapter!  One might wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier for students to learn the material rather than try to game the end-of-chapter questions; but one giant difference between experts and novices is that novices don’t yet have a structure to organize their thinking other than the sequence from the textbook or lecture.  Of course, the sequence presented in the textbook makes sense to use experts because it was also created by an expert.

Expert problem solvers are distinguished from novice problem solvers in that experts know how to get un-stuck.  Getting unstuck is a learned skill that comes from lots of practice working lots of problems.  Novice problem solvers will try one equation from their book to solve a problem, and if that doesn’t work, they don’t know what to do next.  It is a hard earned skill that undergraduate physics and astronomy majors learn to try to work a problem from multiple angles until they can get traction and move forward.  One reason that it is a hard earned skill is that few professors make mistakes when working problems at the front of the lecture hall, and students incorrectly assume that the best problem solves drive a straight path from question to solution with no hiccups, U-turns, or backward steps.  Few astronomy professors realize the tremendous benefits of showing their students what getting stuck and unstuck looks like.  Instead, we too often give flawless performances of problem solving or practice quiz question solving or even giving faulty essay answers on classroom activities like Lecture-Tutorials for Introductory Astronomy and, in doing so, give students the impression that successful science is a mistake-free endeavor.  All of this makes me think, oh, if my students could just appreciate the grant proposal reviews and publication referee reports I get; then they’d know science isn’t mistake-free.

As it turns out, astronomy experts aren’t automatically experts in everything—in contrast with what we often seem to believe.  Just like we can observe that novice astronomy students initially only see undifferentiated, superficial aspects to a phenomena compared to astronomy experts, we also readily see this occur with professors trying to learn how to teach astronomy better.  In recent years, our teaching excellence workshops have started to use more and more ASTRO 101 classroom videos showing students and their professors.  The challenge to using these videos in workshops is that novice professors aren’t readily able to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant aspects even when they have had decades of teaching experience—years of teaching experience doesn’t automatically correlated to levels of teaching expertise.  For example, a novice professor watching another classroom usually focuses on the preciseness of the professor’s facts being presented or the professor’s mannerisms and, occasionally the seeming chaos of the classroom during a student-activity.  Only after explicitly being highlighted repeatedly by the workshop leader, will novice professors start to move their attention from readily observable professor’s specific lecture delivery to more salient characteristics about how deeply students’ are intellectually engaged in wrestling with an new idea, the extent to which an artful professor uses complex questioning and rapid feedback to help students understand ideas more flexibly, and how the professor helps students connect complex astronomical ideas to individual experiences without asking students to memorize the professor’s personal analogies.  In other words, becoming a master teacher involves some hard work moving from being a novice to an expert too.

The bottom line here is that experts, compared to novices, know what is relevant and irrelevant about a situation.  This knowledge about relative relevance in irrelevance allows experts to chunk knowledge more efficiently than novices.  Most of us have heard that humans usually have a limit of about seven things they can mentally juggle at the same time.  Sometimes we describe that as having about seven available slots of working memory to work on solving a problem.  Compared to novices, experts don’t waste valuable and highly limited working memory slots to irrelevant aspects.  Moreover, experts are able to efficiently chunk seemingly disparate ideas together into the same working memory slot.  As a result, experts seem to be able to manage more complex thinking than novices.

Putting all of this together, experts can struggle mightily with teaching novices.  For one, professors sometimes don’t recall why they know what they know—far too many of our workshop attendees think they learned astronomy by listening to lectures and somehow seem to have forgotten all the late night group study sessions where they wrestled with complex ideas and the long problem sets they worked in undergraduate and graduate schools.   I can’t understate the surprising number of professors who believe that they learned stellar evolution only by listening to some professor in grad school lecture to them for an entire semester for two to three hours each week.  It’s a fragile perspective that can easily be undone when examined more closely; but, it’s a tacit assumption that we professors ourselves don’t often challenge without some nudging.

More than not correctly recalling why they know what they know, it has often been a while since professors themselves have struggled with the concepts they are often charged with teaching their students.  Stephen Brookfield is often quoted as saying, “The best learners … often make the worst teachers.  They are, in a very real sense, perceptually challenged.  They cannot imagine what it must be like to struggle to learn something that comes so naturally to them.”  In other words, professors don’t often recall which parts of a new concept were challenging.  This manifests itself in some subtle, but self-evident ways.  For one, we often hear from professors teaching a new course for the first time that they didn’t really understand a particular, newly encountered idea until they had to teach it; in ASTRO 101, this most often comes up when discussing how to teach seasons—a topic rarely covered in graduate school.  Getting up to speed to teach a new class for the first time reminds one of which aspects are complex and potentially troubling to students.  For another, when it has been a while since you first learned a new idea, it is likely that you have forgotten which aspects are troubling because now you have an expertly organized cognitive view of the entire landscape of the targeted concept and how it fits into the larger sequence of ideas that students are encountering.  This means, as an expert, you’re not always in the best position to help students learn a complex idea.

Wait a minute—you say—if the expert isn’t best positioned to teach students, who is?  Let me back pedal for just a moment and say, “no, my good professor, experts are indeed in a great position to teach students, as long as they are aware that they know more ideas and think about these ideas differently than novices do.”  But, there are people who are often in  a great position to help a struggling student.  These are the people that most recently learned it.  As a surprising example, consider the student in your class right now who sitting right next to a struggling student.  Because they just recently wrestled with an idea, they might be in the best position to best explain a new idea to a struggling student.

We used to think that think-pair-share, Peer Instruction, clicker-questioning techniques worked so well because students could solidify their understanding by explaining ides in the students’ own natural language instead of the scientific jargon professor’s used; instead, we now think that the reason this works is more based in cognition than language in that students can help struggling students focus on the most relevant aspects of an idea and help discard the irrelevant, so it can all be done in available working memory.

Another person who is well suited to help struggling students consider the most relevant aspects to a complex idea in the service of learning are students who learned it last term.  The use of peer-aged tutors and mentors, both outside of class time and inside of class time are demonstrating some great success in improving student learning across a wide variety of contexts.  Even graduate students are often able to help undergraduates in highly effective ways because the distance in time from when they learned ideas to now is much shorter for them than for most professors.

To take advantage of these ideas for improving student learning of complex ideas—including bridging the novice-expert barrier and providing ample opportunities to practice through conversation, problem solving, and repeated engagement with challenging ideas—a considerate professor has to think about how to set up scenarios where students are intellectually wrestling with ideas rather than just listening to someone talk about ideas from the front of the room.   This means that the role of the professor changes from being one who dispenses knowledge to one who focuses on listen to student thinking, providing rapid feedback, using individual questioning to extend student thinking into novel situations, and providing a classroom environment that is about what the students are doing, rather than about how clearly the lecturer can be seen and heard by all students simultaneously.  Working in these environments requires not a great performance lecturer; rather, these teaching environments require a professor who is an expert in the field who has rapidly accessible knowledge and can help students deepen their understanding by posing examples and counter examples of ideas to give students needed rapid feedback when they are ready for it, sometimes without warning!  Only experts in the field can do this; which is why you are the expert and tasked with teaching a particular class.

For some professors, this perspective represents a giant change in thinking amounting to nothing less than a paradigm shift of epic proportions. This dramatic shift in teaching philosophy is currently referred to as a change from a professor-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom.  And, if it really is a big, hairy deal; but it works.  The baby-steps version of this are to break lectures up with 3-minute rest breaks using Peer Instruction, think-pair-share, clicker questions where students defend their answers to one another.  Or, a bigger step is to use 10-15 minute activities to break up lecture where students wrestle with Socratic-style tutorial activities or context-rich, open-ended case study type prompts.

But, the biggest step is to flip the traditional classroom teaching model completely on its head.  In the traditional model, a professor dispenses information from the front of the room and students quietly listen and take notes before going home to do actual learning through homework assignments and study groups.  An alternative approach that goes all the way flips this to where professors task students with listening to video-lectures and reading the textbook outside of class and then reallocate valuable class time, nearly in its entirety, to students working in groups, solving problems, and doing learning tasks that in the old model would have been relegated to outside of class.  In this way, the professor can engage student thinking while they are in the active learning process, not while they are simply listening.  Such an approach puts the professor in a position to use their expertise when it is most needed; when students are struggling and actually trying to learn something.  This flipped classroom approach to course design has a solid foundation in cognitive science learning principles; but, more than that, can be a highly fulfilling endeavor for the professor who is really interested in watching and supporting student learning.

For first steps toward “flipping your classroom in astronomy,” check out the TURN TO YOUR NEIGHBOR BLOG post on how to engage in the astronomy flipped classroom.

Tim Slater, Senior Fellow at the CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, tslater@caperteam.com

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Should Your Astronomy Students Do Telescope Observing Online?

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, tslater@caperteam.com

Is telescope observing important for the non-science majoring undergraduate student in the introductory astronomy ASTRO 101 course?  My experience is that most ASTRO 101 professors quickly answer, “YES, of course!”  But, after further discussion, it turns out that different people imagine a pretty wide assortment of things when they promote that their students should do some observing.

For many ASTRO 101 professors, “observing” really means one thing and one thing only—putting one’s eye up to an eyepiece and letting light from craters on the Moon, rings around Saturn, and a smudge of a distant galaxy enter a student’s eye.  For these instructors, they desire their students to experience the wonder and beauty of astronomy. A much smaller subset of these instructors think their students will benefit greatly if their students to learn how to set up a backyard telescope, select and focus eyepieces, and find objects in the sky.  An even smaller subset might adopt a service learning approach and ask their students to put on a star party for the community at the county fair or even set up in the parking lot of the local supermarket.

Certainly, not every ASTRO 101 class has telescopes. Some instructors think of observing in terms of students becoming more engaged in becoming aware of their environment. Generations of teachers have long asked their students to chart the shape and position of the Moon each night for a month, or to measure the changing length of noontime shadows or to carefully monitor the direction of the setting Sun across the western horizon.  All of these approaches to observing are long standing practices across the community of ASTRO 101 instructors.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are ASTRO 101 instructors who do not believe strongly that their students need to have observing experiences using telescopes.  For these instructors, my sense is that they don’t find value in providing students with observing experiences. For some, this rejection of observing is because they teach in learning environments that are difficult to manage.  Perhaps they teach at on an inner city campus, where security and lighting are issues that are impossible to solve.  Or, perhaps they teach at a commuter campus for which students returning to class after hours just isn’t an option.  And, some ASTRO 101 courses enroll hundreds of students to be managed by a single instructor, making individualized learning events seemingly impossible. These are real barriers to observing that can’t be waived off as being superficial.

For other professors who do not go to the lengths necessary to provide students with observing experiences, I believe that their rejection of student observing is sometimes more aligned with the notion that professional astronomers and astrophysicists allocate precious little time looking through an eyepiece to do their research, and they believe that ASTRO 101 courses should also reflect this scenario.

I suspect that a question of should my students observe or not is actually a sub-question to a much larger, ongoing debate among the broader ASTRO 101 teaching community.  Specifically, should ASTRO 101 be more of an astrophysics course focusing on recent professional astronomy research results OR should ASTRO 101 be more focused on an amateur astronomy and night sky naturalist-style course?  I would argue that which side an instructor comes down on regarding student astronomical observing has more to do with what they themselves actually know about observing than one of a philosophical or pedagogical argument.

It is certainly true that not all astronomers, regardless of their degree, know how to run a telescope.  I’ve heard more than one of my colleagues humorously tell me about an astronomy colleague couldn’t find the Big Dipper if their life depended on it!  I wager that the degree to which someone supports using telescopes with real eyepieces is highly dependent on their own comfort and skillset regarding what might be called amateur astronomy.

One potential solution we have been pursuing is the degree to which we might be able to effectively use remote observing experiences successfully with ASTRO 101 students.  In this sense, remote observing is slang for students obtaining astronomical data from a telescope far from where they are located. To be more precise, professional astronomers typically distinguish between (i) “robotic observing,” where an observation plan is submitted to a telescope that then robotically and autonomously carries out the observing, and (ii) “remote observing,” where a telescope user is actually moving and controlling a telescope in a far-away place using an Internet-connection in real-time.  For my purposes, the distinction isn’t critically important to the debate.

Slooh remote telescopeThere are numerous opportunities for non-professional astronomers to access remotely controlled telescopes.  For $49, Slooh (http://www.slooh.com) provides nearly unlimited access to telescopes taking pictures of any object you can point at from the Canary Islands or in South America.  Micro-Observatory’s Observing With NASA’s OWN project (http://mo-www.cfa.harvard.edu/OWN/) allows anyone to request images online which are effortlessly delivered to one’s email box the next day, using a variety of filters and exposure times along with user-friendly software.  Perhaps most promising, Los Cumbres Global Telescope Network (http://www.lcogt.net) is promising the community with relatively easy access to 1-m and 2-m class telescopes around the globe.  This is a purposefully, non-exhaustive list for sure, but gives you a range of ideas for what might be available.

Unquestionably, the broadly defined remote observing has great potential to dissolve many of the barriers related to those who work in learning environments where there are telescopes do not or cannot exist as well as working with students who cannot easily meet with their ASTRO 101 instructor in the evening.  If carefully structured, this might also be able to solve the rapidly growing large-enrollment class problem.  And most promisingly, looking toward the future where many more institutions will be moving their astronomy classes to online learning environments rather than face-to-face, remote observing in one form or another will be a necessary approach.  None of this solves a desire to have students “get outside and let a million or billion year old photon impact your eye,” but it is a step toward increasing the number of students who might have a chance to DO astronomy rather than just listen to someone lecture about it.Remote Control Telescope in Wyoming SkyTitan

More than this, the number of potential astronomy education research questions surrounding remote control telescopes are boundless. As examples, consider that we just don’t yet know: what students actually learn by looking through telescopes, let alone by looking at pictures in their textbooks; are eyepiece observing experiences a necessary step in the professional astronomy career pipeline; does looking through telescopes create misconceptions in students about how professional astronomers contribute to scholarly knowledge; and precisely which skills and attitudes do students gain by using telescopes?  And, is any of this age, gender, or culturally dependent? The list goes on and on, but I’ll pose my personal favorite research question flavor of the month, “What is the difference between a student looking at a beautiful picture of Saturn taken by the Cassini mission and their very own fuzzy image they took themselves by clicking a mouse at precisely the right time?”

We have had some good luck using online Internet databases to access the vast amount of astronomical data available, including the simulators that are getting better and better every year.  We have designed a series of labs for ASTRO 101 students using these databases in the form of backwards faded scaffolding labs used in “Engaging in Astronomical Inquiry” (Slater, Slater & Lyons, 2010)).  But, to be honest, the ASTRO 101 teaching and learning community hasn’t yet successfully figured out how to utilize remote observing in this pedagogical format.  My opinion is that this is a teaching and learning problem worth working on together.  It’s a big problem, so I suspect we’ll have to get their iteratively in small steps of progress.  How can you imagine using remote observing with your students, if you would at all?

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Quick Start Guide to Creating Your First Distance Learning Course

In a concerted effort to make college courses more accessible to a larger number of students, many colleges and universities are urging, if not requiring, their faculty to teach online, Internet-based, distance learning courses.  Unquestionably, there is considerable and often heated discussion about the potential strengths and weaknesses of teaching over the Internet.  At the same time, I am certain that distance learning courses in one form or another are here to stay and a reality for most ASTRO 101 professors.  In that spirit, and with more than a decade of online teaching experience, I offer some brief suggestions for how to create and deliver your first winning distance learning ASTRO 101 course.

                As a departure point, the first thing you need to realize is how NOT to create a successful distance learning course.  The guaranteed, time-tested, reproducible formula for failure is to select a textbook, require students to individually email you answers to all the end-of-chapter questions, and give them a couple multiple-choice exams.  This approach is best known as the traditional correspondence course and has been used for decades by colleges and universities honestly trying to help bring higher education to students living in locations far from towns with campuses.  The recurring problem with this approach is that students work as isolated individuals, with few social connections with the instructor or with other students.  Perhaps surprisingly, if you have videos of you lecturing in front of a class, this doesn’t really help improve the situation at all.  Feeling all alone and disconnected, even the most motivated students struggle mightily.  As a result, such courses have only about a 10% completion rate.  Obviously, this is not the approach you want to replicate in your distance learning course. 

But, what else can one do?  It turns out you have plenty of options, perhaps too many.  One of the best strategies is to go talk to someone called an INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGNER in your institutions’ teaching and learning center.  These people often have extensive backgrounds in which options and approaches will best intellectually engage your students and, simultaneously, create a program that you can effectively manage without staying up all night working on it.  However, if you don’t have access to such a person, please allow me to provide you with a tactical approach that isn’t ideal, but will work.

First, you need to decide which topics you will cover.  It is perfectly reasonable to take the learning targets and syllabus of topics from a successful face-to-face course you’ve taught, and use them as your goals.  What won’t work, however, is simply to shovel your face-to-face course to the Internet and call it good.  And, you might someday need to argue to an administrator or skeptical colleague that your distance learning course covers the same concepts that your on-campus course does (research summarized elsewhere has shown that distance learning courses can be much better than on-campus courses, but rarely much worse when created using contemporary instructional design principles).

The next step is to find reliable and stable sources of information for your students.  This is critically important because you’re not going to be lecturing to them and, as a result, you’re not going to be the central and most important fountain of knowledge for your students.  For me, I use two books, supplemented by the occasional web site.  Primarily, I use a widely used textbook (which again helps me if I need to justify my course to an administrator or a skeptical colleague).  The best college textbooks are well written, reasonably accurate, have end-of-chapter questions, and utilize teaching and reading queues like bold-faced words, margin-notes, and highlighted things to notice which off-the-shelf trade books and most websites do not have.  Today’s students really do need these support systems to help them better comprehend textbooks; ignore these benefits at your own peril.  You’ll need to set up a precise reading and question answering schedule of work for the students – the more frequent and detailed the due dates, the better.  I’ve had great luck with two to three times per week as required milestones (Sunday night being the worst choice of seven days you could use).

The other book I use is a popular trade book of one kind or another that highlights the human side of the scientific enterprise.  I believe this is important because I don’t have the opportunity to tell humorous anecdotes or the extended dramatic stories of science that emphasize that science is done by humans, who have egos, frailties, friends, enemies, set-backs, cloudy-skies, exploded rockets on the Launchpad, and the like.  I believe these are important attributes to science that if our students appreciate, they could be more compassionate and supportive of science as tax payers.  Some of my favorite options for ASTRO 101 are: Brown’s “How I Killed Pluto,” Roach’s “Packing for Mars,” Thimmesh’s “Team Moon,” and Ferris’ “Coming of Age in the Milky Way.”  I intentionally provide a non-exhaustive list here.  Some folks have had great luck with science fiction stories and books, which I myself am just beginning to experiment with.  As a brief aside, I wouldn’t spend much time focusing on which science fiction movies have gotten the science dreadfully wrong; it offhandedly seems to me that novice students are still struggling with which science is accurate and that lousy science movies can be a distraction.  During the second third of the term, I create a highly structured reading schedule, with semi-weekly, required milestones and host an online, blog-style, asynchronous group with discussion questions I create where students are required to participate.

As a side note, I should point out that I haven’t found web sites to be particularly useful for reading assignments.  In a textbook, there are contemporary pedagogical tools that students need and can use.  In a trade book, although they rarely have pedagogical tools for students, the reader does get to know the author and the way the author tells a story.  In contrast, a series of websites can have a tremendous number of author voices, which novices find distracting, even if the websites are accurate and well done.  I’m not saying to exclude websites, but a web journey of 1,000 clicks over the semester doesn’t make a cohesive learning experience for most ASTRO 101 students.  I should point out, however, that, I do rely heavily on websites for current events information, such as a Mars landing or for space weather updates.

After selecting your information sources, probably a textbook with a highly structured reading and end-of-chapter assignment schedule and a popular astronomy trade book which highlights the human side of the scientific enterprise, along with a heavily structured “book club” style of online discussion occurring somewhere in the first two-thirds of the course, you’re ready to convert your course from acceptable to great.

The distance learning courses that students consistently rate highest are those in which the students feel like they are part of a non-competitive community of people trying to learn the material together.  This is one where the instructor intentionally and explicitly plays the role of a guide and a coach instead of a professor who is a superior know-it-all and who is out to trick them.  The other important attribute is that students rank courses highest in which they feel like they are different as a result of their work and didn’t waste their time doing busy work.  The mistaken idea that the easiest courses that give everyone an A also get the highest student evaluation ratings is a misleading urban myth.

In this class, you’re role is going to be one of making students believe you are deeply engaged, heavily invested, and passionately interested in their success.  To do this, you need to “be present” so that students do not feel isolated.  That doesn’t mean that you need to post a blog note everyday or send daily emails; on the contrary you need to give them space and time to grow and react to what they are learning without interference.  They key idea here is that you need to “appear” present.  Which means that when students fall behind, they get a personal email saying, “hey, what’s up? What can I do to help?”

Being present means that you respond to email.  You don’t need to check your email constantly, or even once a day.  But, it does mean that you tell students when to expect responses from you and you be sure that you respond.  One university I worked at had a policy that all student email is responded to within 24 hours; personally, I think this is silly.  The best teachers manage student expectations.  I tell my students that if they email me, they should expect a reply by Monday at midnight or Thursday at midnight.  That way, if they get a response from me earlier, it is a bonus.  And, if they don’t hear from me for several days, they aren’t worried.  I also give my students my personal cell phone number and tell them that if what they need is so urgent, it can’t wait until Monday or Thursday, to please call me, just not in the middle of the night.  Over thousands of students, I have never had a student abuse this privilege and, when students do call, I’ve found that it really is an emergency that I need to respond to and I would have needed to talk with them over the phone instead of by email anyway.  In the end, students just need to know that they will hear back from you and when and that seems to work perfectly.  At the same time, all time management strategists will tell you that if you constantly have your email on, you rarely get any meaningful work done.

To be successful teaching online, one of your primary goals must be to make sure that students do not feel isolated.  To help combat this, I purposefully try to build an online e-community.  I choose one juicy question each week that I know students in my face-to-face class have historically loved to debate and I require students to contribute meaningfully to the discussion.  I devise questions like, “Should your tax dollars go to fund a mission to Mars?,” If we were contacted by an advanced alien civilization, who should be appointed to speak on Earth’s behalf?,” What evidence do you have that the astrology column in the newspaper is accurate,?” and “If our class could devise a space mission to visit any one planet, which planet will we pick and why?”.  Many textbooks have discussion ideas included in their instructor’s manual or in the end-of-chapter material that can be really great starters.  Or, you can use short online video or news story prompts, if they are short and socially relevant to your students. But, be warned, the less the instructor appears in the discussion the better, because as the authority figure, you can unintentionally stop the conversation, so if you must interject, do so with open-ended, leading questions.

My last piece of advice won’t surprise those of you who I talk with frequently because it applies to all teaching environments.  Unquestionably, the way to guarantee a focused class where students really learn what it is that you want them to learn is to write your final exam before you design your class.  Write a challenging final exam that goes far beyond memorizing bold faced words but asks students to synthesize ideas – an exam you’d be really proud of the students if they got it right.  THEN, create a structured learning experience with frequent feedback that fully prepares students to do a great job on the final exam.  This not only results in a great course and experience for your students, but is a course you can be very proud of.

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, tslater@caperteam.com

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