Tag Archives: astronomy teaching

Capturing ASTRO 101 Students Attention with Naked-PPT

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

Notwithstanding unexpected technical difficulties, I can remember the only time I’ve seen an astronomer intentionally teach for an hour without support from a writing board or a projector, computer, overhead transparency, or slide carousel; if you haven’t guessed it already, it was Harvard’s astronomy historian, the legendary Professor Owen Gingrich. So, we are taking it as an initial boundary condition that compassionate ASTRO 101 professors are going to use some visual support as a consistent strategy to get students information about your class.  I’m not advocating any particular commercial tool; however, so that I have a shorthand notation for the general concept of some projected visual, I’ll hereafter use the commonly recognized abbreviation for MS PowerPoint, PPT.

We already know that you definitely don’t want use PPTs that have too many words, too small of figures, distracting transitions and animations, or insufficiently contrasting colors.  You’ve endured too many of those yourself at professional science conferences.  But, the question at hand really is what about your PPT will help improve your course evaluations?  In other words, what will enhance students’ perception that you want to help students learn and that you follow an organized pathway?  Fortunately, purposefully designed PPTs can dramatically help here.

As a first step, let’s review the basic rules of what does and does not help on a PPT.  You might be thinking to yourself that you already know all of these things, but a quick tour through your building peaking in on other professors’ classes or wandering through scientific conference presentations should remind you that we can all forget the basics too often.

When faculty conduct surveys of what students do and don’t like about their professor’s PPT slides, they universally plea for professors to stop reading their PPTs to students.  Really.  Beyond that, consider the following:


Students DON’T like Students DO like
Too many words Short phrases to copy
Animated images Easy to read graphs
Unnecessary animations Slowly increasing  complexity of graphs
Inconsistent format Short video clips
Too many colors Consistent use of colored font for emphasis

Here is a place where a review of your materials from a confidential, critical friend can help.  A critical friend is the one-person you can depend on who will take time to quietly let you know when you have spinach stuck in your teeth or that you embarrassingly mistyped something in that ranting Department-wide email-memo you are about to send.  This person does not necessarily need to be at your institution, and perhaps it is better that they are not. But it needs to be someone you respect as an equal as well as a confidant. If you don’t have a critical friend, you need to start nurturing such a relationship so you have someone with which you can exchange your PPTs with to check for problems one of you might have missed.

The basic time-tested guidelines for PPT your critical-friend should check are:

  • No hard to see colors
  • No more than six lines of text
  • No more than six words per line
  • No complete sentences
  • No adjectives
  • No punctuation

The problem with projecting complete sentences is that students have been long conditioned to write down everything on the PPT, no matter how much you beg them to do otherwise.  This includes the capital letters starting the sentence, illustrative adjectives & adverbs, and punctuation at the end. We promise you that you do have the unexpectedly large amount of your limited each week available to allocate toward teaching your students how to effectively and efficiently take notes in addition to teaching astronomy.  You could staunchly maintain that college students should already know how to take notes and it isn’t your responsibility to teach them how, but then you’ll likely demonstrate to your students that you aren’t actually interested in helping them learn.  In other words, a wise professor wouldn’t unnecessarily provoke sleeping bear on this one, especially if the bear also completes end of course evaluations.

The notion of avoiding complete sentences on your PPT is part of the broader teaching strategy not overwhelming students.  You probably wouldn’t be surprised if we reminded you that learners cannot learn from a spouting fire hose of information drenching them with as many facts as possible.

Although the PPT-experts say you should avoid unnecessary pictures, we would argue otherwise. PPTs that only contain bullet points are as monotonous as some of those memorable professors you had in graduate school.  Pictures, even if gratuitous, serve to break up the boredom potential.  Regardless, you should always talk about the images you project.  Unlike you, novice astronomy students do not readily know what an image is or what is important about it.  Students also won’t have any sense of scale, even if a tiny legend is embossed across the bottom.   We’ll talk about where to find pictures for your PPT and how best to use them later in this chapter.  However, we need to talk about organized systems to get information to your students using PPT a bit more.

A perennial question among professors is whether or not to provide students with photocopies of your PPT, or if they should be provided online.  The first order argument for distributing them early is that students can allocate their scarce class time attention to annotating the PPTs rather than furiously taking complete notes of their own.  There are obvious advantages to this, not the least of which is ensuring you actually have your notes done more than 60-seconds before class starts. This also means that students who miss class or didn’t successfully copy down all of the PPT’s information have a back-up information system.

A contrasting perspective is that students won’t be motivated to come to class if the PPTs are available elsewhere.  We have to agree with the students on this one; if the only reason students have to come to class is to get information to memorize from the PPT, why go to class at all?  The numerous bloggings on this website are specifically designed to counteract this notion:  Your class time should be so well organized and carefully designed to be so incredibly valuable that your students wouldn’t imagine missing it in their wildest dreams.  If that’s not motivation enough to keep reading this book, we don’t know what would be!

If you do decide to distribute the PPT to students, we recommend that you strategically remove key information that students need to fill in.  Many professors find providing what we affectionately call Naked-PPT to be highly effective.  More formally known in the formal science teaching literature as “guided notes”, these are PPT with key information removed and replaced with a blank line for students to complete themselves.


 

 

PPT Displayed for Class PPT Given to Students
Definition of a Planet Definition of a Planet
1. orbits a star 1. orbits a _____
2. enough mass to become spherical 2. enough _____ to become spherical
3. dominant object in its orbit 3. dominant object in its _____

 

The underlying thinking here, confirmed by systematic education research, is that the process of students’ actively dressing the Naked-PPT during class will keep students more attentive.  Moreover, changing your PPT into Naked-PPT is takes just a few seconds.  First, complete and save your PPT presentation that you’ll be presenting in class.  Second, save your final presentation a second time with a new name, adding –Naked.ppt to the end of the name. In this Naked-PPT version remove one or two vital pieces of information from some of the slides. As a word of _______ here, don’t go overboard and remove too much information. You only need to add a few blank lines here and there to make strategy this work like a charm.  Removing too much information will make students perceive you are trying to trick them into coming to _______ by withholding information they need to succeed, which they will resent and report when they fill out your end-of-class _______ forms. Finally, distribute this Naked-PPT version to your students instead of the version you present during class.  It works with images too!

  Naked-PPT Slide

The process of creating fill-in-the-box images is surprisingly easy.  All we have done to create the example shown is insert rectangle shapes over some of the targeted words and filled them with white.

Another strategy engaging teachers use is to slowly increase the amount of information on their PPT.  Like the potentially provocative label Naked-PPT, in the old days professors would call this strategy by an equally lewd name, the ‘stripping transparency.’  The strategy then was to cover most of your projected information with an opaque piece of paper, and slowly reveal information as it was needed by the students.

Stripping Transparency - Naked PPT

The thinking in those days past, which is still applicable today, was that students would hurriedly write down everything on the screen before listening to anything the professor had to say and, in the process, miss the first half of the professor’s lecture.  This is because most students  can not listen and write at the same time, so the tactic was to limit what students had available to copy at any one time.  Today, the strategy is to use the Animate function in most PPT computer programs to slowly dispense information.  Adopting some version of this yourself is probably a wise choice for your presentations.


 

Definition of a Planet Definition of a Planet Definition of a Planet
1. orbits a star 1. orbits a star 1. orbits a star
2. enough mass to become spherical 2. enough mass to become spherical
3. dominant object in its orbit

 


Not only does this work well for bullet lists, but it also works well when teaching with images.

No matter how you use PPT, most professors find creating PPT to be an enormously time consuming task that effectively crowds out the more important aspects of teaching students to love astronomy.  This is especially true if you are a perfectionist.  The truth is that students don’t notice or appreciate whether or not your slides are perfect.  We recommend that you adopt the perspective that 80% good is good enough.  This isn’t so you have extra time to get to the golf course; instead, we want you to use all your available teaching-innovation energy to implement the interactive teaching strategies in the other pages on this blog.

You might be surprised to learn that nearly complete PPT sets already exist for your class.  Most book publishers have already paid someone to work really hard creating PPT sets for each chapter (they’ve also created test-item libraries, among other valuable resources).  Typically, these PPTs already use images from your selected book and have the most important vocabulary included.  If this isn’t enough, there are also PPT repositories online for all topics that are uncovered by Internet searches.  Moreover, you can even use PPT sets designed from other books. If you don’t know where to find these, call your book’s publisher and marketing representative who will enthusiastically share the many resources they’ve created.  By all measures, none of these PPTs you’ll find are close to perfect, nor are these tightly aligned to the specific teaching you want to do. These are, however, sufficiently good starting places to adapt to your own teaching, especially if you adopt“80% good is good enough so there is ample time to improve other parts of class” thinking.

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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:


JUST THE FACTS vs VAGUE QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

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.


CITATIONS

  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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Can Your Syllabus Improve Student Motivation?

Stephanie J. Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, stephanie@caperteam.com 

It seems reasonable to assume that students with high motivation have a better chance to do well in your courses than students who are unmotivated—or worse, negatively motivated. This begs the question of how we might enhance our students’ motivation.

Before we get to this, we should consider whether or not it is our responsibility as professors to even acknowledge student motivation at all. By this I mean, isn’t it sufficient that students pay their tuition to come and sit in our classes, and shouldn’t this be motivation enough all on its own? I don’t have a solid answer to this, but what I do know is that over the years, I’ve changed my philosophical perspective that it is my job to help students learn how to learn rather than cleverly download facts into their brains. The truth is that five years from now, I want them to think astronomy is “cool” more than I want them to know the numerical diameter of Saturn. That means that the astronomy class needs to be a transformative experience for them—which isn’t the same thing as just having a great time. Its about them being different as a human being because they’ve taken astronomy, and I want that different to be a positive transformation, rather than a negative one. Taken together, I think it is important that we pay attention to enhancing our students’ motivation, if for no other reason than to not engender negative motivation about learning astronomy.

Stephanie Slater discusses motivation theory at MIT

Perhaps surprisingly, your course syllabus is the most tangible means by which you can quickly establish a positive “course climate.” This is important because, if you’ve read your faculty evaluation forms from previous semesters, you might have noticed that there are usually several items that specifically attend to the nature of the “course climate” or “classroom environment” you established. For instance:

  • “The instructor established and maintained a respectful and welcoming learning environment from the first day of class”
  • “The instructor adapted teaching methods and materials to address my individual learning style and abilities”
  • “The instructor´s direction in this course is free from attitudes/actions demeaning to women and minorities.”
  • “This instructor seems aware of my needs, abilities, and interests.”

These are not items on which you desire a low score, yet I suspect, that these are the items that angry students will use to tank you at the end of the term. So what  about getting good marks here, and as a side note, actually creating a better classroom climate?

One framework of classroom environments characterizes classrooms along a continuous spectrum that looks something like this:

<—explicitly marginalizing—implicitly marginalizing—implicitly centralizing—explicitly centralizing—>

As you might guess, you do not want to be on the far left side of this spectrum if you want to have positive teaching evaluations.

Unfortunately, most courses are characterized as “implicitly marginalizing.” An implicitly marginalizing class is one that “excludes certain groups of people, but in subtle and indirect ways.” To put this to use, the modern version of “certain groups of people” is no longer women and minorities. It’s now non-traditional students:

  • students who go to school part time and work part or full time
  • students with children at home, minority and immigrant students who are culturally bound to be caretakers for their larger family group
  • English language learners, etc.

This is true for both high school and college settings.

To be conservative, we should probably all assume “implicitly marginalizing” to be our current status, and we should all be looking for ways to move to the right side of the spectrum. If you are already to the right side of the spectrum, this perspective won’t hurt you. Erring in the other direction will.

So, what does classroom environment have to do with cell phones, laptops and your end-of-term scores? There are two pieces here. The first is “motivation,” and the second has to do with “tone.”

MOTIVATION: We sometimes think that “motivation” is a pretty vague thing, but there are people who have thought a lot about it and have broken it down into something that you can chew on. One way to think about student motivation is that it is a mixture of three things:

A. Motivation is about “Value”: Does this class help me meet my goals? Which may be related to intrinsic value of education and the material, but it’s probably not. It has more to do with meeting my social goals, my career goals, etc.

Perhaps the fastest way to reduce the “value” a student sees in your class, is to put your class in conflict with things that the student values more. Like their job, their kids or their family. If I need my cell phone to stay in touch with my child’s caregiver, and you tell me I can’t have my cell phone out to text that caregiver, you have now put us into conflict.

Does this mean that students will sometimes multitask? Yes. And that’s not great. But it would be far worse to set up a system in which we are at odds, and I’m constantly worried about my other obligations. Because if you make me stressed out and anxious about these other things, my amygdala fires and shuts down my hippocampus, and I can neither access nor store memories..,But the neurobiology thing is a whole other thing.

To keep it simple, the syllabus can either show the students a pathway by which they can meet their most cherished goals, or it can show them that the two are in conflict. Conflict = bad evaluations.

B. Motivation is about “self-efficacy.” Can I do this thing that I have to do for this class?

Can we think of ways in which students might use devices like cell phones and laptops, in order to help them get through the class. Yep. Do you want to be the instructor who tries to control student behavior by removing laptops, and inadvertently removes an important educational tool for some students. Nobody does, but we often focus on control so much that we forget to think about whether or not we’re hindering someone unnecessarily.

C. Motivation is about “Perceiving a Supportive Environment”. Does the student perceive that the instructor is creating an environment that will help them be successful, or does the student think things like:

  • “This instructor does not understand my commitment to my family,”
  • “This instructor does not understand that I have to be able to text my boss if I want to keep my job—-this instructor only wants to teach the rich who can afford to go to school full time.”
  • “This instructor doesn’t want me to succeed because she says that I can’t come into class 5 minutes late…but sometimes the bus is late getting me to campus….”

So the question is, for the non-traditional student, does your syllabus increase their sense of value in your class, make them believe that they can use tools to succeed, and does it make them believe that you are supporting them in the difficult task of juggling their education and their other commitments?

It’s funny to think that something so small as a cell phone/laptop or late admittance policy can have such big whammy on student motivation, but it can clearly hit all three pieces of student motivation if handled badly. The research, shows it to be true: replicated, over decades of studies on students in many different types of courses.

BUT, you might say, what can I do to reduce the non-necessary use of cell phones and the off-task use of laptops? Can I put anything in my syllabus? This brings us to:

TONE: Ishiyama and Hartlaub (2002) studied how the tone of a syllabus affects course climate. They found that “students are less likely to seek help from an instructor who worded policies in punitive language.” Given that “instructor accessibility” is an important factor on course evaluations, you don’t want students feeling that way. Sure you have office hours, but if they don’t feel like they can approach you, it doesn’t matter: you are perceived to be unapproachable. In other words, the specific tone (intentional or unconscious) can significantly bring down your instructor accessibility score.

Interestingly enough, instructors could state the exact same policy, but do so in rewarding language, and get a completely different response. In 1985, Rubin described instructors who put policies in boldface block letters, or who promised harsh punishments as “scolders.” Students don’t like scolders. Going back to what was said earlier about motivation, a “scolder” is not perceived to provide a supportive environment. Scolder = low evaluations.

–> PLEASE BE ON TIME     vs      Please, be on time.

So if you have to have some policy in your syllabus about lateness, phones, laptops, tablets, or whatever the current “control fetish” might be, don’t put it in bold face. Don’t pronounce sever punishments. Don’t create punishments that embarrass students. In other words, don’t act like a Big Bad Guy.

Because, the research has verified that students don’t like instructors who create policies that are counterproductive to their motivation, and who state those policies in a dictatorial manner.

A great book to read on all of this is the Ambrose et. al. book: “How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.” It’s extremely useful, and contains references for all of the research that has gone into everything that I’ve repackaged here.

This means that a professor who is serious about improving their course learning environment will ask themselves some hard questions, including:

— >  What policies do I enact that might make students feel demeaned, disenfranchised, or disabled from meeting their out-of-class commitments?

— >  How can I change the wording on just one thing in my syllabus, to make it seem more hospitable for my students?

Perhaps some specific examples will help. Over the years of helping professors improve their teaching evaluations, we’ve discovered some pretty “inhospitable” syllabi.


Here are some examples definitely worth considering changing:

ONE–

  • OLD: You must have a scientific calculator for this class that can handle exponential notation.
  • POSSIBLE NEW WORDING: Although not required every day, a calculator will sometimes be helpful in completing the homework for this class. Any inexpensive one will do just fine, as long as it is labeled “scientific” and one can be purchased for about $12.

TWO–

  • OLD: Class attendance is REQUIRED!! Class attendance will be record five times throughout the semester – unannounced – and attendance is worth 10% of your grade.
  • POSSIBLE NEW WORDING: Students who regularly attend class almost always earn better grades and learn more astronomy than students who miss class. Although sometimes missing a class is unavoidable, our class time is specifically designed around collaborative group learning activities that will help you score better on exams. Although you can sometimes do these assignments on your own, talking through these ideas with another student and with the support of your professor will enhance your learning and your grade. Occasionally, these learning tasks will be collected and participation points will be awarded to add to your grade.

THREE–

  • OLD: Office hours will not be held within 24 hours of the exam.
  • POSSIBLE NEW WORDING: I will hold extra office hours during the week leading up to the exam and hold an open question-and-answer session at 4pm two days before the exam–bring snacks to share with classmates!

FOUR–

  • OLD: Class time is important and will always start on time. Do not be late or leave early.
  • POSSIBLE NEW WORDING: I promise to start and end class on time. I would appreciate it if you did too.

Positive course learning environments can help keep students motivation high in your astronomy class, whereas negative environments too often lead to student failure and dissatisfaction on everyone’s part. Motivation might seem like a difficult nut to crack, but as a first step, we suggest taking a look at your syllabus, or have a critical friend look at your syllabus. You might find that this first step opens up all sorts of doors to improving student motivation and nurturing a more positive class climate.

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