Tag Archives: introductory astronomy

How to Use Video Most Effectively in #ASTRO101

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

NoProbably notI seriously doubt itIt’s just not a good idea. and I’m dubious.  These are the most common responses all consulted teaching experts give when queried by colleagues about whether or not they should show videos in their introductory astronomy survey class. Sounds pretty negative doesn’t it?  This negative reaction is the direct result of seeing professor after professor misuse and abuse otherwise perfectly good videos during class.

It’s not that there aren’t great video resources out there: there really are amazing video resources available in astronomy, perhaps more than any other field (other than oceanography).  The number of high production astronomy videos made in the last decade is nothing short of astronomical. Satellite television providers such as the Discovery Channel, History Channel, NASA TV and Science TV have joined the longstanding and highly respected video production efforts of IMAX, PBS, and the National Geographic Society NatGEO TV—just to name a few of the many talented production efforts out there—to super high-production quality videos and video series.

For one, the most highly rated of these videos show the best “talking head” profiles of some of the most influential and photogenic astronomers around.  Neil deGrasse Tyson has thousands of social media followers and has even appeared repeatedly on television talk shows like Comedy Channel’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Steven Cobert’s Cobert Report, as well as popular late night television talk shows. These videos go a long way to helping viewers see that astronomy is a human enterprise.  Moreover, many of these videos do a reasonably good job of showing today’s astronomers as being highly diverse in racial demographic and quite a few women.  The good news here is that television can play a role in helping expand and enhance the stereotypical image of an astronomer from being only a white-haired (or non-haired) white male smoking a pipe in a cold, mountain-top observatory to a more contemporary view of astronomers as being equally likely to being a partying group young males and females from across the racial spectrum.  As evidence, I submit to you that the NASA JPL video clips showing young astronomers dancing, yelling, and celebrating during successful Mars landings are enormously popular on video websites like YouTubeSome of these individuals even acquire a tremendous social media following that greatly extends their previously allotted 15 minutes of fame.  In other words, these videos can serve to enhance the image of astronomers as people, and perhaps even improve the nation’s evaporating science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) career pipeline.

Perhaps more important than showing astronomers as being a diverse group of people, these videos include the latest and greatest graphics-intensive animations and computer simulations.  There are only three words to describe these animations—and all three of them are “WOW.”  Many of these animations have a wow-factor that make even the most curmudgeonly critical astronomers look up from their computers and pause to watch.  Over the last decade, the entire career field of scientific visualization has stood up to take advantage of and match new computer graphics capabilities with the high-computing power that was once restricted to supercomputers and is now found waiting inside desktop machines.  NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Scientific Visualization Studio, as but one example, has hundreds of videos ready for Internet download that can be used equally well in television documentaries as well as in astronomy classrooms.  In other words, the resources are there and ready to go, so why don’t we just turn them on and let them run for the entire class session?  Or even better, if students can watch these amazing videos in the evenings while wearing their bunny slippers, then there doesn’t seem to be any need for students or faculty to go through the hassle of fighting for a parking place and coming to campus at all!

Taken together, the current situation seems to be that we have engaging and good looking speakers describing super high-quality animations just a mouse click away. This entire notion of using videos IN class—or using videos FOR class altogether—sounds like a no brainer, WIN-WIN situation for everyone. This is especially true when you remember that too many astronomy professors are simply terrible lecturers to begin with.  (Personal Note: I have been driven to the edge of complete despair watching professors read a textbook to their students in an endless monotone flux too many times to count.) You might be inclined to say, “hey, what are we waiting for? Bring on the videos?

But, as it seems with every “force” in the universe, there are unfortunate dark sides of using even the highest quality and most scientifically accurate videos in your astronomy class.  One has to do with the innate—and perhaps immutable—nature of students.  Will students pay attention to a video better than a live lecture? Faculty probably wonder, even if only as an mere idle curiosity, how many of their students are really paying attention to their lecture as the hour wears on. The answer is, not many. We often hear colleagues say, “ah, today’s students just can’t seem to pay attention like they used to.”  Of course, those same colleagues are really talking about themselves!  Nearly forty years ago, researchers discovered that the worst fears of college lecturers are in fact true: Verner and Dickinson (1967) observed lectures and found that only 66% of students showed the slightest signs of attention to lectures after 18 minutes, compared to the beginning of the lecture.  And, worse yet, essentially no students they observed showed signs that they were completely attentive after 35 minutes.  That’s not a good omen.

In the end, students are not likely to watch a video with any more interest than they are to watch a lecture.  Research backs too backs up this supposition.  Fascinating research by Alison Gopnik, author of the famed book Scientist in the Crib, and Patricia Kuhl, studying the development of language, reports in recent research that infants do not learn from video of their mother with nearly the same attention that they will when mom is physically present.

The more argumentative reader might pose that students are able to watch Hollywood movies for hours on end with rapt attention, remembering some of the most obscure details.  Again, research helps us understand what is going on.  Daniel Willingham proposes in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School, that video material being presented needs to at least have the potential to make an emotional connection with the listener in order to be deeply remembered.  Hollywood movies and adventure television shows do this in spades: the damsel in distress ready to be rescued, the seemingly impossible to solve mystery, the hero’s journey from adversity to triumph.  One would be greatly surprised if even the most accurate of black hole animations stands well-poised to make an emotional connection for many students—geez, animations generally only seem to barely generate recognizable emotions within professors themselves when videos have glaring mistakes that provoke a professors’ ilk (Do I need to remind you about the Disney movie, “The Black Hole”?).

The other component of a dark side of using videos has to do with the innate nature of professors.  By and large, professors seem to be insanely busy people—if you aren’t sure this is true, all you need to do is ask a few and they will be happy to tell you how busy they are. Many professors travel frequently and need to miss class.  Because professors are people, when a professor has to miss a class or don’t have time to prepare for class, one seemingly easily implementable solution is to show their class a video.  As a substitute for a well-planned lecture, rather than no lecture at all, a video might initially seem like a reasonable option.  As pointed out earlier, modern videos have fantastic animations, good looking and well-spoken experts, and sometimes engaging story lines.  But the reason we have professors who are experts in the field teach classes is not that they are great speakers—if we only needed great speakers we’d hire actors to teach our classes—rather, we hire experts because they should be able to coach students along the pathway of learning astronomy.  When a professor understands the material, they are able to probe students understanding by posing examples and counter examples of different concepts to help students extend their understanding.  Moreover, they are able to provide rapid feedback to students who are struggling to learn astronomy in ways that performing actors just can’t do.  In other words, it’s the two-way human interaction that is needed, not the attractive downloading of information, which constitutes effective astronomy teaching.

Fortunately, there are some effective strategies to take full advantage of high-quality video resources. One is to use only short video clips of about 3 minutes (5 minutes as an absolute maximum).  The key is to have a very specific reason for using the video clip and to fully inform students what they are about to see, why you are showing it to them, and what they are supposed to take away: this is precisely the same tried-and-true presentation skills from physics education research about how to do effective classroom demonstrations.  When Thornton and Sokoloff researched interactive lecture demonstrations (ILDs) in teaching physics, they found that what a professor does BEFORE they do a demonstration was much more influential than anything that a professor did after the demonstration.  So, that is going to be true with videos too.  In fact, one sure-fire strategy is to pause a video (or demonstration) in the middle and ask students to justify predictions about what they think might be going to see next.  It really does work!

If you are committed to having students watch a really great, but hour long video presentation—like COSMOS—then the cardinal rule is that instructors need a scheme to help students intellectually participate in and interact with the ideas in the video.  Motivated because we are trying to improve the different Internet-based, asynchronous distance learning astronomy courses we teach, we have been experimenting with STUDENT VIDEO DISCUSSION GUIDE worksheets.

Student Video Discussion Guide

Student Video Discussion Guide

The general idea underlying the STUDENT VIDEO DISCUSSION GUIDE is to keep the student intellectually engaged with the video while it is playing.  Leveraging Bloom’s Taxonomy, we present the students with three distinct levels of questions.  For an hour-long video, we first ask four to eight factual, knowledge-level questions from the video.  An example is, How far above Earth’s surface is the Hubble Space Telescope?  The point of these first-tier questions are to help students focus on the more relevant facts shared in the video.  The second thing we pose to students are two to four deeper level, synthesis and evaluation questions from the video.   An example is, “Were the Hubble’s observations of Mars or Saturn the most scientifically valuable?”  Finally, we post one or two self-reflection questions.  The point of these questions is to attempt to make the information in the video more emotionally relevant to students so that they have a better chance of internalizing the ideas.  An example of one of these self-reflection questions is, “Of the many Hubble images shown, which 12 HST images would you pick to use in a calendar and why?” To be clear, we give the students the questions on the STUDENT VIDEO DISCUSSION GUIDE before the video starts and encourage them to look over the questions before the video starts so that they know precisely what that are looking for while watching the video. You can find many examples of these STUDENT VIDEO DISCUSSION GUIDES in the Astronomy Faculty Lounge at http://astronomy.facultylounge.whfreeman.com/ by searching the resources under VIDEOS.

We began this discussion by saying, NO, you really shouldn’t use videos in your classroom. In the end, I don’t really believe that—I was trying to catch your attention by being a bit contrarian.  The truth is that there are amazing video resources available for teaching astronomy.  However, astronomy education research clearly shows that it is irresponsible just to turn on the video as a classroom babysitter and hope that students will benefit.  Like using textbook reading assignments, LECTURE TUTORIALS FOR INTRODUCTORY ASTRONOMY, or online homework systems, videos too need to have a specific educational purpose for their inclusion and their rationale explained to students to generate their buy in.  In other words, for videos to be effective, you need to successfully convince students that the videos used will specifically help them get a better grade in your course and, most importantly, will help students learn more astronomy.

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To Textbook or Not To Textbook? That is the question.

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

Even before I became a textbook author, I was party to more than one water cooler conversation about whether or not faculty should require students to purchase textbooks [viz., http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/astrolrner/message/4958].  Now, that I am an introductory astronomy textbook author, I still feel the same way—there are some benefits to assigning a textbook to students and, more importantly, tremendous risks in not doing so.

Most folks who have moved away from textbooks entirely face a pretty serious problem in that the professor, and the professor’s notes, all too often can become the sole source of knowledge and expertise in the class.  Sure students CAN go look up stuff and get another perspective, but my sense is that they don’t, and perhaps don’t even know how to do so effectively given the variety of presentations professors give.  In the case where there is no clear supporting textbook readings assigned to students, the end result is an implicit and sizeable pressure on students—probably completely unintended by the professor— to memorize nearly everything that their professors say (or type onto a PowerPoint slide).  It is these “memorized transcripts” that end up being what students are able to answer on exams. At the same time, a hidden social contract in the introductory astronomy class causes professors themselves to feel a sizeable pressure to only ask questions about what they specifically talk about in class.  For my money, this is a LOSE-LOSE bet.  When I consider all of this, it seems to me that the astronomy professor’s job should be about linking students’ thinking to the ideas of astronomy and giving students feedback about how well they are learning the concepts, not about being responsible for delivering astronomy ideas in their entirety.

Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris
Some folks have tried using trade books or coffee table books or extensive fact-based web sites.  Although these are attractive, particularly in how they are illustrated, they lack the tried-and-true pedagogical tools that many, many students, publishers, and authors have worked through and tried to perfect over the years – explicitly stated learning goals, headings to structure student thinking, end of chapter summaries with review questions, and, gasp, even bold faced words to help focus student attention.  I’m not saying that these things are perfect and are not often overused, BUT, what I would say is that these pedagogical clues are important enough to student readers that having them in a textbook is more important than the pretty pictures and pedagogy-free writing of coffee table books.  

There is a dark side here, in that some students are preferentially disadvantaged more than other students when astronomy faculty purposefully choose not to assign readings connected to their teaching from a textbook—those are the students who already struggle with learning from your lecture.  CAPER’s Stephanie J. Slater argues in Astrolrner Post #5014:

Stephanie J. Slater, Ph.D. CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research

Stephanie Slater

Teaching using a textbook as a tool is pedagogical skill well worth learning.  There is ample research out there that suggests that texts are important resources for many students, including those students who are most in need of extra help.  Many students cannot take notes and listen to lecture at the same time.  Students with specific learning disabilities, reduced working memories, who are second language learners, or who have poor spatial reasoning skills, struggle to glean concepts and facts from lecture.  Non-text readings that are not structured with the coherence usually found in a textbook, or with the learning cues found in many texts, make life harder for our students who have ADD, reduced working memory, who are visually impaired, have visual-neurological dysfunction, or who have  reduced access to technology.

So, for my money, I think using an astronomy textbook is an important part of the introductory science survey course.  Yes, they can be expensive, but in the grand scheme of things that go into a college education, textbooks really aren’t.  My most convincing evidence is that the $45 that students pay for the LECTURE TUTORIALS FOR INTRODUCTORY ASTRONOMY initially seems outrageous for a “work book” BUT, students rarely complain because they really, really use the book as part of their learning and they find it valuable.  If students felt that the astronomy textbook helped them learn the material and they found it valuable, they wouldn’t care if it cost $235 (of course, if you haven’t looked at the half priced e-books or loose-leaf for students as an significantly lower cost option, you should talk to the next textbook sales representative that comes through the door – these lower-price alternatives are getting really attractive!).

I think the consistent problem that most astronomy faculty face related to textbooks is nothing short of simply OPERATOR ERROR.  If professors never ask students to be responsible for learning from the textbook without the instructor repeating or, even worse, and I’ve seen it, reading from the textbook during lecture, then why would students ever think a textbook is valuable.  This problem is much better documented in physics than astronomy, where too many physics professors don’t’ use the textbook for anything other than problems at the end of the chapter.  Eric Mazur says that, even at Harvard, students won’t read unless you require it of them.  My experience is that this applies no matter what your student demographic is. (I add this additional provocation for those who are about to say, “but my community college students couldn’t possibly read the book.” I don’t see any truly convincing evidence of this–readability on astronomy books show that many are purposefully done at pre-high school reading-level anyway.)

Investigating Astronomy Textbook by Tim Slater and Roger Freedman


Speaking for a moment as a textbook author, one thing that I have definitely learned is that no textbooks end up being perfectly accurate – even after tens of people read and comment and carefully check the drafts.  Errors do somehow frustratingly slip through the textbook creation process—and some faculty out there love to find and point out those errors!  However, I’m absolutely sure that if 25 experts were to look at your PowerPoint slides and listen to your lectures, very few of any of us are error free in our presentations.  Unless you’ve had 25 experts review your lectures, you’re probably guilty of giving out some misinformation.  Textbooks at least have had some (gulp, a lot, usually) expert review.  The other thing I’ve learned that I didn’t fully understand before is that modern textbooks have pedagogical tools, as mentioned above, that really do matter to novice readers.  Websites, nor trade books, often have these things that really do help students learn the material more efficiently, particularly struggling ones.

My thinking is that students should be required to learn from the textbook and that portions of exams should be allocated to material from the textbook that is NOT specifically covered in lecture, but students are specifically made aware of what they are to learn.  I don’t want to spend my valuable class time telling them facts they can read in a much more precise and attractive language than I can “say” during class time.  This doesn’t mean that you should abdicate your responsibility to helping students learn—however, if you are only asking your students to memorize what you say in class, you are missing a grand opportunity to teach students how to find, understand, and internalize material on their own.  And, for many of us, we hope that we are helping our students, at least a little bit, become more talented life-long learners.

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