Monthly Archives: October 2009

Everything is upside-down: turning lectures into homework with problem-based learning

The other day, I stumbled (via Tony Baldasaro) on this gem:

How much more could happen in our classrooms if we created more opportunities for students to learn basic skills and content outside of class? … Class, rather than being a time when all kids sat and received instruction, could be the time when they reinforce skills by doing problem sets, worked on real-world application projects, collaborated with teachers to reinforce concepts, etc…

The post is called Inversions; go read it, it’s only short.

This is such a wonderful, simple idea. And of course, many good instructors and educators are already doing just that — as Chris Lehmann points out, this is essentially what happens in English class when kids read a book as homework, then discuss it during class time. Students use out-of-class time to acquire content, freeing up class time for process. Because processing, doing, is how we learn, and students can get instant feedback from the instructor. Dialogue happens; moreover, students have the opportunity to learn vicariously from other students’ participation.

But this isn’t happening enough in universities, for reasons I have written about before. Big classes and a student body working to pay university fees — or to be able to afford food — mean that often, lectures become an info-dump, because you can’t guarantee that the majority of students have done the reading — and in my view, good teaching takes up from where the student is, not where they should be.

And I do get tired of the sound of my own voice in a two-hour lecture. Oh, I can teach for two hours; this post isn’t coming from a place of laziness. On some level I am probably even a bit of a show-off, or I probably wouldn’t enjoy teaching as much as I do. But, you know, no matter how enthusiastic I am, just talking for two hours is going to lose even the keenest student for periods of time, as their attention ebbs and flows. Estimates of attention span vary wildly, and a big chunk of that is about whether you are in flow.

Passive listening probably does not encourage flow in our students.

Attention span also varies as a function of ability, which is one reason why it’s so important to teach in a way that reaches everyone. And it’s unreasonable, I think, to expect anyone’s attention to last for a two-hour lecture, which is why so many of my colleagues are currently trying to think of ways to break up the time a bit. (The university schedules two-hour lectures in the way that many people schedule one-hour meetings: it seems to be a convenient and universally-understood unit of time, but may not be exactly what is needed.)

So how about we approach this problem from the other direction: make the classroom about practice, and perhaps we can nurture people’s curiosity in the topic and encourage them to pursue the more detailed background content afterwards?

Obviously this strategy is not without risk. Techniques like problem-based learning (PBL) have been found to improve students’ engagement and critical thinking skills, and students who have used PBL seem to hold their own against students educated more traditionally. But I have heard many concerns expressed that PBL can lead to patchy subject knowledge, though I am having trouble digging up much in the way of evidence for that (if you can help me out here, please leave a comment!). Wikipedia has a nice section on the cognitive load issues around problem-based learning; the key thing seems to be to start gently and gradually withdraw support, with the instructor increasingly becoming more of a facilitator.

I wouldn’t necessarily have tried this with first-year students, who perhaps haven’t acquired enough basic subject knowledge. But final-year students have been up to their elbows in the subject for long enough that I figured I could probably meet them halfway.

So, I rewrote my lecture.

In fact, my slides didn’t actually need a great deal of reworking, though I took some more of the text off them. I made lots of duplicate slides: the first with an image, and a question or two; the second, with simple labels. It was a pretty basic format: here’s some stuff — now figure out what you’re looking at.

PBL hippocampus question.png

And then, when they’d had a few minutes, in small groups, to try and work out what was going on, I’d ask for suggestions, and we’d talk a bit about those, and then I’d show them the second slide:

PBL hippocampus answer.png

… and we’d talk about that for a short while. I started off with some basics, and then we got into more and more complex stuff. Occasionally I would remind them, “start with what you already know.” Students had a worksheet that duplicated the images and questions, so they didn’t waste time and attention copying things down, and could concentrate on the what and why.

We did this for two hours (with a break), in a warm lecture theatre, in the afternoon, and nobody fell asleep. Students asked questions, made guesses. It was genuinely interactive.

In many ways, I was lucky. This lecture was all about the visuals: pictures of brains with stuff wrong with them. Had I been discussing highly abstract and theoretical concepts, it may not have worked well. Further, the lecture theatre was pretty much exactly right for the size of class: small, with about 60 seats and an aisle up the middle. I could, and did, reach all the groups; had we been in the 450-seat lecture theatre with people sprinkled everywhere, much of that class dynamic and atmosphere would have been lost.

Of course, not everything went brilliantly. There was a little too much content, and what I should have done was set the remainder as homework, rather than trying to cram it all in. I lost one group at the break, though this isn’t uncommon and you never really know why they’ve left; often it may be nothing to do with you and everything to do with their personal circumstances, and I never like to ask, in case it really is the latter and they are mortified that you’ve brought it up, or noticed their absence.

I won’t really be able to gauge the success of the session until the exam results, and student module evaluations, are in. But overall, it felt right. It felt like a good way to teach, and I really, really hope it inspired students to tackle the background reading. The explicit feedback I have had from students so far has been pretty positive, and a colleague who sat in on the session to observe seemed to really enjoy it, and said some very nice things. All of which gives me a little more faith in my own experience and enjoyment of the session.

Next stop: trying this again, with a bigger class. Anyone want to play along?


Filed under my stuff

Show me the evidence! Why education needs more science interpreters.

In his otherwise laudable Really Bad Powerpoint, Seth Godin writes:

Our brains have two sides. The right side is emotional and moody. The left side is focused on dexterity, facts and hard data. When you show up to give a presentation, people want to use both parts of their brain.

This assessment of the hemispheres’ respective functions is about right, albeit oversimplified. But my problem with the above quote is that the relative locations of the factual and emotional centres of the brain have no real bearing on the argument, and come across as window-dressing to make the whole argument seem more scientific. (I am not suggesting that Seth did this deliberately, merely pointing out how it reads.) Seth asserts that people want to be entertained (that is, be stimulated emotionally) as well as being given the facts, and I doubt any psychologist, educator or presenter would disagree. But what he needed to say was:

1. People respond to emotional as well as factual arguments.

2. The emotional and factual centres of the brain are in opposite hemispheres.

3. There is evidence that arguments which increase activity in both hemispheres are more persuasive.

(I don’t know if there is any evidence for (3), but I think you would need some to make this point convincingly.)

This might sound picky, but it’s important: people see the shiny science bit and their critical faculties just switch off. We don’t ask how, or why, and we don’t demand evidence, because we are persuaded and reassured by the presence of an ‘expert’. (This is perhaps best typified by Milgram’s infamous obedience study of the 1960s. The 50s, 60s and 70s — a period I like to think of as B.E., Before Ethics — were a golden era in terms of understanding human behaviour but then people realised that it was perhaps a bit mean to do this or this to people without some serious questions being asked. How the wheel turned again and we got from the post-60s ethics backlash to Big Brother, I’m not really sure; I guess wheels just do that.)

Anyway, this abdication of our critical faculties in the face of ‘science’ is regularly exploited by advertising — look at the proliferation of ‘experts’ in commercials for things that clean, or that claim to protect you and your family from harm. But as the man in the white coat has deservedly become an advertising cliché, so people with something to sell have begun to look for a newer, shinier, more cutting-edge science with which to hawk their wares.

Enter neuroscience.

Neuroscience-as-sales-tool is huge. At face value, it doesn’t represent much of an advance over old-school advertising: “Look: science!” But in fact, its value is extraordinary: “Here’s a picture of the brain of someone using our product!” Think about that for a moment and realise the awesome power of being able to say This is what’s happening inside someone’s head while they experience our product. That’s pretty amazing.

Advertisers have quickly realised the potential of neuromarketing. Some movie distributor or other wanted us to use it while I was doing my PhD, but we couldn’t turn the images around quickly enough for their deadline (fMRI takes time — or used to, anyway). Coca-Cola did it, though I’m not sure they controlled for the fact that caffeine can act as a vasoconstrictor. Anyway, get used to those images of brains, because they’re here to stay — at least until we find the Next Shiny Thing.

Here’s my sad realisation of the week: education, which has been a bit slow to adopt technology but is finally waking up to neuroscience — education is taking advantage of our human weakness for experts and shiny-looking science.

The other morning, I worked myself up into a fine old froth over a website* written by someone with impeccable educational credentials, that seems to exist for the sole purpose of encouraging people to consider neuroscience (and related fields) when constructing the educational experience. I mean, this site is clearly out to make the world — and education in particular — a better place. A place informed by science.

Criticising this site would be like kicking a well-meaning little old lady, right?

Well, I’m gonna.

(Disclaimer: I would never kick old ladies, and what you do in your own time is your business — but if I find out you are spending it kicking little old ladies, I am going to come over there and Have Words.)

The big, insidious problem at the interface between neuroscience and education is that there are many people talking the talk, but not so many walking the walk. Like the old Far Side cartoon, when I see websites like this, all I hear is:

blah blah blah blah neuro blah blah blah blah education blah blah blah neuro neuro neuro!!!!!111!!11! education education neuro blah blah blah blah neuro!!

This specific website was a prime example: lip-service to informing education through neuroscience: pages and pages. Evidence and specific examples of how this can be done: zip. Nada. Nothing.

This little old lady’s been feeding the urban pigeons, a kindly but perhaps misguided act. She’s been siphoning off her pension to fund an underground fascist group on whom she dotes, because they seem like such nice, polite boys. She looks so sweet, but she’s actually perpetuating harm, because educators everywhere are losing their grip on the need to use science and evidence responsibly. If their role models don’t do it, why should they?

It would be okay — and so would my blood pressure — if this were an isolated example (goodness knows the ‘Net has its share of crazies), but it isn’t. Online educators are obsessed with neuroscience, but often don’t clarify the relationship between the educational practices they espouse and the neuroscience fairy-dust they are currently sprinkling over everything. Evidence, people. Evidence and concrete examples.

In a crankier moment earlier this week, I wrote:

You don’t get to co-opt my science without following its rules.

And the #1 rule of my science is this: show me the evidence.

Maybe this is too harsh. There are issues here about elitism and the availability of expertise: if neuroscience isn’t your background, isn’t it a bit unreasonable to expect you to understand it and write about it coherently?

Well, maybe. Certainly it seems unfair for the taxpayer to fund education and get nothing back — we need to make academic findings easier to access and easier for the layperson to understand, rather than hiding everything behind a journal paywall. But also, I think it’s incumbent on those of us who do speak neuroscience to educate those who don’t — not just about our findings, but also about responsible interpretation of those findings.

Last thing. A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at TCUK09 about how bullet-point-loaded slides might be less memorable than sparser slides . (Olivia Mitchell has a great summary of the research here).

Reponses to our work have been either:

1. “Fantastic — finally evidence for something we’ve known or suspected all along!”


2. “Hi. I work for X, selling Y, and I wonder if you can tell me/are interested in … ”

But overwhelmingly, it has been (1).

I think this is really positive — that people do actually get excited about evidence. And I think we can, and should, build on that willingness to be excited by scientific data, until it becomes unremarkable that non-experts are capable of critically evaluating scientific arguments.


* I won’t link to it here, because I don’t wish to offend anyone or start some kind of internet tiff** — and besides, there are many such sites out there, so why single one out?

** tiff, for those of you younger than 30, has other meanings besides ‘a graphics file format you almost never use’.


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