Teaching Resource: The Decoding the Disciplines Paradigm: Seven Steps to Increased Student Learning by David Pace

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I’m not sure where I first heard about this text, but the paradigm’s focus on disciplinary bottlenecks intrigued me and seemed reflective of a great deal of interest at Middlebury in connection to helping students to think like a …. scientist, historian, educator, economist, etc. The decoding paradigm relies on three assumptions:

  1. Learning is focused on disciplinary processes
  2. We must concentrate on what students need to be able to do
  3. Experts are not always able to identify the basic necessary tasks in a disciplinary field because those processes have become automatic to them

The decoding process is broken up into seven steps:

“Identify a bottleneck

Define the mental operations needed to get past the bottleneck

Model these tasks explicitly

Give students practice and feedback

Motivate the students and deal with potential emotional blocks

Assess how well students are mastering the mental operations

Share what you have learned about your students’ learning”

(Pace, D., 2017, p. 6)

A lot of what is covered in this texts reflects what we already know to be effective practices to improve student learning, however I found the chapters on identifying bottlenecks and dealing with students’ emotional blocks to provide some of the most transformative material.

Bottlenecks

Bottlenecks are those process areas where professors can predict that a majority of their students’ will get stuck. Pace makes the argument that:

“The mistakes that students make in our courses become gifts that can serve to increase our understanding of how to better teach our disciplines and even illuminate the deeper nature of those disciplines”

(Pace, D., 2017, p. 26).

A key to identifying bottlenecks is focusing on what students need to be able to do, or the mental operations that a student must perform to complete a task within the discipline. These bottlenecks can be difficult for experts to identify, and Pace suggests decoding interviews to help hone in on the core of the difficulty that students are experiencing. The interview can begin with asking professors how they would get past the bottleneck that stumps their students. The interviewer will focus on breaking down the answer into a specific set of steps by asking follow up questions. 

Pace notes that bottleneck patterns that have emerged in multiple fields include: 

“Procedural problems

Missing steps

Transferring processes

Moving back and forth from models to concrete situations

Integration of details

Issues of scale

Procedures for knowledge generation”

(Pace, D., 2017, p. 24 – 25).

Emotions

This chapter seemed particularly relevant given our current polarized political climate. It offered a great deal of guidance and suggestions to help professors be proactive in their management of student emotions to ensure that students are familiar with a process for objective engagement with content before they engage with information that may evoke an emotional and personal reaction.

“…what students learn in a college classroom may disrupt the once harmonious flow of opinions around the family dinner table. In some cases what they are studying may even be perceived as a betrayal of the family and the culture within which they have been raised”

(Pace, D., 2017, p. 84 – 85)

In addition, students’ preconceived notions of how they believe a college classroom will function, and the ways in which they will need to study to be successful may come in direct conflict with the disciplinary ways of thinking that students need to acquire. Here again, a proactive approach to teaching students methods and practices that will benefit them in your class is a good way to head off or, at least dampen this reaction before it can occur. A great way to do this is by asking students to share with future students what they need to do to be successful in the class and including this content as a part of your syllabus for subsequent cohorts. 
Pace also emphasizes that professors should not dismiss either of these types of misconceptions. Instead, professors should help students to see these prior understandings as building blocks to new levels of learning.

TLDR;

This is a great read for any teacher who is very interested in developing disciplinary ways of thinking in their students. The text provides many examples and practical suggestions that break big ideas down into actionable steps. There is also a web site that compiles and summarizes much of the material into easily accessible chunks. 

Canvas Tip – Why should I use the inbox in Canvas?

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Perhaps you have noticed the little mail icon labeled Inbox on the blue menu bar on the left hand bar of your screen and though “just what I need – ANOTHER inbox”. This brief post will outline a few ways in which this option (called Conversations in Canvas-speak) might offer you some benefits.

To begin, here’s a video introduction of how Conversations work in Canvas.

Benefits of using the Canvas Inbox:

  • All course related messages are grouped together (not intermingled with other emails)
  • You can filter your messages by course to view conversations only related to that course
  • Students (and faculty) can still set their notifications to receive email messages when they receive messages in their Canvas inbox if they find that helpful

Things to consider: 

  • Using right click (or option+click) functionality you can open the Canvas mailbox in another tab to keep this feature handy while you are doing other work in Canvas
  • Once a course has concluded the messaging function in Canvas can no longer be used for that course.

Office Hours = Connection

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Office hours can be a misunderstood and underutilized opportunity for students. They are often a new concept to many first year students and they are not always sure what office hours are for or how they apply to their needs as students. In the article ““Office Hours are Kind of Weird”: Reclaiming a Resource to Foster Student-Faculty Interaction” the authors suggest the following action items to help students more actively utilize office hours:

  • Make the purpose of office hours explicit. What should they be used for? Provide an example scenario to help students identify situations where they might access faculty help.
  • Create nurturing classroom environments to make students feel comfortable and safe asking for help.
  • Promote your office hours. Don’t just mention them once in your syllabus. Bring up office hours frequently along with how students can sign up for time – which leads to…
  • Use digital technologies to keep students updated as to what times are available and how they can book a time (see below for more logistical details) (Smith, Chen, Berndtson, Burson, & Griffin, 2017, p.24 – 25)

Cognitive scientist Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. (founder of www.retrievalpractice.org) highlights the significance of connection in her blog post about 10 quick tips to make office hours powerful learning opportunities. There are some great ideas here that highlight the principles above as well as some additional ideas. A core focus that Professor Agarwal uses in her suggestions is:

Turn your office hours into connection hours, student hours, and learning hours.

Dr. Pooja K. Agarwal

Of course not everyone is sold on the idea of office hours. While digging around the research I found this article in which a professor attempted to replace personalized email communication for in person office hours. This resulted in 8000 emails with students in five sections of one class over the course of ONE semester. 

This article highlights a tension that can exist between the convenience of digital vs. in-person communications. In the article “Office Hours are Kind of Weird…” the authors directly address this complexity:

“To implement office hours in a more connected world, we suggest that the emphasis should be put on enhancing student-faculty interactions regardless of means, either in-person consultation or brief communications via digital tools. How to maintain quality student-faculty interaction in this increasingly connected world is a challenge facing faculty and institutions.”

(Smith, Chen, Berndtson, Burson, & Griffin, 2017, p. 21)

Scheduling Logistics

So if you’ve decided to encourage the use of your office hours you also need to make it easy for students to find a time to meet with you when you are not already meeting with someone else. Below we’ve outlined instructions for two different options that utilize Middlebury systems. You can also set up a consultation with a member of the Office of Digital Learning and Inquiry if you would like to discuss these options in more depth. Also – keep in mind that these meetings could happen virtually via Zoom which can be particularly helpful if a student is away from campus due to travel, illness, emergencies, etc.

Setting up Office Hours using the scheduler in Canvas

You can set up your office hours using the scheduler in Canvas which will allow students to sign up through the Canvas calendar interface. Important tips to keep in mind are that you will need to enter all of your office hours for the semester at once, or add new ones week by week. You can not generate hours via a pattern. However, if your hours are regularly scheduled on a weekly basis this is not a time consuming process.

Below is a video about the calendar in Canvas. Fast forward to 3:00 to see the specific information about the scheduler.

Ask students to request meetings with you during your scheduled office hours using Outlook.

You can also use Outlook either via the application or the web interface (go/mail) to have your students initiate scheduling a meeting during your office hours via the calendar interface. The best way to facilitate this would be to notify your students of your office hours and explain that they should use the instructions linked below to request an appointment with you. An added benefit of this process is that you can respond to requests on an appointment by appointment basis so if your schedule has changed unexpectedly you can adjust and suggest alternate times. Here’s a guide for how to use the Outlook Web App.

Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes by Flower Darby with James M. Lang

A picture of a smartphone with the word "Design" on it with a definition.

What it is:

Small Teaching Online is a 225 page book written as a follow up to Small Teaching to address ways in which the small teaching approach can be adapted in the online medium. Both books address small practical changes that you can make to your teaching that will positively impact student learning. Although this resource appears to be directed strictly to an audience of faculty teaching solely online, it offers tips that would be beneficial to any faculty member who finds themselves building some of their course content into an online space.

Topics Covered:

Small Teaching Online is broken up into three parts: Designing for Learning, Teaching Humans, and Motivating Online Students (and Instructors). The chapter-by-chapter breakdown is:

  • Part I: Designing for Learning
    •     Surfacing Backward Design
    •     Guiding Learning Through Engagement
    •     Using Media and Technology Tools
  • Part II: Teaching Humans
    •     Building Community
    •     Giving Feedback
    •     Fostering Student Persistence and Success
  • Part III: Motivating Online Students (and Instructors)
    •     Creating Autonomy
    •     Making Connections
    •     Developing as an Online Instructor

My Takeaways:

It has always been my contention that online learning forces a lot of pedagogical considerations that should occur in all learning environments, but become much more apparent when teaching in an online space because you are establishing all new norms. The authors make this point in the introduction when they contrast the experience of entering an in person classroom vs. an online space. In one experience students walk through a door – in another they need to navigate several login protocols and guidelines to gain access to a course space and then 

“Once online students finally get into their class, it is frequently unclear what they should do first.” (p. xvii)

Using the example as a guideline we can see that a course needs to be re-thought when it is taught online. Some of the biggest takeaways I found were:

  • Design and align your course content – Teaching online is a great opportunity to consider what you are teaching, how students will use that knowledge, and how you will know that they are successful. This can start with your assessments & assignments. Look at what you’ve typically required and then break it down from there. What is the purpose of the assignment? What are students demonstrating through that work and what type of thinking have they had to use to generate it? Does it address your course objectives? Is it meaningful to students? If not – how can you re-work that piece?
  • Pay attention to the clues your students are giving you. Recognize that as an expert in your field you may make assumptions that trip up novices a bit. Do you notice that a large portion of your class missed what you thought was a fairly obvious conclusion? You need to figure that out! Sometimes breaking the assignment down into chunks can help to move students through a complex thought process (and provide you with the means to address a mis-conception at the exact point it occurs rather than after a whole thought process has been built on that mistake). Use discussion forums to monitor for confusion. Are you noticing patterns? Jump in and ask questions, provide resources and suggestions when you think they might be helpful in redirection students.
  • Connection matters. It shouldn’t be surprising that I had the same takeaway for Small Teaching. This is the core of education – connection. However, connecting in an online space is unique. What you might be able to do through eye contact or a quick conversation on the way to class, needs to happen in a different way in an online class. Regardless of medium students need to feel seen and heard. They want to know you care. Helping students to build their own personal learning networks is a method where you will not only get to know the students interests, but also help them to develop a network that can further support them in the learning after they have left your classroom. It also establishes the power and value of connection in all areas of our lives.

Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning by James M. Lang

A picture of a desk with books, an apple, pencils and alphabet blocks on it.
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What it is:

Small Teaching is a 246 page book written to address small moves that faculty in Higher Education settings can make to address teaching challenges and improve student learning in the process. This book is for you if you are looking for small practical adjustments you can make to your teaching to address learning challenges.

Topics Covered:

Small Teaching is broken up into three major parts to address: knowledge, understanding, and inspiration. The chapter by chapter breakdown is:

  • Part I: Knowledge
    • Retrieving
    • Predicting
    • Interleaving
  • Part II: Understanding
    • Connecting
    • Practicing
    • Self-Explaining
  • Part III: Inspiration
    • Motivating
    • Growing
    • Expanding

My Takeaways:

Practice, practice, practice – make sure your assignments and formative assessments are practice sessions that mimic the way in which you will summatively assess your students. In other words – don’t assign papers all semester and then assess a student’s knowledge based on a multiple choice exam. Give students the opportunity to practice the cognitive activity that you have chosen to summatively assess their knowledge so that the assessment method does not impact your students’ ability to show you what they understand.

Focus on growth – use reflective metacognitive exercises to help students recognize and analyze the ways in which their knowledge and understanding has grown over the course of time. This practice not only positively impacts learning gains – it also reinforces a growth mindset.

Connection matters – the way in which you connect and interact with your students will impact their motivation. Sometimes you will not recognize the impact that a few moments of personalized attention will have on a student, but you can bet on the fact that this time is never wasted. In my experience this motivation is dual purpose; it positively impacts both teachers and students.

“Whatever we do, we have to remember that the brains in our classrooms do more than think; they feel, and those feelings can play a valuable role in our efforts to motivate and inspire student learning” (p. 193).

Canvas Gradebook

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As the semester start date approaches we get more questions about grading and how different grading schemes can be configured in Canvas. Members of the Office of Digital Learning and Inquiry are always happy to schedule consultations to discuss this in more depth, however Canvas also provides several resources that faculty can review at their convenience as well. To get an overview of the gradebook in text form you can visit the article “What are Grades and the Gradebook”. In addition, Canvas has a great gradebook overview video that I’ve embedded below. Please note that although the title says that it is outdated – this functionality will be live until 2020. To view what options will be available in the new gradebook in 2020 please view the video at the bottom of this page.

2020 Gradebook

What does instructional design look like? – Post #11 – The Wrap Up

This is the 11th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

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Meeting 11 was our first multi-day meeting week. During this session the team reviewed the list of questions and missing information compiled by Heather. Several items were placeholders for work that the faculty member was currently working on.

The team had a productive conversation about providing a means to make it easier for students to identify what work had been completed and what still needed to be done. It was determined that any available automated completion settings in Canvas could actually increase confusion, so the team settled on providing a Google sheet checklist that mirrored the components spreadsheet shared earlier in the course. The checklist was an optional support tool to help students familiarize themselves with a more self-directed learning environment. We are excited to collect feedback from students on this method to see if it is effective and helpful in the way that we hope it will be! (Initial feedback was VERY positive!)

At this meeting it was becoming apparent that the course design process was starting to draw to a conclusion which generated a sense of accomplishment in both team members. Although there were still a number of items we hoped to learn from the first participants in the course – we felt confident that we had done our best to try to anticipate sticky points and challenges and to mitigate those challenges.

As we wrapped up our final official meeting, we agreed to keep the lines of communication open, and Heather assured Anne that she would be available should any unexpected design concerns or questions arise.

Now we just had to wait for the start date — onward!

What does instructional design look like? – Post #10 – Beginning to Review Our Work

This is the 10th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

In this meeting we took the temp in terms of where we were in course development timeline and what additional work needed to be completed to get to our end point on time. Heather was able to do a thorough review of two modules so questions about those items were also addressed. The team revisited the checklist to confirm progress. We also submitted additional requests for assistance with:

  • Transcription of a recorded interview
  • Support for an in-person tech session
  • Help from a student intern to review course content 

In preparation for the next meeting Heather spent the following week working her way through the course and came up with the following list of outstanding questions and to-do items. We considered this our first copy edit review of the course content.

Questions

  1. Added links to assignment guideline docs from the About this Course grading section. – Is this ok?
  2. What would you like to do about the Quest activity? (This activity was designed to take students on an active tour of the course where they had to discover different info in the course.)
  3. Items at end of module 1 (This referred to additional content in draft format that were awaiting finalization of reading schedule.)
  4. Module 4 exit ticket – how do you want this to be submitted? (via Canvas assignment?)
  5. Consider suggesting to students that they start a new thread for each discussion group – Module 4 discussion
  6. Items at end of module 5 (This referred to additional content in draft format that were awaiting finalization of reading schedule.)
  7. Entrance ticket for module 7 is the assignment for module 6 – or is it supposed to be the wiki here? (Checking links is a crucial part of the final steps of hybrid course development.)

Needs to be done

  • Exit ticket for module 2
  • Add link to this reading in module 5 – Visualizing qualitative data in evaluation research. New Directions for Evaluation, 139, 53-71.
  • Figure out how the Storytelling with Data links and info (library resources) should be managed
  • Add transcript to interview page
  • Course tour video & transcript (for main page)
  • Add assignments into module view

What does instructional design look like? – Post #9 – Additional Resources & Backups

This is the 9th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

In between meetings 8 & 9 the team re-connected with the media development specialist to fine tune the workflow for how videos could be edited with the support and advice of the media specialist. Video will be used minimally in the course so the team did not believe it would take up a great deal of time to do this. The minimal use was intentional given the time frame for development and launch of the course.

During meeting 9 Anne shared challenges she was continuing to face with getting access to an ebook for the course. The library believed it would have this accessible by the time the course began, however the faculty member felt that until this was confirmed as well as the ability for multiple students to access the ebook at once, she was tied into developing a mirrored reading/resource list that could be used if this option fell through. The team decided that a good interim step would be to place additional readings into a “supplemental resources” section within each module so that the work of locating the resources would still benefit the course even if they were not used as the core texts. Together the team also brainstormed using this section as an invitation for students to suggest other resources that they found over the course term.

Lastly, the team discussed the way in which course development had migrated from the faculty member’s core documentation in Google Drive to content being added directly into Canvas. There was some concern about not having this content in a non-Canvas format so Heather shared some export options including the ePub export which (at the time of this writing) was still in beta. Heather tested out the export which included an epub and a corresponding zip file which included other files that had been uploaded to the Canvas site.

What does instructional design look like? Post #8 — Zooming!

This is the 8th in a series of blog posts outlining the collaborative process of designing an online course for the first time from scratch. You can read the other posts here.

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

During the session the team met with four other participants to test out the functionality of Zoom. Anne planned to use Zoom for a once-a-week in-person meeting with the course participants. Functionality that she hoped to test included how to raise hands, chat, share documents, break into break-out rooms, and return from the rooms. 

During the course of the testing we learned about the importance of logging into Zoom before entering the room. (Without logging in you won’t have the facilitator controls!) Also – Anne was pleased with the ease with which she was able to move between break out rooms to check in on conversations. 

During this session we also tried out using an external tool called PearDeck as a part of the Zoom session. After carefully reviewing the functionality against what was possible in Zoom, Anne decided that tools within Zoom would work best for the class’ needs.

By the end of the session Anne was feeling much more comfortable navigating in Zoom and managing the class through the interface. Heather used the session to construct a Zoom testing checklist to refer back to in future Zoom testing sessions with other faculty members. This process worked towards the Digital Pedagogy & Media group’s goal to systematize some functions of their work that would be repeated over the course of transitioning content into a new medium.

One last simple design task was integrating a link to Anne’s Zoom room into the side menu in Canvas. We did this using the redirect tool in Canvas. I’ve included a video tutorial below to explain how to do this. Please note that any external apps that require student interaction need to go through an ITS security review before they are used in the classroom.

How to use the redirect tool in Canvas