As I wrote about last week, I recently attended a seminar given by José Vazquez from the University of Illinois. He gave a talk in the Inclusive Teaching seminar series that has been hosted by the Foundational Course Initiative at Michigan. Clearly it got me thinking, since it’s a few weeks later and I’ve written multiple blog posts about it! The first was on how students mostly aren’t reading the textbook, and the ones who are might actually end up less prepared as a result. In this one, I want to focus on what was the main theme of Vazquez’s talk: that one of the most important things an instructor does is to motivate our students, and a key way to do that is by making them curious. The main method he talked about to achieve this was to ask questions that focused their attention on a gap in their knowledge or understanding, being careful not to open a gap that is too big.
Early in the seminar, he started by showing us a video of what is apparently a common demonstration used in physics:
Source of video
He then polled us to ask us to say which ball would get to the other side first:
- The one on the straight track
- The one on the wavy track
- They will tie
Aside from the physicists in the room, most of us hadn’t considered this problem before. He polled us, and I was kind of guessing and not super curious, but then he ruled out my guess, at which point I definitely became more interested in wondering which was right.
To show that this really did engage me, he didn’t give the answer right away, but waited until the very end of the seminar. The problem for me was that I had to leave a few minutes early to get to my next meeting, which led to me googling to find out the answer at home that evening. Clearly I was motivated to find out the answer! (The answer is that the wavy one will get there first.)
Vazquez noted that, to really open up the curiosity of students, you want to ask them all the same question at the same time, and to force them to make a single choice. His take was that it’s actually good if there’s a spread of the students across a bunch of options. Contrast is interesting and therefore good, since curiosity increases if you know someone close to you has the information you need to answer the question.
One of his key points – and the one I’ve been reflecting on since the seminar – is that instructors should manage information to keep students curious. If the students already know the answer, it’s boring and maybe counterproductive to poll. (This makes me wonder whether I should get rid of some of the clicker questions that 95+% of students get correct. I had thought those might be confidence boosters, but Vazquez argued they are curiosity busters.) But, crucially, you also don’t want the gap in knowledge to be too big – if I feel like it’s hopeless for me to even try, I won’t.
This got me to think about a type of activity I do in my class that I think is important, but that I also have been thinking (even before this seminar!) needs some work. The general idea is to present a hypothesis and the experiment that was done to test it, and then to ask students to draw a figure that would support the hypothesis. Here’s an example:
After introducing interspecific competition, I then introduce Connell’s classic experiment:
I then talk some more about barnacles, including how they feed and how they can only do that when submerged, as well as briefly introducing their life cycle.
I then introduce the experiment:
and then ask a couple of clicker questions: one about what this comparison allows you to tell (the effect of B on A) and which is the control. Then, I ask students to draw figures that would support each of the two hypotheses.
One reason I do that is because I try to emphasize figure reading and applications of knowledge. This is a great way of getting students to think at a higher level…that is, if they aren’t just overwhelmed by the activity.
When I pose this question to students, I tell them I’ll give them a few minutes to work on it and then circulate around to try to help them. But there’s one of me and hundreds of them, and I couldn’t get to most of them even if the setup of the lecture hall allowed that (which is doesn’t). I’ve spent years trying to think about how to solve this, thinking about whether I could have a team of undergrad assistants who circulated to facilitate this (but that adds a lot of work for me, since I then have to recruit, train, and support that team). I thought of possible technology solutions (and this challenge was actually posed as a question to people interviewing for positions with the Foundational Course Initiative).
I realize now I was fixated on the idea of having students draw the figure themselves because I’ve ended up with the idea that we need to move beyond simple multiple choice questions if we want to engage our students. If my students are drawing graphs in class, surely I’m teaching well, right?! But this seminar made me think that maybe my approach is actually counterproductive. It opens up such a big gap in their knowledge that, especially given the physical set up of the room, it probably seems much more appealing to many of them to just check snapchat.
Instead, my guess is that students would be more engaged – and therefore learn more – if I posed it as a set of clicker questions:
- What goes on the x-axis? (One thing I’ve learned from teaching: students default to putting time on the x-axis, especially once we’ve discussed population biology.)
- What goes on the y-axis? Often times, there are multiple possibilities. Vazquez argued that it’s fine if there’s no “right” answer, and I agree with that, especially in this setting.
- How should the data be represented? Bars? Lines? Points?
- And, finally, which of these 5 figures shows the pattern that would support the hypothesis?
That could probably all be done in no more time than the time I leave for them to draw the figure and for me to circulate and then draw it up on the screen after circulating. And I suspect it will leave them more engaged and, therefore, probably lead many of them to get more out of it.
I’m looking forward to trying this this fall, and would love to hear if you’ve tried something similar, and to hear how you try to increase the curiosity of students in your courses!