An interesting thread emerged at yesterday’s Instructor Hangouts – we began by watching an example of excellent instruction from a recent Software Carpentry workshop, for which I only had my perpetual criticism: get the students to do more stuff! Give them challenge exercises, ask them questions to see if they understand – the instructor did a great job and gave plenty of exercises, but I often find more is better for students eager to get their hands dirty.
After that, we discussed ideas on how to adapt a lesson on the fly to your learners’ needs – if you find your learners don’t understand something, how do you pivot to accommodate them? When do you start cutting material, and when do you just move on? Watch this space for a deeper dive there coming soon.
On the surface, these two things don’t seem so connected. But consider: Software Carpentry instructor training goes through constructing insightful multiple choice questions for quickly assessing student comprehension in great detail; we also teach instructors about constructing concept maps, using reverse instructional design, and understanding the power of peer instruction – all of which can be leveraged as vehicles for creating adaptive lessons, responsive to learner needs. But as discussion around the video pointed out, it’s easy to call out opportunities for exercises and questions after the fact – but using those tools and techniques in situ is neither obvious nor easy.
I’m guilty of the same. I have been through instructor training a number of times, and still sometimes find myself robotically marching through lessons, top to bottom without enough feedback or adjustment to my learners – I don’t think that’s the right thing to do, and I’m making a point of avoiding it in future, but there’s a gap between theory and practice that’s nontrivial to bridge.
So – how do we as instructors cross the activation barrier and make these pedagogical ideas we’re trained in work in practice? One thing we discussed yesterday, was injecting more questions and pointers on where to give students exercises or multiple choice questions; this way, the practice that we learn in instructor training will be reflected in the texts from which we actually teach. As is, lessons written as long texts read like lectures, and I think that leads to them getting delivered like lectures. A couple things that might not be too tough:
- Inserting exercises throughout the lesson text to reinforce ideas as the lesson proceeds, rather than in a block at the end.
- Inventories of concepts and misconceptions to build multiple choice questions off of, and good points to inject the resulting MCQs.
Are there other things we can do to promote frequent, reinforcing exercises and formative questioning of our students? How often do you use MCQs, peer instruction or other techniques in your workshops? Let us know in the comments or on the forum, and I hope you’ll join us for the next Instructor Hangouts!