Selling the laptop ban: An activity

In my last blog post, I reported introducing a new no-laptop policy in my nonmajors biology class. We just finished week 3, and things are going well — there has been no pushback, and I really enjoy looking out at a sea of faces instead of the lids of their laptop computers.

Image source: Wikimedia

One of the studies that influenced my to-ban-or-not-to-ban deliberations over the summer was a study describing three experiments by Mueller and Oppenheimer. In a previous blog post, I went over the study in some detail; I’ll pull out a quote here from that post:

In the first experiment, students watched TED talks and took notes either longhand or on laptops that were disconnected from the Internet. Half an hour later, the students answered factual recall and conceptual application questions about the talks. Although the two groups did not differ on the factual recall questions, students who took longhand notes did better on the conceptual application questions. The researchers also found that students who used laptops wrote more words than those who took longhand notes, and that the laptop users had much more “verbatim overlap” with the lecture content. What the authors called “mindless transcription” predicted lower performance on the post-lecture questions.

To help my students understand why I adopted this policy, I used my “process of science” class during week 1 to explore this first experiment. After introducing the elements of an experiment, I distributed the abstract for the Mueller and Oppenheimer article:

Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

I asked the students to work in groups to write a testable hypothesis in IF

… AND [test] … THEN [prediction] format, using information from the abstract. This turned out to be a challenge; about half of the groups resisted proposing an “IF” explanation. That is, I was hoping for something like this: “IF taking notes on a laptop promotes shallower processing, …” A typical response, however, was “IF taking notes longhand rather than with a laptop is better, …”

After some discussion, however, we settled on a suitable hypothesis. I then gave them 10 minutes to propose an experimental design to test the hypothesis, including independent variable, dependent variable(s), and standardized variables. This went more quickly than expected, and when they shared their designs it was clear that most groups did not find it difficult.

Next, I revealed the design of the first experiment in the Mueller and Oppenheimer study. In a nutshell, 67 students watched a TED talk and were told to take notes either with a laptop or with pen and paper. Afterwards, all subjects did 30 minutes of memory tasks unrelated to the TED talk. Everyone then took a test containing factual and conceptual questions about the TED talk.  Using this information, I asked each group to draw a graph of the predicted results on the board. Most groups had no difficulty deciding on a bar graph or determining which variable should go on which axis. Interestingly, however, only one or two groups differentiated between the two dependent variables (performance on factual questions and performance on conceptual questions); most just used “test score” on the Y axis.

I then showed figure 1 from the paper, so students could compare their graphs to the corresponding graph from the actual study. Students seemed pleased to see that their graph-drawing instincts were correct.

Well, we were about out of time! I briefly showed the remaining two figures in the paper, which support the last sentence of the abstract. Figure 2 shows that laptop users can take down significantly more words than longhand note-takers, and figure 3 shows that the notes of students using the laptop had significantly more verbatim overlap than did longhand notes. If I had more time, I would have had the groups draw their own conclusions from the two figures—instead, I just told them why the figures were important.

Overall, I liked this activity because it allowed students to think critically about how to design a good experiment about laptop use, predict results that would be convincing, and see the results from the primary source. Although I can’t be sure, this activity may have helped to prevent pushback from students since I showed them instead of just told them why I was enforcing the laptop ban—and hopefully they understand it is for their own good! Next semester, I hope to manage time better to allow for a wrap-up discussion about the study: What did they think? Is the study “perfect”? Is its argument convincing?

If you’re considering a ban of your own and would like the PowerPoint slides I developed, please leave a comment and I’ll send them your way in a jiffy.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A laptop ban at last

More than three years ago, I wrote a blog post about the debate over allowing cell phones and laptops in class. In the blog post, I summarized a study by Mueller and Oppenheimer showing that students who took notes on a laptop did not do as well on conceptual test questions as those who had taken notes by hand.

I thought about this issue a lot more over this past summer, and about a week before this semester started I decided to take the plunge: No more laptops and cell phones in my nonmajors biology class. Here are some of the factors that influenced me:

This is the “Family Feud” style slide I used to explain why students shouldn’t use laptops in class (besides distractions to themselves).

  • I rediscovered the Mueller and Oppenheimer study, which suggests that the very slowness of taking notes by hand actually enhances learning.
  • I observed a few instructors teaching over the spring and summer semesters. From my vantage point at the back of the classroom, I saw that much of what happens on laptops has nothing to do with the class.
  • I recognized that goofing off on a laptop (or cell phone, to a lesser extent) is not just a private act; it distracts and influences neighboring students.
  • I talked to a student who took my class in a previous semester. She said that she prefers note-taking by hand because she can sketch diagrams as she goes.
  • When students have their noses buried in their own personal electronic devices, they are not interacting with their classmates. I want my students to get used to talking to each other.

I used the slide accompanying this blog post to introduce these arguments to my students. Before I revealed my Family Feud “survey says” answers, I asked how they would answer the question posed in yellow. They came up with two more arguments that I hadn’t thought of: (1) It’s disrespectful to the teacher; I think a tiny tear of gratitude came to my eye when I heard that answer. (2) Laptops can be used to cheat, e.g., students can look up answers to clicker questions instead of thinking about the material themselves. I’ll add one or both of those to the Family Feud slide next time I teach.

The only thing that makes me uncomfortable about imposing a laptop ban is that students are supposed to be learning to take responsibility for their actions. My class is mostly populated by freshmen and sophomores, and I’d like them to feel as if they are in a college class, not in “13th grade.” But I decided to experiment with a ban because I think the pros listed above outweigh this con.

And how have the students responded? Surprisingly well! I was prepared to give individual students permission to use their laptops under certain conditions, but none has asked. It’s only week 2, but things look good so far.

What about you? Have you ever banned laptop use in your class? How has it worked? If you are against banning laptops in the classroom, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts as well.

Next time, I’ll show you how I used the Mueller and Oppenheimer study in a classroom activity to win my students over. Stay tuned!

Posted in Instructional technology, Teaching | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Looking for a scantron replacement? Consider ZipGrade.

As I’m preparing for the upcoming semester, I have been trying to find ways to save money in my class. One obvious cost-cutting target is scantron forms. Yes, I suppose I could make my students buy them, but I have never felt right about that—it just adds insult to injury to make students buy something they must have for an exam.

Well, I just learned about one scantron replacement. It’s called ZipGrade. It lets you use your cell phone’s or tablet’s camera to scan in paper test forms (available free at the site). I just downloaded it and gave it a whirl, using my ancient iPad2 and two sample exams with two different keys. I have to say, I am impressed!

The basic idea is that you hover your phone’s or tablet’s camera over each student’s paper until marks on the four corners of the page align with a template that appears on screen. That’s the only part that took me a while to master, and it’s the only downside I can see for this app: Scanning student pages one by one is nowhere near as easy as feeding a stack of scantron forms into a machine. Keep this in mind if your class is large. Anyway, once the scan is complete, you can see the score on the screen right away, and if you want, the app can show you a picture of which questions the student got right and wrong. It saves the data immediately, and you can go on to scan the next one.

ZipGrade offers an amazing array of features. You can find a complete list here, but the most important ones for my purposes are these:

  • You can download free PDF test forms that you can print out and copy yourself.
  • Test forms have 20, 50, or 100 answer bubbles, but you don’t have to use them all. The only one with a 9-digit slot for the student ID is the 100-answer sheet, so that’s the one I’ll use for all of my exams.
  • You can create up to 5 unique answer keys per test.
  • The app does the item analysis for you.
  • You can assign a different point value to each question, including fractions of a point.
  • You can export the complete data set, including individual student responses, as a .CSV file.

Here’s a tutorial that shows you how it works. I’m not sure how long ago the video was created, but be warned that the pricing information is not exactly consistent with what’s on the ZipGrade website. That is, according to the website, you can download ZipGrade free and scan up to 100 papers per calendar month. If you need to scan more, you can pay $6.99 for a year. Other than that, the free and paid versions are identical. What a deal!

I know that ZipGrade has competitors, but I haven’t looked into them. And I suppose I should also say that I have no affiliation with ZipGrade and no stake in their success. I just found the app and thought I’d share it. If you have experience with ZipGrade or other scantron replacement tools, please share your thoughts by writing a comment.

Posted in Assessment, Instructional technology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Trail cam images and data for your lab

Earlier this month, I went to my favorite conference of the year: the one for the Association for Biology Laboratory Education. If you don’t know about it, check it out. Each conference follows a workshop format, so you don’t sit and listen to people drone on about what they do. You actually get to try the lab activities yourself and see if they’ll work for your own class.

Welcome to WildCam Gorongosa!

At one of the workshops I attended at this year’s conference, I learned about a great resource from HHMI BioInteractive. (Loyal readers of this site may recall that I previously wrote about their wonderful rock pocket mouse evolution video.) The focus of the workshop was the resources posted at HHMI BioInteractive: Gorongosa National Park. This park, in Mozambique, was all but destroyed in that country’s civil war, but it is now rebuilding.

Before we came to the workshop, we watched a video called The Guide; it was a good introduction to the park’s history and to a young Mozambican who wants to be a guide there. After a brief discussion in the workshop, we launched WildCam Gorongosa, “an online citizen science platform.” We launched the WildCam and clicked “Get Started!” After a brief set of instructions, we started counting and identifying the animals photographed in camera traps. The site shows you one photo at a time, and you click the names of any animals you see, how many you see, and what they are doing in the photos. Of course, few people are experts on Africa’s wildlife, so you might not know your duiker from your eland. Not to worry, they provide a guide to the common animals, and they encourage you to take your best shot even if you don’t know what you are looking at. Lots of people look at each photo, and experts weigh in on those for which citizen scientists cannot agree. So there’s no real risk of messing up someone’s Important Science.

Sample trail cam image. See the baboons?

As we clicked through the pictures, we were encouraged to start thinking about questions we might ask about wildlife at Gorongosa. Each photo includes a button that shows information about the image: the camera’s identifier, the date the image was snapped, the season, the time (day/night), the distance to the nearest human settlement, the distance from water, and the biome where the camera is located. (Other resources on the site include an interactive map in which you can see the camera locations, the park’s major landscape features, the nearby villages, and so on.) It doesn’t take long before you start wondering: Do baboons always hang around in groups? How can duikers and oribi coexist when they seem to have such similar niches?

After refining our questions and framing hypotheses that we could actually test using the trail cam data, we were ready to get some answers. The data from more than 40,000 images are compiled in a database that you can access by going to the WildCam Lab. Click “Explorer.” You’ll get a brief introduction to the site, then you can download all the data or filter the dataset by species, habitat, season, time of day, date, distance to humans, and/or distance to water. Once you figure out what you want, you can download the data as an Excel spreadsheet and analyze them to your heart’s content.

The interface for filtering the data before download.

This blog post is highlighting just a part of the actual activity, which is spelled out in detail at the HHMI site — complete with educator materials, a student worksheet, and even a tutorial that shows students how to use pivot tables in Excel. And that activity only scratches the surface of what’s available at HHMI’s Gorongosa site. I haven’t looked at most of these materials myself yet, but just browsing through the resources, I see an animation of Gorongosa’s water cycle, a food web activity, a biodiversity activity, a human impacts activity, a biomes activity, an ecological pyramid activity, a lion-tracking activity, and so on. It’s really amazing.

I am planning to use the WildCam material in my nonmajors biology lab this fall, as a replacement for our rather silly animal behavior lab (sorry, isopods!). The activities at the Gorongosa site should get students to think about real data and engage in meaningful science, which are goals of all my nonmajors biology labs. They should also allow students to analyze animals (and plants) in their native habitats, doing what they do when no one is looking. For my students, it will be a window into the forests and savannas of southeast Africa from the comfort of our second-floor biology lab.

Wish me luck! In the meantime, big thanks are due to ABLE for sponsoring the workshop and to HHMI for making such high-quality materials.

Posted in Active learning, Citizen science, Ecology, Laboratory activities | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Radiometric Dating: Need to Practice?

Last year, we posted a video explaining how to do three types of radiometric dating problems; we wrote about it in this blog post.

Activity screen 1I am pleased to report that the prodigious Matt Taylor has now released an activity with four sample problems that your students can work. The first two problems are pretty typical. In question #1, students are given the half-life and % of the isotope remaining and must figure out the age of the fossil. In question #2, students are given the age and half-life, and they must determine what % of the isotope remains.

The last two questions are different. In #3, students are given the graph of isotope decay and told the half-life of the isotope; they must click on the part of the graph corresponding to a particular time. And in #4, students are given information about the % remaining of three isotopes and must arrange them in order based on their half-lives.

The video is designed to walk students through this content, step by step, and the activity can help students assess their understanding. We encourage you to share both resources with your students — or better yet, go through them together, pay attention when your students struggle, and use your insights to refine your teaching. (Yes, I’m looking right at you, teacher with a growth mindset!)

Posted in Assessment, Chemistry, Instructional technology, Teaching, Videos | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

One Good Clicker Tip

The end of the semester is not a great time to introduce a tip for using clickers; I am sure this post would have been more useful in January! But I can’t control when ideas for blog posts drop into my email, and I received a good one recently.

It’s an article called Clicking Your Way to Flipping Your Class, and it appears in Tomorrow’s Professor—an excellent resource for professors in any discipline. The Tomorrow’s Professor article that recently landed in my inbox is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of the newsletter of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies (http://www.febs.org).

iclicker2 on notebook

iclicker2, ready for action. (Photo by M. Hoefnagels)

I’m not a big classroom flipper myself, but I am madly in love with clickers. What I like about the “Clicking Your Way…” article is its subject, clicker-based peer instruction. While I don’t follow the author’s methods to the letter, the article reminded me of one of the ways I use clickers in my class. (You can read about another way that I like to use clickers here: “Pointless” clicker questions.)

I use the iClicker2 and enjoy watching the LCD display at my computer as the students’ answers roll in. The display shows how many students have selected each answer choice in real time. If the question is easy or if the students have mastered the material, then I don’t spend a lot of time giving feedback on the question. Here’s an example like that:

What is the charge on an electron? (a) Neutral; (b) Negative; (c) Positive; (d) Depends on the element; (e) Depends on the isotope.

This question comes in the context of a series of questions designed to help students through the difficult concept of polar covalent bonds. Nearly everyone (98%) in my last class got this question right. I could replace it with a more challenging one, or I could keep it in and consider that point to be a cheap-and-easy, morale-boosting reward for participation. So far, I have opted for the latter.

For a more difficult question, the display often reveals that the class is split between two (or rarely, three) choices. Those are my favorite questions because they offer an opportunity for students to learn by teaching each other. Here’s an example of such a question; it requires students to enter a number into their clickers (yet another reason to love iClicker2), but it could easily be converted to a multiple choice question:

How many of the following processes actually exist AND produce two cells that are virtually identical to the original cell?

  • Meiosis in bacteria
  • Meiosis in animals
  • Meiosis in plants
  • Mitosis in bacteria
  • Mitosis in animals
  • Mitosis in plants
  • Binary fission in bacteria
  • Binary fission in animals
  • Binary fission in plants

The most popular answers are 3, 4, and 6 (the correct answer is 3). As the students enter their answers, I keep an eye on the display. I usually do one of two things if less than ~70% of the students are getting the question right. I may stop the polling (without showing the histogram) and say something like this: “Explain to your neighbor why you selected the answer you did.” After a minute or two of discussion, I poll the same question. Alternatively, I may choose the slightly quicker strategy of keeping the polling going while I tell the students something like “OK, most of you are choosing 3, 4, or 6. One of those is the correct answer. Pick one and explain your choice to your neighbor.” Either way, without any other intervention from me, student performance on the question typically improves.

I am always on the lookout for clicker questions that actually make students think. The blog post I linked in the previous sentence has one example of a good site for clicker resources, and here are some clicker questions from the University of Colorado Science Education Initiative.

Happy clicking!

 

 

 

Posted in Active learning, Engaging students, Teaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Cultivating a Growth Mindset in Your Students

This semester, I’ve been reading a lot about teaching with a growth mindset. I wrote about this topic at the end of last semester in a blog post called At the End, I’m Looking to the Start. Since that time, I have been studying Carol Dweck’s Mindset and Saundra Yancy McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn. Dweck’s book provides a broad overview of the fixed and growth mindsets as they pertain to all aspects of life. Once you are sensitized to the difference, you can start working on making the monologue inside your head less judgmental and more constructive. McGuire’s book focuses on teaching college students, and it is exemplary because of its practical suggestions and positive, success-oriented stance.

2017-04-07 01.59.19 pm

Two useful books: (left) Carol S. Dweck’s Mindset and (right) Saundra Yancy McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn.

This week I presented some of what I’ve learned in an hour-long McGraw-Hill webinar, “I’m Just Not Good at Science”: Cultivating a Growth Mindset in Nonmajors Biology. The webinar was about recognizing the fixed vs. growth mindset, not only in what your students say about themselves, but also in what you say about your students. I also shared many suggestions from McGuire’s book, notably about how to help students recognize problems in their own studying and how to help them develop more effective behaviors. In the last part of the webinar, I showed some of what I do in my own class.

The clip below is a 6.5-minute excerpt from the second part of the webinar. It’s about what you can do after you return an exam, when many of your students first become painfully aware that something is wrong. You’ll notice references to the chat window, which you unfortunately cannot see in the video clip. The end of the clip references the “study cycle,” something you can learn a lot more about in McGuire’s book; you may also be interested in this excellent short video introduction from Louisiana State University.

Incidentally, if you’ve read McGuire’s book you already know that she does not care for the phrase “study skills.” She prefers “metacognitive learning strategies,” which McGuire finds grabs student interest. I am not sure I agree, so I’ve gone with the simpler phrase.

If you’d like a link to the full webinar, please add a comment below and I will arrange to have it sent to you.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Study skills, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Reblogging: GMOs vs. Artificial Selection

The Ricochet Science blog post below—written by a talented college senior—is an interesting introduction to the difference between GMOs and organisms that are the products of artificial selection. I want to share it with you because it’s informative and entertaining, but first I’ll clarify one point that isn’t completely clear from the original.

In genetic engineering, scientists use DNA technology to directly manipulate a genome. Genetic engineering produces genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A GMO may be a transgenic organism—one that has received DNA from another species—or may have had its own genes activated or deactivated to produce new phenotypes. For example, some cotton plants are GMOs that are transgenic because they have a gene encoding a bacterial toxin in their genome. The transgenic cotton plant is toxic to pests like moth caterpillars. If, instead, the cotton plant’s DNA were modified to boost the expression of an existing gene (perhaps one that promotes large cotton bolls), the cotton would still be a GMO, but it would not be transgenic.

With this clarification in mind, read on and enjoy the original blog post.

[Thank you to Matt Taylor for contributing to this introduction.]

——

Picture this, you’re making your lunch for class or work and you decide to pre-slice your apple because it’s easier to eat and heck, why not? Fast forward five hours, you’re already exhausted from the day and all you want to do is eat your apples with some peanut butter, but, SURPRISE! Your apple slices…

via Transgenic or GMO? What is the Difference? — Ricochet Science

Posted in Engaging students, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TED-Ed video: The Cancer Gene We All Have

My friend and colleague Michael Windelspecht recently produced a useful video about cancer. Complete with compelling animations, narration, and analogies, it’s a great launching point for in-class group work or for a homework assignment. The video’s explanations span from genetics and cell cycle control to cancer’s effects on the organism.

If you watch until the end at the link here (The Cancer Gene We All Have), you’ll see five multiple choice questions and three free-response questions to test your understanding. Below I’ve placed the video if you want to view it on YouTube, but you won’t get the see the assessment questions. Enjoy!

Posted in Teaching, Videos | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Teaching cell chemistry with Legos

Behold, my trusty bag of Legos … well they’re not actually Legos because I couldn’t find a bag of plain old Legos. All of the Legos nowadays are sold in kits with wheels and roofs and other things I don’t want. So I bought a big bag of plastic bricks that LOOK like Legos. Here they are:bag-of-legos

I bought them because my students have such a hard time with the basics of cell chemistry for biology. The main idea I am trying to teach is that food consists of complex organic molecules (proteins, polysaccharides, nucleic acids, and fats) that are broken down into amino acids, monosaccharides, nucleotides, glycerol, and fatty acids via hydrolysis reactions in digestion. These small molecules enter the bloodstream and are distributed to cells, which use them to build their own large molecules or use them in respiration. It’s easy once you know how it works, but it’s pretty hard to learn it for the first time.

So I started using my Legos … err, plastic bricks … in Action Center, to help students use their hands to work with the ideas. Here is my strategy, in pictures.

1 — Food represents a mixture of organic molecules. Imagine that the assembly of blocks pictured below is a bite of a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. It contains proteins, polysaccharides, nucleic acids, and fats — the different shapes and colors of the bricks represent these different molecules.

food

2 — In the intestines, digestion (hydrolysis) breaks the food into smaller molecules.

digested-food

3 — These small molecules enter the bloodstream, and cells take them up. Here are a bunch of monosaccharides taken up by a cell.

glucose

4 — The cell uses the monosaccharides in respiration (you’d have to smash a brick into bits to illustrate this idea). Or the cell may use them to build polysaccharides, like glycogen, by dehydration synthesis. Below is a “glycogen molecule.”

starch

5 — Cells also absorb amino acids from the bloodstream. Here are a bunch of amino acids taken up by a cell. Notice that the monosaccharides in photo #4 all looked the same, because they were all glucose. The amino acids all look different, thanks to their different R groups.

amino-acids

6 — The cell assembles the amino acids into proteins, again by dehydration synthesis.

protein

7 — Now if another animal eats this organism, what will happen to the proteins, polysaccharides, and other large organic molecule the cell has produced? Why, they’ll be dismantled again, in hydrolysis.

In my experience, building and taking apart these molecules has been really helpful to students in learning the connections between digestion, hydrolysis, dehydration synthesis, and respiration.

Try it yourself! And if you have other ideas for teaching cell chemistry that have worked for you, please share them here.

 

 

Posted in Active learning, Chemistry, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments