TEDxGeorgiaStateU talk released: “Failure is Necessary to Discovery in STEM”

The latest batch of TEDxGeorgiaStateU talks from April was finally released, and among them are talks by two SIFs: Krisna Patel and me. The title of my talk was “Failure is Necessary to Discovery in STEM.”

My talk touches on both the broad-reaching and the personal implications of failure. I talk about how prohibiting “failure” inhibits classroom learning in the sciences and other STEM fields. I also speak to how this same practice of prohibiting failure extends into the culture of STEM fields beyond the classroom.

In my TEDx talk, I mainly talk about why we need students to build resiliency to failures in STEM classrooms. I don’t talk very much about how to accomplish this so I will write briefly about that here.

Many STEM educators are working on changing the taboo against making mistakes. This starts with changing how students feel about their mistakes. Educational innovation in this area involves structuring classroom activities such that instead of internalizing mistakes, students instead focus on figuring out where their errors came from and tracing the problem back to its source. We want to get students from “I’m stupid” and “I can’t do this” to “I can figure this out.”


Credit: Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien of “The Straight ‘A’ Conspiracy”

Shifting students’ perspectives on their mistakes also involves building self-reflection and metacognitive tasks into assignments so that students know where their mistakes come from. An effective strategy for this is figuring out where students’ intuitions about a topic coincide with how scientists view a topic.
Physics education researchers at the University of Maryland have built “intuition refinement diagrams” into their Open Source Tutorials. Here is an example of one of the questions that uses intuition refinement:


Source: Open Source Tutorials: Newton’s Third Law (University of Maryland)

Question: A moving truck rams into parked car. The moving truck has twice the mass of the parked car. Which vehicle feels a bigger force from the other?

Most students have the intuition that the car will “feel” twice the force that the truck will feel. This intuition is often based on past experience. Perhaps a student witnessed a similar car collision and saw the smaller vehicle “react” to the collision more than the larger vehicle did. However, the correct answer according to Newton’s third law is that both vehicles will experience the same force. The tutorial designers recognized the gap between students’ “common sense” intuition and the correct physical explanation. The questions in the tutorial ask students to think about their initial intuition and shows them that it came from valid thought processes. The common student belief – that the car “feels” more force than the truck – violates Newton’s 3rd law. But the intuition has a grain of truth in it: namely, that the car has twice the acceleration of the truck while the collision is taking place rather than twice the force. The tutorial helps students to refine their intuitions and to recognize that they are not entirely wrong in their raw intuition. It helps students to see that Newtonian physics does not violate common sense by connecting the physics to student ideas.



Source: Open Source Tutorials: Newton’s Third Law (University of Maryland)

When students think that their common sense does not agree with what they are learning in science class, it is a huge blow to self-esteem and to science identity. It makes students reluctant to continue learning science since “it doesn’t even make sense.” (One of my students said this.) On the other hand, if we show students that science can be intuitive when you have sufficient background information, this makes them build resiliency; they don’t respond as destructively to mistakes and failures in the classroom.

You can watch my talk below. If you have any comments or suggestions about how to help students to accept and embrace their learning mistakes and failures, please let me know in the comments.

Update on the SIF Physics Active Learning project

The SIF Physics Active Learning Team has been working hard this year to improve the instruction in our physics classes.

Fellow SIF Saif Ali has been working diligently on analyzing and coding student survey data from introductory physics labs to find patterns and ways to improve the classes’ learning potential. This data is sure to prove invaluable in efforts to revamp and reorganize the physics labs and studio (SCALE UP) classes. You can read more about Saif’s project on his blog.

My personal project was to help update the way we train our graduate TAs and undergraduate LAs (learning assistants) in physics classes. The results of the interventions we employed to help train these instructors in active learning and student modes of thinking are still preliminary but my sense was that they were a resounding success. Many of the results of this work will be published this summer so I will have to hold off on posting some of the details just yet.

Over the course of the year, I wrote and helped to facilitate seven roleplay activities designed to help teach TAs and LAs about physics pedagogical content knowledge in a two-semester seminar class about teaching physics. In the roleplays, the TAs and LAs prepared a skit with certain parameters that tackled topics such as how to increase participation among students, how to ask “good” questions that stimulate student thinking, getting students to explain ideas to each other, and checking for understanding. The roleplays simultaneously looked at common student misconceptions about physics concepts and how to help students build a bridge to the correct conceptual understanding. I can’t post videos of these roleplays here because they are part of an IRB-regulated research project but the videos below show similar (albeit professionally filmed and produced) examples. The videos come from the University of Pennsylvania Center for Teaching and Learning. You can view some examples here, here, and here.

I also observed the TAs and LAs many times over the course of the semester while they taught to give them direct feedback and to try to draw conclusions about what effect the class was having on their teaching skills and behaviors. We also have important survey data from instructors and their students that should give us a more complete picture of what happened this year.

We’ve got big plans for next year too. The Center for Instructional Innovation is refurbishing one of the older physics labs in the Natural Science Center over the summer. This lab was in desperate need of a refresher. Its changes are all being made to facilitate active learning and inquiry-based labs. The tables in the room will be higher, with the exception of one disability-accessible table that is adjustable, which will encourage students to move around and look at the experiments from different angles. Students will also have access to three sides of the table instead of just one side as it is now, which will foster collaboration because students can look at each other and share ideas easier. There will be tools like white boards at each table and screens to help students and instructors share and display their ideas. The possibilities for learning in this updated lab classroom are endless. I can’t wait to teach in it!

I will also be helping to make the teaching physics seminars even better. We will be looking at the possibility of tweaking the roleplay structure to maximize the effectiveness of their teaching capacity. We may also be looking at how to produce videos about concepts in Physics Education Research (PER) like mental models, common misconceptions in physics, etc. That way we can flip the class and move it closer to a completely activity- and discussion-based seminar that will provide both theoretical and practical experience on teaching. We also want to look at ways to make this instructor-training model applicable to other departments at GSU.  Hopefully, I can work more closely on other SIF Active Pedagogy projects so we can share what we are learning.

Being responsive to the needs of URM students: Part 2

Last month, I wrote Part 1 of a post about how instructors and mentors of undergraduate students in STEM can be responsive to the unique needs of students from underrepresented groups. Students of color, women, gender and sexual minorities (GSMs), and disabled students are among some of the groups that are underrepresented in most STEM fields.

Mentoring and effective teaching both very important to retaining and supporting the professional development of underrepresented minority (URM) students in STEM fields.

Here I will give a few more suggestions to help URM students in STEM by expanding on my previous post.

  1. Encourage students to engage in professional development and research opportunities. It is so important to have internship and research experience as an undergraduate STEM student if you want to continue into a lucrative and fulfilling career. STEM students who wish to continue into graduate school should have as many research experiences as they can get. These experiences will give students a fairly realistic picture of what graduate research is like. Students can also try out a variety of fields and research environments to get a feel for what subjects interest them most. Research experiences often come from networking and from “knowing someone who knows someone.” If you want to be a good mentor to your students, you should suggest research and internship experiences to all of your students that match their expressed goals and interests. However, it is of particular importance to suggest and recommend these opportunities to URM, who are likely to have had fewer networking opportunities than other students.
  2. Be responsive to extenuating circumstances that come with belonging to a certain group. Lecture slide designs, test formats, classroom formats, and more — these things are crucially important to consider when thinking about disabled students and they can be unintentionally exclusionary. For example if your slides make heavy use of color, colorblind students may find them difficult to read. If the font you use on tests is of the serif family, your dyslexic students might find it less readable than a simple sans serif font like Helvetica. Being available to your students so that they feel comfortable letting you know what reasonable accommodations they need is important because students know more about what they need than you do. This can be as simple as adding a line in your syllabus stating that you are “happy to provide accommodations to students” or announcing on the first day of class ways for students to contact you to talk about accommodations. The best and easiest way for instructors to help disabled students is to think about these things on the front end, while you are planning and making materials for your class. Using the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which I wrote about here, can serve as a guide for helping both disabled and non-disabled students to engage with content in multiple ways and learn more effectively. If you feel lost when designing accommodations or inclusive lesson materials, you can always reach out to your campus’s office of disability services. GSU’s Disability Services Office can be found here.
  3. Recognize that exercising cultural competency does not mean lowering the bar academically. Supporting URMs in STEM majors does not mean that you should lower standards. URM students are just as competent as students from majority groups. Acting otherwise is not only false but insulting and harmful. The best way to foster high achievement among URMs is to set high, realistic expectations and to follow through with solid, evidence-based teaching and mentoring practices. When setting high expectations for disabled students, it is important to draw distinctions between a high intellectual bar and a high physical bar. Asking students to do copious amounts of work that will practically guarantee sleep loss and health sacrifices is not reasonable. Asking students to perform independent experiments in class after being given a little background knowledge or make meaningful connections between different concepts are reasonable expectations.
  4. Be aware of power imbalance. As a mentor or an instructor, you are in a position of greater power relative to your students. You can use that position for good things like advocating for them, introducing them to important people, or putting a good word in for recommendation letters. However, you should always keep in mind not to overstep your bounds. You are not your student’s friend. You can be their ally, mentor, teacher, etc. but you can’t be their friend. The mentor relationship goes one way: they cannot do personal favors for you like babysitting your kids, washing your car, or picking you up from the airport. Through conversations and collaborations, however, you and your mentee/student are sure to learn a great deal from each other. Here is a great guide on how to be a highly effective mentor.
  5. Actively educate yourself on issues that affect your students and take concrete steps to break down the barriers that stand in their way. Listening to your students and listening to the pulse of your field are crucial to being an effective, empathetic mentor or instructor. Read published journal articles and news pieces about race, gender, class, ability, sexuality, etc. issues within the context of society as a whole and in the context of your field. These things affect your students profoundly. When the sexual harassment scandals recently rocked the Astronomy community or when a Nobel laureate and respected scientist made sexist comments about women in science at an event for women in science journalism, you can bet that women in those fields (and women students who were thinking about going into those fields) were affected by that. When racist scandal after racist scandal surfaces on college campuses all over North America, you can bet that your students of color are affected by that. When young people are told that being a scientist means sacrificing your health, your personal life, and your possible plans to have a family, your students hear that. These things add up to an environment that makes URM students feel like they are not welcome in the field. Using your position of relative power, you can  and should take steps to improve the environment for your students.

These are just a small selection of concrete steps that mentors and instructors of URMs in STEM can take to help ensure their success. If you find something crucial that I am missing, please put it in the comments below.

Failing in STEM is not the end of the world

Last Friday, I participated in TEDxGeorgiaStateU as a speaker, along with fellow SIF Krisna Patel who talked about the incredible potential of the 3D Atlanta Project. You can read Krisna’s blog here. Our talks will not be out on YouTube for several months now so I thought I would post the text of my talk here. (As a side note, I messed up during the presentations and skipped a few points in my talk so this version is more complete than the video version will be.)

Here is my talk, which was tentatively titled “Failing in STEM.”

When I was an undergrad, I was the only woman in my physics program. I was afraid to ask questions because I thought my lack of knowledge would reflect poorly on all women. What I didn’t realize then is that the other students in my class had gaps in their knowledge too. It was normal not to know everything yet. Why would we take classes if not to learn what we didn’t already know?

Now that I am an instructor, I see this mindset in my own students. Many of them are anxious about answering my questions or asking their own. Many students are reluctant to be vulnerable by admitting that they don’t know everything. If students are afraid to make mistakes and take risks, what does that say about science education and the culture of science? What does it say about us if junior scientists think that mistakes are unacceptable in science?

In STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, it is important to ask these questions in the context of underrepresented groups. People from underrepresented groups often believe that stereotypes about their group’s low achievement in science and math are real – that there isn’t really anything they can do to overcome these stereotypes. This is known as stereotype threat, a well-documented phenomenon that is made worse by making mistakes that should otherwise be a normal part of the learning process. People from groups that are underrepresented in science are especially susceptible to internalizing failures and mistakes, seeing them as something that they caused. Just like when I was the only woman in my physics class and afraid to ask questions, people who are underrepresented in science fear that their mistakes will reflect poorly on their entire group rather than just on them alone.

Something that we in science do not hear enough is that failure is a necessary part of discovery. From students who are just starting out to the most accomplished professional scientist, the culture of science does not allow people to acknowledge their failures. The ironic thing is that the scientific method depends on failure. The scientific method relies on the fact that the process of inquiry itself is fallible – that we must constantly refine and improve our ideas about how the world works.

In science education, we are trying to understand how to teach students that making mistakes is okay.

A study published earlier this year looked at three groups of high school science students from low-income areas of the Bronx and Harlem. One group read about the wonderful, unbelievable accomplishments of three world-famous scientists Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Michael Faraday. A second group read about the scientists’ personal struggles, like the discrimination that Curie faced as a female scientist or the persecution that Einstein faced as a Jew in Nazi Germany. The third group read about the scientists’ intellectual struggles, such as Curie’s repeatedly failed experiments at one point in her career.

The study showed that students who read about the personal or intellectual struggles of the famous scientists performed significantly better in their science classes. Not only that, but the students who were initially the lowest achievers were the ones who made the biggest improvements. The students who had only heard about the amazing accomplishments, did not see an improvement in their science grades. In fact, their grades suffered.

Highlighting the failures and struggles of great scientists makes students realize that scientists are human beings. It helps them realize that great scientists are not some special type of ascendant genius to whom they will never measure up.

How students engage in science is tied to whether they see themselves as “doers of science.” People who see themselves as “doers of science” are said to have a science identity, meaning that doing science is an important part of their sense of self. A strong science identity is one of the most important predictors of performance in science class and of having a future career as a scientist. If students think that they are destined to be bad at science and math due to internalized stereotypes, then they do not form a science identity and their performance in science suffers as a result.

So many times I have heard students say “I’m not a science person.” or “I’m just bad at math.” Many of you may have even said these things about yourselves. But many studies have repeatedly suggested that there is no such thing as a “math person” or a “science person.”

Research shows that simply teaching students about malleable intelligence, or the notion that intelligence is not a fixed quantity and is changeable with hard work, vastly improves performance in math and science classes across all levels, especially at the lower initial levels of achievement. Consider that for a moment: simply letting students know that they have the capacity to change their performance makes them perform better in math and science classes. In most science classrooms, however, we are not sending the message that it is okay to fail, make mistakes, or admit when you don’t know something. We teachers need to show students that they can trust themselves to make mistakes.

Changing science education is a start but it is not enough. We also need to shift the culture of science. We need to talk about the reality of being a scientist instead of the idealized vision of what a scientist is and does. We need to stop putting genius on a pedestal. This means talking about the drudgery of doing everyday science and the setbacks of scientists.

Last year, I failed an important exam in my graduate program, which left me feeling completely ashamed. I told my friend Nicole the news and she talked me down, telling me that what I was going through was normal, that failure is not uncommon. I told her I believed her. At that time, I was lying – I couldn’t internalize what she was saying.

Nicole recognized that my experience was anything but unique among scientists. So she started a conversation on Twitter under the hashtag #FailingInSTEM. Nicole tweeted that we need to let our young people know that regular, fallible people do science and that they make mistakes everyday. #FailingInSTEM went viral and stories started pouring in from scientists at all levels about their past scientific failures.

A few scientists talked about failing big exams, which immediately made me feel a little bit better. One scientist said that she spent 30 minutes at a telescope coming up with blank pictures and trying to figure out what was wrong with the parts. It turns out that the dome of the telescope was closed.

Another tweet talked about how a group of scientists were analyzing some space rocks when they found some organic material, or signs of life, Really exciting stuff! But it turned out to be from the bag the rocks were being held in.

Many of those who shared their stories of failure are incredibly successful scientists. Their failures did not ruin their careers; in fact, their failures made them better at doing science.

Destroying lab equipment, failing tests, or completely ruining your experiments – all of that is okay in the long run. No one has all the answers when they first start out. I am simultaneously trying to instill this message into my students and into myself – to build resiliency and openness into our culture. If I hadn’t failed my big exam, I never would have shifted my focus in my graduate program to something that interests me more. If scientists didn’t have failures or make mistakes, they would never know what works and what doesn’t. We would never make progress.

We need to rebrand failure as something productive because it is so important to discovery. Let’s keep the conversation about failure going in our classrooms and in our research labs and online so we can improve the culture of science for everyone.

Being responsive to the needs of URM students: Part 1

Recent research has shown that having greater diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, ability, and thought greatly improves the output of ideas in workplace and educational environments. (Incidentally, diversity of thought often comes naturally after ensuring diversity along other lines.) In her TEDx talk “The Future of STEM Depends on Diversity,” Nicole Cabrera talks about reasons why diversity in STEM fields doesn’t just make sense from an ethical perspective but also from an economic perspective. You can also check out John Gussman’s presentation called “Diversity and the College Experience” or his book of the same name for information on why diversity matters at the university level.



It’s clear that diversity in STEM fields and education is a good thing for intellectual, economic, and personal progress in those fields. Diversity initiatives in the classroom that do not respond to the unique needs of marginalized students, however, are doomed to fail. This means that the identities of professionals and students in STEM fields should matter a lot when we design our lessons and mentor students. So how can we as educators in STEM classrooms improve the climate for students hold marginalized identities in order to clear a path for in STEM disciplines and careers? I have collected a few tips below that are specifically aimed at instructors and mentors who mostly work with undergraduate students in STEM from underrepresented minority (URM) backgrounds.

  1. Take steps in your classroom to mitigate stereotype threat. Stereotype threat occurs when someone feels that they may be falling into stereotypes about their identity group. Stereotype is related to ideas about the supposed differences in intelligence between various identity groups (which don’t actually exist). Many people claim that they are “just not a math/science person.” However, there is no such thing as a math or science person. There is a large body of evidence saying that intelligence is malleable, meaning that it is not fixed and can change over time due to changes in environment. Furthermore, researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that telling students that intelligence is malleable actually makes students perform better in math and science classes. There are many lessons that instructors have developed for teaching students about malleable intelligence. You can find a good example here.
  2. Approach your teaching (and your research) while keeping the racist, sexist, and ableist history of science in mind. Astrophysicist and activist Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has compiled a seminal list of resources called the “Decolonising Science Reading List” for scientists who want to educate themselves on the narrative of science in the context of racism and imperialism. I cannot recommend this list of Dr. Prescod-Weinstein’s writings highly enough.
  3. Encourage students to join groups of STEM students and professionals who share their backgrounds. Students can join groups like SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) or NSBP (National Society of Black Physicists). Many national STEM organizations hold conferences where students can present their own research and connect with mentors in their field who share their background. Most of these groups offer financial support to students who want to attend the conferences but cannot afford to do so.
  4. As a classroom instructor, use active learning and group activities instead of direct lecturing as much as possible. I wrote about active learning and marginalized students a few months back. Active learning activities improve the performance of all students in science classes but they especially help students from marginalized backgrounds.

The tips above do not address many of the serious inequities that come from systemic, economic, and social factors that keep STEM students from marginalized groups from pursuing STEM careers. It should be noted that these tips are not all-encompassing. They are intended to get people started thinking about these issues. I highly recommend that readers explore the links in the list above for more information from people who are way wiser about these things than I am.

Watch for Part 2 of this list soon!

High-tech, low-cost: ideas for enhancing college instruction on a limited budget

Technology has the potential to enhance learning in all subjects and at all age levels. When used properly, technology can improve the ability of students to engage with the material in a meaningful deep way; it can also be a powerful tool for instructors to track activity, discussion, and progress. It also opens the door to allowing students to have multiple forms of engagement with the material, which enhances learning immensely. Importantly it can allow all students to be included in the learning process.

But what do you do as an instructor if you lack the resources to upgrade your class materials? In this post, I have compiled some practical advice for college instructors who are looking to incorporate useful technology into their classrooms on a limited budget.

Photograph courtesy of Arne Kuilman/Flickr, Creative Commons license

Photograph courtesy of Arne Kuilman/Flickr, Creative Commons license

  1. Use your students’ personal gadgets. You might want to survey your class at the beginning of the semester about their technology ownership and skills. Most students have a smartphone or a laptop. However, if some students do not own the tech you want to use, you can structure your class activities such that they have to work in groups and share technology. This will give you the added benefit of collaborative learning.
  2. Assign homework that uses technology. By assigning videos, online tutorials, or readings outside of class, students will be able to engage with the material in multiple ways, which greatly enhances learning potential. It also allows you to help with the stuff that requires immediate feedback – problem solving, discussions, break-out sessions – during class time and leave the content learning for outside of class. GSU students have access to computers in the Library and many other locations on campus, even if they do not personally own a computer.
  3. Maintain a class blog or website and require students to engage with it regularly. This can be the way you communicate with students, add class notes, link to or embed relevant video, and have discussions.
  4. Have students create their own blogs or vlogs. Students can write about the class or record themselves talking and have discussions with other students in the comments. GSU students can create a free blog or can use YouTube to post videos.
  5. Have students produce an audio or video podcast. GSU students can check out audio and video equipment from the Digital Aquarium, and can record in professional booths there after completing a brief training session. If you are at another institution, your students likely have access to similar resources.
  6. Make use of smartphone and tablet apps in class (assuming all of your students have smartphones). Apps like eClicker allow instructors to ask a question during class and use smartphones as answer clickers to get immediate feedback from students.
  7. Use Google Docs to allow student to provide constructive criticism to others and to edit their peers’ writing.
  8. Use social media to enhance learning and directly connect with students. GSU has a Yammer network where instructors can create groups where students can have discussions and collaborate on projects. With Twitter, you can have a class hashtag so that students can have discussions in concurrent with classwork or homework.
  9. Celebrate your students’ accomplishments and projects using social media or your class website (with their permission). This can be a great way to build a supportive classroom culture.

What ideas do you have about low-cost ways to integrate technology into your classrooms? I am interested to hear all of your ideas in the comments.

Creativity in science education is essential

There is a pervasive meme in the collective consciousness that science is a purely rational pursuit with no room for bringing in personal experiences or points of view. This, in my experience, is entirely false. Science is fundamentally a creative pursuit. Good scientists know how to draw connections between disparate ideas and disciplines. Paradigm-changing scientists know how to look at old problems in a way that no one else has ever looked at them and create an idea that is entirely new.

While it is true that professional scientists have to have immense creativity, science education often lags behind in training creative scientists. Classes that emphasize rote memorization and do not take an interdisciplinary approach can stifle scientific creativity.

Some science professionals have responded to this divide by adding a letter to the traditional acronym STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) and making it instead STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Mathematics). This is meant to show a connection between the creativity of all of these fields and lead to more interdisciplinary projects between STEM fields and the Arts. Another approach in middle, secondary, and university education is integrated science and technology fairs that emphasize taking a creative design approach to designing science fair projects, posters, and materials.

STEM active pedagogy projects in the SIF program at Georgia State University (GSU) are also responding to this dearth of creativity in science classrooms. Fellow SIFs Andrew Berens and Megan Smith and Taylor Burch, an Instructional Designer at the Center for Innovative Instruction, are doing great work together to create a series of creatively-designed climate labs for students at GSU.

As a part of my own project on the SIF physics active pedagogy project, I have been writing a series of roleplays designed to teach graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants (TAs) in physics labs to facilitate group work. As a large component of these roleplays, I have been thinking a lot about the role of creativity in science education.

In our roleplays, the TAs are required to embody an assigned role as a “TA” or a “student.” The “students” work in groups of three while the “TAs” are supposed to help facilitate the “students” thinking deeply about the physics problems they are solving by asking questions. Those who take on the roleplays often find them challenging because they are being asked to take a limited amount of information about their roles and fill in the gaps with a semi-improvised performance. This is remarkably similar to what their students do when solving physics problems in their classes. Students have to take a limited amount of information and find the connections so that they can draw conclusions. By teaching TAs about creative problem solving through roleplays, we hope that they will use this model with the students in their classes.

Training future scientists and citizens starts with showing students in science class why science is important and how it connects with other disciplines and ideas. The best way to do this is through training creativity-oriented future science educators who can show students through hands-on learning how everything in the natural world is connected.

Image source: https://2012arvoannualmeeting.wordpress.com/2012/04/24/let-the-creativity-flow-11/

Using technology to achieve inclusive learning

Traditional instructional design is aimed at designing curriculum and course materials to help the average student learn. As more cognitive learning research emerges everyday showing us that the “average student” does not exist, the goals of instructional design need to shift. Not only that, but the traditional instructional design model that attempts to adapt students to the rigid confines of the classroom is based on certain assumptions about the nature of disability that may not be entirely accurate.


Source: https://assistivetechnologytidbits.wikispaces.com/About+UDL%5B/caption%5D


To explain this, it is useful to take a look at the two dominant models with which people view disability. The first is the medical model of disability, which holds that there is something intrinsically wrong with a disabled person that keeps them from success that can sometimes be fixed via medical techniques. Traditional instructional design holds that disabled students must be adapted to the classroom in order to learn, or kept entirely separate from the other. In the past, education of the disabled has been dominated by separate learning from neurotypical students so that the disabled students will not be a “distraction” to the other students. Within this framework is a fundamentally ableist view that disabled students are not capable of the same caliber of work as non-disabled students and that their presence in the classroom is a nuisance rather than a fundamental right.

Another prominent model of disability is the social model, which says that disabled people are far more disabled by the barriers put up by society than they are by their disability. Many adherents to the social model believe that with proper accommodations and a shift in the way we think about society and productivity, most of the negative aspects of being disabled could be eliminated.

[caption id="attachment_67" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Medical Model of Disability Many disabled people have rejected this model. (From the Taxi Driver Training, Democracy, Disability and Society Group, UK)

Social Model of Disability

The social model of disability sees disabilities as normal aspects of life, not medical problems requiring “treatment,” with the real problems coming from inaccessibility and ignorance of disabled people. (From the Taxi Driver Training — Democracy, Disability and Society Group, UK). Source: The Social vs. Medical Model of Disability, Communities Will Be Forced to Choose

One extension of the social to the arena of education has been Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, movement.  The basic premise of UDL is that it is possible and desirable to design learning experiences such that it works across a wide variety of learners and abilities. The UDL movement is focused on making sure that students who have been marginalized, including disabled students, have the opportunity to learn. It achieves this by completely reframing the way we think about learning.

UDL has three basic guiding principles:

  1. Provide multiple representations of concepts by providing options for perception; language, mathematical expressions, and symbols; and comprehension. There is no universal way to present information such that everyone understands so it is best to provide many different demonstrations of learning.
  2. Provide for multiple means of action or expression during the learning process by providing options for physical action, expression and communication, and executive functions.
  3. Provide for multiple means of engagement by providing options for recruiting interest, sustaining effort and persistence, and self-regulation.

When designing courses, instructors use the three guiding principles and consider the components of the course, including the goals, materials, teaching methods, and means of assessment in the course. Often the best way to implement the UDL strategies is by the proper use of technology to provide meaningful learning experiences. Resources like the UDL Tech Toolkit Wiki provide examples of technology resources that instructors can use to make courses more accessible to students. Some examples include using tablets or e-readers, digital textbooks, text-to-speech applications, computer-based visual simulations, or online video mini-lectures. Technology should not be used to make things more complicated or flashy, but rather to offer more flexibility for learning. With proper implementation of UDL principles and supporting technology, not only will disabled students experience an equal opportunity at learning, but all students will have a richer, more fulfilling learning experience.

Approaching educational research as ethnographic studies

As a SIF this year, I have felt like a fish out of water when engaging in social science and education research. I find that doing good, rigorous social science is more difficult than doing experimental physics in a lot of ways. When delivering social science surveys, you have to worry about whether or not the questions you are asking are actually measuring what you want to measure and you have to make sure that the questions are not ambiguous (see this Wikipedia article on survey validity). In the case of physics education, you also have to make sure that what you are trying to measure is useful for physics pedagogy. If you work with people or other animals, there are also additional, rigorous ethical concerns involved to make sure you avoid exploitation or harm. All of these things are a lot to learn for someone who is also doing experimental physics research, taking classes, and teaching.

As a component of our SIF active learning pedagogy team’s revamp of the TA training class for physics lab instructors, I am performing teaching observations and giving immediate feedback to undergraduate and graduate instructors. Essentially what I do is eavesdrop on the instructor’s conversations with groups of students and tell them what they can do to improve and what they did well. I am drawing inspiration from ethnography guides and methodology.

Classrooms are like mini-communities, with each functioning differently. Therefore, I am approaching this study of introductory physics labs as an ethnography, or the systematic recorded study of a culture or people. Classroom culture and dynamics make a huge difference in the learning environment of a class, including the tone set by the instructor(s), the identities of the students, and how everyone interacts with one another. Everything is important, from the structure of the class down to the verbal and body language students and instructors use when talking about the physical concepts. Students in active learning classes depend on each other more than in traditional classrooms so observing the interactions between students is crucial, as is observing how the instructor interacts with their students. Together with background information from surveys, ethnography field notes from the classroom can help to bring a complete picture to what is going on. We are using the field notes to inform our lessons on pedagogy and to give direct one-on-one feedback to the TA.

I can immediately see some ways to expand these ethnographic methods to investigate the inner workings of a particular type of learning environment. For example, you could use data mining of classroom video recordings or transcripts to analyze trends. Or perhaps, if a researcher were observing an active learning classroom utilizing social media in assignments, the data from the social media interactions combined with the data from in-person interactions would form a more complete picture of the classroom ecosystem. For the time being, I do not have permission to record video, audio, or photographic data, and the data mining methods would probably be resource prohibitive. Nevertheless, these techniques provide interesting prospects for the future of educational ethnography.

Let’s talk about active learning and marginalized students.

Active learning is popular in the education research community right now. According to the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, active learning is a “process whereby students engage in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem solving that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content.” This mode of teaching and learning stands in direct contrast with traditional lecture-style learning, which tends to take place in a lecture hall. The spaces in which the learning takes place are important but the environment of the class is far more important. Active learning environments are centered on students learning by doing, whereas traditional learning environments are centered on the passage of knowledge one way from the instructor to the students. Universities are investing vast resources into constructing classrooms specifically to facilitate active learning environments, often with round tables, whiteboards, and technology  tailored to meet the needs of an active learning classroom.

ALC at U of M

An active learning classroom at the University of Minnesota Minneapolis.

The question: is the investment worth it?  According to a 2014 study published in Life Sciences Educationthe answer is a resounding yes — especially for black and first-generation college students. The researchers implemented a “moderate-structure” change in an undergraduate Biology course, which effectively meant turning the course into an active-learning environment. They found that the performance of all students clearly increased versus a traditional Biology course. This performance increase was especially pronounced in black students and students in the first generation of people in their family to attend college, for whom the achievement gap was halved. The New York Times quoted researcher Kelly A. Hogan, “In a traditional lecture course, [students are] not held accountable for being prepared for class, and they don’t really need to be, because an instructor is going to tell them everything he or she wants them to know. Would you read a report for a meeting if you knew your boss was going to spend 15 minutes summarizing it for you? I know I wouldn’t.” This gets at the main difference between active-learning and traditional classrooms: it levels the playing field by providing for ample in-class and out-of-class engagement with the material, which deepens understanding. The students in the classroom community depend on each other and the learning is more distributed.

Another recent article in the New York Times, entitled “Are College Lectures Unfair?”, examined the inherent biases of the traditional lecture against “undergraduates who are not white, male and affluent”. All students do better in active learning classrooms than in traditional classrooms, but those who are not upper-middle-class white men show significant improvements. This could be due to the active-learning classroom’s tendency to mitigate stereotype threat, a measured phenomenon that affects groups for which there is a stereotype about their abilities and aptitudes in certain tasks or activities. For example, a famous study of women in math classes found that when women are reminded of the stereotype that women are bad at math they perform far worse on math tests than women who are not reminded of this stereotype. Similar research has demonstrated the same effect in black college students and other marginalized groups. One of the main advantages of the active learning classroom over the traditional lecture classroom is that it mitigates the damage of stereotype threat. By constructing an interconnected learning community, active learning classrooms level the playing field without sacrificing the performance of those who are usually high performers.

Where does Georgia State University (GSU) fit into the active learning movement? Georgia State has had remarkable success in the education of students who are typically the least served in higher education as a whole. As one of the most diverse research institutions in the United States, GSU confers more degrees to students of color than any other institution in Georgia. Georgia State’s student body is nearly two-thirds non-white; 30% of students at GSU are in the first generation in their family to attend college and 56% of students receive Pell Grants, which are awarded to students from low-income backgrounds.

Georgia State recently took some actions designed to increase its graduation rate, which directly benefited its most vulnerable students. A 2013 article in The Atlantic examined in depth the specific actions that Georgia State has taken, which has been successful in raising the graduation rate by 22 percent in recent years. These actions include peer tutoring and Supplemental Instruction, among other active learning interventions. Many GSU departments including the Center for Instructional Innovation are designing innovative active learning classrooms and building spaces to accompany these types of changes. As the University moves away from traditional lectures and toward active learning classes, it has the unique opportunity to help students succeed by becoming a leader in the active learning movement.

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