Am I teaching well given the available research on teaching

Figuring out how to teach well as a professor at a research university is largely a self-study affair. For me the keys to productive self-study are good information and self-reflection. Without good information you’re not learning the right things and without self-reflection you don’t know if you are actually succeeding at implementing what you’ve learned. There have been some nice posts recently on information and self-reflection about how we teach over at Oikos (based on, indirectly, on a great piece on NPR) and Sociobiology (and a second piece) that are definitely worth a read. As part of a course I’m taking on how to teach programming I’m doing some reading about research on the best approaches to teaching and self-reflection on my own approaches in the classroom.

One of the things we’ve been reading is a great report by the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences on Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. The report synthesizes existing research on what to do in the classroom to facilitate meaningful long-term learning, and distills this information into seven recommendations and information on how strongly each recommendation is supported by available research.


  1. Space learning over time. Arrange to review key elements of course content after a delay of several weeks to several months after initial presentation. (moderate)
  2. Interleave worked example solutions with problem-solving exercises. Have students alternate between reading already worked solutions and trying to solve problems on their own. (moderate)
  3. Combine graphics with verbal descriptions. Combine graphical presentations (e.g., graphs, figures) that illustrate key processes and procedures with verbal descriptions. (moderate)
  4. Connect and integrate abstract and concrete representations of concepts. Connect and integrate abstract representations of a concept with concrete representations of the same concept. (moderate)
  5. Use quizzing to promote learning.
    1. Use pre-questions to introduce a new topic. (minimal)
    2. Use quizzes to re-expose students to key content (strong)
  6. Help students allocate study time efficiently.
    1. Teach students how to use delayed judgments of learning to identify content that needs further study. (minimal)
    2. Use tests and quizzes to identify content that needs to be learned (minimal)
  7. Ask deep explanatory questions. Use instructional prompts that encourage students to pose and answer “deep-level” questions on course material. These questions enable students to respond with explanations and supports deep understanding of taught material. (strong)

(Quoted directly from the original report via a Software Carpentry blog post)

This is a nice summary, but it’s definitely worth reading the whole report to explore the depth of the thought process and learn more about specific ideas for how to implement these recommendations.

How am I doing?

Recently I’ve been teaching two courses on programming and database management for biologists. Because I’m not a big believer in classroom lecture, for this type of material, a typical day in one of these courses involves: 1) either reading up on the material in a text book or viewing a Software Carpentry lecture before coming to class; 2) a brief 5-10 minute period of either re-presenting complex material or answering questions about the reading/viewing; and 3) 45 minutes of working on exercises (during which time I’m typically bouncing from student to student helping them figure out things that they don’t understand). So, how am I doing with respect the the above recommendations?

1. Space learning over time. I’m doing OK here, but not as well as I’d like. The nice thing about teaching introductory programming concepts is that they naturally build on one another. If we learned about if-then statements two weeks ago then I’m going to use them in the exercises about loops that we’re learning about this week. I also have my advanced class use version control throughout the semester for retrieving data and turning in exercises to force them to become very comfortable with the work-flow. However, I haven’t done a very good job of bringing concepts back, on their own, later in the semester. The exercise based approach to the course is perfect for this, I just need to write more problems and insert them into the problem-sets a few weeks after we cover the original material.

2. Interleave worked example solutions with problem-solving exercises. I think I’m doing a pretty good job here. Student’s see worked examples for each concept in either a text book or video lecture (viewed outside of class) and if I think they need more for a particular concept we’ll walk through a problem at the beginning of class. I often use the Online Python Tutor for this purpose which provides a really nice presentation of what is going on in the program. We then spend most of the class period working on problem-solving exercises. Since my classes meets three days a week I think this leads to a pretty decent interleaving.

3. Combine graphics with verbal descriptions. I do some graphical presentation and the Online Python Tutor gives some nice graphical representations of running programs, but I need to learn more about how to communicate programming concepts graphically. I suspect that some of the students that struggle the most in my Intro class would benefit from a clearly graphical presentation of what is going happening in the program.

4. Connect and integrate abstract and concrete representations of concepts. I think I do this fairly well. The overall motivation for the course is to ground the programming material in the specific discipline that the students are interested in. So, we learn about the general concept and then apply it to concrete biological problems in the exercises.

5. Use quizzing to promote learning. I’m not convinced that pre-questions make a lot of sense for material like this. In more fact based classes they are helping to focus students’ attention on what is important, but I think the immediate engagement in problem-sets that focus on the important aspects works at least as well in my classroom. I do have one test in the course that occurs about half way through the Intro course after we’ve covered the core material.  It is intended to provide the “delayed re-exposure” that has been shown to improve learning, but after reading this recommendation I’m starting to think that this would be better accomplished with a series of smaller quizzes.

6. Help students allocate study time efficiently. I spend a fair bit of time doing this when I help students who ask questions during the assignments. By looking at their code and talking to them it typically becomes clear where the “illusion of knowing” is creeping in and causing them problems and I think I do a fairly good job of breaking that cycle and helping them focus on what they still need to learn. I haven’t used quizzes for this yet, but I think they could be a valuable addition.

7. Ask deep explanatory questions. One of the main focuses in both of my courses is an individual project where the students work on a larger program to do something that is of interest to them. I do this with the hope that it can provide the kind of deep exposure that this recommendation envisions.

So, I guess I’m doing OK, but I need to work more on representation of material both through bringing back old material in the exercises and potentially through the use of short quizzes throughout the semester. I also need to work on alternative ways to present material to help reach folks whose brains work differently.

If you are a current or future teacher I really recommend reading the full report. It’s a quick read and provides lots of good information and food for thought when figuring out how to help your students learn.

Thanks for listening in on my self-reflection. If you have thoughts about this stuff I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

5 Comments on “Am I teaching well given the available research on teaching

  1. Hello Ethan,

    It’s good that you’re asking these questions. I started asking them of myself a while ago, and definitely know that I need to make some changes (on the personal in institutional level). I’d recommend a few books: one is /Scientific Teaching/ by Jo Handelsmann et al, which deals with using research thinking to enhance teaching. Another that deals with our general approach to teaching is /Punished by Rewards/ by Alfie Kohn. He examines psychological research dealing with the use of punishment, rewards and the prevalence of behaviorism in our culture, and its uses in education, management and parenting. Check it out.


  2. Thanks Joel. I definitely will. The second one can do double duty for teaching me how to interact with my two year old.

  3. Definitely! He also has a book specifically about parenting, called /Unconditional Parenting/. Most of his other material on teaching deals specifically with elementary and high school (e.g. standardized testing), but I think it applies very well to what we do in universities.

  4. Maybe what you (and the rest of us) are doing wrong is teaching face to face (!):

    This idea is so radical that I haven’t really wrapped my head around it yet and so don’t have much coherent reaction. I guess I could see something like this approach working for certain subjects we teach in ecology (maybe biostats?) And that it would be easy to do badly and I have no training on how to do it well.

    Anyway, you’re the sort of ecologist who might find this interesting, so I wanted to pass it on.

  5. I think this is an interesting approach for distributing primary information, but I actually think it’s only half of the problem and on it’s own certainly not the future of high caliber education. Just like a text book can’t (on its own) teach the most important things about doing science, neither can lecture, no matter how good. Information is now effectively free as demonstrated by this and other high profile examples like Kahn Academy. This means that education needs to move on from being a fact delivery system (in many cases) to teaching students how to learn and think, and helping them work through conceptual stumbling blocks and the “illusion of knowing” so that they can do something with what they’ve learned. From what I’ve seen there’s only one really functional way to do this at the moment – small classrooms, highly skilled teachers, and active application of knowledge rather than testing. We can, and should, do great things with the web, but I’m not yet convinced that it will ever replace the benefits of intensive, low student:teacher, interaction with smart and dedicated teachers. So, I guess at heart I’m really more of a small liberal arts college guy than a mega-university guy.

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