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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

the tiny oases in the valley of doubt

This is roughly week 4 of my experiment with Trevor on coaching students through a junior-level, largely self-directed learning experience. The course is organized around a single project for improvement on a biomedical device and represents 50% of students course-load, meeting 12 hours per week, and 100% of their materials engineering education for this quarter. There was an institutional conflict this quarter, so that we are only meeting 9 hours per week, 3 hours are "on their own."

We almost entirely stopped lecturing. We do take course time to collectively check in, explain procedures or points of confusion. For the most part, 12 teams of 4-5 students are autonomously pursuing design improvement projects of their own interest. Each individual has the responsibility of learning the posted foundational content on non-crystalline materials and structural materials.

This is the point in the quarter where I usually fear that students are not learning enough.
This difference this quarter is that I've built in feedback loops into the on-line tool so that students can test their own knowledge.  And, we instructors can see how they are doing. We've allowed them to take the tests 3 times without penalty, allowing them to keep the highest score.  I (and they) can see that over 80% of the students are scoring 100% on the 30% of the quizzes. The more complex quizzes have not yet been attempted. This is natural at this point in the quarter.

My next move is to query them about whether they are learning the material science. This is a perception, I know, but in past courses, the loose structure generated a perception of not learning (or not learning enough).  In truth, the foundational knowledge is not really the important stuff, but it IS necessary to tackle the more complex generative thinking they must do in their projects.

So, my tiny oases are the conversations I'm having with the students about their projects.  This year, students occur as deeply thoughtful about the science and engineering of their projects.  Last year, they were in a kind of "what do you want me to do?"- mode  This year, each of the 12 projects represent a deep level of creativity and thought that neither I nor Trevor, who has been teaching this course for 5 years, has seen before.   It is so satisfying to detect these signs of what I view as the "holy grail" of learning...a passion to understand. What is the cause?  Probably not any one thing...this is a unique group of students, Trevor and I are both in a deep process of reflection and change, we have created a more supportive structure for self-directed learning.

I think it REALLY remarkable that not one student has asked us about the grading for this class, except to ask if there are two separate grades or just one for the whole 8 units.

The feel of the classroom is electric...people are at tables, trying to think through designs, articulate their theory of what they are testing, one seems "disgruntled" as they did last year. There was a palpable resentment last year, particularly from the "high achieving" students.

Well, we shall see what happens...

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