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4+1 Interview with Derek Bruff

July 11, 2013, 8:00 am

Derek BruffIt’s my pleasure to introduce a new series here at Casting Out Nines called 4+1 Interviews. In each of these interviews, I’ve picked out someone who I believe has something interesting to say about mathematics, education, or technology and given them four questions to ask. And at the end, the interviewee gets to pick his or her own question to answer, hence the +1. One of my favorite things about my job and about blogging and Tweeting is that I come into contact with a lot of really smart people very frequently, and I thought it would be nice to share these folks with you. I’m hoping to post about one of these every 2-4 weeks, and the lineup of upcoming interviews is very exciting.

Our first interview in this series is with Derek Bruff. Derek is the Director for Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching and the author of Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments which is widely considered to be the Bible of teaching with clickers. Derek holds a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Vanderbilt (just like I do, and in fact we narrowly missed each other in the program since I graduated the year he started). He also blogs at Agile Learning. I was happy to get a chance to catch up with Derek and get his thoughts on faculty development, clickers, MOOCs, and more. Read on!

1. What’s it been like for you as you’ve transitioned from classroom instructor to assistant director of Vanderbilt’s Center For Teaching and now to being director of the CFT?

One notable element of that transition is a move from having a small, but direct impact on student learning to having a large, but indirect impact. As a math faculty member, I might have taught 100 or 200 students in a year, helping them develop their mathematical thinking skills and getting to see firsthand the fruits of that labor. These days, I only teach one math course a year, which might only have 15 students in it. However, through my work at the Center for Teaching—consulting with faculty and administrators, organizing orientations and workshops, hosting professional development programs for faculty and graduate students—I have an indirect impact on the learning experience of almost every student at Vanderbilt.

The challenge for me is that I’m less able to see the impact of my work, since I’m not interacting directly with the students taught by the instructors with whom I consult. I can see how those instructors’ teaching practices and beliefs change, which is rewarding, but I don’t often see the effects of those changes on their students. I’ve had to get comfortable with the knowledge that I’m having a significant positive impact on student learning at Vanderbilt, even if I can’t see it directly.

One of the best parts of the transition from math faculty to teaching center staff is that I interact with incredibly creative and effective teachers from all over campus. I love learning about how teaching and learning works in other disciplines, and my current position gives me plenty of opportunity to do so!

2. As you work with faculty and graduate students in your capacity as the Center for Teaching director, what’s the biggest issue you encounter with improving the quality of undergraduate instruction today?

Many students and professors believe that the professor’s job is to present information to the students and the students’ job is to memorize that information and repeat it on a test. Professors lecture during class, and students dutifully show up and take lots of notes. Then students go off and memorize those notes, and professors write tests that ask students to repeat what they heard in class. This system is fairly efficient for everyone involved, and it meets the expectations for a college classroom held by many students and faculty. The problem is that little significant learning results from this system.

Sure, some students thrive in this system. Some students also end up becoming college professors. But it’s a system that produces little significant learning for many students. It’s not even a great system for memorizing information, as students often forget what they’ve memorized as soon as the course is over. And it does a poor job of fostering the kinds of critical thinking and problem solving skills that students will need in their careers and lives after college. For many students, the end goal becomes the grade the student obtains in the course, not the learning that they’ll carry with them after the course is over, and thus they become strategic, not deep learners.

In their 1995 Change Magazine article, “From Teaching to Learning,” [pdf] Robert Barr and John Tagg refer to this system as the “instruction paradigm.” They argue for a shift to a “learning paradigm,” in which the focus is on the design of experiences that foster meaningful student learning. Lectures and tests certainly play a role in these learning environments, but they are insufficient by themselves. It’s been almost 20 years since the Barr and Tagg article was published, but helping higher education shift from the instruction paradigm to the learning paradigm is still the biggest issue I face in my work.

I should note that it’s not an easy shift, even when you have a willing faculty member. Often students will push back against more active learning environments, since they expect the lecture-memorize-regurgitate cycle and anything else can challenge them in uncomfortable ways. It’s not the people involved that are the issue here; it’s the pervasiveness of the old paradigm.

3. You literally wrote the book on using classroom response devices (“clickers”) in teaching. In your view, what’s the future of this technology, and what do you see as particularly good examples of how clickers are used well in teaching and learning?

I’ll start with your second question. There are a couple of types of clicker questions that I find most useful across different kinds of classrooms:

• Misconception questions are designed to surface and address common student misconceptions about particular topics. With these questions, there’s usually a correct answer and a very popular wrong answer. An instructor asks these questions expecting that many students will answer incorrectly, so that the associated misconception can be confronted head on. These questions work very well with peer instruction, in which students are asked to vote on a question, then pair up and discuss the question, then vote again, then participate in a class discussion about the right and wrong answers. It’s a version of think-pair-share that works very well to help students resolve misconceptions.

• One-best-answer questions ask students to select the one “best” answer among competing alternatives, requiring students to weigh evidence for and against the various answer choices. In a literature course, an instructor might ask students to select the answer choice that best explains a character’s motivation at a particular point in a novel. In a history class, students might be asked to identify the most significant cause for a particular event. In an engineering course, a professor might ask students to select the most promising design from among several alternatives—in advance of testing those designs in the lab. As multiple-choice questions, these questions wouldn’t make sense on exams. They don’t have single correct answers. On an exam, they would have to be essay questions. But in the classroom, the multiple-choice format can structure and motivate healthy small-group and classwide conversations in which students support their assertions with evidence.

The key to using clickers is that they should help generate productive discussion among students. What challenging concepts do you want your students to grapple with? Build your clicker questions around those concepts, and plan for small-group and/or whole-class discussions about those questions.

As for the future of the technology, all signs point toward more use of mobile devices—cell phones, smart phones, tablets—as “super-clickers.” Why have students purchase single-use devices like clickers when the mobile device in their pocket can play that role—and more? We’ll continue to see dedicated clicker devices in use for some time, since asking students to pull out their phones during class is seen by many faculty as a potential for distraction. But using mobile devices as “super-clickers” opens the door to all kinds of interesting free-response questions, which will interest more faculty in experimenting with their use.

4. What kind of connection do you maintain with the Mathematics Department at Vanderbilt?

I teach one course a year in the math department, typically either an applications-oriented linear algebra or statistics course or a first-year writing seminar on the history and mathematics of cryptography. I’ve assisted in the past with TA training efforts and curriculum committees, although not recently. I go to the occasional faculty meeting, and try to make some of the social events each year. And I have a mailbox in the office! The Center for Teaching is a few buildings away from the math department, so I’m not over there as much as I could be. And my day job doesn’t permit me time for mathematics research, so my connections revolve around teaching issues.

+1. What other question should I have asked you in this interview?

Something about MOOCs, maybe? They come up in all my conversations at some point, these days! How’s this: “Given your experiences supporting the development of MOOCs at Vanderbilt, what are a couple of misconceptions about MOOCs circulating through higher ed?”

One misconception is that MOOCs are intended as replacements for traditionally-taught courses. It’s true that some MOOCs are (such as “MOOCulus,” the calculus MOOC taught at Ohio State), but most aren’t. Of the six MOOCs offered by Vanderbilt, only one of them is a MOOC version of an existing course. The rest are either all new short courses or parts of existing courses. This seems to be fairly typical; the most common course length for the 150-or-so courses on the Coursera platform planned for the second half of 2013 is only six weeks. Some of these are probably compressed versions of traditional courses (in which students move through material quickly, as in a summer course), but most would probably be worth one credit hour, not the three or four hours given to traditional courses.

There’s a lot of concern out there that college and university administrators want to replace existing courses (or faculty!) with MOOCs. Some of that concern is legit, but it often hides the fact that there are many MOOCs intended solely as educational outreach or continuing education, not as course replacements.

The other misconception that I would point out is that deep learning can’t happen in a MOOC. The first wave of Coursera, edX, and Udacity MOOCs (way back in 2012!) took some heat for being little more than video lectures with automatically graded quizzes—extensions of the “instruction paradigm” to online environments. But more recent MOOCs have pushed the envelope on student learning, involving more robust interactions among students and faculty and, in some cases, asking students to produce interesting, creative work. Check out the student work in the University of Pennsylvania’s design course or the team projects in Vanderbilt’s course on strategic innovation.

It’s important to note here that the students taking these MOOCs—and producing this great work—are highly self-motivated. These aren’t undergraduates taking a course because they’re fulfilling their general ed requirements, these are (mostly) working adults who are interested in learning something new and interesting. To my earlier point, it’s an open question where MOOCs can foster the same kind of student work with more traditional (and often less-motivated) student populations. But “learning paradigm” MOOCs are quite possible with the kinds of students currently taking MOOCs.

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