>Online pseudoteaching

>Another in a series of pseudoteaching blog post organized by John Burk and Frank Noschese.They coined the term with the following definition:

Pseudoteaching is something you realize you’re doing after you’ve attempted a lesson which from the outset looks like it should result in student learning, but upon further reflection, you realize that the very lesson itself was flawed and involved minimal learning.

They further refined it by pointed out that not only did you think the lesson was “good” but so did the students at the time and perhaps even an outside observer if there had been one.

I’d like to talk about some pseudoteaching of my own, specifically in the fully-online courses I’ve taught in a program for an alternative physics teaching license.  This program takes licensed science teachers and gives them a path to an additional physics license in the state of Minnesota.  Each cohort of roughly 20 teachers takes an online course with me in the fall (thermodynamics) and another in the spring (modern physics).

I wanted to build in opportunities for community building and group learning into the courses.  I had found (though I wasn’t really surprised) that forced discussion board posts weren’t really doing that so I came up with a grand plan.  The students were stressed out about the homework and wanted further help. I proposed that we try to mimic a technique we had done in our in-person classes (done in the summer) where we worked to produce what I called “road maps” for a problem. These are not solutions but rather statements about what physics is necessary to get to a solution. Here’s an example for a falling object problem:

  1. Potential energy is converted to kinetic energy
  2. height is needed for potential energy
  3. speed can be found from kinetic energy

Of course the problems were typically much harder but hopefully you get the gist of how minimalist the road maps are while still being quite useful to students. We had found in the summer that, since they were all teachers, it was great practice to develop these road maps to think about how to guide students without giving everything away.

Ok, this sounded great and we talked about how to pull it off online. I used Blackboard back then and so I randomly put the students into six groups because every week there were six homework problems to be done. The homework was due on Sunday so I required the groups to work collaboratively on their assigned problem and to post a road map for it by Wednesday night. Everyone would still turn in all six problems on Sunday but now they’d have a road map for each.

The first time I did it I worked very hard to keep up with what each group was doing.  The issue was that they had to find the solution to the problem first and then figure out the road map, all by Wednesday. This often proved too difficult as they would start to just post more of a bare-bones solution.

To combat that I had the next great brainstorm: provide full screencast solutions to each group! This way they had the solution right away and could use their teacher talents to really come up with a road map rather than expending energy on the solution first. Cool right? That’s what I thought, at least, and I think the students were jazzed about it too, not least because now they really only had to do 5 problems per week.

Why is this my example of pseudoteaching? Because the students didn’t do well on the homework. Of course they’d nail the one problem but in our interactions in my online office hours (held on Thursday nights) and in grading their homework I’d see that they weren’t synthesizing the material. In fact, often they’d do the steps of the road map, but not see the overall picture of the chapter or problem. Even worse was the lack of retention as we’d move through the class.

It became too difficult to ensure everyone was contributing (“I agree” became a common post) and I was frustrated with the lack of learning. In hindsight, it seems that they were simply trying to do what they could to help each other complete the homework set.  What it evolved to was a near step-by-step method for doing the problems (use equation X, then divide by the rest mass, then plug in to equation Y, . . .). I would comment to a group with phrases like “that’s too much detail” but I found it difficult to get the students to engage with the material as a whole and the learning/synthesizing that I was looking for wasn’t happening to the degree I wanted.

So what now? These days my online course is run in a much more individual way. I regret the loss of community and I’m still looking for ways to get that back in. But as far as learning is concerned, my most recent class was a big leap forward compared to the past. Now I give every student full access to all my screencast solutions on Sunday. On Thursday I still have online office hours to talk about any issues they’re having with either the homework problems or the chapter concepts. Then on Friday morning I post a new problem that is similar to one or more of the six screencast problems. The students then have until Sunday to provide a screencast of their own of the solution.

What I like about this new method is that they get the full benefit of seeing how typical problems are done but they still need to synthesize the material as best they can before our Thursday sessions. And of course, I love hearing their voices.

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
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