December 30, 2013


Volume 8, Issue 19 – December 30, 2013


…And a Happy New Year

I hope everyone has had a pleasant vacation so far, and that Christmas, Diwali, Kwanza, (or earlier, Chanukkah and Ashura) have been wonderful for you and your families.  Now it’s time to look forward to New Years Eve!  Hopefully, 2014 will be a great year for all of us.

Things have been quiet around the Szafran homestead, with our Las Vegas trek to see my parents postponed until February.  Instead, we’ve engaged in shopping and watching of lots of sports and movies.

Sports-wise, what was supposed to be the big game against the league leader (Chelsea vs. Arsenal) wound up being a 0-0 draw, but then on Sunday, Chelsea defeated Liverpool (who was top of the league for a minute or two) 2-1 a few days later, with goals coming from Samuel Eto’o and Eden Hazard.   Hazard had turned out to be a great acquisition for Chelsea, and is now their top scorer.  Chelsea is now in a tight race for the top, two points behind Arsenal and one point behind Manchester City.

As to basketball and football, my hometown of Syracuse is now the rally capital of America.  Syracuse is ranked 2nd nationally in basketball and rallied to beat 8th ranked Villanova 78-62 in a game that started with four unanswered Villanova 3-pointers. Syracuse was behind 25-7 midway through the first half, but was able to turn on the gas and score 20 unanswered points themselves.  In football, Syracuse rallied late against Minnesota, winning 21-17 with the final touchdown set up by a 70-yard punt return.  Go Orange!

We’ve been catching up with a bunch of 3-D movies we’ve accumulated over the past few months.  “The Little Mermaid” was re-released in 3D and was great.  Not having seen it in decades, I’d forgotten how much I liked it and how much it marked a drastic change for the better for Disney studios, which had been mired in mediocrity for the previous 20 years.  Mark and I also watched a somewhat guiltier pleasure, “Hansel and Gretel, Witch Hunters”.  The movie stars Jeremy Renner (who played Hawkeye in “The Avengers”) and Gemma Arterton, and appropriately enough, was filmed in Germany.  It tells the story of what happened to the fairy-tale duo after disposing of the witch in the candy house—they went on to travel from town to town as witch hunters.  If you like steampunk (a science fiction genre set in the past with early prototype versions of modern technology), you’ll really like this movie.  The 3D effects are very good and the movie is a wild (if gory) ride.  An interesting plot point is the explanation for why their parents abandoned them in the woods.

One TV show I’ve gotten into recently is “Wallander”, a Swedish television program about a detective/police inspector named Kurt Wallander, who solves crimes in the town of Ystad, Sweden.  Ystad, located at Sweden’s southernmost point, has become a bit of a tourist attraction as a result of the program.  The Swedish show is available on Netflix and subtitled in English.  It is based on a well-known series of detective novels by Henning Mankell.  It is well paced and well acted, with many of the crimes turning out to be somewhat different from what they originally seem.  The Swedish setting and attitudes add to the interest.  Each episode is 90 minutes long and many were released originally as DVDs for the Swedish market.  It’s well worth watching.  I hear that there’s a British version of this as well, in English and available on Hulu, but I haven’t seen any of those yet.



Department of the Obvious?

There was an interesting article in the November 29 Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “Teaching Clearly: A Deceptively Simple Way to Improve Learning”.  The article by Dan Berrett reported on talks given at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education that were based on the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education.  The study looked at thousands of students at a varied range of institutions—large and small, selective and non-selective—collecting demographic information as well as scores on critical thinking and on motivation tests.  When the results were correlated with a survey of students’ perceptions of how clearly their professors taught and how well organized they were, the results showed a strong correlation between clear and organized teaching with student learning.  Somewhat weirdly, the coauthor of the studies, Ernest T. Pascarella (professor of higher education at Iowa), said that the relationship was not causal.  “Something’s going on here” he said.

In another study, Chad Loes (a professor of Criminal Justice at Mount Mercy University) found that while well-organized teaching had only a small impact on critical thinking skills of students overall, it had a large impact on these skills for minority groups.  Critical thinking tests are given during the freshman and senior years at many universities, as a means of determining student learning, especially within core courses.   Loes argues that better-organized and clearer teaching can essentially eliminate the gap that has been measured on these tests in freshman scores between minority and white students—in the senior year test, no significant difference remains.

In a third study, Thomas F. Nelson Laird (associate professor of higher education at Indiana University) found that when students perceived that the teaching they received was of higher quality, it affected their approach to learning.  Another study, by Benjamin Gillig (doctoral student at Iowa) found that meaningful interactions with faculty members outside of class along with clear and well-organized teaching had the strongest positive effect on students’ motivation.

My initial response to this article was “Hey—didn’t we know all this already?”  The idea that students get positively motivated when they understand what is being taught and can follow where the lecture is going is hardly earthshaking.  That being said, I also remember the majority of seminars I attended as both an undergraduate and graduate student, many of which presented by top faculty at top universities.  In many cases, the speakers took no notice of their audience, and spoke as if every person was an expert in their specialty area.  As a result, I got little or nothing out of those seminars and used to hate attending them (which was required).  At first, I thought that the problem was that I was underprepared.  After talking to my fellow students, I found that nearly all felt the same way I did.  The relatively few speakers who recognized where their audience was got a much better reception.  How many of you experienced this when you were students?  How was it possible that so many of these top professors hadn’t mastered the simplest things about giving an effective presentation?

When I began teaching, my department required all students to do a senior research project and to deliver two seminars—one on their literature search (in the Fall) and one on their results (in the Spring).  Something I quickly noticed was that the student talks were usually disorganized and filled with jargon.  Instead of trying to explain what they were doing simply and clearly, the students were trying to impress the faculty by using complicated language that they often didn’t understand.  I asked a few why they were doing this.  Their answers showed that they were afraid that if their talk was straightforward and simple, they would get a low grade.

In response, I adopted a policy of always asking a question if I thought a student was using complicated language in a way they probably didn’t understand.  After a few weeks, a student asked me if I’d be willing to listen to a practice run of his seminar and critique it.  I was happy to do it, and wound up telling him something I’ve said to hundreds of students since: No one ever walked out of a seminar saying ‘that was too simple’.  When a seminar is simply and clearly explained, they walk out saying ‘I must be really smart—I totally understood that.’  Pretty soon, almost every student was asking me to listen to a practice run of their seminars.  It then got much easier to get the juniors to attend the seminars, because they could now understand more of them.

There may be a tautology problem with some of this research, since students respond most positively to that which they understand, and thereby view it as well-organized and clear.  Was it objectively well-organized and clear? What were the attributes that made it so?  I’ll have to find the original research papers to see how effectively they address this problem.  Still, it’s a reasonable thing for every faculty member to pause, look at their course materials, and see how well they address the needs of the students they actually have, rather than the students they wish they had.  I know I’ll be doing that one more time for the course I’m teaching this term.



This Week’s Trivia Challenge

There isn’t one.  I’m on vacation!  The trivia challenge will return in the new year.

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2 Responses to December 30, 2013

  1. jnewell2012 says:

    The English Wallander is BBC / PBS and stars Kenneth Branagh. It runs as part of Masterpiece Theater and they seem to run three episodes every fall. I love Kenneth Branagh, so I tried watching it. Much too dark and depressing for me!

    But I really enjoyed the info about organized, intelligible teaching. It’s amazing how often we (I) forget that the fundamentals really are fundamental!

  2. Nancy Reichert says:

    Interesting, Zvi.

    I’m glad you caught up on some movies with Mark. I’m sure he loved it 🙂

    As for your response to the education issues, I agree with the basic concepts. How would you address the same issues of clarity and organization for online discussions and/or discussion-based classes? My students in the American Literature class actually liked the online discussions that accompanied the class because I wasn’t a major presence in them. I thought students would want more feedback from me about how they were doing in them, but they instead were happy to discuss the literature in what they saw as a “friendly” informal space. They also enjoyed in-class discussion more because they knew each other from online.

    What would you consider the most important aspects for clarity and organization for such discussion-based classes?


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