Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

One way for faculty to save time while improving student learning

My friend Ann Ferren  told me this story about a science faculty member who was continually frustrated with how badly his students wrote lab reports.  Each week a new crop of poor writing would be handed in, and he would spend way too much time writing his comments in red ink all over them. But the writing failed to improve.

Inspiration struck.

He then tried the following:
a) He told them he really cared about their writing
b) He distributed the criteria he was using in grading (this is sometimes called a 'rubric')
c) He told them that as soon as their writing earned an "A", they would no longer be required to turn in lab reports.

The results were wonderful.

One quarter of the students got "A"s on their first report. Another quarter of his students got an "A" on their second report. Pretty soon he was saving time and only coaching students who genuinely had problems with writing.

PS.  Quite a few students continued to write the reports without handing them in; by writing a genuinely good report, those students has seen how writing a good report could help them learn from the lab work.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Does it Take More Time to Teach Distant Learners? (No, really...)

Does teaching online take more time than teaching on campus?

For many faculty, the answer seems obvious.  But is the obvious answer correct?

I've personally come across only one research study that went beyond personal impressions.  Years ago Christine Geith and Michele Cometa did a pilot study that worked closely with nine faculty who were each experienced in teaching both campus students and also distant students.

In order to compare 'apples with apples,' each faculty member interviewed was experienced in teaching both distant learners and campus learners in comparable courses,

They began by asking each faculty member which type of teaching was more time-consuming (per student): teaching distant learners or learners on campus. Everyone agreed that teaching distant learners was more time-consuming.

But when these nine faculty each thought about it some more, most decided they'd been mistaken.

Each spent about 45 minutes estimating how much time they'd spent in each of the different activities that make up "teaching a course."

  • One third concluded they'd spent more time (per student) teaching distant learners (as they'd expected);
  • One third concluded they'd spent more time teaching campus learners; and
  • One third decided it was about the same.

From this pilot study, it appears that teaching distant learners isn't necessarily more or less time consuming than teaching students on campus. 

How can that be?

Experienced faculty can adjust elements of the course over a period of years. Eventually, 'time invested per student is more a result of time available.  (The same thing is true of university budgets, for example; the cost of teaching a student is determined by how much money over time has been available to teaching them.  I've written more about this surprising result and its implications in Ehrmann (2010).  When trying a completely new mode of teaching, a faculty member may feel compelled to invest an uncomfortable amount of time per student But after a while the workload can be tweaked until it's tolerable.

The big difference in time invested, surprisingly, was from one faculty member to another.  These nine faculty varied enormously in how much time they spent per student.  

In other words, personal preferences and circumstances have a major effect on how faculty invest their time in each student.  The mode of teaching apparently doesn't.  

Ehrmann, S.C. (2010) “Improving Higher Learning by Taking the Long View: Ten Recommendations about Time, Money, Technology and Learning.”  Change Magazine, Taylor & Francis, September/October, pp. 16-22. (This article was reprinted in the January 2011 issue of Planning for Higher Education, published by the Society for College and University Planning, pp. 34-40.)