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Published March 30, 2014 | Chemistry

Wikis, Clickers and Online Quizzes - Safe Places to Fail

How do you learn if you don’t do something wrong? If you’re a research scientist, 95% of the things you do are wrong. Real progress comes from learning from your mistakes. Unfortunately, students are conditioned from early on in their academic careers to be terrified of making mistakes. In my classes, I look for ways to allow students to make mistakes safely, and to learn from them.

Consolidating Information

My students do group work that’s lightly evaluated. Their online quizzes aren’t worth a lot, and they get lots of tries. Safe places to fail allow them to become comfortable with failing. Of course, I do give individual work because I need to evaluate students on how much they know on their own as well.

Consolidating Success

After class comes consolidation, which is the latest addition to my thinking on errors. Exposed to content, which we’ve gone over in different ways, students can have traditional assignments. Sometimes, I’ll ask them to write. We don’t think of sciences as writing disciplines, but anybody who practices science knows that sciences require writing.  Graduate students write theses which are hundreds of pages long; researchers write articles and grant proposals. Writing about something reinforces and clarifies our understanding of it. Even if the writing assignments are brief or unstructured, and you only grade them for handing it in in and skim through it – that’s fine.

The most recent thing that I’ve been investigating is contribution. I’ve been very skeptical of using Web 2.0 tools for science education. I thought blogs and their ilk didn’t really have a place, but what I’ve done recently is create a classroom wiki. And it’s not just an open-ended thing. I’ve used it instead of course notes, and in one class, instead of a textbook.

Each page has a discussion section at the bottom. I can include discussion boxes at anywhere on a page. During the semester, I can also unlock content. This is a private wiki; students have to register, but I hold the privilege of revising pages at the outset.  Once content is unlocked, students must contribute something to the wiki.  They are graded for their contribution, but the value is minimal.  The bar is set low so that they can get full marks by contributing in different ways.

Some students are naturally contributors, spontaneously asking questions in a discussion forum. Some students naturally come see me in my office. By requiring everyone to contribute, but asking very little, such as a question in a forum, answering a question, finding a spelling mistake, finding a link, a picture or a video, I’ve had discussions develop. I’ve also received new content and gotten clarifications and suggestions that I didn’t realize I needed to include. Content I thought they’d be familiar with, they wanted reinforced. I’ve also received requests for explanations or complaints about how I wrote a sentence. It’s too wordy, too ‘teachery’ for them.

A Presentation about Michael's Pedagogyp.

In the classroom, learning from your mistakes can be expressed through peer instruction. I use clickers, but alternatives include small whiteboards. The process starts with a question put up on the board or screen, which is generally multiple choice and conceptual rather than calculation-based. Students then vote on the answer, without discussion. After voting, you can show the answer distribution or not, but not the correct answer because the key step is what happens next, the peer discussion. You start by saying “All right, convince your neighbour that you were right.” After they’ve talked, they vote again, and you hope that the number of students who got the correct answer increases. If it doesn’t, you evaluate both question content and its place in the course. Having students explain the subject to one another using more comfortable language provides a non-threatening setting.

Consolidating Resources

So why am I going to use a wiki? It promotes discussion online. Online discussions often are safe for students. They’re less embarrassing and also generate pride of ownership. “Oh, I’ve contributed something!” It’s my goal with this specific course to use the same notes when I teach it again and to ask students to keep refining it. Hopefully, the completeness of these course notes will grow. When using a traditional textbook, if you find things you hate about it, there’s nothing you can do; you’re stuck. I’m hoping to have something that grows and gets richer over time to help students with clarification.

I can also include a wide range of content types, not just text and images, but interactive simulations and videos. Videos in particular are extremely popular, since they can be watched repeatedly until students feel comfortable with the material. They would never feel comfortable asking a teacher to explain a subject ten times in a row, but don’t need to feel bad about watching the same video ten times over.

The wiki that I use is a site called Wikispaces. Free for educators, it’s maybe the most user-friendly. Knowledge of wiki syntax is not required. Familiarity with how the web works in terms of linking and images, and familiarity with word processing are all you need. One of the key features for me is the ability to have a private site. It’s only for my students.

Consolidating Wisdom

This technology provides opportunities to engage students both inside and outside of class time. Although all of the work that I have done is daunting, it wasn’t incorporated all at once. I have continued to evolve because I have seen that the true wisdom for the teacher is knowing what your students don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to get at, discovering what my students don’t know and how I can get them to learn.

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