Monday, July 9, 2012

Student perspectives on the internet as a resource

I teach an online AP Physics B course during most of the year.  It's a challenging course, both because of the (overly) broad content of that course, as decided by the College Board, and because students generally need to be independent learners.

There are readings from Walker's intro text and some (usually decent) video lectures (for most topics), provided by the Thinkwell folks.  I supplement that with some links to relevant Hippocampus tutorials.

As much as I'm into reform pedagogy, this is basically the opposite - direct instruction with (optional) questioning of me via email.  We do have some live discussions which are group conceptual problem-solving.  I've also designed the labs to be better than the typical cookbook, but they're not modeling, in terms of discovering paradigms, by any means.  They're all applications of material that they've read about/watched.  It's not what I'd like to teach or take as a physics course, but it's similar to (honestly) all of the courses that I've ever taken, and the same is true for the students.  It's not that this is worse than a 'normal' physics course, it's just that it's lacking in all of the advantages of what I've been doing in my live classroom for so long now that it seems antiquated by comparison.  The medium (exclusively online and asynchronous) really hems you in.  In combination with the AP B syllabus, there's no other choice.

This course is, though, exclusively targeted at very high-achieving students.  It's tied to a larger recognized program that they must gain admission to first.  At the end of the day, I get a lot of very bright (some very young) students, and they're the folks that lecture always worked best for, so it goes relatively well.

Some students were chatting in the online message board today.  One was asking the others for ideas about extra resources, because he/she was finding the end-of-chapter problems fairly difficult.  There were some offers of resources, I reminded them that they can ask questions (some just don't, regardless of what you say, as usual), and a student posted something about typing the questions into Yahoo! Answers.

I responded with a warning:

"This is also skirting illegal assistance. While talking to each other we can expect that we all know that general talk about the principles involved is OK and giving a solution is not OK, no such agreement exists on Yahoo Answers, etc.

Posting the text of questions - homework and especially test - to such a forum is _not_ allowed because of the types of answers that you're likely to get back (complete solutions)."

The "finding the answer" bit won out over understanding the material here; while I can (try to) prohibit it, I'm frustrated that I don't have a great mode in this online course to do better education about mindset.  I send a lot of stuff out (I do include some tips on mindset and taking an online course effectively), but there's also a great deal of logistics to deal with, but I'm lucky if half of them read any given thing that I send out (a story as old as teaching). 

Another student (I think before my post had been sent out), though, replied beautifully:

"For this reason, xxxx, I found it helpful to use online resources much more generally. Although I do think the homework problems are much more difficult and involved, I've usually been able to work through most of the problems on my own with just the notes and the book and do pretty well on the assignments generally - it just takes AWHILE. But sometimes I'll work through a problem three times and still not understand what I'm doing wrong. In that case, I'm usually overlooking a concept, so visiting online resources like hippocampus or looking for educational tutorials to a problem of the same general type (the way our video lectures explain sample problems) on youtube or physics websites I stumble across on the internet will help clarify the principles for me. That way, it helps point me in the right direction without explicitly giving me a solution - I'm still applying the principles and working out the homework problem on my own. Good luck!"

This student appreciated the value of the struggle and was not interested in finding _the answer_ as an end unto itself. It's the kind of student response that you put in a drawer to look at when you're having a bad day.

The idea about differentiating between the point at which productive struggle becomes unproductive struggle was also a good one, and I think this is something that we all could do a better job educating students about when we're looking at mindset (I've shared my evolving set of mindset talks/lessons/activities here).

Late update:

After I agreed with him/her vehemently, student posted this:

"Absolutely! I feel I absorb an enormous amount from the homework. It's difficult a good way if that makes sense, and the "struggling" usually leads me to the highest level of understanding. Thanks smile"

1 comment:

  1. FWIW, I think the types of students who get into this type of course really need the mindset guidance to get past the Right Answer trap. They WILL eventually run into problems they can't solve on the first try and can't find solutions for on the internet. Early growth mindset training can make a huge difference in how they cope when that happens.