"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Guided Instruction

My son took swimming lessons last summer. There were seven sessions, each one was 45 minutes long and was held every Saturday morning. The instructor was a young Eastern European who used to swim in the Olympics. It was one-on-one and  the instruction, of course, depended on what my son was doing. The instructor could see exactly what needed to be corrected. Providing exactly what needed coaching helped my son. My son learned and he could now safely enter and exit a pool that is deeper than his height.

Knowing where a student is and teaching from there is guided instruction. Experience allows a teacher to become familiar with common mistakes and difficulties. Like a good physician, an effective teacher is one who can correctly diagnose what students actually need. Of course, one on one teaching in academics is truly a luxury that only a few can afford. This will essentially require every adult, every parent in society to serve as a teacher. And similar to the fact that not everyone could be a good physician, not everyone is made to be a teacher. Thus, society needs to face the reality of classrooms where there is only one teacher among a number of students. Taking this into account makes one realize the significance of the pupil to teacher ratio inside the classroom. Take, for example, a writing class. A teacher can only teach students how to write by having the students write in his or her presence. A teacher needs to see how each student writes. The effectiveness of instruction depends heavily on how the teacher tailors his or her instruction based on where the students are. The same goes for math, the same goes for science.

The need for students to practice and for the teacher to actually see these exercises applies not only to swimming, but also to academics. This is one reason why online or recorded lectures hardly work. These online lectures usually look good only to those who already understand the material. It lacks guided instruction. Indeed, there are students that are gifted with a great sense of self-awareness and assessment, but for most, that mirror that allows one to see one's mistakes simply does not exist.

There are more than a hundred students in the General Chemistry class that I am currently teaching. It is not feasible for me to see each student's work and I barely have three 50-minute lectures to cover one chapter from the textbook. Asking questions to probe what students need can take a significant amount of time. Of course, past years of teaching have taught me significantly where students usually struggle or stumble. I have therefore tailored my approach to help address those in advance. There is, however, a limit to anticipation.

Homework is crucial for seeing where students currently are. My class currently uses an online platform provided by Sapling Learning:

https://www.saplinglearning.com/
Problem exercises are provided for each chapter that I cover in class. Students answer these problems outside classroom. As the instructor, I am able to monitor how the students are doing. For example, the graph below shows me that my students are having problems with problem number 15:


Seeing this forces me to look at what question 15 is about. Here is question 15:

I choose ahead of time the questions asked in the online homework. Although some questions are similar, each one does test a particular concept or skill within the chapter. In this case, the question is an example of a polyprotic acid. Seeing that my students are finding this particular problem challenging allows me to address this particular problem in class. Having the homework on a digital platform provides me a quick way of surveying my class. The following is a small section of a graphic illustration of how each student is performing (each row is a student):


The above is taken after most of the chapter have already been covered. To me, seeing mostly green is good. Below is how it looks when lectures on the chapter are still in progress:


This is one of the ways technology helps my classroom. It does cost each student about $30. It requires each student to have access to internet that is relatively fast. When I was teaching at the Ateneo, this technology was not yet available, and presently, I would guess that Philippine schools in general could not afford this system. I used something then in Ateneo that was relatively "low-tech". I gave a ten-minute quiz at the beginning of each lecture. That was how I took the pulse of my class then.





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