So this is it. AHSE 2199 assignment number 8. Why my blog post starts with such cryptical numbers? Well, this is a special assignment in the way that I get to choose (to some extent) the deliverable for my Teaching & Learning class. But let’s start at the beginning: this semester, I’m taking a class that focuses on undergraduate STEM education as part of my arts, humanities and social studies requirement at Olin. And for this class, I’ll even have to create a teaching portfolio as our final deliverable! Aside from that, we’ve worked on our teaching philosophy statements, exercised a deep-dive into the field of cognition and analyzed several different teaching techniques. And now here we are, looking at student experiences. As you probably figured, these differ from student to student and from class to class.
Now there has been some research conducted on why that is. For example, Linda Nilson portrayed in 1997 in a chapter of her book Teaching at Its Best a number of different frameworks to look at students’ learning styles. (Nilson, 1997) One of these frameworks is Kolb’s “model of the learning cycle and learning styles”, in which he derives a set of styles, called the “accommodator” who relies on concrete experience, the personally and emotionally involved “diverger”, the conceptualization-preferring “converger”, and the “assimilator” who excels at organization and synthesis. (Kolb, 1984) I won’t go into too much more detail explaining each of these, since you can read the paper yourself. However, there shall be one exception: our professor challenged us to identify our preferred learning style – “preferred” since there are so many factors influencing this and it can be quite hard to narrow it down.
So let’s talk about myself for a little bit and put the cards on the table. The description of an assimilator describes that type of learner as somebody who “combine[s] abstract conceptualization and reflective observation into a style that excels at organization and synthesis” as well as the fact that they “specialize in integrating large quantities of data into a concise, logical framework, from [which] they extrapolate theories and generalizations”. (Nilson, 1997) So far, so good. But does that really sound like me? Well, I’ve been doing release engineering since I was 16. Wikipedia describes release engineering as “a sub-discipline in software engineering concerned with the compilation, assembly, and delivery of source code into finished products or other software components”. (Wikipedia, 2011) Wow, that’s a lot of stuff. And to be honest, I do like it. I enjoy being able to pull several complex moving systems together, keep track of their schedule and integrate them all together into a final product. For example, that’s what I was doing as the release engineer of Sugar on a Stick that concluded components from Fedora (the operating system layer), Sugar (the desktop environment) and various Activities (the applications that run on top of the learning environment). And guess what? – Their respective developers weren’t necessarily talking to each other!
But that’s only one part of my case. Prepare yourself for a shocking revelation! For some inexplicable reason, I also enjoy researching highly-complex travel bookings that require me to pull multiple sets of data together and explore various possible options to hit the cheapest price-tag. While that might sound less exciting compared to release engineering to the average reader, it’s something I hadn’t noticed before. In a similar, albeit separate vein, assimilators apparently also appreciate “instructor demonstrations and modeling of problem-solving methods” (Nilson, 1997). This comes to no surprise: I personally find well-prepared lectures in which the instructor provides a walk-through for a certain problem just as exciting as project-based team-work approaches. That being said (and to add a grain of salt here), I wouldn’t describe myself as a full “assimilator”. Nevertheless, It appears to be the style that I can identify with the most, which is why I’ve decided to not modify that choice following the conversation in class. In the next paragraphs, I’ll add a grain of salt, as well as describe my choice of deliverable.
In particular, there are indications that I appreciate problem-solving and particularly cognitive apprenticeship models that enable and support direct interactions with mentors and instructors (who can but don’t necessarily have to be the same person). This last point has been especially shaped by some of the readings from my Teaching & Learning class. In my initial teaching philosophy statement, I wrote: “I work towards enabling my students to bridge the classroom and the real world.” (Dziallas, 2011) I fostered this belief through personal experiences in the world of software development communities, where strong mentors proved to be an invaluable and incredibly supportive resource to me. One of them later wrote that he had originally assumed that I was a teacher: “he was passionately involved in solving a problem that was important to him”. (LinuxQuestions, 2009) This passion is what I believe I need to facilitate for my students. Granted, not everyone is intrinsically motivated, but there are ways of increasing that chance. One of the papers I found tremendously helpful was John Seely Brown’s situated cognition and cognitive apprenticeship (Brown, 1989). Taking “Just Plain Folks” (because that’s what we all are) and turning them into actual practitioners – through apprenticeship models – is something I strongly believe in.
And this brings me to the form of my deliverable: internet access for the masses has enabled the formation of communities that have proven to be incredibly powerful. Clay Shirky argues in his book Cognitive Surplus that we’re now learning how to use our free time in more meaningful ways, by communicating and collaborating in an open environment where the simple click on a button labeled “publish” can be enough to make a contribution. (Shirky, 2010) This goes hand in hand with Etienne Wenger’s framework of communities of practice that are all around us, in which people share a certain passion or concern and interact on the basis of this belief. (Wenger, 1996) One of the things that enable these communities is the ability to communicate freely, both in public and private channels. And as previously mentioned, this is something that I experienced myself and that shaped my way of learning thoroughly, through my time in the different open source communities. And that’s why I’m writing this assignment as a blog post, opening it for the community out there, to take it and comment away!
But before I diverge too much, let’s talk about my own classroom experience in college, here at Olin. It’s funny; one of the classes I enjoyed the most is Modeling & Simulation in my first semester. The class revolves around mathematical and physical problems, but introduces the student how to abstract unnecessary information away and create a model for a given phenomenon, which can then be converted into an actual simulation using, for example, MATLAB. Do you notice something? It includes conceptualizing complex real-world systems, analyzing them and using the logical framework of computer science to create a deliverable in form of graphs or even papers supporting a certain claim. If you go back a couple of paragraphs, you’ll notice that most of these aspects meet the assimilator’s learning style. On the other hand, another one of my classes, Design Nature, left me desiring change after the first few weeks. I had a particularly hard time in this class, since there wasn’t a lot of scaffolding being provided through my instructor and it dealt with topics I either hadn’t seen before or knew I wasn’t great at, inducing a sort of anxiety. This was a very open-ended class, walking students through a full design-process – first individually, then in teams. Later on (especially after the first half of the semester), I learned to appreciate the class though and I do believe that I learned a lot of lessons, both on the design and teamwork side of things.
Elaine Seymour authored an article called “the learning experience in SME majors” in 1997 that provides interesting insights in the perspective college students are taking on their curriculum. For example, a student writes: “In my first engineering class, we were required to do 18 programs and three different languages over the semester. We were given algorithms to use for each program and just one week to complete each of them. […] We were just expected to know so much that, if someone wasn’t willing to explain it to you, then you couldn’t do the programs.” (Seymour, 1997) This perspective seems to be much more than a single voice – rather, it represents a pattern of students calling out on so-called weed-out classes that don’t necessarily relate to just about anything. Introducing three different programming languages can very well be useful, for example in a course on programming languages that details the differences between each of them. But why would it be, in an entry-level engineering course? Luckily, I didn’t have any comparable experiences, but I feel it’s very much worth highlighting that a lot of students do. Unnecessarily so.
Another paper by Carroll Seron provides an overview of different student voices at Olin and Smith College, as well as MIT. An Olin student wrote: “The fact that the faculty respects and trusts us is also a big plus. […] We can work better in groups and learn team work skills this way, which helps when team projects are assigned.” (Seron, 2008) This position is obviously contrary to the previous point made. It’s something that I appreciate and value as part of the Olin experience, even back when I described it for the first time. (Dziallas, 2009) Being able to interact with faculty and students alike on a level that supports every single member of the community is a strong part in fostering collaboration. When asked to comment on a blog post for the admissions blog at Olin, I wrote: “Yes, go and meet people. They are amazing (it’s generally a safe assumption that most people at Olin are amazing [for one reason or another]).” (Rowley, 2011) I stand by this statement; however, I realize that it’s not always possible at all schools to create an atmosphere similar to the very unique one we have at Olin. But especially in those cases where it’s not possible at a school-level, I feel that it’s part of the instructors task to provide a framework that students can leverage to create a safe learning environment for each other. Again, this isn’t always easy – particularly when even single courses have the size of Olin’s entire student population (we’re looking at a number around 350 here). But it’s at least worth considering, since every single step can go a long way in making one more student comfortable in the classroom.
This way of improving the academic experience for students is unique, but it’s not related to different learning styles. This doesn’t mean that they don’t need to be considered – rather the opposite: faculty need to carefully consider their choices of pedagogical techniques and if possible provide alternative frameworks (for example, explicitly pointing out textbooks related to the course, even if purchasing them isn’t a requirement). In a similar vein, I believe that interacting with students as often as possible can prevent disappointing experiences. Even if an instructor doesn’t meet all learning styles at the same time (which they rarely, if ever, will), showing students that their feedback, opinions and thoughts are valued and considered and that they are taken seriously can help create a satisfying learning experience for all involved parties. And that’s probably the one advice I’d give.
- Nilson, Linda. “Teaching to Different Styles.” In Teaching at Its Best, Bolton: Anker Publishing Company, 1997, 79-86.
- Kolb, A. and Kolb, D. “Learning Styles and Learning Spaces.” In Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2005, Vol. 4, No. 2, 193- 212.
- Brown, A. S., Collins, A., and Duguid, P. “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning.” In Educational Researcher, 1989, 18, No. 1, 32-41.
- Shirky, Clay. “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age” New York: Penguin Press, 2010.
- Wenger, E. et al. “Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
- Seymour, E. and Hewitt, N. “The Learning Experience in S.M.E. Majors.” In Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences, Boulder: Westview Press, 1997, 88-177.
- Seron, C. and Silbey, S. “A Day in the Life: Inventing Engineers.” Seron and Silbey, American Sociological Association, 2005.