CAN YOU HEAR ME, DEAR STUDENTS?!

I’m just over halfway through teaching an intensive introduction to research methods in cognitive science right now. We’re discussing experiment logic, research ethics, and a variety of methods researchers can use to learn about cognition and behavior. The students are practicing scientific thinking, both in our class discussions and in their writing assignments. You can check out some of the fantastic work they’re doing on our class blog.

This is my first time as instructor of record, and the class meets for a 7 hours each week, so I knew from the start that there would be many challenges. One difficulty I hadn’t anticipated is how difficult it is to really gauge what the students are learning. Like really learning, not just memorizing or considering at a surface level. I’m trying a bunch of strategies that would seem to help with this challenge. Like:

  • Asking “What questions do you have?” instead of “Do you have questions?” a subtle difference that suggests I expect them to have questions and invite them to ask.
  • Building in lots of metacognitive or “formative assessment” opportunities — activities like homework reflections and in-class conceptual questions that are attempted individually and in small groups. These are intended to provide us all the chance to catch misconceptions or topics the students are unclear on.
  • An interim survey, asking students whether the pace of the class is too fast, too slow, or just right, and to describe elements of the class that are working for them and others that could be changed to improve their learning.

These strategies are all helping to some extent. Students are asking questions during class, we’re clarifying lecture topics in our group discussions, and the survey feedback indicated that for the most part, class speed, format, and expectations are all going fine.

Yet each time I leave class, I can’t with much confidence answer: Are the students really getting it? After the first few classes, this lingering question frustrated me. Of course one way to assess learning is through tests. We will have an exam, where I can get a sense of how well the students can repeat the content of my lectures back, and even how well they can apply the concepts I taught to new contexts, but of course tests can’t perfectly reflect what individual students have learned. Plus, the exam will take place after the last class, when there’s no time to remedy conceptual gaps or misconceptions. The exam is not the answer to this challenge. How can I gauge true learning in the meantime?

Since the first few classes, I’ve started to make peace with the fact that I might always leave class feeling less than 100% confident that the students really grasped whatever I was trying to convey. I’ve accepted the fact that gauging learning is really hard, especially in a class like this, where the primary goal is to lay a conceptual foundation that can be applied to research or scientific literacy later on. It’s hard, but I’ve learned and implemented the strategies I mentioned above because they chip away at the challenge. Realistically, I’m not going to be able to always know precisely what’s clear and what’s not (the students themselves can’t even always be expected to know if they’re clear on something). I’ll just have to keep trying to get as close as I can.

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