Friday, July 25, 2014

What Can Metacogntive Tutoring Research Teach Textbook Publishers?

Leonard Geddes, Associate Dean of Co-Curricular Programs and Director of the Lohr Learning Commons at Lenoir-Rhyne University, began a began a series of LearnWell Project posts 7/23/2014 with a first titled, "A Metacognitive Peer Tutoring Model: Linking Thinking, Learning and Performance in a Peer Tutoring Program."

With a research grant, Geddes asked tutors who he had trained in metacognitive tutoring to record the issues they believed were causing students to struggle in their learning. 40 tutors working with about 80 students in tutorials that lasted an hour logged 522 reports, using this template to record the learning problem:


Please identify the problem(s) which led the student to seek tutoring. (You can choose more than one option.)

Doesn't grist the material in class
Experiencing difficulty seeing the relationship between what is covered in class and what is reflected on tests
Doesn't know to use the textbook or doesn't use the textbook
Doesn't know how to take notes
Attempts to memorize material only
Student is overwhelmed by the volume of information they are required to learn
Doesn't grasp what the professor is talking about in class.

Which lead to these results overall:

Results of Lenoir-Rhyne Tutors Observations of Student Learning Problems
Results from Leonard Geddes research on learning problems his tutors recorded encountering. Click on image to see more fully.

Now, there's a lot I don't know about this research --how tutors determine which problem is at play, for example. So I hope later posts by Geddes get at what the distinction is from "Doesn't grasp the material in the class" to "Doesn't grasp what the professor is talking about during class."  The first post reports that the categories were chosen from years of tutoring reports and documents, but hearing a bit more about the process for deriving the categories, especially where there seems some overlap -- is poor note-taking a cause of not grasping material? or does not being able to grasp make it hard to take good notes?

Note added 8/1/2014: Geddes second post is in fact getting at some of the questions above. I especially appreciate the views into actual tutoring sessions.

Geddes defines what metacognitive tutoring, writing:
Whereas traditional tutoring focuses on a particularly challenging subject area, and supplemental instruction addresses specific challenging courses, metacognitive tutoring focuses on students’ interaction with content, in general, across domains and academic tasks. We like to call it listening with a “third ear.” Metacognitive tutors address the immediate cognitive problems their students are experiencing while also remaining open to underlying metacognitive conditions that may be contributing to students’ academic problems.

I hope too that there's insight into a tutoring session, perhaps with some record of the discussion to illustrate more fully what metacognitive tutoring is in practice.

But all those and other questions aside, I'm engaged by the results above and like the idea of attempting to map learning problems, to excavate them and address them with students. So tutoring isn't about studying content alone, but studying with each student their own learning process and skills.

My role with Macmillan Higher Education Publishing involves the study of teaching and learning, and I wonder, looking at this, why textbooks score relative low as an issue, yet grasping material in the class is higher. Isn't a textbook a means of delivering course material? If tutors report that students know how to use a textbook, but that they still aren't grasping course materials, is there something textbooks can do more effectively?

When I started at Macmillan, it was with a company called Bedford/St. Martin's*, whose co-founder, Chuck Christensen, said to me in my job interview, that we were not in the textbook business, but rather the pedagogical tools business. And so as textbooks evolve with digital technologies to become more obviously pedagogical tools, where learning analytics, engagement analytics, adaptive learning, personalized learning, and other possibilities emerge, will there be a way to make our course materials such that students can grasp them more fully?

Is it possible to learn from the kind of metacognitive research Geddes and others are doing to build into pedagogical tools metacognitive aides for students?

I think so. Formative assessment that measures not just learning, but also that correlates learning with engagement, with prompts and questions to help students see if they're studying wisely, using their time well, taking good notes, and so on. Creating tools that invite written reflection -- that prompt note-taking while reading, that prompt active study planning (not just delivering links to recommending content after an assessment), that offer a learning journal, or the ability to form study teams. That is, I think it would be a mistake to simply make things that push and pull students, that force them to a path. Instead, we can make things that give students a formative look at where they are, where they need to go to meet course goals, and then choices to follow, suggestions, that students have to choose among.

Without that action -- student agency and choice -- metacognition means so much less.

And, given how important coaching can be in learning, making it so that students can let tutors see into the system, so that tutors can advise them on choices.

* In December, Macmillan reorganized its educational companies. Bedford/St. Martin's went from being an independent business, with its own president, marketing department, production, promotions, and other publishing infrastructure to an imprint under Macmillan Higher Education.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Goodnight Dull Assignments and Hello Goodnight Moon

Would I assign Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon in a college writing course?
I think I would, were I teaching at the moment, after reading "What Writers Can Learn From 'Goodnight Moon'" by Aimee Bender in the New York Times (
Bender describes getting several copies of the book birthing twins and settling in to read it for the first time. She then says,
The babies listened in their sleepy baby way, and as the pages turned, I felt a growing excitement — a literary excitement. Not what I expected from this moment. But I was struck and stunned, as I have been before, by a classic sneaking up on me and, in an instant, earning yet again another fan.
It also seemed to me to be an immediately useful writing tool.

“Goodnight Moon” does two things right away: It sets up a world and then it subverts its own rules even as it follows them. It works like a sonata of sorts, but, like a good version of the form, it does not follow a wholly predictable structure. Many children’s books do, particularly for this age, as kids love repetition and the books supply it. They often end as we expect, with a circling back to the start, and a fun twist. This is satisfying but it can be forgettable. Kids — people — also love depth and surprise, and “Goodnight Moon” offers both. Here’s what I think it does that is so radical and illuminating for writers of all kinds, poets and fiction writers and more.
Her piece goes to a reading of Goodnight Moon that explores and celebrates her observation.

I'm attracted to this kind of thing in a writing course because Bender's essay is assignable, and for many students who've read or have had the book read to them, their be the warmth of recollection, and for those who haven't read the book, it's readable.

I can see using the Bender essay and Wise Brown book to discuss form, to invite even the most novice and unsure writers to experiment with voice, to play with style, to think about the idea of simply finding a way to surprise their readers a bit.

Also, the idea makes sense as more and more states require their public colleges and community colleges to eliminate or reduce reliance on developmental reading, writing, and math courses. For example, in Florida, students who graduate high school can go right into a first year writing course even if a writing placement test they take indicates they would be better in a developmental writing course. A few years ago, in fact, they would have had no choice but to take that developmental course first, possible two or even three developmental courses. That's ended and so many professors are seeing in their first year courses writers with more varied ability, some stronger, some weaker. Or in other places, their are accelerated learning programs (see, progressive approaches to helping developmental writers stay on track and do well in a first year writing course along side students who did not require a developmental course.

To make more varied ability writing courses work, college writing teachers need to learn about differentiated teaching practices of the kind that elementary educators are trained to apply. A lot of college writing teachers already get to differentiated practices, but many will struggle to become comfortable with the approach.

Assigning first Goodnight Moon, discussing it, and then assigning Bender's essay carries with it a native differentiated element. It starts with a simply elegant book to read, a picture book, but one that is being read by writers, following Bender, to learn about writing. So while the book is a children's book, it's also a classic, great literature, and it teaches. The reading can kick off a range of possible discussions -- remembering other books read, or for those who did not grow up as readers or being read to, other stories heard or watched as children.  This would borrow from literacy narrative assignments.

The turn to Bender's essay would, for some weaker readers, be less troubling because they'll have read and discussed a bit the book Bender's writing about. That is, it's a different experience reading a review or analysis of a work of art one's already seen and thought about.  So placing Bender's essay in a digital setting where writers can share notes and comments as collaborating readers, including inviting them to read the comments that will have been archived at the New York Times site, makes reading communal.

And then because of Bender's points about how writing can surprise, float above its forms, subvert its own rules, the first year course can invite writers of all abilities to play with the rules and conventions of standard edited English. Even the seemingly most inept writer, the student who cannot get a subject or verb to agree, a tense to hold, a paragraph to cohere, can play with words and learn to find some joy in the experiments that come with trying to give their readers both "depth and surprise."