The Scholarship of Teaching & Learning

When I first heard the expression SoTL, I hadn’t thought that much about the meta-analysis of teaching. Back in those days “and learning” didn’t always follow “teaching”. That’s meant that both figuratively and literally, of course, both then and now. It’s always a challenge to know how well students are learning from the teaching they receive. Trying to understand the process and improve upon the outcomes is a worthy scholarly activity. The thoughts represented here are far-ranging, but represent my “think aloud” phase of engagement with SoTL. Please see the Portfolio link for examples of some of my projects with medical learners: Mary Johnson’s Pathbrite Portfolio


The “New” Teaching Paradigm – Personalized Learning

There is much angst out there among educators about technology “taking over” the process of teaching, moving traditional teachers out of the way and replacing them with “something new”. Deja vu. Advances in technology have engendered apprehension since time out of mind!

  • Plato tells us in Phaedrus that Socrates was upset over the increasing availability of books. He was concerned that reading and writing would compromise a student’s learning by decreasing their dependance upon their own memory as a learning tool!
  • Another pivotal moment in education came when textbooks were first published in the late 19th century.  That technology threatened some teachers because books contained the information that they had mastered and had prepared to convey to their charges.  If students could learn in a “self-teaching” format from textbooks, it would decrease the need for instructors and displace their role in the classroom!

Although these objections sound astonishing and shortsighted now, current concerns about adaptive learning technology for personalized education may seem just as absurd in the future.  Good educators have always personalized learning for their students, trying out different strategies to teach their students when the standard format wasn’t working for them. Advances in education technology, including adaptive learning methodologies, can help teachers provide personalized instruction.  There is widespread acknowledgment that computer-enhanced learning is very effective for some types of learning, increasing student engagement and providing the “time-on-task” that equates with deliberate practice.  Adaptive learning technology promises a more efficient and effective way to improve learning outcomes for individual students. 

Much has been written about the role of the teacher as “a guide on the side”.  That role will never be diminished as students use adaptive learning programs, circle back to check in with the mentor, making sure that they stay on track with their efforts.  Students could collect their badges of accomplishment from this beloved guide, turning around to dive in again, with their approving teacher gazing in appreciation at the tool that has helped keep them on task.

Learning Analytics

Knewton is a new company that created an Adaptive Learning program for K12 mathematics learning. Christina Yu at Newton Blog recently had this to say about Learning Analytics: “New technology is transforming the art of teaching. It is reducing administrative burden and enabling teachers to orchestrate activities more effectively and coach individual students with a precise attention to their needs. In particular, adaptive learning–a teaching method premised on the idea that a curriculum should adapt to each individual–can harness the power of data mining to give teachers new freedom in the classroom and deeper insight into their students.” Ms. Yu’s perspective concerns learners much younger than the 22-40 age group involved in the mainstream of engaging medical education venues. But her ideas apply to the way we do business at this level of higher education as well.  I am taking great liberties to repurpose Ms. Yu’s ideas in communicating the need for medical education to transform the way it does business.

1) Reduce Administrative Burden

As many educators realize, the work of running a course can make the goal of reaching all learners at their own level seem completely disconnected from reality. If educators had a functional way to organize information regarding grades, absences, and individual performance effectively online, a transformation in teaching and learning might be possible. Consider how a sophisticated reporting dashboard that gives the course coordinator insight into each learner’s process would transform the field of education – metrics for learner engagement, effort, retention of information, etc. Imagine, the flexibility of scope that such a dashboard could provide!  Educators could grasp patterns in a learner’s activity and performance across a whole class. They would be able to drill down into individual learner profiles to determine exactly why students are struggling. Instead of spending so much time scoring and organizing material, educators could use their efforts to analyze data, determine actionable steps for learners to take, and could fine-tune their lectures and the connections across the curriculum to optimize learning. The end result would be more time spent on teaching and learning, along with greater potential for student success!

2) Address the Diverse Needs of Students

One of the biggest challenges facing medical education today is the need to balance diversity in the student body with optimized student learning outcomes. More diversity means differences in the patterns of student learning to consider. Some learners struggle because English is not their first language; others have difficulty with focus or organization. Others may be weak in biomedical sciences but possess unusual strengths in compassion, communication, and cultural competence (which the existing curriculum may not take into account).

Managing learner diversity is a consummate juggling act. To remain attentive to the needs of all medical learners, our educators must engage those with more a advanced understanding of biomedical sciences, while helping the struggling ones catch up. Educators must decide whether to move through the material aggressively and add more challenges and twists to the problems presented, or build in more tutorial assistance for those who are struggling to keep up.  Any one of these strategies, including “teaching to the middle,” is bound to leave some learners bored and others confused.

Blended learning solutions offer a sophisticated analytics dashboard that gives both learners and educators more freedom. Learners can move through coursework at their own pace and educators are better able to gauge the learning process. A teacher might discover through analytics that a student who is weak in multiple choice testing is struggling because he has difficulty with reading comprehension; the educator can then direct the learner to tutorial practice in reading, interpreting, and appropriate selection of answers.  Another student who struggles to understand biochemical pathways but breezes through content on transcription, translation, and genetic control can receive feedback about how to develop stronger performance in a focused area without having to remediate an entire course.

3) Improve Engagement Levels

Academic success hinges on engagement. The competing attractions of the outside world, everything from Twitter and Facebook, video games and TV, or just time spent with family and friends, low engagement is a serious problem.

How can analytics help solve this problem? Just as marketers use A/B testing to determine the most effective content strategies, so educators can use data analytics to perfect their curriculum. A reporting dashboard that measures the efficacy of content in a computerized system can help educators determine the strongest and weakest aspects of their course materials. This ensures that content can be analyzed for fine-tuned improvements from year to year.

4) Increase Flexibility

Analytics will allow educators to allocate their time more efficiently; this in turn will enable them to focus on the aspects of teaching and learning that most appeal to them. Those who are gifted “orchestrators” can experiment with ways of encouraging interaction and collaboration among students; and then use social media and other tools to publicize the results to other educators. Those who have developed exceptional content over the years can work on fine-tuned improvements of their material and making learning packages available online. Educators who have engaging presentation skills might be best assigned to recording lectures and making them available to large groups of learners via podcast. Those who work well facilitating a community of learners with collaborative work in small groups can have their skill tapped in the best environment possible.  And, educators who have fabulous coaching skills can interact with individual learners to help them achieve their best work.