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Colin Johnson’s blog


Archive for February, 2019

Differentiation in the Lecture Room

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

Students come to university with a wide range of ability and prior knowledge, and take to different subjects with different levels of engagement and competence. This spread isn’t as wide as in other areas of education—after all, students have chosen to attend, been selected in a particular grade boundary, and are doing a subject of their choice—but, there is still a decent amount of variation there.

How do we deal with this variation? In school education, they talk a lot about differentiation—arranging teaching and learning activities so that students of different levels of ability, knowledge, progress, etc. can work on a particular topic. I think that we need to do more of this at university; so much university teaching is either aimed at the typical 2:1 student, or is off-the-scale advanced. How can we make adjustments so that our teaching recognises the diversity of student’s knowledge and experience?

In particular, how can we do this in lectures? If we have a canonical, non-interactive lecture, can we do this? I think we can: here are some ideas:

Asides. I find it useful to give little parenthetical asides as part of the lecture. Little definitions, bits of background knowledge. I do this particularly for the cultural background knowledge in the Computational Creativity module, often introduced with the phrase “as you may know”. For example: “Picasso—who, as you may know, was a painter in the early-mid 20th century who invented cubism which plays with multiple perspectives in the same painting—was…”. This is phrased so that it more-or-less washes over those who don’t need it, but is there as a piece of anchoring information for those that do. Similarly for mathematical definitions: “Let’s represent this as a matrix—which, you will remember from you maths course, is a grid of numbers—…”. Again, the reinforcement/reminder is there, without patronising or distracting the students who have this knowledge by having a “for beginners” slide.

Additional connections. Let’s consider the opposite—those students who are very advanced, and have a good knowledge of the area are broadly. I differentiate for these by making little side-comments that connect to the wider course or other background knowledge. Sometimes introduced with a phrase such as “if you have studied…” or “for those of you that know about…”. For example: “for those of you who have done an option in information retrieval, this might remind you of tf-idf.”. Again, this introduces the connection without putting on a slide and make it seem big and important for those students who are struggling to manage the basics, but gives some additional information and a spark of a connection for the students who are finding the material humdrum. (I am reminded of an anecdote from John Maynard Smith, who talked about a research seminar where the speaker had said “this will remind you of a phase transition in statistical physics”: “I can’t imagine a time in my life when anything will remind me of a phase transition”).

Code examples. A computing-specific one, this. I’ve found that a lot of students click into something once they have seen a code example. These aren’t needed for the high-flying coding ninjas, who can go from a more abstract description to working out how the code is put together. But, for many students, the code example is the point where all the abstract waffle from the previous few minutes clicks into place. The stronger students can compare the code that they have been writing in their heads to mine. I sometimes do the coding live, but I’ve sometimes chickened out and used a screencap video (this also helps me to talk over the coding activity). A particularly clear example of this was where I showed a double-summation in sigma notation to a group, to largely blank looks, followed by the same process on the next slide as a nested loop, where most students seemed to be following clearly.

Any other thoughts for differentiation tricks and tips specifically in the context of giving lectures?

Microtrends (1)

Thursday, February 7th, 2019

Noticeable recent microtrend—people walking around, holding a phone about 40cm from their face, having a video chat on FaceTime/Skype. Been possible for years, but I’ve noticed a real uptick in this over the last few weeks.

On Bus Drivers and Theorising

Thursday, February 7th, 2019

Why are bus drivers frequently almost aggressively literal? I get a bus from campus to my home most days (about a 2 kilometre journey), and there are two routes. Route 1 goes about every five minutes from campus, takes a fairly direct route into town, and stops at a stop about 100 metres from the West Station before turning off and going to the bus station. Route 2 goes about every half hour, takes a convoluted route through campus before passing the infrequently-used West Station stop, then goes on to the bus station.

Most weeks—it has happened twice this week—someone gets on a route 1 stop, asks for a “ticket to the West Station”, and is told “this bus doesn’t go there”. About half the time they then get off, about half the time they manage to weasel out the information that the bus goes near-as-dammit there. I appreciate that the driver’s answer is literally true—there is a “West Station” stop and route 1 buses don’t stop there. But, surely the reasonable answer isn’t a bluff “the bus doesn’t go there” but instead to say “the bus stops about five minutes walk away, is that okay?”. Why are they—in what seems to me to be a kind of flippant, almost aggressive way—not doing that?

I realised a while ago that I have a tendency towards theorising. When I get information, I fit it into some—sometimes mistaken—framework of understanding. I used to think that everyone did this but plenty of people don’t. When I hear “A ticket to the West Station, please” I don’t instantly think “can’t be done” but I think “this person wants to go to the West Station; this bus doesn’t go there, but the alternative is to wait around 15 minutes on average, then take the long route around the campus; but, if they get on this bus, it’ll go now directly to a point about five minutes from where they want to get to, so they should get this one.” It is weird to think that lots of people just don’t theorise in that way much at all. And I thought I was the non-neurotypical one!

Coke, Pepsi, and Universities

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

Why does Coca-Cola still advertise? For most people in most of the world, it is a universal product—everyone knows about it, and more advertising doesn’t give you more information to help you make a purchasing decision. After a while, advertising spend and marketing effort is primarily about maintaining public awareness, keeping the product in the public eye, rather than giving people more information on which to make a decision. There is something of the “Red Queen” effect here; if competitors are spending a certain amount to keep their product at the forefront of public attention, then you are obliged to do so, even though the best thing for all of the companies involved, and for the public, would be to scale it down. (This is explained nicely in an old documentary called Burp! Pepsi vs. Coke: the Ice Cold War.) There’s a certain threshold where advertising/marketing/promotion tips over from informative to merely awareness-raising.

This is true for Universities as much as other organisations. A certain amount of promotional material is useful for prospective students, giving a feel of the place and the courses that are available. But, after a while, a decent amount of both student’s own fee money, and public investment, goes into spend over this threshold; mere spend for the purpose of maintaining awareness. However, in this case, we do have some mechanism to stop it. Perhaps universities should have a cap on the proportion of their turnover that they can spend on marketing activities, enforced by the withdrawal of (say) loan entitlements if they exceed this threshold.