Icon for: Joe Le Doux

JOE LE DOUX

Transforming Text to Diagram: Investigating and Helping Students Develop Key Cognitive Strategies for Solving Engineering Problems
Georgia Institute of Technology
Public Discussion
  • Icon for: Kevin Brown

    Kevin Brown

    Facilitator
    May 11, 2015 | 12:38 p.m.

    Wow, it seems so simple and yet so powerful! Would it be fair to say that having a skilled teacher/facilitator is key to making it work? If so, how would you suggest “scaling” the collaborative learning environment to other classes, e.g. would professional development be required, and to other subject matters, e.g. would it work as well in subjects that don’t have such explicit/concrete problems to solve?

  • Icon for: Joe Le Doux

    Joe Le Doux

    Presenter
    May 11, 2015 | 01:24 p.m.

    Having good “in-class mentors” is definitely important. I have found that if I have two undergraduate “near peers” in the classroom with me for every 50 students, the environment works very well. I recruit in-class mentors from my top undergraduate students who took the course from me in the previous semesters and who still want to be part of this community of learners.

    So, I believe it is very scalable if you can hire undergraduate in-class mentors. Doing this is no more costly than if I taught the course in the traditional lecture-based mode, since in that setting it is common practice, for core engineering courses, to have one graduate student TA and one undergraduate grader for every 50-student section. I, instead, just use two undergraduates, and do not need a graduate TA. Of course, these kinds of decisions will vary from class to class and instructor to instructor.

    The power of this environment is that the students learn by doing, in public, in cooperation with their peers, in a highly supported environment. Because the work is done in public, the instructor can make real-time changes to the difficulty of the problem to make sure each student and student team is being challenged at the appropriate level. I call this “dynamic scaffolding”. In this way the students are getting a lot of feedback and are being challenged at just the right level to remain fully engaged – certainly not bored but also not frustrated or overwhelmed.

    Another powerful feature of this environment is the feedback that the instructor gets. The instructor, because everyone is working on publicly shared blotter pads, becomes quickly aware of where everyone’s understanding is in the class, and the instructor sees the things that the students are confused about or struggling with – which are often complete surprises, even when the instructor has years of experience teaching the course! So, the course is exciting, fun, and engaging for the instructor as well.

  • Icon for: Louise Allen

    Louise Allen

    Visiting Assistant Professor
    May 13, 2015 | 12:46 p.m.

    Is there a mechanism for faculty professional development? I think the large blotter pads were a wonderful idea so that students can not so easily retreat back from the group, and for the instructor to collect and gauge where the students are in their learning.

  • Icon for: Joe Le Doux

    Joe Le Doux

    Presenter
    May 13, 2015 | 12:56 p.m.

    Right now, we don’t have a mechanism.

    Next semester, I will co-teach the course with a professor who is new to the approach – that is probably the best way to do it, but it is “expensive” since you have two instructors co-teaching.

    Otherwise, we have had a few workshops on campus and at conferences, but of course these only give you a flavor for how to do it.

  • Icon for: Gerald Kulm

    Gerald Kulm

    Senior Professor
    May 11, 2015 | 03:14 p.m.

    How do you see this as different from the typical idea of cooperative learning groups, which has been around for a long time? How do you avoid the usual criticisms of that, which include students who let one person do most of the work, forming pairs/groups with different abilities, and in the K-12 environment, teacher management of a large class? I have used the group approach for many years in undergrad math problem solving courses with similar reactions to yours. Thanks for sharing your success.

  • Icon for: Joe Le Doux

    Joe Le Doux

    Presenter
    May 11, 2015 | 06:00 p.m.

    After I wrote my first reply to your comment, I realized I wasn’t sure exactly what “cooperative learning” entailed. I have since found that, at least as described by Kenneth Bruffee (Change, 27(1): 12-18), 1995), that PSS is collaborative learning, not cooperative learning. Collaborative learning has several features that are different than cooperative learning: 1) there are no defined roles in collaborative groups, other than recording their work; 2) teachers do not intervene in collaborative groups, except under very defined conditions; 3) the group process is not evaluated, and 4) collaborative learning assumes there is no one correct answer and encourages dissent and debate among the team and between students and the teacher.

    So, using Bruffee’s definition, the PSS involves collaborative learning, not cooperative learning.

    Thanks for your comment – now I’m motivated to do a deep dive into the collaborative learning literature.

  • Icon for: Gerald Kulm

    Gerald Kulm

    Senior Professor
    May 11, 2015 | 06:19 p.m.

    I agree, collaborative learning is closer to yours, and my idea of this approach. We often carelessly use cooperative learning as as catch- all term. Thanks for checking and clarifying this.

  • Icon for: Joe Le Doux

    Joe Le Doux

    Presenter
    May 11, 2015 | 04:09 p.m.

    I believe the problem-solving studio is more akin to the architectural studio than to cooperative learning groups. Students work is public, the instructor and in-class mentors are constantly roaming the room giving “desk crits” of the students’ work, and the difficulty of the problems is adjusted in real time by the instructor to try to keep all students challenged at the appropriate level (i.e., keeping them within their zones of proximal development as much as possible). I’m writing a paper about this for the journal “Advances in Engineering Education” that will describe this in much greater detail, so keep an eye out for it later this year!

    The students work in teams of 2, so there is no place to hide. Individual students are not allowed to do all the work, since we repeatedly remind them, and require them, to “share the pen”, such that one person is writing on the public shared problem-solving space, while the other is probing the writer with questions or offering suggestions for what to do next. The teams are long-term: that is, each team pretty much stays together for the entire semester, as do the pair of teams that sit at the same table -so there develops a sense of commitment and responsibility to each other over the course of the semester.

    I can’t personally say anything about the K-12 environment, other than to say my wife is an AP Chemistry teacher who has adopted the approach with much success, so I know it’s possible. At the college level, at Georgia Tech in biomedical engineering, it also has been extremely successful. We have data that shows students’ conceptual understanding of the material, as measured by a validated concept inventory, increases by more than two-fold versus students who take the same course in a traditional lecture-based setting. Also, the students’ end-of-course evaluations are overwhelmingly positive (this semester the students rated the course effectiveness at 4.8 (on a 5.0 scale), which is extraordinary for a required “hard core” engineering course.

  • Icon for: Joni Falk

    Joni Falk

    Facilitator
    May 11, 2015 | 08:59 p.m.

    Really enjoyed this videos emphasis on pedagogy. I am curious how this approach changed the curricula being covered. Did it force you to concentrate on some units and do away with others? Does it take longer to let students work through the process? Does it make you go for depth over breadth?

  • Icon for: Joe Le Doux

    Joe Le Doux

    Presenter
    May 12, 2015 | 06:34 a.m.

    This is a great question, and one I haven’t really thought that carefully about before. Thank you for getting me to think about this.

    We did not really change the topics we discussed, but we did change what we emphasized, because we became much more aware of what the students were struggling with, because it became so readily apparent in this format. Basically, teaching using the PSS approach has helped to significantly improve what Lee Shulman would call my “pedagogical content knowledge”.

    According to Shulman, this includes learning “the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others . . . [It] also includes an understanding of what makes the learning of specific concepts easy or difficult: the conceptions and preconceptions that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to the learning”

    As a chemical engineer, the analogy I would draw is that PSS helped us identify the “rate limiting steps” in students’ learning, which then allowed us to focus our efforts in learning how to teach those things more effectively, while not spending too much time on things the students were able to pick up on their own without our in-class help.

    Wrt to length of time the students work on the process – we now spend our in-class time on the things I know to be the most challenging to them. The other stuff, what I would call the “low hanging fruit” – they can pick up by reading the text, which in this class, they actually do because they don’t want to let their teammates down when they are working on these problems in such a public setting.

    Similarly, wrt to depth and breadth – I’d say we go deeper on the topics that are most challenging to the students, and we don’t spend classroom time on those topics that are easier for them to learn through outside reading assignments.

  • Small default profile

    Susan Shadle

    Guest
    May 12, 2015 | 10:33 a.m.

    Your classroom space seems perfectly set up to do this. Would you even try this if you were in a tiered lecture hall with those tiny desk tops?

  • Icon for: Joe Le Doux

    Joe Le Doux

    Presenter
    May 12, 2015 | 11:51 a.m.

    Great question. The physical setup of a room can have a powerful effect on students. If they are in a tiered room with tiny desks, this sends the message to them that they are there to listen to someone lecture and they will not be expected to do any work themselves. In contrast, when they go to a room with lots of whiteboards and chairs and tables on wheels with a lot of work space, then the students have a different set of expectations.

    So, yes, I agree, it would be much harder to do this in a tiered lecture hall with those tiny desk tops. Nevertheless, I would find a way to make it work. The benefits are just too great for both the instructor and the students.

    But to be honest, it’s hard to think of how I would do it just off the top of my head – but I’m confident, if forced to make due with such a situation, that I would eventually find a way to make it work!

    This also raises the point that the “higher ups” need to start thinking strategically about outfitting our universities with facilities that will support learning in the 21st century.

  • Small default profile

    Susan Shadle

    Guest
    May 12, 2015 | 12:13 p.m.

    Thank you – that is a very helpful answer!

  • Icon for: Meixia Ding

    Meixia Ding

    Associate Professor
    May 12, 2015 | 11:55 a.m.

    This course seems very powerful! Is it fair to say that it is learning through problem solving? So, the concepts have been embedded in problem solving tasks? How did you facilitate students’ independent thinking in this course? Is this a course required for every one? If so, have you encountered any students who were struggled with this approach?

  • Icon for: Joe Le Doux

    Joe Le Doux

    Presenter
    May 12, 2015 | 12:18 p.m.

    Great question. Our data suggests that students learn more through the PSS approach than in a traditional lecture course, at least if you define “learning” as the change scores students have in the concept inventory tests they take at the beginning and end of the course. PSS students’ change scores are about 2-3 fold higher than the change scores of students who take the course in the more traditional lecture-based setting.

    We facilitate students independent thinking by multiple mechanisms. Most important, perhaps, is we give them more complex and less structured problems than they usually find in their textbook. This makes things difficult enough that students have to work together to solve the problem, and they need to make lots of decisions and estimates, and there are multiple valid ways to approach the problems, which stimulates lots of discussion, and many misconceptions are revealed this way. So, basically, many “just-in-time” discussions about concepts are held, just when they most want and need that information the most, so they listen more carefully, and employ what they learn right away. So, yes, they do learn concepts in this class!

    The end of course surveys are overwhelmingly positive: on a 5 point scale, this semester’s reviews of the effectiveness of the instructor and how much was learned were both about 4.8.

    Many students struggled with this approach -most do early on, actually. But they quickly begin to see the value of PSS, and the vast majority end up saying things like “this is the way education should be from now on”. This doesn’t happen by accident though – I spend a fair amount of time making sure I am “pedagogically transparent”. That is, I explain quite often the purpose behind the things that I’m asking them to do. This gives them a framework for how to think about how they are experiencing the class, and when they begin to see the benefits of the approach, they buy into it, for the most part. There are always some students who wish they had more lecture, but the very large majority of students are very fond of PSS.

    Finally, I’ve looked at ~ 300 students longitudinally to see how they do in the follow on course versus students who take the lecture-based version of the course. The PSS students, on average, do about a half letter grade better in the follow on course, with the biggest gains being made by the students with “average” overall GPAs. Students with relatively low overall GPAs who take PSS do not significantly outperform similar students who take the lecture-based course. This “bothers” me, and it is something I want to student and improve upon in the future.

  • Icon for: Meixia Ding

    Meixia Ding

    Associate Professor
    May 12, 2015 | 01:02 p.m.

    Thank you for detailed responses! The thing that “bothers” you might be a very interesting point for study! I think that there might be an interaction between students’ prior knowledge and the use of PPS. Are there any publications or relevant resources about your work available thus far? I would be interested in reading more about your research!

  • Icon for: Joe Le Doux

    Joe Le Doux

    Presenter
    May 12, 2015 | 01:16 p.m.

    No, you’re totally right. That was what I was implying about it bothering me – that I want to get to the bottom of it!

    I’m actually submitting my first paper about PSS this week to AEE (Advances in Engineering Education). It describes in detail the learning environment and its affordances and rationale. It also has some data showing students conceptual understanding improves quite a bit, even though it is a “problem-solving” course.

    So, hopefully, you can read it later this year. There are 3-4 other papers I plan to write this year as well. Thanks so much for your interest!

  • Icon for: Meixia Ding

    Meixia Ding

    Associate Professor
    May 12, 2015 | 01:20 p.m.

    Look forward to reading them in print!!!

  • Icon for: Joe Le Doux

    Joe Le Doux

    Presenter
    May 13, 2015 | 11:49 a.m.

    :)

  • Small default profile

    Susan Shadle

    Guest
    May 12, 2015 | 12:35 p.m.

    I’d like to know more about the pitch you give to students about “academic grit”.

  • Icon for: Joe Le Doux

    Joe Le Doux

    Presenter
    May 12, 2015 | 01:34 p.m.

    Sure. I basically use the concept of “grit” as developed by Angela Lee Duckworth, but I call it “Scholarly Grit”. I tell them that people succeed not because they are talented, but because they are gritty. I tell them the 3 components of grit are:

    1. Conceptions of learning
    2. Deliberate practice
    3. Optimism

    I tell them that conceptions of learning has to do with what they think it means to learn something. The absolutely most naive viewpoint is that if you don’t understand something in a couple of minutes, you will never understand it. In reality, I tell them, that any Ga Tech student can understand anything – it just might take some time and a lot of deliberate practice (the next dimension). In other words, learning is a marathon, not a sprint.

    And, being cognizant that some profs still think, consciously or unconsciously, that some people are not cut out to be engineers, I tell them that if they get that message, either from a person or a weed out course, to take no stock in it. Reject that notion, because it is a naive conception of learning. I tell them that they can and will be great engineers, they just need to believe that (optimism) and put in lots of deliberate practice.

    The concept of deliberate practice was forwarded by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson. Basically, it means you need to be reflective about your learning. You need to identify your weaknesses, and design your practice, your studying, to target those deficiencies.

    Finally, developing expertise is a long tough process. To be able to do the above well, you need an upbeat optimistic attitude that if you stick with it you will reap significant benefits from your deliberate practice.

    That’s what I tell them!! And I remind them of this at certain key moments in the semester, such as before or after tests, etc.

  • Small default profile

    Susan Shadle

    Guest
    May 12, 2015 | 01:49 p.m.

    This is great! I plan to borrow for my general chemistry students.

  • Icon for: Joe Le Doux

    Joe Le Doux

    Presenter
    May 12, 2015 | 01:49 p.m.

    Please do! Let me know how it goes!

  • Icon for: Deborah Kariuki

    Deborah Kariuki

    Facilitator
    May 13, 2015 | 02:08 a.m.

    The feedback from the students tells is out, " In alot of the classes that are lecture style you watch a teacher or the TA work a problem a problem and you think you understand it by their is a disconnect when you are not actually working the problem". I am sure many of us can relate to this when we went to a class and thought we grasp the material but could not really work it on own later on working on homework. Certainly team work is what happens when you leave college so I am not sure why it still not the norm in K-12 as well. How could you adapt what you are doing with college student to help teacher in K-12 innovate this way of teaching in all subjects that do not easily render themselves to work on specific problem like language arts. You have something here for these students now let us find ways for it to be duplicable for other subjects.

  • Icon for: Joe Le Doux

    Joe Le Doux

    Presenter
    May 13, 2015 | 11:57 a.m.

    Great question. I think something like the PSS can be implemented in other types of courses where problem-solving is not the focus of the course, such as in language arts. In fact, 2 years ago I taught a course I called “Habits of the Engineering Mind” at Oxford as part of a Ga Tech study abroad program. We had lots of what I call “workshops” that involved students working in small teams to carry out discussions or exercises that centered on philosophical readings they had read before class. In fact, I would argue this style of teaching has been in use for quite some time in the language arts fields – so they have it down to some extent. I was heavily influenced in how to do this by a book entitled “Teaching with your mouth shut” by Donald L. Finkel. Great book – I highly recommend it.

    As for using this in K-12: I really don’t feel comfortable commenting on that since I don’t have any experience teaching at that level. My wife is a high school science teacher who has adopted the PSS approach for some of her classes in AP Chemistry, and it works well. But as for the language arts and social sciences, I’m not sure. I know that teachers at that level have significant challenges and constraints that professors don’t have – include a wider range of abilities and maturity levels among the students, and the requirement to meet state standards.

    Nevertheless, I think the spirit of PSS could be implemented if the instructor pays attention to the fundamental design principles that underlie the learning environment. In other words – it is seldom a good to simply copy what someone else is doing and implement it exactly the same way in a different context. The key principles of PSS are that students work collaboratively in teams of 2 in a publicly shared work space, and that they are nearly continuously getting feedback from more experienced practitioners. If a K-12 teacher can keep those features intact, I think it will work really well.

  • Icon for: Deborah Kariuki

    Deborah Kariuki

    Facilitator
    May 14, 2015 | 06:01 a.m.

    Excellent, I am very intrigued and would like to read the book teaching with your mouth shut. I do agree with you that if we teach students to collaborate where they are taking the investigation of learning themselves in groups then it becomes relevant. I teach high school computer science and I can see where PSS would positively work in the planning and design faces of software development because this is where most students struggle. They mostly want to start by coding way before they decided how to solve the problem. I often tell them the sooner you code the longer it will take you as a way of reminding them to put the flowchart down and solve the problem. I can see how PSS with some intentional facilitating students to think and solve the problems would help in my courses.

  • Icon for: Joe Le Doux

    Joe Le Doux

    Presenter
    May 14, 2015 | 07:26 a.m.

    It is so interesting that you say your students “mostly want to start coding right away”. We see the same thing with engineering students – we call it the “plug-and-chug” mentality; that is, students want to just start plugging numbers into equations, without thinking through the problem in any detail. As a result, they end up using equations that do not apply, solving math problems that have little to do with the actual problem they have been asked to work on.

    So, the challenge is the same – how to get students to focus on the intellectually challenging part of the problem they are facing, before jumping headlong into what often amounts to misguided busy work.

  • Small default profile

    Jerry Overmyer

    Guest
    May 13, 2015 | 11:42 a.m.

    I am doing a similar initiative at the University of Northern Colorado, but the focus is flipped classrooms. Do you use any tools for direct instruction such as instructional videos?

  • Icon for: Joe Le Doux

    Joe Le Doux

    Presenter
    May 13, 2015 | 11:49 a.m.

    PSS is one example of how instructors who choose to flip their courses can use the in-class time they have freed up by doing so. I think how you use the in-class time is a much more important question and task than the materials you create or have your students make use of outside of class.

    In my class, I simply made it clear that I expected them to read specific sections of the textbook (which I included in the syllabus, including when I expected those readings to be completed). I have had many students tell me this is the only course where they actually did the reading, presumably because the pressure of solving problems in public with a partner was enough to motivate them to be as prepared for class as possible.

    Having said that, I can certainly understand that some professors would like to create their own content, or to point students to other content (videos) that others have created.

    For the first few years I did this, I did NOT use any instructional videos. Then, about 3 years ago, I began posting a few Livescribe pencasts. Then, this past year, I created a “podcast A/V studio” in our department that can be used to create “Kahn academy-like” videos with really high quality sound. So, I’ve begun using that to create screencasts.

    However, I use that technology differently than most, I think. Instead of creating videos that I expect students to watch before class, I create videos that are in response to students’ questions AFTER my PSS sessions. In other words, they look at the videos as follow up material.

    So, I guess my answer is, YES, i do use these tools, but it is not the focus of what I do.

  • Small default profile

    Jerry Overmyer

    Guest
    May 13, 2015 | 12:06 p.m.

    I agree that that often flipped classes focus too much on the “videos” and not enough time on the in-class activities. I often give presentations on flipped learning and recently I have really been stressing that the face-to-face time is most important. Plan that first, then make videos as you need them.

  • Small default profile

    Crispin Weston

    Guest
    May 15, 2015 | 03:47 a.m.

    Hi, I enjoyed the video very much – but am interested in the first question about scaling. Not just to larger classes but away from you, as the instructor as well as course designer. Do you have any experience of other instructors delivering your course? Would it be feasible/desirable to publish the course i.e. the set of problems along with guidance on likely pathways through the problems and ways of addressing common issues? And after you had decoupled the course from yourself, what do you think the limits of the approach might be if it were applied to different subjects and different age-ranges? Thanks.

  • Icon for: Joe Le Doux

    Joe Le Doux

    Presenter
    May 15, 2015 | 08:37 a.m.

    I do not have any experience trying to teach others how to use this approach. However, in the fall, I will be doing exactly that – another instructor will co-teach the course with me, with the intent that she learn the PSS approach before striking out on her own. So that will be really interesting.

    The idea of publishing the course -including a set of problems with the various pathways students take and are likely to get stuck on – is one I have thought about before. It definitely needs to be done, but I don’t have the time/resources at the moment. This gets to “pedagogical content knowledge” and the idea is to actually try to write that down so that others can employ the course in this environment effectively.

    Beyond this course, and pedagogical content knowledge, there is also a need to talk about how to manage PSS in general, for any course. I just submitted a paper on this environment for Advances in Engineering Education which tries to get at this to some extent.

    I don’t think there are limits to this approach. It can be applied to any setting and age-ranges. By that I mean – you can’t just take everything I do and cookie-cutter apply it to another setting. Really, you can’t or shouldn’t do that with any learning environment. Rather, one needs to understand the design principles that are in play, and build your own environment by applying those principles in a way that is appropriate for your setting.

    Specifically, some of the key principles PSS is built on are 1) public work space, 2) situated feedback for the instructor and the students, 2) 3) collaborative problem-solving in teams whose team work skills are NOT assessed and whose work is only assessed formatively (not for grades).

    The fact that the work is public is important – it ratchets up the students’ sense of accountability to their team and to the instructor, so that everyone is engaged and working hard the vast majority of the time. Also, the public nature of the work enables the students and the instructor to give feedback on their work, and for the instructor to get feedback on the learning environment itself and how well it is working or not. Then the instructor can respond to that in real-time. Finally, the students work in collaborative teams. This is a wholly supportive non-competitive environment. Students are not graded on their team skills, and their work is not graded either (grades come from more traditional individual assessment, separate from PSS). The teams are semester-long teams so they develop an esprit de corps and sense of responsibility to each other. Most important, because they are working together, they explain things to each other and negotiate with each other who does what when. Self explanation, or explaining one’s thought processes to another person, and hearing their take on things, and negotiating what the best course of action is, is a very powerful way to learn (see Michi Chi’s work on self-explanation).

    So, my very long answer to your very important question is that I believe that the key features of PSS – public work, situated feedback and dynamic alterations of the learning environment in response to that feedback, and long-term collaborative non-competitive learning teams – can be implement with excellent effect in any subject with any age group.

  • Icon for: Kathy Perkins

    Kathy Perkins

    Director
    May 15, 2015 | 05:02 p.m.

    Great to see the change in instructional practices here. I would love to hear more about how you have been measuring the impact of these changes? I did a quick skim and saw above that you did some longitudinal measures showing improved performance in the next class, and I’m wondering if there are other measured impacts that you did not yet discuss.
    Also, regarding dissemination of this methodology to other faculty, you might check out the work of Charles Henderson and Melissa Dancy. They have focused on researching faculty adoption of research-based instructional strategies – supports, barriers, etc.

  • Further posting is closed as the showcase has ended.