Learning Experiences Analysis

So here’s where I really hope that writing is epistemic, since I’m thinking as a write and hoping to find the answers in the process. Three pieces come to my mind — flow, fun, and learning — as I consider my original assignment, the identification of core properties common to my most positive learning experiences. Dwelling on this for the afternoon (on and off, while also playing Trine, Freedom Force, and Go Fish, watching Yo Gabba Gabba, eating stuffing and peas, responding to email, grading assignments, and reading Ship It!) leads me to these potential common properties.

  • Project ownership. In all of these experiences, I had a real sense of ownership over the projects. Not all of them were great projects, and one even completely fell apart due to my ignorance and overcommitment, but these were undoubtedly my projects. The more I think about this, I don’t have many vivid memories of being in a positive learning experience in which I did not take ownership, at least psychologically, of the project. I realize that “take ownership” is fluffy. I think what I mean by this is that I became a stakeholder, even if I wasn’t one to begin with.
  • Artifact-oriented. All of these experiences were deep learning experiences that manifested in an artifact. The whole KR&R semester was interesting, but there’s no doubt in my mind that most of my learning was manifested in the paper I wrote (which was on contextual vocabulary acquisition in SNePS, by the way). This strikes me as especially significant as I think about flow and the fact that I can fairly consistently hit flow while developing software when I have the luxury of setting my schedule and work environment.
  • Self-imposed goals. This may be redundant with my first point, but in all of these experiences, I set the goals for myself. In the cases where I was in a class, there was a broad framework provided by the professor as well as some expectations; however, for the most part, I set the acceptance tests myself.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with my mother recently. I was expressing to her my dismay that I felt many of my students were only doing what was “good enough,” but that “good enough” is not good enough where excellence is required. She pointed out that my “good enough” has always been at a level higher than most others — probably why she advised me out of becoming a high school math teacher. Good advice.

As I think more about this, I realize that this may be an important aspect: that I was able to set expectations just above my skill level, allowing me to rise to the challenge. Thinking about my Computer Science education, I’m sure there were plenty of times when I could have done much more with an assignment, but I didn’t: I did what was expected, and so I didn’t learn much — or at least it was not memorable. However, in my “greatest learning experiences”, I really felt like I was spreading my wings.

Given that perfectionism is in my nature, this might be a problem when I construct learning experiences! Thinking about this semester in particular, I have designed experiences of the sort in which I would thrive, but I notice that some of my students are getting lost in the shuffle. Perhaps this is because they lack the self-awareness to know where to even set the bar. Perhaps the required reflections in 345/545 will help with that? The problem with questions like this is that asking “Are you more introspective now?” is about as useful as asking “Is this sentence false?”

I got my three properties, and it’s 8:45PM on Sunday night. I’m not content with this list of three, but also, I want to play some games, work on my pet project, keep reading Ship It, and/or have a decaf coffee. Jess is at a “knit night”, and it’s nights like this when I hear Commander Shepard inviting me into an adventure for which I don’t have the time right now.

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6 Responses to “Learning Experiences Analysis”

  1. Jim Griggs Says:

    It’s Sunday night and I can’t sleep. So, I think to myself, “Let’s take a quick peek on Paul’s blog.” :)

    I do have some “deep thoughts” regarding your post. However, they would be lengthy, it’s late, the laptop battery is dangerously low, and I’m not getting out of bed to get the charger. So, I’ll have to save that for another time.

    Instead, I’ll waste your time with one quick, non-intellectual comment. Commander Shepard? I was just considering picking up a game a few days ago and Mass Effect was at the top of my list. I’m assuming you’re playing the sequal? How was the original?

  2. Paul Gestwicki Says:

    Actually, I’m trying hard *not* to play Mass Effect 2. I enjoyed the original, and I’ve heard generally good things about ME2. My intention is to pick it up after the semester is over. However, it seems almost daily that I hit a bump in what I’m doing or find a few minutes to spare, and my brain says, “Go buy ME2… just play for a few minutes.” That never works!

  3. Jim Griggs Says:

    Excuse the late reply. I’ve been installing a vent fan/light in our bathroom, so the past two days have been full of carpentry and electrical.

    OK. Deep thoughts. Actually, this probably isn’t that deep. I’m just going to pour out my thoughts and see what comes. This may end up being intellectual art or mental vomit. We’ll see.

    I’ll start by giving credit where credit is due. I’m currently in the middle of reading Dale Carnegie’s classic book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. As that book is fresh on my mind, I’ll be relating your blog notes to one of the concepts in it.

    There is only one way in the world to make anyone do anything. Yes, just one way. That is to make that person want to do it. So, the next question is, “How do you make someone want to do something?” We can begin to investigate that question by reviewing a basic principal of human nature. The philosopher John Dewey said that the deepest urge in human nature is “the desire to be important.” Sigmund Freud said that everything people do springs from two motives: sex and the desire to be great.

    In your review of your educational history, I don’t believe any of it appealed to your sex drive. I do remember Ziya pushing two networks together on a white board in a rather erogenous way. I don’t think that qualifies.

    However, “Project ownership” and “Self-imposed goals” do appeal to the desire to be important. Both of these items give you more control over your own education. They also give you more responsibility. Most students are only responsible for completing the tasks provided by the instructor. However, “self-imposed goals” means you aren’t just responsible for completing tasks, but responsible for creating them. Each of these two items gives you a higher stake in the project. Completing the project elicits a greater sense of accomplishment….a greater sense of importance.

    This takes two of your specific motivators and merges them into a single, more generic, drive. Why? Because it raises another question you may be able to dwell on. You provide only two example methods for increasing the sense of importance. What other examples are there? What else may you be able to incorporate into your courses that may drive your students to feel greater; more important? One of the reasons I think you’re a great teacher is because I already know you dwell on that question every night (well…every night you aren’t playing games).

    “I was expressing to her my dismay that I felt many
    of my students were only doing what was “good enough,”
    but that “good enough” is not good enough where
    excellence is required. She pointed out that my “good
    enough” has always been at a level higher than most others”

    I don’t doubt that you have a higher drive to excel than most other people. You have always pushed yourself hard toward excellence. You may very well be expecting a little too mush of your students. I can’t really speak to that as I’m not in your class. It’s also the responsibility of an instructor to expect more from a student than they necessarily want to give.

    Do me a favor and stop reading and take a look around the room you’re in right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait. OK, I’m sure the room was reasonably clean, but was it spotless? Everything picked up and in its place? Floor vacuumed? Room dusted? Desk clean? Probably not. So, why are you a perfectionist in your field of study and not a perfectionist in regards to cleanliness? It goes back to people only doing what they want to do. You imposed a high standard on yourself in the field of Computer Science because you WANT to do Computer Science. However, Computer Science is a wide field of study and I’m sure there are aspects you find less interesting than others. Of course, I already know that you are aware of this, because you mention it in your blog.

    “Thinking about my Computer Science education, I’m sure
    there were plenty of times when I could have done much
    more with an assignment, but I didn’t: I did what was
    expected”

    I’m guessing you only did what was expected in these cases because you didn’t necessarily want to do any better; at least given the time you had. Sure, if you had all the time in the world, you would have put more effort in. However, you prioritized these tasks lower. That prioritization would have been based on how much you wanted to do the task at hand. That may be why some of your students only do what is “good enough” in your class. Maybe they have other CS classes whose subject matter just appeals to them more. Who knows. Just a theory. Just one in the “rule of three interpretations” as to why your students aren’t performing as well as they should.

    So, what you probably really want is tangible, concrete advice or suggestions and I’m sorry to say I have none at the moment; just useless theories. Maybe if I dwell on it more, things will come to me. I know that you already do all that you can to motivate your students.

    I do have another thought concerning group projects. I think it’s great that you assign these as, in this day and age, there is no such thing as a solo project any more. Best to get these young minds used to working with others. I find that most students dislike group projects. Teachers sometimes avoid them because frequently one person ends up taking over and doing most of the work. I find myself wondering why people get frustrated when that happens as, in my opinion, it’s perfectly normal. In the real world, every group is assigned a leadership position. I’m a PM, so that’s what I do for a living. The only project management style I’m aware of that’s somewhat self-organizing is Scrum and students probably aren’t expected to use that method (I wouldn’t recommend it). Question: do you incorporate the concept of a PM in your groups? Do you attempt to avoid the problem of a single person taking over by assigning a leadership position from the start? Just curious.

    Tying group projects back to my previous conversation related to the drive for greatness…
    How do group projects support the drive for greatness? What is the student motivation to enjoy these activities? If I’m attempting to complete a great accomplishment (for example, finding the cure for AIDS) then the satisfaction of completing that task on my own would certainly be high. However, I also know that the chance of me finding a cure for AIDS on my own is incredibly small. Thus, I form a group of brilliant minds to collaborate on the task and we share in the greatness of our accomplishments. I’m motivated to enjoy working with a group on complex projects. How does this translate to the collegiate environment? Do students have this same motivation? Most college projects are quite achievable. Are students less driven to want to work in groups when the project at hand is something they think they may be able to accomplish on their own if they had enough time? Hmmm…

  4. Paul Gestwicki Says:

    This is some really great stuff Jim. I’ve been sitting on it until I’ve had a chance to really think about it and offer up some ideas for discussion. I’m in my hotel room in Milwaukee for SIGCSE, awake too early due to the time difference, so it seems like a good time to at least start some discussion.

    It’s funny to me that you mentioned cleanliness of office space. My office space is almost always a total wreck, and it drives me crazy. I want it to be clean, but I don’t want to clean it, and this causes internal tension. It’s a weakness that I acknowledge, but it’s also a good example of the differences between wishing, wanting, and working.

    Your closing comment is intriguing to me, and I think you’ve identified something that has caused me some trouble in the past: if I assign a project to be done by a group, but it can be completed by an individual, this removes the desire to work on a team. Unfortunately, this strikes me as an endemic problem in higher education: all “my” students are in the same course with one set of learning objectives, and so I don’t have a truly heterogeneous team. If every class had art students, business students, CS students, and such, then it would be very clear that you need a team; the projects I assign, on the other hand, cannot rely on anyone having skills in those other areas.

    Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from trying. This semester, with my HCI class, the teams need to be organized to complet e the goal, and this presupposes that each team has at least one person with leadership and/or management skills. I had assumed that the odds were good that this would happen. However, it’s not the case, and the teams that (by bad luck or bad probability) don’t have natural leaders are lagging behind the other teams.

    Reading your comments and reflecting on my experience, I think I could have helped students a bit more by publishing my grading rubrics on day one. I did tell them roughly what I expected, but I didn’t codify it, and so I think some teams still don’t understand that, yes, I really do expect formal usability testing. Although it may be too late (since teams are formed and dynamics have become patterns), I think I will try to whip up a rubric this week and share it with them after Spring Break.

    I did use Scrum once, by the way. It was in my game programming class, and I was the Scrum Master. It went pretty well, although it needed serious modifications to get around the structural problems of higher education: we couldn’t do daily meetings, so we had to get by with twice weekly meetings, which was insufficient to keep everyone on task. If I had all the time in the world, I would write up a little servlet to allow students to do asynchronous daily updates and incorporate this into my grading rubric (e.g. sign in each day before 10am and say what you’ve been up to), since parts of Scrum worked really well, if we could get over that hurdle.

    A few more thoughts kicking around in my head, but for now it’s time to head over to the opening keynote of the conference, and of course to try to find some breakfast.

  5. Reflections on Situated Learning « Paul Gestwicki's Blog Says:

    […] captures some of my frustration in teaching. I reference my working with two students on Confluence as one of my most positive learning experiences, and I feel strongly […]

  6. Writing, Scholarship, and Software « Paul Gestwicki's Blog Says:

    […] two semesters was that in the Fall, I was inventing: working on Confluence was a great experience, as I’ve said before. I know that I love the process of inventing software systems, and so I have been actively seeking […]

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