Learning from my students
Dec 7th, 2013 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I have been teaching a Quantitative and Qualitative course at WCSU this semester.  Per my usual practice, I ask students to comment on my posts on this blog.  To be quite honest, it becomes great professional development for me.  Reading their responses becomes so informative.  I might be getting more out of the exercise than they might!  Although I don’t post as often as I did years ago, I still find the opportunity to reflect here as a very important part of my professional growth. I want to thank my students for helping me!


Technology changes “note taking”
Nov 9th, 2013 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I am often still baffled at schools who have a “no tolerance” policy for the use of digital tools in the classroom.  No phones, no tablets, no nothing.  You might have been one of the 2M who saw the professor who indicated “No laptops in class.  Do I make myself clear?”

However times are changing.  In my current Stats class (practicing teachers/doctoral students), I often find the SmartBoard posing for pictures.  After modeling a procedure using software, notations and all, the students whip out their smartphones and click away.  It is a CLEVER documentation process as you get the WYSIWYG photo – students can reference the actual screen that they may encounter later on the computer and, as a fully annotated doc in context, it mayvery well make more sense than something documented on paper.

I think the important consideration is that when technology is used to ENHANCE learning, that’s a good thing, but when technology DISTRACTS you from learning, that’s the bad thing.  In a classroom with children who are still working on self-regulation, we may need to assist them.  But should we take away the potential benefits that technology offers to protect against potential problems.  I think it is better to deal with them as they come up and teach responsible citizenship.

Practical Stats, MediaWiki, and SPAM!
Sep 8th, 2013 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

This semester, I am teaching a graduate class in quantitative and qualitative methods.   As these topics are often challenging and sometimes bring out the “math phobic” in teacher-practitioner/students, I think it is very important to create learning experiences that allow the student to construct knowledge and be actively engaged (hands-on/minds-on) in the process.  To that end, I am attempting to utilize student-centered practices and limit teacher-directed instruction.

As part of the process, I am leveraging blended learning strategies.

  • Utilizing a Learning Management System (Moodle) for course resources.
  • Using this blog for my reflexivity and student feedback
  • Creating an online repository (student created) resource for domain-specific knowledge using MediaWiki

MediaWiki is the online software platform that drives WikiPedia. It has a user-friendly interface, is attractive and (purportedly) allows the instructor to focus on the content, not the platform.  However, since MediaWiki is used for WikiPedia, I have discovered that it is subject to major hacking and spamming.  I had a similar problem in the past, which required me to take down the site, and I found over the past week, the same problem reemerging.

Prior to me even populating the site with the previous data, I found that there were over 245 unlinked pages created.  Stuff about your dog’s ears, the latest stocks to buy, online gaming in China, and quite a bit of Arabic typology.  I started manually deleting these pages, which was quite tedious, and then went into the back end to find out that there were now over 12,000 users on the wiki and the front page had been “viewed” over 36,000 times.  Clearly an act of sabotage!  Either that or my “Practical Stats” popularity has become world renowned in just a few days.

Acts of Problem Solving.  Not knowing what to do, I first decided that I needed to turn off the ability for the wiki to create new pages.  I found a tutorial, access the Local php file and edited.  No more new pages . . . (Of course, now I can’t create new pages either, so this is not a long-term solution).  Some students register in the meantime.  More thinking, several days – I better turn off the ability to log on to the system and create a new account – more tutorials, local php edited again.  Now we’re pretty much shut down.  But what about all these users?  “They” (the bot-generated addresses) can potentially get back in.   A guide page suggests accessing the MySQL database via cPanel, use phpMyAdmin and find the code lines and delete them.  What does that mean?

A bit of trial and error, and I find the code and have access to 30 lines of entries (users) at a time.  I start deleting – this is going to take hours.  I look at the code above that is calling the data and decide to edit it.  How about showing 100 instead of 30.  Try that, seems to work. Let’s move faster, try “all.”  Ut-oh I’ve generated an error in the database.  A bit of haggling and reconfiguring and fffewww, problem solved.  I find that I can call 1,000 lines of data, then 2,000, and finally 5,000 at a time.   Eventually everyone is OUT.  If you are a student reading this here, your account has been deleted too.

I also deleted the bogus pages too.  Now I have to get back to populating the data and figuring out how to set up accounts.  Warning to all:  if you are installing MediaWiki, PRESET the safety protocols.

Extended instruction in one day offers challenges
Nov 25th, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I recently taught a day-long statistics class.  That should be enough to make anyone shudder, but please feel free to keep reading . . .

As part of the semester teaching assignment I have at Western Connecticut State University, the course has an extended Saturday class – 7.5 hours!  Clearly planning for that length of instruction with adult learners was a challenge.  When I began thinking about such an experience, I was really careful to ensure that the day got broken up into parts and that the learners would have a chance for some experiential, tangible learning.  I also had the opportunity to bridge from their other course:  Learning and Cognition. 

When I was originally hired to teach the course, I spoke with the program director, who was also teaching the second course the students were taking.  We discussed the extended day, and I said that it would be really great (cool) if we could connect the two courses together in some meaningful way.  The Learning class has the students observe a teacher (or video tape themselves) and analyze the instruction using an instrument called the CPR (Classroom Practices Record).  The CPR examines incidents of higher order thinkingquestioning in both students and teachers.  Since students had to observe both pre and post, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to analyze data.

Therefore, the topic of the day was chi square, a nonparametric statistical procedure that has many benefits in educational research, and direct application to the CPR data that was collected.  I did a standard, direct instruction introduction to discuss the overarching concepts:

Following the instruction, I had the students participate in a hands-on activity using M&Ms to determine if the package (observed) contained what the company said would be present (expected).  The students appeared to aggressively engage in the activity. 

For me, one of the most facinating parts of the lesson was the inputing of a live data sheet.  I had established a spreadsheet on my Google Docs account and embedded the link in the PowerPoint.  When we got to that section, students entered their data, and on the projector we could actually watch in real time as data appeared.  It almost looked like watching live election returns.  Talk about a classic example of reconfiguring!  New information was being provided to the class (and actually the world at large) in real time.  There was no waiting, students could acquire and use their classmates information as it actually came into existence.  Can you imagine learning based on class data without any lag time?

After data entry, analysis on the M&Ms took place and students were relatively able to work at their own paces.  I think I was able to provide some one-on-one attention, although I’m not sure if everyone got entirely what they needed.  Nonetheless, I think most (if not all) students walked away with a clear understanding of the chi square statistic, and certainly had a major portion of their CPR project completed.

I would be remiss to also add that I also brought in three guest speakers to discuss their research interests and how statistics helped them bring meaning and understanding to their passions.

Andragony offers an effective use of formative assessment
Oct 22nd, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Adults have different expectations in learning than children do.  Androgogy, the teaching of adults, contains the following important components and tenets:

·         Adult learning is voluntary and learner-oriented. 

·         Education brings freedom to the learners as they assimilate learning with life experiences.

·         Androgogy encourages divergent thinking and active learning. 

·         Often the roles of the learner and the teacher are blurred in the process. 

·         Often there is an uncertainty about the outcome of learning, regardless of the curriculum content. 

I currently have the pleasure of working with many expert teachers in the quantitative statistics course I am teaching for WestConn.  Interestingly, though, the course I am teaching puts many of these expert students in an uncomfortable novice position. 

Research demonstrates that there is a difference in learning between novice professionals and expert professionals.  Three main aspects of performance change in novice to expert learners: 

·         The novice professional’s work paradigm focuses on abstract principles while the expert uses concrete past experiences

·         The novice often views situations discretely where the expert sees situations as part of a whole.

·         The novice is often a detached observer where the expert is an involved performer (Daley, 1999). 

A striking difference when considering novices and experts is that novices are often hindered by specifics of the job, where experts are often hindered by the system.  Novices prefer, and best learn formally, where experts learn best informally, often in conjunction with their peers.  Novice professionals prefer learning strategies like memory and therefore accumulate information, while the expert professional uses dialogue to create a knowledge base (Daley, 1999).    When I consider my students, clearly from an andragonolical standpoint, they behave as experts. 

            Throughout the course, I have assigned work for the students to learn and master statistical techniques that may be useful for them as they begin to research their educational passions.  The assessments have been designed to be formative in nature.  As such, many submit assignments, wait for meaningful feedback, make necessary changes and resubmit.  I am very glad that many feel very comfortable presenting work, knowing that it may require revision. After all, much learning takes place when there is dialogue (in this case, electronic dialogue).  Mistakes are just as valuable as successes. In an adult learning environment, where students are motivated to learn, we can take advantage of the formative process.

            In just a short while, they will begin to work on dissertations, and that is a totally formative process.  Glad we can enjoy it now!

Concepts versus facts
Oct 6th, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I taught a statistics class last Wednesday evening on correlation, and left feeling very depressed. I could see the level of frustration in some students’ eyes. They were working extremely hard, focusing, and were struggling immensely. These are no ordinary students: they are clearly some of the top educators in the region, all pursing a doctorate in instructional leadership.

I had lost some students along the way, and I my reflection on the process leads me to believe that I didn’t stress the “big idea,” strong enough. What may have happened is that the students got caught in the idiosyncrasies of the mechanics of correlation. Certainly the content was extremely rigorous for some of the students. There was a high level of math concept connected to technical use of the computer to analyze data. In other words, we went from conceptual learning to learning about facts in isolation – always a bad way to go.

What was the big idea in laymen’s terms? Is there a mathematical pattern or trend between two variables? The pattern or trend we were searching for was a linear relationship. So, if a set of points for one measure is compared to the set of points for another, do they plot out to produce an image that looks like a line? Once this line is ascertained, how accurate is it? In other words, do the points that were used to plot it have statistical significance?

I can certainly discuss the concept more, but what I want to focus on is concept acquisition, specifically as it relates to teaching and subsequent learning. When considering learning, Fischer, B.B. & Fischer L. (1979). (Styles in teaching and learning. Educational Leadership, 36, 4, 245) suggest that the environment generated by the teacher can be teaching centered, learning centered, or student centered. (There are actually several others, but I will limit for the purpose of this discussion.)

The child-centered

This teacher provides a structure for students to pursue whatever they want to do or whatever interests them. This style is not only extremely rare, it is almost impossible to imagine in its pure form because the classroom, with its adult-child ratio and adult-responsible environment, automatically encourages some interests and discourages others.

The subject-centered

These teachers focus on organized content to the near exclusion of the learner. By “covering the subject,” they satisfy the clearly delineated curricular requirements of the course.

The learning-centered

These teachers have equal concern for the students and for the curricular objectives, the materials to be learned. They reject the over-emphasis of both the “child-centered” and “subject-centered” styles and instead help students, whatever their abilities or disabilities, develop toward substantive goals as well as in their autonomy in learning.

When designing the class, I tried to design learning activities that would allow for some concept acquisition, followed by skill building activities to learn the techniques necessary for computer calculation of correlation. The activities were intended to be compartmentalized and chunked –learn a concept then apply it practically. I think I had planned my class as a learning-centered teacher, but as the class progressed, I think I transitioned more to a subject-centered teacher. I had allowed the content that I was obligated to cover, take over the responsibilities for the class, and mercilessly plowed along, to the dismay of some of the students. I think I would be remiss to mention that some students were with me without fail the whole time. I am struggling with the balance for all of the students.

The challenge for me is to meet the curricular requirements of the class while allowing students to grow to be autonomous quantitative educational researchers. It’s hard enough to be a teacher, let alone a teacher of teachers.

Probably the ironic part of the whole story is as I sit and beat myself up over my work, there are probably students doing the same thing to themselves. We’ll all grow together.

What does a collaborative assignment look like?
Oct 2nd, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

There have been several requests to make one of the assignments a collaborative group effort.  I believe in the situated, socially constructing knowledge approach, so I am open to the suggestion.  My question to the group is, “What does a statistical collaborative assignment look like?”  I ask, from a very serious perspective, because the purpose of the assignments are to build the requisite skills for conducting individually-determined quantitative skills necessary for conducting an inquiry study (a.ka. a quantitative dissertation).  I have thus far designed the assignments, to (hopefully) build upon the experience in class so an individual student can then apply the skills and knowledge, to hopefully gain a positive disposition to and clear understanding of the statistical process. 

A group assignment would have to take a different form, and I am open to suggestions to think about ways to implement this.  Your feedback is appreciated.

Remember . . . 40% of the course grade are these assignments and these discussions . . .

I will make a post regarding last night’s class by the end of the week

Sore throat . . .
Oct 2nd, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Last week I taught a statistics class on converting data to different forms: z scores, percentile rank, NCE scores, and the like.  The challenge with teaching these concepts, besides the obvious mathematical concerns, is the relevance of doing it.  The basic meaning behind converting scores is to put numbers in common terms so sets of data can be related to one another.  For example if one instrument had potential scores of 1-42, and another had a range from 200-800 (like the old math SAT ranges), its hard to put that interval-level data into common terms.  That’s the ultimate purpose of the z-score:  to base a set of data (e.g., a sample of students with normal distribution with a specific standard deviation), in common terms, regardless of the raw score format.  Remember that z-scores are based on a SET OF DATA that is inter-related.

The majority (~96%) of z-score data will be between the values of -2 and 2, with a mean of 0.  Uggg . . . now all numbers are on the same scale, but still have relatively little meaning to a non-stats person.  So the percentile rank comes in.  Put the scores in percentiles relative to one another.  This comes at a cost:  the data is now ordinal.  But the benefits are enormous:  they have meaning to practitioners. 

Now for an affective comment.  I went home with a sore throat.  Hmmm . . .  I must have been talking too much.  I wonder, for a two-hour class session, if there was too much direct instruction.  Were there enough opportunities for the students to apply their knowledge? 

I pondered this on the drive home, and even more so on Friday, when I had the opportunity to meet with a master World Language teacher for whom I am serving as a dissertation major advisor.  Since my primary role is a science teacher, I wanted to expose myself to the instructional experiences of a high school Spanish teacher.  For me, this was a wonderful and enlightening experience. 

I had never seen a computer-driven language lab and the power of allowing students to demonstrate their technical speaking, reading, and listening skills.  The process was so fluid and dynamic, and the transitions from learning activity to learning activity were masterfully administered.  No doubt, this was due to an extraordinary master teacher.  Easily five different learning activities took place in each class I observed.  Each learning activity was targeted to a specific skill or knowledge and was seamlessly transitioned to the next.  Just amazing to watch, and I know I do it no justice in words.

My learning helps to remind me that students need a variety of instructional strategies to address their varied learning styles.   Also it reinforces my general strategy to vary instruction, especially in an extended-class setting.   

Collaboration demonstrated a situated cognitive approach to statistics
Sep 24th, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I gave a statistics assignment over the past week to my students which challenged them to assimilate most of the course content and explain it in an applied assignment requiring both visual and written interpretation.  Basically, they took their data set that they had generated in a previous assignment, and analyzed it descriptively:  means, medians, modes, standard deviations, interquartiles, box-and-whiskers, and the like.

But this post isn’t about what the students had to do, it’s about my impression of how they did it.  I received many emails from students expressing how they worked hard, collaboratively.  Together they were able to figure out how to complete the assignment.  They repeatedly told me about the groups that met up together at the University lab, to work, share frustrations, successes and, struggles, and ultimately create tangible products, based on authentic data.

I can’t think of a better example of situated cognition in action.  They were socially constructing knowledge together.  It was in their social interactions that learning took place.  What is interesting, is that they chose to learn this way. 

They were using the authentic tools of the practicing educational researcher:  student achievement data, SPSS software.  Of course, to most, they are new (neophytes) to the field of educational research so they are on a peripheral trajectory to the community of practice. 

Seeing this type of learning in practice makes me think that I must continue to strive to provide cognitive apprenticeship opportunities for the students, both in class, and in the “homework” opportunities to make the experiences as authentic as possible.  I think these homework assignments should represent the most meaningful learning that takes place for the course.  Kind of interesting to consider the role of an “in class test” in a situated learning model.  Doesn’t really fit so well.  But, as most know, a doctoral class in statistics, complete with objective in-class assessments is a right of passage towards the letters that are earned after your name. 

So how do I reconcile the the two? 

  • Make the assessment as authentic as possible. 
  • Use the tools of the community of practice. 
  • Allow students to have the necessary resources to solve problems. 
  • Evaluate on concepts, not isolated facts. 

Any other suggestions?

Inquiry as an underlying theme
Sep 22nd, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I have been struggling with trying to describe my last statistics class (central tendency, normal distribution) in a holistic way. The content was certainly more demanding than previous classes, yet I felt the students stayed with me well. I gave an assignment to allow the students to process the information and see if they really understood it. Although the assignment barely took up half a page, I felt that it would probably take a good chunk of time to complete.

I have received many comments from students quantifying the time they spent on the assignment. Ironically the time frame “4 hours” seems to be quite common. I think this is reasonable as the rule of thumb suggests that for every hour you spend in class, you are expected to spend at least two hours working on the course materials. So four hours seems about right to me. I hope that it is not perceived as too much, as I make no qualms that statistics is a very demanding and rigorous course. I feel the experience of the assignment necessitates an extended period of time where students work through the problems and come to a true understanding of the concepts.

That being said, I did not give explicit instructions for all computer tasks necessary to complete the assignment. There was some sorting and sifting – in essence – some inductive reasoning – that had to be accomplished for successful completion of the assignment.

When I think of inquiry as an approach to learning (which is certainly the approach I hope to use when I teach), I realize that there is no one way to solve a problem. However, students often look for the step-by-step, one-size-fits-all method to approach problems. While there are some straight-forward techniques and patterns in statistical analysis, I think it is the willingness of the individual to approach the problem solving from a creative avenue, that ultimately makes them successful.

High-achieving students not only want to learn concepts well, they sometimes also want to complete assignments the way they perceive that the teacher wants it. This has always been an area of contention for some of my students, because I want them to complete their work so they demonstrate meaningful understanding, whether it’s in the format I want or not. You see, I do not perceive my way as the only way. I love to look at solutions that I had not previously conceived. To me, it’s exciting and interesting. To some, it can be very disconcerting. I do not buy into the concept of the right answer. I more readily appreciate the best answer. I don’t define best; that is the ultimate goal for the student.

I recently received an email from a student asking two questions to help decide how to represent data. This data was generated and/or collected by the student, and probably has some personal meaning to the student. The student certainly has a far better understanding of the sample and of the data set that demonstrates some characteristics of the sample than I do. So, although I may have a better understanding of types of analysis, I would venture that the student has a much better understanding of the meaning and relevance of the data.

Thanks for your great effort to learn the stats and SPSS.
Both of your questions are interesting to me as a teacher because I always try to empower my student to make the decision on what is important to show. You have great judgment since you know the data best, so try to select information which “tells the best story.” I guess your questions answers are “it depends,” because there are really no right or wrong answers. The decisions you make for data display will be appropriate in either scenario you present. I’ve personally been struggling with what to write about on my blog this week, but I think your question helps me focus my ideas. Thank you for that.
So that’s ultimately the challenge of an inquiry approach – to empower students to make the choices to best answer their questions in a meaningful way for them. I think this is sometimes frustrating, but in the end, I think this is the way the best learning takes place.
Now don’t come to lynch me on Wednesday with a pitchfork!
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