Teaching Them How to Think

Assessment need not be a dirty word, an RPI prof tells faculty colleagues; when embraced, it can drive better teaching.
June 9, 2011

WASHINGTON -- By any reasonable measure, George Plopper is a skilled and successful teacher.

The associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute won awards for his teaching in 2000 and 2001 when he was still at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (and in 1993 as a graduate student at Harvard University). As a result of his recognition at UNLV, Plopper found himself invited to a summer program in 2004 designed to improve the teaching of science on the undergraduate level.

That's where he first encountered Bloom's Taxonomy -- the oft-cited and much-revised classification of levels of thought and learning, which span from the lower levels of basic memorization to the more complex evaluation and creation of knowledge. While those in attendance at the 2004 session casually bandied about Bloomian terms -- including synthesis, comprehension and metacognition -- the jargon left Plopper confused. But after figuring out how to apply it to his own style of teaching, he started to embrace it.

He now applies Bloom to two of his upper-level courses at RPI, and in the process, Plopper said, he has dramatically changed his approach to teaching and to determining what his students learn. No longer content to lecture from the front of the room and convey a series of complicated facts about cancer biology and extracellular matrix interactions, Plopper now makes the process and expectations of learning an explicit part of the syllabus. In effect, he has changed his teaching, and made assessment part of the learning process -- for both himself and his students.

Under his new class format, Plopper asks his students to sort through the subject matter, digest it, and teach it to one another, and he puts students in real-world scenarios they might encounter as scientists. Both of these exercises, he says, force students to harness and analyze information in ways they never truly had to do when he asked them to attend his lectures, deliver a presentation of their own, and take a final exam.

“An A in my class is a very different A than it used to be,” Plopper said Wednesday during a session here at the annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors. “An A carries a much higher expectation of your ability to think."

Plopper backs up this assertion by charting what his students do on a grid on which Bloom's Taxonomy is mapped. He can identify, quantify and document the instances -- whether in an exam, class discussions or a presentation -- in which his students have demonstrated the kind of learning that goes beyond memorization up to higher order thinking. Students don't merely recite, but engage in something more difficult and ambiguous: exercising judgment in the face of uncertain or contradictory sources of information.

As a scientist, Plopper also uses the scientific method to guide his own teaching. And he's a stickler for the method, too, hewing to the definition of a hypothesis as "a proposed explanation for an observed set of facts." In the context of his teaching, his hypothesis is that if you use Bloom's Taxonomy to generate higher orders of thinking, you'll observe more of that thinking. While the hypothesis may strike some as elementary, Plopper also said that he had been less effective in drawing out such thinking in his students before he crafted it. He has also checked his data against his hypothesis, which he says has helped keep him honest in assessing the results of his instructional abilities.

Plopper's presentation on Wednesday, along with other sessions on assessment at this year's meeting, point to the increasing investment of faculty in the subject of assessment -- even at general meetings of academics like this year's gathering of the AAUP -- though some in the professoriate have traditionally viewed it with some skepticism. Other recent examples include a policy statement on assessment from the American Federation of Teachers and a report in which representatives of the three major academic unions expressed support for the idea of greater faculty involvement in the discussion. Still, for all Plopper's evident success, his experience -- and the comments of experts at other sessions -- suggest that pitfalls abound, and that progress is perhaps the byproduct of individual efforts more than the result of systemic priorities.

While teaching is one of three criteria, with research and service, on which most tenure and promotion decisions are made, several speakers on Wednesday noted that institutions offer few rewards to faculty who vigorously rethink assessment and how it can productively inform teaching.

One strategy, said Pat Hutchings, senior associate at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, is to treat assessment as a form of scholarship that should be recognized in the tenure and promotion processes. It should also be linked more clearly to teaching and learning, she added. On its own, many speakers agreed, assessment has been seen as the domain of administrators, think tanks and foundations, when, in reality, it should be a natural part of the educational process that is guided by faculty.

“Assessment means asking if students are learning what I think I'm teaching,” said Hutchings. “My sense is that what we need to think about now is how faculty can take back assessment. It's been possessed by others, if you will.”

In his session, Plopper acknowledged that faculty members aren't always interested in the subject, especially if it means learning a new way to teach. Most have been teaching a particular way all of their professional lives, using a model observed since they were children, and most think it works well -- though Plopper argued that familiarity is not necessarily the same thing as effectiveness.

“They're not required to do this, so they don't,” he said, referring to professors and the process of doing a wholesale re-examination of their teaching. “You've got to get tenure -- and you don't get tenure for using Bloom's Taxonomy, so why bother?”

For years, Plopper did much the same thing. He lectured. “I was delivering facts, concepts and sometimes methods and asking them to remember them, apply them and tell them back,” he said. “They did brilliantly. They knew the rules.... They've been doing this since they started school.” And this is where assessment comes into play.

Plopper said he started feeling increasingly uneasy about whether his students were truly understanding on a deep level what he was teaching them. So he reconfigured his two upper-level courses, each of which has about 30 students (he still teaches larger introductory biology in a standard lecture format), and changed his assumed role. Now he does not lecture as much as provide guidance. “I call it teaching it from the audience,” Plopper said. “They execute their learning outcomes. My job is to make sure they don't fall off the rail.”

What Plopper does now is not terribly rare in the realm of educational practice, particularly at the K-12 level, where it's commonly referred to as “project-based learning.” Such a method requires students to take on more complicated, multifaceted tasks that require them to deploy different skills (writing, analysis, and presentation, among others), often as members of a team.

This style of teaching and learning is hardly unknown in higher education. Group work is used widely across disciplines -- and forms of it were dismissed by the authors of the book Academically Adrift, who noted that students who studied in groups tended to show smaller learning gains compared to those who studied alone.

But Plopper has devised safeguards for that, which are rooted in how he designed and assesses his courses. After spending the first class of the semester outlining expectations, Plopper breaks the class into six groups of five students, and assigns a group of students the task of giving a presentation on the subject that is to be covered the next week. That is, they are required to teach the subject to their peers the first time they encounter it -- and they must determine what three learning outcomes they expect their fellow students to demonstrate.

Plopper points them to the relevant literature, including journals and a textbook, and the students must sort out what's important and what isn't -- and then grasp the details with enough clarity and complexity that they can convey them to the rest of the class. The final exam will include material that is relevant to the subjects they've covered, but will not be limited to what has been presented in class -- forcing students to read and think widely about the subject independently rather than turn up at class simply waiting to receive information.

Plopper also evaluates the students -- and they evaluate one another (which allows students to call out the slackers on group projects), according to a rubric he shares with them at the start of the semester, which is matched to the various facets of Bloom's Taxonomy. The approach forces Plopper and his students to think not just about the subject matter, but also about the process by which they have come to understand it, he said. He also asks his students to conduct mock grant reviews, so that they gain experience about how ideas are judged and deemed worthy of funding.

While Plopper has been working on, refining and piloting his new method of teaching upper-level courses for the past four years, he has noted encouraging signs -- and risks.

He quantified how often his students demonstrated higher order thinking in their assignments, and saw that it spiked dramatically in the second year of his pilot, but he realized after reanalyzing his grading with a more critical eye that he had fallen prey to crediting his students for sophisticated contributions in class that they weren't truly demonstrating. He adjusted by using more specific, Bloom-related verbs in his assignments. In the third year of his pilot, the frequency of higher order thinking was lower than in the second year, but still far above where it had started (and it held steady from year three to year four).

Plopper said he also learned to become more explicit in leading his students to think at higher levels. It can be, he said, as simple as asking questions more effectively. For example, Plopper used to ask his students how they might carry out a project. The point of the assignment was to have them critique existing ideas and come up with new, innovative ways to tackle a problem. Instead, he said, his students simply scoped out three existing examples and replicated them.

Now he asks such questions differently, in ways for which there are fewer precedents that compel students to think about how they learn. An example, he said, was asking his students to think about a second edition of their textbook: what would go in it and why?


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