A Visit to St. Olaf College

I’m writing this from Northfield, Minnesota, home to St. Olaf College, where I spent yesterday meeting with faculty and giving a couple of workshops on teaching with clickers. I’ve been a fan of St. Olaf since college, when I spent a semester in Budapest, Hungary, as part of St. Olaf’s Budapest Semesters in Mathematics study abroad program. That semester was a transformative one for me. In prior mathematics courses, I found that I could crack just about any homework problem within 30 minutes. The homework problems I was given in the BSM program tended to take more like four hours! I learned the value of perseverance in doing mathematics that semester. I also found it empowering to realize that I could get together with a couple of new friends and take a weekend trip to Prague. That was a big step towards independence for a 20-year-old math geek.

Given that experience, I was very glad to be invited to visit St. Olaf by Gary Muir, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of St. Olaf’s Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts (CILA). There are a few faculty on campus here who teach with clickers, including Gary and many of the physics faculty. As director of CILA, Gary coordinates a series of lunch discussions on teaching, including a couple each semester led by outside speakers. He asked me to visit and show his colleagues how clickers can be used creatively in many different teaching contexts for many different purposes. The St. Olaf faculty gave me a warm welcome, and they were engaged and enthusiastic participants in the lunch workshop.

Here’s my Prezi from that workshop. You can click the forward button to move through the Prezi along the path I’ve laid out. Or you can use your mouse to pan and zoom freely across the canvas.

You’ll notice a category of clicker questions in there that I don’t usually include in my clicker workshops: metacognitive questions. I included those sample questions since Gary asked me to help his colleagues think about some outside-the-box clicker questions. When I asked the faculty at the end of the workshop which categories of clicker questions they were most interested in experimenting with, the critical thinking and metacognitive questions were the most popular.

Later in the day, I lead a hands-on workshop in which I introduced a smaller group of faculty to the TurningPoint software and helped them write a few clicker questions they could use in their teaching. I started the workshop with a brief presentation on writing good clicker questions based on the suggestions in this blog post. Below you’ll see the slides for this presentation.

One of the workshop participants, psychology professor Minda Oriña, drafted a pair of clicker questions that I thought were pretty clever. Here’s the first:

What happens when you negatively reinforce behavior?

  1. The addition of a stimulus strengthens the performance of a behavior
  2. The removal of a stimulus strengthens the performance of behavior
  3. The addition of a stimulus suppresses a behavior
  4. The removal of a behavior suppresses a behavior

This is a simple fact-check question (correct answer: 2), but it’s nicely structured (addition vs. removal, strengthen vs. suppress). Minda said that she would expect many students to answer this question correctly. Her follow-up question, however, was designed to be a bit tougher:

A teenager drives recklessly and totals the family car. Her parents give her lots of nasty chores in response to her reckless driving.  After getting these chores, the teenager begins to drive even more recklessly.  The teenager’s behavior has been:

  1. Positively reinforced
  2. Negatively reinforced
  3. Positively punished
  4. Negatively punished

Minda said that students often confuse common uses of these terms with the technical uses. In this case, it would be tempting for students to say that the teenager had been “punished” since she was given additional chores. But the right answer is “positively reinforced,” since a stimulus (the chores) was added and the behavior (reckless driving) continued. Again, this is a nicely structured question, and its seems to be one that targets a particular misconception students in a psychology course are likely to have.

Earlier in the day I was given a tour of campus by a friendly physics/music double-major named Ryan. As Ryan showed me around St. Olaf’s massive, four-year-old science building, I was struck by the smart design choices I saw all around me. There were different kinds of informal learning spaces scattered throughout the building–small seminar rooms perfect for quiet study or small study groups, larger conference rooms for bigger study groups, alcoves and corners outfitted with chairs and desks and whiteboards. I saw students all over the place, studying and working by themselves and in small groups. I could easily imagine science majors spending the entire day in the building, relaxing and studying between classes. (Given the winters around here, I bet this happens a lot!)

There were some well-designed classrooms, too. My favorite was Regents Hall 190, seen here:

That’s the view from one of the front corners of the room. Notice the half-moon desks, each with four chairs, perfect for small group work but also practical for paying attention to the front of the room. There were six or seven of these tables on the lower level of the classroom and another six or seven on the upper level, which you can barely see in the above photo. Here’s a shot from one of the back corners, looking out across that upper level:

I couldn’t believe how much space there was to maneuver in this room. I kept thinking about my stats classroom, which packs 75 seats into about half as many square feet. This Regents Hall classroom seats about 60. There are many colleges and universities that would try to fit 100 or 150 seats in a room this big. I was very happy to see that St. Olaf had made the somewhat bold decision to equip this large classroom in a manner that facilitates flexible teaching methods.

I talked with St. Olaf biology professor Dave VanWylen at dinner last night. He helped lead the team that designed Regents Hall. He described teaching a course with about 20 students in Regents 190. He said that the course used the space in two very different ways. During lectures, the students sat on the lower level and faced the front of the room. During discussions, they moved to the upper level, where the furniture was arranged like a conference table so that the students could sit facing each other.

The only thing missing from this great classroom is my favorite educational technology!

St. Olaf also gave me my first chance to see whiteboard wall paint up close. Here’s a photo of one of the smaller classrooms in Tomson Hall, the math building:

There were a couple of students in the room for a tutoring session. They told me that it’s pretty common to see the whiteboard walls filled up like this in the math department. The walls are used during classes, where they make it easy to send lots of students to “board” to do some math. But students use the walls after classes, too, for tutoring and studying groups. I wasn’t really sold on the idea of painting whole walls with whiteboard paint before my visit to St. Olaf, but now I see some of the potential.

I’ll also point out the stylish furniture in the photo above. Such furniture was a common feature on campus. It’s a nice change of pace from the 1950s-style desks still in use in the math department back home!

Thanks to my St. Olaf hosts for a great visit, and thanks in particular to Gary Muir for being such a warm and friendly host.

Image: “Mellby Hall,” by me, Flickr (CC)

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