Reflections on the “fit” between digital resources, cognitive science and my instructional design thinking in LTT 150

[ 2263 words; revised 18 April 2018 ]

Here, as promised a while ago, are some further comments on MCC 150 Learning Across Cultures. The revised syllabus for the course may be found here. In this blog post, I will comment on the course as a whole, including the historical background that motivated my decision to propose, design and teach the course. I will also comment on my impressions about the relative effectiveness of certain elements of the course (combining certain digital media tools with cognitive-science-informed learning goals or design principles).

Background, Purpose, Overarching Goals

The original impetus for this course was a meeting many years ago between staff from my university’s admissions office, representatives of the offices that support academic advising in the College of Arts and Sciences and the business school at my university, representatives of Academic Affairs, and representatives from my department, Modern and Classical Languages (which, in addition to teaching several modern languages, Latin and Ancient Greek, also houses a few ESL courses and a robust Linguistics program). I was in the meeting primarily in the role of Chair of my department at the time. The major issues under discussion were a range difficulties faced by some international students and their advisors. The students in question were performing problematically in multiple courses or has language skills in English that were perceived as being insufficient, even though those students had met admissions standards for language ability. They could do this either by demonstrating proficiency through an appropriate TOEFL score or through enrollment and achievement in appropriate ESL courses prior to their first semester at Saint Joseph’s University. One of the ideas floated during that meeting was for faculty members in my department to develop a First-Year Seminar course that would orient such students to academic culture and studies at our university, while offering them general academic support and guidance on reading, writing, speaking, listening and note-taking in English.

Fast-forward a few years. No other faculty members in my department had expressed an interest in creating such a course. No one gave any sign of intending to plan or design a new First-Year Seminar in the form of a skills- and content-focused course that would to serve students from outside the U.S. or would offer particular support for those who enter my university as non-native speakers of English. As Chair, I had little time to produce or implement such a course myself. However, I continued to reflect on the issues. Toward the end of my service as chair, believing that my department had the necessary expertise and a moral obligation to help those students, I decided to design and propose a course whose principal intellectual content would be intercultural communication and whose general manner would help all students develop fundamental skills for success in the academic programs at our university. Obviously, a major goal in developing and teaching this course was to help students from overseas, especially those who might predictably have problems adapting to life as a student in the United States. However, that goal alone did not seem sufficient for designing a free-standing course. It would amount to guessing about certain students’ likely prospects for academic success and seek to bolster skills in areas of imagined weaknesses or lacunae. In a sense, such a course would seem to single out those who had received a secondary education outside of mainstream United States schools and/or doing most of their learning in a language other than American English. I wondered if there would not be a way to draw on the richness of such students diverse experience, while also exposing them to a variety of perspectives of students born, raised and educated inside the U.S. To me, it seemed important to articulate other, more robust, goals for the course, like helping students, whatever their national origin or cultural-linguistic background, learn about how to learn more effectively. It seemed appropriate to develop a course to help all students develop good learning habits, devise and implement good strategies for academic performance across a variety of disciplines, increase their resilience so that they could face academic challenges more effectively, reflect critically on cultural dimensions of educational institutions and practices, particularly those that might become obstacles or impediments to some students, devise solutions for minimizing or removing such “educational-cultural” obstacles, and better understanding how their own brains work in the learning process.

My comments below will center on a few of the digital resources that I used to help me guide students toward certain learning outcomes.

TED Talks, Other YouTube Videos, Google Books (initial weeks)

I chose to begin the course by teaching students about neuroplasticity and about how the brain functions during learning. For these purposes, YouTube and Google Books were helpful, readily available and free of charge. In class, we focused on the importance of working memory, attention, connecting new learning to prior knowledge, and using rehearsal practice to strengthen the recall of new information and new insights for effective long-term learning. We also explored and discussed themes like distributed practice and the role of sufficient sleep and good nutrition for effective brain function. In short, I wanted students to learn about brain function and cognition, so that they would be able to structure their learning habits in alignment with how human brains actually work. I covered this material over the first three weeks of the course.

The digital resources that I used in this portion of the course was as follows:

How did the digital resources work? Quite well, generally speaking. Most students reacted extremely favorably to my assigning some videos instead of sticking exclusively with more traditional readings. Discussions were quite lively and productive. What is more, when I later asked students to comment on working memory and neuroplasticity, most of them were able to evoke accurate and detailed explanations of those phenomena.

Other Strategies and Digital Tools Used During the Rest of the Course

For the latter eleven weeks of the course, I asked students to do extensive readings in three print books:

  • Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond culture. New York: Anchor Books.
  • Maalouf, A. (2012). In the name of identity: Violence and the need to belong. Bray, B., trans. New York: Arcade Publishing.
  • Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. 3rd. ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

Please note, however, that I did not ask them simply to read. I asked them to work collaboratively in assigned groups of four or five to articulate their collective understandings of each reading assignment and to share their impressions and understandings of the content of the course and its connections with both the wider world and their own educational experiences. (I had asked students to complete a survey about their educational, linguistic and socio-economic background. I interviewed each of them individually outside of class. This allowed me to create working groups that were quite diverse.)

To accomplish this work, I asked them to use two digital tools. First, for group work, I asked them to use GSuite tools to create Google Docs for each reading assignment. I expected them to use Google to generate collective reading notes and shared comments and observations, to be circulated among all members of each group (four groups of four to five students) but also to be shared with me. In this way, I was able to follow the collective readings and understandings of the four groups in the course and to prepare my own responses to their comments. When we met for class discussions, I asked each group to discuss their collective conclusions briefly face-to-face, then I asked all groups to specify a few major ideas that they found important. After recording these comments on the board, we engaged in a whole-class discussion of the readings, debating or refining the ideas recorded on the board. During the full-class discussion activity, we drew conclusions about the most important ideas in each reading — and we drew implications. If (on rare occasions) there were significant lacunae after group discussions, I used question-asking to help the students fill them. On rare occasions, I simply filled the lacunae. Generally speaking, though, the 18 students in the course generated a very good understanding of each of the readings with relatively few interventions on my part. Indeed, I had relatively little work to do as the “mentor” and “guide” in this course. This result was in line with my goal of having students actively engage with each text — and having them help each other understand both the gist and the significant details of each reading.

The other major tool that I used during the remain of the semester was Yellowdig, a social-media-inflected discussion tool. My intent in using Yellowdig was to foster a spirit of collective engagement, social learning and excitement about the themes and the specific ideas we were exploring, as well as to ask students to connect course material to their own experience of the world. Students where required to produce a certain number of words of commentary weekly and to respond to each other’s observations. In most cases, student engagement greatly surpassed my expectations. Again, the software chosen for this function proved to be an effective digital tool. Students using Yellowdig pulled together with enthusiasm, responding to each other and affirming the dignity and value of other participants in the course. On occasion, they offered advice to each other and they formulated mutually comprehensible understandings of the gist of the course, extending in-class discussions and adding meaningful examples. On the whole, the digital collaboration and discussion tools worked as intended, building a kind of widely shared spirit of cooperation, support, empathy and mutual respect.

What were my instructional strategies in using these tools and how did cognitive science inform them? First, my intention in asking the students to generate collaborative notes on the readings was to set up a continual pattern of cognitive effort and retrieval practice. In essence, I required them to process each reading twice before coming to class. (First, when they read for an initial understanding; then, again, while thinking through bits and pieces of the reading to formulate notes, comments or ideas to post to the Google Doc.) Students processed the main ideas of readings a third time when arrived in class, by talking through the readings again face-to-face, while consulting the group document, they engaged in an active and interpersonal way with the readings. Then, finally, by having groups share out their observations and perspectives on the readings, then discussing or debating them with the class as a whole, I engaged most students in yet another round of processing and retrieval practice. I might add that peer pressure — the obligation to carry a fair share of the load of producing a group document and a shared understanding — motivated most students to participate quite actively. I added a layer of complexity by periodically asking them to link current readings to earlier ones. In short, by the time we had worked through the entire cycle of reading, note-taking and discussion for any particular assignment, most students understood the texts extremely well and noted many important implications beyond a surface reading. Indeed, most student made significant and resonant connections to other texts, ideas or frameworks.

The instructional strategies behind my use of Yellowdig were different. In that case, the digital tool was intended to build a sense of community in the class as a whole and to allow students to link the ideas discussed in the classroom to their own experiences as struggling or inspired students — or as cultural outsiders. It worked spectacularly well. Most students in the course were very enthusiastic and responded quite positively and in a welcoming and affirming way to most other students’ posts. They also made many connections to current events, to their own lives and to cultural perspectives, both their own and others’, which they analyzed and critiqued in interesting ways. To be honest, reading their Yellowdig posts was almost always an immense pleasure for me. Students found this tool to be interesting, helpful and fun. And so did I.

My general conclusions?

I believe that my general design principles and the tools and resources that I chose were appropriate and had a significant impact on student engagement and learning. Still, as I prepare for the second iteration of the course, I may need to do some additional research into digital tools that may be effective for illustrating or embodying cognitive-science-informed learning principles or effective means for developing intercultural awareness and effective intercultural communication strategies.

I’m open to comments and critiques. I’d love to hear from fellow teachers and learners.


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