Who’s holding the pen?, The split screen, and other ideas for one-on-one instruction

A couple months ago, the students in our Teaching Statistics class practiced one-on-one tutoring. We paired up the students (most of them are second-year Ph.D. students in our statistics department), with student A playing the role of instructor and student B playing the role of a confused student who was coming in for office hours. Within each pair, A tried to teach B (using pen and paper or the blackboard) for five minutes. Then they both took notes on what worked and what didn’t work, and then they switched roles, so that B got some practice teaching.

While this was all happening, Val and I walked around the room and watched what they did. And we took some notes, and wrote down some ideas: In no particular order:

Who’s holding the pen? Mort of the pairs did their communication on paper, and in most of these cases, the person holding the pen (and with the paper closest to him/herself) was the teacher. That ain’t right. Let the student hold the pen. The student’s the one who’s gonna have to learn how to do the skill in question.

The split screen. One of the instructors was using the board in a clean and organized way, and this got me thinking of a new idea (not really new, but new to me) of using the blackboard as a split screen. Divide the board in half with a vertical line. 2 sticks of chalk: the instructor works on the left side of the board, the student on the right. On the top of each half of the split screen is a problem to work out. The two problems are similar but not identical. The instructor works out the solution on the left side while the student uses this as a template to solve the problem on the right.

Seeing one’s flaws in others. It can be difficult to observe our own behavior. But sometimes when observing others, we can realize that we are doing the same thing ourselves. Thus I can learn from the struggles of our Ph.D. students and get ideas of how to be a better teacher myself (and then share these ideas with them and you).

Go with your strengths. One of our students (playing the role of instructor in the activity) speaks English with a strong accent (but much better than my accent when speaking French or Spanish, I’m sure). If your spoken language is hard to understand, adapt by talking less and writing more. You’ll have plenty of chances to practice your speaking skills–outside of class.

Setting expectations. When a student comes in for office hours, he or she might have one question or two, or five. And this student might want to get out of your office as quickly as possible, or he or she might welcome the opportunity for a longer lesson. How you should behave will depend a lot on what the student wants. So ask the student: What are your expectations for this session? This needn’t limit your interaction–it’s perfectly fine for someone to come in with one question and then get involved in a longer exploration–but the student’s initial expectations are a good place to start.

Any other thoughts?

If you have other ideas, please post them here. I’ve never been good at one-on-one teaching in introductory courses–I’ve always felt pretty useless sitting next to a student trying to make some point clear–but maybe with these new techniques, things will go better.

11 thoughts on “Who’s holding the pen?, The split screen, and other ideas for one-on-one instruction

  1. 1.5 points – Herbert Simon's protocal analysis and privacy

    Herbert Simon and his students did a lot of work on overcomming a experts tendencies to not be able to explain how they actually do things but create stories of how they do

    Essentially he had the experts verbalise into tape recorders as they were working through problems and the those tapes are carefully review and written up as computer code to redo the task.

    The project I had as a grad student (in MBA school) was women shopping for dresses and did not get runnable code but a fairly decent schema wriiten about (but not a lot of fun – its what Andrew refers to as work work).

    Now privacy – later my proposed MSc thesis in Biostats was to do this for sample size calculations for clinical trial (which I think would have been neat and distinctive) but no one would agree to play the role of expert.

    Also early in my consulting career I would only ask questions and not make any comments ("no matter how obvious I might have thought at the time") until I had some privacy to re-think them carefully through. The clients were not impressed at first but I think they understood it was in their interests and it worked out.

    Now to make this privacy break unobtrusive you can arrange fake calls for you to have to leave for a few minutes at appropriate times

    And then were on the experimental design and I need to get back to work work


  2. Harvard researchers found that showing two different procedures for problem solving side by side increased problem solving flexibility and conceptual knowledge. I think your split screen method might hit on these effects. Research here: http://www.uknow.gse.harvard.edu/teaching/TC312.h

    On the pencil holding, even if the student has it in their hands, they can still write without thinking. Avoid that by asking questions rather than providing explanations. It may frustrate you and the student at first, but it is so much more effective.

    Generally students have the knowledge they need, it just isn't structured well in their heads. By asking questions, you model your own thought process for accessing the needed knowledge to solve the problem. (Not just 'what happens next.' More along the lines of, 'ok, we've simplified the equation, what assumptions can we use to make it solvable?") You will still do some explaining, but the student will be lifting more of the cognitive load.

  3. Great post.
    I like all those ideas. I think the general thrust of the advice, to make teaching and tutoring about the student's needs instead of the instructor's needs is solid.

    By the way your "playroom" seems awesome and I wish I could partake.

    A thought just occured to me -have the student blog about their statistics class and homework, and comment on each other's blogs, as part of their credited homework points.

    That could work as a message board, too.

  4. Ben:

    Your suggestions make a lot of sense but are not so easy for me to implement in practice. When I try this approach–asking questions rather than giving answers–nothing happens but frustration. The student knows there's a right answer and just sits there doing nothing or else emits a series of guesses and waits for me to tell them which guess is correct. The frustrating thing for them is that they don't know what to do, that's why they're in my office in the first place.

    I'm not saying that your suggestion is a bad idea, just that there must be more to it, 'cos that's what I've always tried and it never seems to work.

  5. Raymond:

    1. Lecturing in a foreign language is much easier for me than, say, understanding an overheard conversation in that language. I can take as long as I want to prepare the lecture ahead of time.

    2. I've never delivered a lecture in Spanish, although I plan to try, next time I speak in a Spanish-speaking country.

  6. My peception is that lecturing with an accent is an advantage (as long as it's not too pronounced) because the students have to give extra attention to what is being said – they can't relax and then switch off.

  7. I was about to strongly disagree with you, Megan, but then I thought about it and I think you make a good point. I don't think a moderate accent is an advantage, but I think the dramatic concept (which I was exposed to from Marc Maron's podcast) of tension and release does help teach, and helps keep students from relaxing and tuning out. Some tension, some emotion, some conflict with intermitent resolution in the classroom is probably a good thing. Fortunately this is probably easier to incorporate into Statistics than into linear algebra or differential equations.

  8. I wonder how good students in this class are at playing confused students from other classes?

    I think it would be fairly easy to get the initial confusion right, but it might be much harder to react to instruction in the way that people who don't get it react.

  9. I know you're not a fan of How to Solve It, but, with the caveat that I don't have much experience teaching courses past stat 101 and business calc, I've always had good luck following Polya's techniques for teaching through guided questions. The more the students do on their own, the better they seem to grasp and retain the material. Perhaps more importantly, they tend to go away thinking of math as something that makes sense.

    That being said, it does seem to be easier to apply this to math (particularly algebra through cal I) than to statistics. I'm not sure how this neo-Socratic approach would work with something like logistic regression.

  10. Mark:

    Yeah, whenever I try this Socratic thing, I just feel like a fraud. I'm just sitting there waiting for the student to come up with the correct answer.

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