Author Archives: Gregory Crowther

Evidence-based teaching: when evidence is not enough
Gregory J. Crowther, PhD
Everett Community College

On June 23, Dr. Chaya Gopalan of Southern Illinois University spoke at the APS Institute of Teaching and Learning on the topic of “The Flexibility of Using the Flipped Classroom as a Virtual Classroom During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The presentation was great — full of empirical data, practical tips, and audience participation.

One of the questions that arose was, assuming that one is flipping a class with video lectures, how long should those video lectures be? I can’t remember what Chaya said about this at the time, but many others used the chat window to weigh in. They mostly argued that shorter is better, with 10-12 minutes being a commonly prescribed upper limit.

The author droning on during a long video lecture.

I had heard this “shorter is better” mantra many times before, and believed that it was well-supported by the literature. Still, I had resisted any impulse to shorten my own videos. I was already generating one video per chapter per course — 50 videos per quarter in all. If I divided each video into four shorter videos, that would be 200 videos per quarter to manage. Couldn’t my students just hit “pause” and take breaks as needed?

Thus, the video-length issue was making me increasingly uncomfortable. I think of myself as an evidence-based teacher, yet I seemed unwilling to go where the evidence was pointing.

Having battled myself to an impasse, I decided to email Chaya. I wrote:

…If you — as an expert flipper who has read the literature and published your own papers on this — were to tell me, “Come on, Greg, the evidence is overwhelming — for the good of your students you just need to make your videos shorter — stop whining and do it!” then I probably would comply. So … what do you think?

Chaya declined to respond with an ultimatum, but she did note that her own videos vary greatly in length — from 8 minutes to an hour! A lot of this variation is topic-specific, she said; some “stories” need to be told as a single chunk, even if it takes longer to do so.

Chaya’s point about chunking the material according to natural breakpoints was exactly what I needed to hear. While the idea of shortening videos because “shorter is better” did not itself inspire me, the idea of finding those breakpoints and reorganizing the material accordingly seemed utterly worthwhile. Maybe this would help my students more easily track their progress within each chapter. And off I went — I was finally ready to shorten my videos!

So, what lessons can be extracted from this bout of navel-gazing?

The thing that jumps out at me is this: my long-held resistance to a fairly mild idea (“make your videos shorter!”) was suddenly overcome not by conclusive new research, but by a subtle shift in perspective. When Chaya made a particular point that happened to resonate with me, I now wanted to make the change that I had been guiltily avoiding for months.

This was — for me, at least — a valuable reminder that, while evidence-based teaching is undoubtedly a good thing, behavior is rarely changed by evidence alone. There’s just no substitute for direct conversations in which open-minded people with shared values can stumble toward a common understanding of something.

It may be slightly heretical for me to say so, but I’ll take a good conversation over a peer-reviewed paper any day.

Greg Crowther teaches human anatomy and physiology at Everett Community College (north of Seattle). He is the co-creator of Test Question Templates, a framework for improving the alignment of biology learning activities and summative assessments.

What if your students went to a lecture . . . and a concert broke out?

In June I attended the American Physiological Society’s Institute on Teaching and Learning (ITL) for the first time.  It was a fantastic week of presentations, workshops, and networking, from the opening keynote address on “Student-instructor interactions in a large-group environment” by Prem Kumar (University of Birmingham, UK) to the closing plenary talk on “Inclusive practices for diverse student populations” by Katie Johnson (Beloit College).

 

The week is hard to summarize concisely, yet I can easily identify my most memorable moment.  That occurred on Wednesday morning (June 20th).  Robert Bjork, a UCLA psychologist, had just delivered a fascinating plenary talk on learning, forgetting, and remembering information.  He had reviewed several lines of evidence that the memorization process is more complicated than tucking facts into a mental freezer where they persist forever.  Instead, the timing and context of information retrievals can profoundly affect the success of subsequent retrievals.

 

At the end of the lecture, I stood up with a question (or possibly a monologue masquerading as a question). “It seems that maintaining long-term memories is a really active, dynamic process,” I said. “The brain seems to be constantly sorting through and reassessing its memory ‘needs,’ somewhat like the way the kidney is constantly sifting through the plasma to retain some things and discard others. Is that a reasonable analogy?”

 

“Yes it is,” he answered politely.  “Perhaps,” he added, “you could write a paper on the ‘kidney model’ of how the brain learns.”

 

“I can do even better than that,” I said.  “Here’s a song I wrote about it!”  And I launched into an impromptu a cappella rendition of “Neurons Like Nephrons” (http://faculty.washington.edu/crowther/Misc/Songs/NLN.shtml).

 

The audience clapped along in time, then erupted with wild applause!  That’s how I prefer to remember it, anyway; perhaps others who were there can offer a more objective perspective.

 

In any case, singing is not just a mechanism for hijacking Q&A sessions at professional development conferences; it can also be done in the classroom.  And this example of the former, while unusual in and of itself, hints at several useful lessons for the latter.

 

  1. Unexpected music gets people’s attention. In truth, I have no idea whether most ITL attendees found my song fun or helpful. Still, I’m quite sure that they remember the experience of hearing it.  Now think about your own courses.  Are there any particular points in the course where you desperately need students’ undivided attention?  Unexpected singing or rapping is amazingly effective as an attention-grabber, even (especially?) if the performer is not a gifted musician.  Don’t be afraid to use this “nuclear option.”

 

  1. Music is not just for “making science fun” and memorizing facts. Many teachers and students who support the integration of music into science courses do so because they think it’s fun and/or useful as a mnemonic device. Both reasons are legitimate; we do want our courses to be fun, and our students do need to memorize things.  But music can be much more than an “edutainment” gimmick.  “Neurons Like Nephrons” (http://faculty.washington.edu/crowther/Misc/Songs/NLN.shtml), for example, develops an analogy between the way that the brain processes information and the way that the kidney processes plasma.  It’s not a perfect analogy, but one worthy of dissection and discussion (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/11/14/imperfect-analogies-shortcuts-to-active-learning/).  Songs like this one can thus be used as springboards to critical thinking.

 

  1. The effectiveness of any musical activity is VERY context-specific. After my musical outburst at ITL, I was flattered to receive a few requests for a link to the song. I was happy, and remain happy, to provide that. (Here it is yet again: http://faculty.washington.edu/crowther/Misc/Songs/NLN.shtml.)  But here’s the thing: while you are totally welcome to play the song for your own students, they probably won’t love it.  To them, it’s just a weird song written by someone they’ve never heard of.  They won’t particularly care about it unless the production quality is exceptional (spoiler: it’s not) or unless they are going to be tested on the specific material in the lyrics.   Or unless you take other steps to make it relevant to them – for example, by challenging them to sing it too, or to explain what specific lines of lyrics mean, or to add a verse of their own.

 

 

In conclusion, music can function as a powerful enhancer of learning, but it is not pixie dust that can be sprinkled onto any lesson to automatically make it better.  As instructors, for any given song, you should think carefully about what you want your students to do with it.  That way, when the music begins, the wide-eyed attention of your incredulous students will be put to good use.

Gregory J. Crowther, PhD has a BA in Biology from Williams College, a MA in Science Education from Western Governors University, and a PhD in Physiology & Biophysics from the University of Washington. He teaches anatomy and physiology in the Department of Life Sciences at Everett Community College.  His peer-reviewed journal articles on enhancing learning with content-rich music have collectively been cited over 100 times.