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Genius Is One Percent Innovation

BU classroom stars share teaching strategies today


Video games are great teachers, a presenter will tell attendees at today’s Instructional Innovation Conference. Photo by Steve Ryan

“More and more commonly, students irritate their instructors by playing video games on their laptops instead of paying attention in class. Who wants to listen to a boring lecture when a more entertaining experience awaits?”

Candid words in a paper by postgraduate Nicholas Carlo DiDonato (GRS’16), who proposes that professors counter with a time-tested strategy: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. “While class will never be as entertaining as a video game,” DiDonato says, “instructors can still learn important pedagogical lessons from video games.” As a teaching assistant at a New Jersey prep school, he tried to copy video games’ mesmerizing power in his classroom instruction by adopting the mindset of the gizmos’ designers and fans—and he suggests BU professors do the same.

His is one of almost three dozen presentations at the third annual Instructional Innovation Conference, being held today at the Metcalf Trustee Center. Run by the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching, the conference showcases strategies for impassioning students about learning. This year’s features presentations from professors and teaching assistants across the University.

The conference drew 141 attendees the first year and 94 last year. “Anecdotally, people have told me that they have gotten many ideas from the conference that have sparked new thinking about their own courses,” says center director Janelle Heineke, a School of Management professor. “It’s intended to be an opportunity to share with colleagues.”

So how do you make a classroom as absorbing as a video game? DiDonato offers three suggestions: first, by requiring students’ classroom presentations to build on previous ones by their peers, and by using the content of those presentations in exam questions. Students thereby have an active part in scripting the class, just as video games allow them to script add-on features to games.

Second, professors can reward class participation, just as video technology rewards repeated game-play by making successful players more powerful in each round. A professor can gradually expand students’ choice of assignments as the semester progresses, ultimately lessening the assignment load at the end for students who successfully complete initial assignments. Finally, video games addict players partly by offering various choices and outcomes, coaxing people to play again and again. DiDonato suggests that professors can do the same by supplementing mandatory readings with a weekly menu of choices that students could sample, in any way, throughout the semester.

In another presentation, Emily Feinberg and her teaching assistant, Sara Donahue (SPH’11), will explain how they cast School of Public Health master’s degree students as the heads of hypothetical poor families. Students work in teams and are asked to consider how they would manage the household budget: what would you sacrifice, and for what would you hoard? How do you pay the bills when living on the edge? For many, the scenario is as alien as a lunar landing, but Feinberg, an SPH assistant professor of community health sciences, assigns the teams different family scenarios with different income levels. Students determine the hourly wage their family needs to survive in Boston and the public assistance programs they might be eligible for. The goal is to make choices leading the family to economic independence, balancing resources and preferences, and to learn the travails of poverty from empathy rather than from a text.

The students evaluate their choices in light of potential curve balls (a sudden illness preventing a parent from working, for example). A class-wide debriefing plumbs the challenges and frustrations each team encounters. As with DiDonato’s approach, the students are given choices—“the exercise is flexible and there is no right answer,” Feinberg and Donahue write in their conference paper. “Students are required to think critically as they make decisions that make sense for their family.”

Amelie Rorty’s presentation will highlight the benefits of working in teams. The College of Art & Sciences visiting professor of philosophy will explain an experiment she undertook in her Theories of Political Society course. Students were divided into four teams, and Rorty deliberately assigned all the women to the same team, instructing each team to write a paper on one of the philosophers studied in the class. (Part of the goal was finding any gender difference in how men and women perceived collaboration.)She exhorted the students to write the paper together, rather than have team members pen individual sections and cobble them together.

Rorty graded the papers blindly, without checking which team wrote a paper, she says. Later, she found that she’d given an A, the highest grade among the groups, to the female team, which had met frequently and collaborated in the writing. The lowest grade, a B minus, went to the team that disregarded her suggestion and farmed out each section of its paper to individual writers. Regardless of their grade, the students said they enjoyed the experiment, she says, learning that “the process of active collaboration deepened their thinking and improved their writing.” She plans to repeat the experiment in all her courses.

She cheerfully concedes the subjectivity involved in the experiment; another professor might have graded differently—and “isn’t that what we might expect?”

The Instructional Innovation Conference, open to all full-time and part-time BU instructors and to doctoral students, runs from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Friday, March 25, at the Metcalf Trustee Center, ninth floor, One Silber Way.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.


4 Comments on Genius Is One Percent Innovation

  • Anonymous on 03.25.2011 at 8:47 am

    She cheerfully concedes the subjectivity involved in the experiment; another professor might have graded differently—and “isn’t that what we might expect?”

    My comment: and grades measure what? The instructor’s subjectivity, at least in this model. Is that what we want?

  • Professor Cathal Nolan (History & IHI) on 03.25.2011 at 3:23 pm

    On conforming lectures to video games: First, let’s all follow the lead of a first year grad student who finds all lectures boring.

    Next, let’s assume all our students are basic pubescent males, directly subject to Pavlovian visual stimuli-respond-reward. Why not use instant feedback “clickers” as well, to keep score?

    Third, let’s assume they are permanent children, incapable of rising to adult levels of conversation about the non-superficial.

    No thank you. I, for one, shall continue in my courses on the history of war to reach students at an adult level with informed commentary on issues of lasting import. How? Through the use of imaginative language, imagery, facts and arguments of intrinsic interest, and now and then a little poetry kneeded into the dull prose dough of my lectures. CJN

  • Anonymous on 03.28.2011 at 7:36 am

    Re: CJN

    I think you’re taking this so-called conformation a bit too literally. Step back and maybe it will become more clear that DiDonato is not asking professors to surrender to the whims of “basic pubescent males” in their curricula; he is merely suggesting innovation, a different way to communicate the same ideas as initially intended. He did not suggest creating a visual interface or anything remotely approaching superficial in basis or value. If anything, he seems to be promoting a professor’s active engagement with his or her class as well as the students’. Your innovative language, imagery, facts and arguments of intrinsic interest, and occasional poetry would not be lost in DiDonato’s model.

    And, for the record, video games are not exclusively for children and adolescents.

  • Anonymous on 03.28.2011 at 11:51 am

    "She cheerfully concedes"

    In response to the “she cheerfully concedes” comment… all grades, except for those that have a clear right/wrong answer in subjects such as math and science are all determined with a bit of teacher subjectivity. While most teachers strive to be as objective as possible in their grading, if the topic of a paper is given and left to the students to interpret, there will be varying degrees of “right” and “wrong” in each paper and therefore most instructors will be forced at some point to abandon purely objective thinking in favor of subjective to determine the grade. Otherwise there would be no such thing as partial credit and all grades B-D would be irrelevant as everything would have to be either “right” or “wrong” therefore essentially be either “pass” or “fail” or “A” or “F”

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