Online Teaching 2.0: Teaching through Modeling

Coaches teach by modeling. They don't just tell a player “your swing is wrong.” They show the player the proper technique. Similarly, an apprentice learns from a master primarily by copying what they see the master do.

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Coaches teach by modeling. They don't just tell a player “your swing is wrong.” They show the player the proper technique. Similarly, an apprentice learns from a master primarily by copying what they see the master do.

Modeling is one of the most fundamental forms of teaching. Yet in higher education we often leave this powerful tool out of our teaching repertoire. We push out information to the students, and then assess them on how they apply it; but we often do not model the very technique that we expect them to learn. 

For instance, we expect students to write essays on class material, and subtract points for how far those essays fall short of the ideal essay that we could produce from our years of academic writing experience. But we don't model the process that we ourselves use to write that academic work. We don't share this expertise with our students, but expect that they somehow already come with it. 

The most important thing we can teach our students is the knowledge that defines expertise in our field. This expertise could be reading and writing academic work or solving physics problems, for example. How do we read and write academic work, or solve physics problems? This is what students come to us to learn, and we can teach that by modeling the processes that we use to produce our own work.

It has been found that students read academic work differently from their teachers, and do so in a way that causes them to miss the important points. Students tend to read academic articles for facts rather than general concepts (Rhem, 2009). They are under the mistaken belief that they will be tested on the facts, and so think that they should be looking for the facts in articles. They do not know that they should be reading for the overarching themes of the work, and as a result do not get out of the article what they are expected to get—what the teacher would get. 

Similarly, it has been found that physics students struggle with problems because they approach them in a fundamentally different manner than do their teachers. Physics experts will categorize a problem according to the underlying energy principles, such as “conservation of energy” (Chi, 1981). This immediately keys them into the processes that they will need in order to solve the problems. By contrast, students categorize problems with surface features like “circular problem.” This categorization method will often mislead them into applying the wrong formulas to solving the problems. 

Modeling processes in online courses is not hard to do. You just need to create screencasts of yourself going through the processes. Open a screencasting program such as Screencast-O-Matic, Jing, or Snagit (which now comes with screencasting capability), pull up a sample academic article or problem, and record yourself working through it, narrating the steps as you go along. Then post the video in your LMS or on a hosting site such as YouTube. 

Make sure to consider the problems that students have, or common errors that they make. Think like a master blacksmith teaching an apprentice the tricks of the trade: “See how bright red the metal is here? That means it is too hot to bend and will break. You need to let it cool to this color…” Think about the common mistakes you see your students make, and go over these in your videos.

For example, I require students to read academic articles in my medical ethics class, and so I decided to show them how I read these articles and take notes on them. I pulled up a sample article, and then explained that I first read the summary or abstract to understand the thesis that the article will establish. This helps me determine what to look for. 

I then showed them how I read for the underlying argument structure, piecing together that structure as premises and conclusions in my notes. I highlighted passages from the article and noted that I summarize the positions in my own words, and recommend that they do the same because it will help them understand the argument better than simply writing down passages verbatim. I also showed them how I read actively by thinking about potential objections to the author and writing those in my notes. I explain that this method helps me put together discussions of the articles in my own papers. Take a look at my screencast here (https://youtu.be/-JLQ-Q5AsXE).

While you are at it, record a screencast of how you grade student work. Grading is another area that we tend to keep secret from students, and thus they often do not know what we are looking for. A coach who “grades out” players after a game makes sure they understand exactly what they will be graded on. We can do the same for our students by drawing up a sample student assignment on our computer, and talking through our process of grading it. That 10-minute time investment could save you many hours of grading time in the future through improved student performance, and will be greatly appreciated by your students.

No matter what your subject, there are processes that define expertise in your field. Consider how you yourself produce the work that you expect of your students, then share your expertise with them by modeling those processes with screencast. These simple videos could be the most powerful teaching devices in your courses. 

References

Chi, M., Feltovich, P., and Glaser, R. (1981). Categorization and Representation of Physics Problems by Experts and Novices. Cognitive Science. v. 5, i. 2 

Rhem, J. (2009). Deep/Surface Approaches to Learning in Higher Education: A Research Update. Essays on Teaching Excellence Toward the Best in the Academy. v. 21, n. 8  

John Orlando is an associate director for the Northcentral University Faculty Resource Center.