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Fractals, Metacognition, and the Affective Domain – A Conference Report

Posted by on Monday, February 7, 2011 in News.

by Derek Bruff, CFT Assistant Director

Back in November I attended the 30th annual Lilly Conference on College Teaching at Miami University in Ohio. I thought I’d share some session highlights with my Vanderbilt colleagues. Here’s the fourth in a series of posts about the conference.

A Fractal Thinker Ponders Bringing Faculty Development to Students: What If? – Ed Nuhfer, California State University-Channel Islands

I was really looking forward to this session with Ed Nuhfer, and I wasn’t disappointed. I know Ed, a geoscientist and faculty developer, by reputation and I’ve read some of his work (mostly in the National Teaching & Learning Forum), but I had never attended a conference session of his.

Ed’s known for his use of fractals as a metaphor for learning. It was great to hear about this metaphor first hand. Check out his slides for a visual description of the metaphor. Here’s the basic idea, as I understood it: Just as a fractal is a complex shape generated by surprisingly simple rules, learning is a complex endeavor generated by a few simple activities. Student affect (their beliefs, ethics, values, feelings, and so on) is the foundation of learning. Students who are motivated to learn start to engage with the content to be learned. Teachers provide assistance and feedback along the way, and students make sense of that feedback to improve their learning and engage in metacognition.

Repetition of these processes leads to learning, which Ed described as “growing a brain.” I believe he meant that at least somewhat literally, since learning involves physical changes to the neurons in one’s brain. He also noted that doing so takes time and effort, which is one reason the affective component is so important.

My favorite part of the fractal metaphor was Ed’s take on assessment. He said that measuring learning is difficult because it’s like measuring a fractal: Different measuring tools produce different measures. Check out Benoit Mandelbrot’s classic article, “How Long is the Coast of Britain?” for more on this idea. I love it.

Ed’s thesis for this session was a great one: As little training as most faculty receive in how to teach, students receive even less training in how to learn! Sure, some students take a study skills course or two, but many of those (I think) focus more on time management than cognitive science. Ed argued that students benefit from learning how learning happens.

One way Ed has tried to teach them this is to volunteer to give guest lectures in his colleagues’ classes when they’re out of town. He takes the opportunity to teach his colleagues’ students something about learning during those guest lectures. Among other things, he shows students brain scans illustrating the parts of the brain that are active when we engaging in activities such as speaking words, generating words, seeing words, and hearing words. (See his slides for examples.) He uses these brain scans to make the case for cooperative learning, since cooperative learning involves multiple tasks and thus activates multiple regions of the brain.

Ed advocated a “learning across the curriculum” movement in which every instructor takes a little time during his or her course to teach students about learning. This would, of course, require instructors to learn a bit about learning themselves, which is not a bad thing.

Ed’s point about teaching students about learning reminded me of conversations I’ve had with faculty members and administrators frustrated by the ways that students view the course evaluation systems used at most colleges and universities. How can students meaningfully assess their learning experience in a course if they don’t have a operational understanding of the learning process? And how can instructors and administrators make sense of student assessments of a course if there’s no shared understanding of learning and the teaching that leads to it? Teaching students about learning won’t solve this problem, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Thinking about my own teaching, Ed’s comments lead me to wonder why I don’t teach my students about transfer, the process by which we leverage understanding in one context to solve problems in other contexts. I certainly require my students to “do” transfer in my math courses! Why not be more explicit with them about the skills and experiences required to transfer knowledge gained here to solve problems over there? At the very least, doing so might help my students understand why the problems on their exams don’t look exactly like the problems in their homework.

Ed finished by focusing on the roles that the affective domain in general and student motivation in particular play in learning. Ed shared a summary of Krathwohl’s taxonomy of the affective domain that I found easy to understand:

  • Receiving – Willingness to pay attention to an idea
  • Responding – Willingness to react to the idea in some way
  • Valuing – Willingness to be perceived by others as valuing the idea to some extent
  • Organizing – Incorporating the value of the idea meaningfully into an existing value system
  • Characterizing – Acting consistently with the now-internalized value

Here’s an example I thought of that illustrates some of these steps: Greg Kulowiec teaches history at a high school in Massachusetts. I’ve blogged about his innovative use of educational technology in the past. He’s constantly trying new teaching tools with his students, and he frequently blogs and tweets about his experiments. Back in October he had his students create CommonCraft-style videos about the history of Islam. You can see a few examples on Greg’s blog. The fact that his students created these videos with any quality at all indicates that Greg achieved the “receiving” and “responding” steps of Krathwohl’s taxonomy.

Moreover, Greg tweeted that a few of his students shared the videos they created on their Facebook pages! This indicates that at least some of his students moved to the “valuing” step in the taxonomy. That is, they were willing to be perceived by their friends and family as valuing the study of the history of Islam. Did they incorporate the value of studying this history into their personal value systems, the “organizing” step? I can’t say, but at least Greg has good evidence that they arrived at the “valuing” step.

If you buy that the affective domain is an important part of learning and if you buy that “valuing” step is an important component of the affective domain, then I think it follows that students need to be able to share the work they do in a course with others, either other students in the course or people outside the course. For students to be willing to be perceived as valuing the study of some topic, it must be possible for them actually to be seen studying it. This provides a rationale for using social media tools to open at least some of our students’ learning to some broader community.

For more on Krathwohl’s taxonomy and the affective domain’s role in education, see the fantastic web module on the affective domain hosted by the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College. Ed was a contributor to that module. See also my past blog posts (on my personal blog) on student motivation for ideas on tapping into the affective domain in your teaching.

Image: “Fractal Landscape,” Ken Douglas, Flickr (CC)

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