Asking the Math: Group-switching may spark classroom effect
Pro-thesis researchers investigate causes and tools for a strong classroom effect for change in teaching practices.
According to a study published today in The Journals of Gerontology, Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, there are five potential factors that could contribute to a group-wide positive change in teaching practice.
The study involved a sample of 47 of the top math professors from the nation’s top doctoral-granting institutions who were interested in identifying specific lessons in improving academic achievement in their classrooms. According to co-author Brooke Dahl, assistant professor of cognitive science at the University of Michigan, the professors followed the prestigious mathematical text Flow: The Biology of Information by Claude Shannon to understand how and why academics learn from one another.
“We know that topics learned in a particular setting are more likely to survive and become entrenched in memory and an individual’s expertise,” Dahl says. “Flow looked at the role of peer learning in one place and time and how a collection of people, who weren’t necessarily smarter or better than the rest of the group, could have achieved extraordinary success in a particular subject.”
The professors were asked to rate how positive they found teaching practices in their classrooms were before and after the study, and also completed standardized surveys about their math classrooms. After surveying their students, they then reported on their own individual classroom experiences. (Dahl was involved in the development of the online surveys.)
After an initial survey, the professors were assigned to one of three groups. In the first group, professors received online feedback on how their classes had performed over the previous few weeks, and the researchers emphasized the importance of collaborating with other professors to meet deadlines and work collaboratively. In the second group, the group members were required to commit to a set plan for a specific month of change to improve their classrooms and report on their experiences to one another. The third group focused on a specific classroom practice, such as better decision-making, student communication, or team-building.
Each group completed two interviews, and then, using an online questionnaire, each group measured its success in the classroom.
Overall, the results showed that the group-wide improvement program worked well.
“When professors ranked overall on the positive dimension, the group-wide effect was about 25 percent,” Dahl says. “Overall, there was an overall improvement in positive student responses in the group-wide effort, compared to the instructors who did not report that they implemented any positive classroom practices at all.”
As for the secret of a teaching effect? “The study didn’t show exactly why it worked,” Dahl says. “We know that the observed situation has a lot to do with the other factors that people are taking into account, such as the activities happening in the classroom. It’s just one particular piece of the puzzle.”
In addition to helping professors identify and understand the key sources of group-wide effects, the researchers will also assess if the group-wide efforts may be possible for individual instructors.
This study was one of the first to use online interventions in support of teaching effectiveness to low income, first generation high school graduates. The subjects enrolled in technical and community colleges in Massachusetts, Hawaii, and New Mexico.
“We can explore how learning in classrooms is positively related to our students’ academic performance in particular, but there are all sorts of ways to use different conditions in different places to detect these group effects,” Dahl says. “I think this is an interesting area to delve into. It will help us look beyond scientific evidence to how these findings are expressed in everyday contexts.”
Contact: Katrina Schwartz, Campus Media Relations: 734-764-2220, [email protected]