Tips for Students
Gosling has a few important tips for students entering a world dominated, at least for the moment, by online classes.
Eliminate Distractions. Put your phone away. “We absolutely know from studies that even if your phone is switched off and on the table next to you, it just being in your peripheral vision is enough to distract you. If you are at home take your phone and leave it in another room. You do not need to be texting people.”
Likewise, if you’re on a desktop close Twitter, Facebook or whatever else you might have open.
Get Engaged. “Ask yourself why you are here,” he says. “You don’t have to be here. You didn’t have to go to university. You didn’t have to go to UT, but you did, so do it properly, and that means engage.”
He says he applies the same lesson to himself. “There are times when I’m doing all of these chores — the admin work, the research — and I’m just trying to get the things done. What I’ve learned is that it’s much more pleasurable, and I do it much better, if I just make a mental decision to do this and do it properly, to really engage with it.”
And don’t think you are engaged just because you have taken notes. “Writing something down is not the same as learning it,” he says. “Even worse is highlighting. Students somehow think it’s some magical process where if you highlight a sentence the knowledge goes up the highlighter, up your arm and into your brain. It doesn’t do that!” he says with a laugh.
“There has to be active engagement. Ask yourself questions. When someone’s lecturing, ask: ‘How does that apply to my life? What would be another case of that?’ Be sure you’re actively and critically engaged, not just listening, but thinking about it. ‘Wait a minute — that doesn’t make sense. A few minutes ago they said something that sounded like the opposite!’”
In the online world, that might mean not taking notes the first time you watch something — just listening and thinking about it — and maybe taking notes the second time.
Tips for Teachers
Gosling acknowledges the incredible amount of work it takes to create an online course from the ground up. Here are a few ideas to improve teaching in this new world.
Break It Up. His first piece of advice for members of the faculty is to think in terms of smaller modules that can be put together in different ways. “Don’t lecture for more than seven or eight minutes. Break it up. Give them some kind of survey or show a video or do a demonstration. Really think about all the different things you can do and break them up into parts.”
“Next year if you have to redo your course, you can say, maybe this module goes with another lecture.”
One of the most effective segments in his class is “In the Experts Chair,” in which another faculty member in the department makes a guest appearance and Gosling and Harden interview them. These interviews might be as short as 10 minutes.
Frequent Testing. Another finding that comes from their research is the importance of frequent testing. “In our class, we have a high-stakes test at the beginning of every single class that counts toward the final grade, because it’s incredibly important to get feedback on what you know and what you don’t. This is one of the great advantages of an online class. In an in-person class of 500 students, there is no way to test all the students every class, mark all of their papers, and give them their grade back right away. But if we can do it through the computer, that means students every week learn how much they know and don’t know.
“The obvious benefit of this is that when you think you know something but you don’t know it, you can concentrate on that. The other benefit is when you really know something very well, there’s no point in studying it for another hour. You want to be well calibrated.”
Gosling says that without frequent testing, students, especially freshmen, often will flub their first test, three or four weeks into a course, but write it off as a fluke since they did so well in high school. If they then flub their midterm, now it’s too late to dig out of that hole. “In our course, if you do badly on a test in your second-ever class, you might say that was a fluke, but then three days later you have another test and do badly. By the third class you know that you need to adapt, to go see the professor or TA. Frequent testing does not permit students to be deluded about their performance.”