Rajiv Jhangiani, Ph.D.

Open Education, SoTL, Psychology

Category: Students

Why have students answer questions when they can write them?

Questions by Alan Levine (CC-BY 2.0). Retrieved from https://flic.kr/p/mrQ1x1

Questions by Alan Levine (CC-BY 2.0). Retrieved from https://flic.kr/p/mrQ1x1

I recently trialled a new assignment in my Social Psychology class: During each of the 10 weeks when there was no scheduled exam I asked my students to write multiple-choice questions. That’s right, they wrote questions instead of merely answering them.

From a pedagogical perspective, I really wanted my students to achieve a deeper level of understanding (e.g., the level it takes in order to craft three plausible distractors). However, this assignment also served a pragmatic purpose in that the open textbook that I use for this course (and that I helped revise) does not yet have a readymade question bank.  By asking my students to craft and peer-review multiple-choice questions based on the concepts covered that week (and scaffolding this process over the semester), I considered I had a budding open pedagogy project on my hands.

Here’s how it went:

  1. The students were asked to write 4 questions each week, 2 factual (e.g., a definition or evidence-based prediction) and 2 applied (e.g., scenario-type).
  2. For the first two weeks they wrote just one plausible distractor (I provided the question stem, the correct answer, and 2 plausible distractors). They also peer reviewed questions written by 3 of their (randomly assigned) peers. This entire procedure was double blind and performed using Google forms for the submission and Google sheets for the peer review.
  3. For the next two weeks they wrote two plausible distractors (the rest of the procedure was the same).
  4. For the next two weeks they wrote all 3 plausible distractors (the rest of the procedure was the same).
  5. For the remainder of the semester they wrote the stem, the correct answer, and all the distractors.

I adapted existing guidelines about how to write effective multiple-choice distractors and how to provide constructive peer feedback and produced these two brief guides:

Guidelines for writing effective distractors for multiple-choice questions

Guidelines for providing constructive peer feedback

The result? My small class of 35 students wrote 1400 questions in the span of 10 weeks! And although I wouldn’t consider this a polished question bank ready for use by other instructors, I still consider this assignment to have been a success because the questions steadily improved over the semester (the experience of serving as peer reviewers was especially useful to the students when constructing their own questions). The students were also buoyed and motivated by my practice of including a few of their best questions on each of the three course exams. Looking forward, I plan to have my next cohort of Social Psychology students revise and add to this bank. I figure that it will take only a couple of semesters for us to provide the commons with a high-quality question bank, something that will enable even more instructors to adopt this open textbook.

If you have attempted something similar or would even like to collaborate with me on this assignment, please write a comment below or otherwise get in touch. Your feedback is very welcome.

Pilot testing open pedagogy

This summer, as has become usual practice for me, I adopted open textbooks for my Introductory Psychology and Social Psychology sections (produced by NOBA and the BC Open Textbook Project, respectively); however, my desire to enjoy a semester entirely free from traditional textbooks was challenged by the absence of a high quality open textbook for Cognitive Psychology. Continue reading

A Faculty Perspective on Open Textbooks

Recently I have found myself at many meetings and events (e.g., the Open Textbook summit) centered on Open Education. Despite my non-representativeness due to self-selection, I am often called upon at these meetings to represent the “faculty perspective.”

As much as I would love to do this, in my experience, there is no single faculty perspective on open education in general and open textbooks in particular. Some, like myself, are early adopters. Others are willing to go along if their concerns are addressed. Still others remain skeptical and resistant. And there are many views in between, many of which contain a mixture of curiousity, interest, and concern. And this is not a bad thing. Academic freedom is sacred. And, at least in my experience, a faculty members’ teaching philosophy is often intimately connected with their openness to openness.

Most faculty I know consider the cost to students when assigning a textbook for their courses. For them, shifting to an open textbook (assuming one is available) provides a clear advantage. Students can download and use a digital copy of the textbook for free or even print a physical copy at a fraction of the cost of a traditional textbook. At a time when a growing number of students are attempting to hold down full-time jobs while pursuing their post-secondary educational ambitions, this is a tangible benefit with a human face. Every semester I notice students in my classes who elect not to purchase the course textbook (despite cautionary notes from me) due to financial constraints. My colleagues report the same. In the battle between groceries and a textbook, the textbook loses every time.

This is especially true given the increase in the price of a traditional textbook over the past decade. We cannot fault our students for questioning the value of their (forced) purchase. As an example, the textbook I previously assigned for Research Methods in Psychology (which just happens to be the most popular textbook for this course in BC) is a softcover book printed in black ink that runs 416 pages long and retails for $114.95 + taxes & shipping. I should say that it is a great book and well written. But, in contrast, the Canadian edition of the open textbook for Research Methods in Psychology that I revised includes colour graphics throughout, runs 378 pages long and costs my students nothing. If they wish to order a print copy of the book it will cost them $13.06 + taxes & shipping. At least on price, there is no contest.

So why are faculty not yet adopting open textbooks more widely?

1. Quite simply, for many disciplines and courses, there is no open textbook available. So other than putting together a set of existing open educational resources, the nontraditional options are limited. I should say here that cost-saving alternatives like e-textbooks put forward by the big publishers are often a terrible option for students because they come with a time-limited license and have no resale value, which means that they often end up costing the students the same (or even more) in the long run, as compared with biting the bullet and buying the assigned traditional textbook.

2. In my experience, reason #2 has to do with concerns about quality (e.g., comprehensiveness, clarity, currency, etc.). Some faculty are instantly skeptical of open textbooks and hold them to a higher standard than traditional textbooks. This is fair, because traditional textbooks typically have several sets of eyes on them through their development and are later sent to many other faculty for their review. Although some open textbook initiatives (such as the BC Campus Open Textbook Project) collect and post comprehensive faculty reviews for the books in their repository, others do not. Where available, open textbooks or chapters written by leading scholars (e.g., the NOBA project) are especially helpful in countering doubts about quality.

3. But let’s imagine that a high quality open textbook is available for a particular course. Sometimes these are entirely text-based – no illustrations, charts, or graphics to aid comprehension. No questions or critical thinking exercises embedded. No online learning management system available that students can rely on for formative feedback. And, crucially for many faculty, no testbank, which means that the instructor is then obligated to write every question for every assessment for their course. Considering the amount of time it takes to write good test questions that are reliably able to distinguish between different levels of understanding, this is a tall order.

4. The choice of textbook is sometimes not an individual one. Especially for large, multi-section introductory courses (sometimes offered in two halves), in order to facilitate student mobility, academic departments often mandate that faculty adopt the same textbook across all sections. This reality often makes switching to an open textbook a less nimble decision.

One of the myths I often try to dispel is that faculty are the enemy and have some great stake in upholding the traditional textbook model. To be clear – assuming they are not the author, faculty do not receive any benefit when they assign a particular publisher’s textbook. Faculty are, however, deeply concerned about student learning. For this reason I believe that if faculty are presented with an open textbook alternative that has been favourably reviewed by other faculty, embeds good pedagogical features, and has an available testbank, it would be more difficult for the majority to continue upholding the status quo.

Beyond merely speaking to the legitimate concerns of faculty, however, I find it more refreshing to speak to the additional advantages that open textbooks bring to faculty:

1. Faculty have the ability to adapt and remix the textbook to suit their needs. They may choose to delete specific chapters or sections or even write and insert sections for their open textbook, making it possible to incorporate recent developments in research and theory much faster than the traditional textbook’s five-year review cycle permits. In other words, an increase in academic freedom!

2. There is some evidence to suggest that when an open textbook is carefully adapted to suit a particular program, student performance and retention is actually enhanced.

3. The ideal textbook does not exist. My colleague Takashi Sato at Kwantlen Polytechnic University recently made this excellent point. There are always tradeoffs that faculty make when adopting a textbook. Often it is a question of whether the content is “good enough,” assuming that several other resources are in place. For the reasons listed above, open textbooks are very often better than “good enough.”

4. As soppy as this sounds, the looks on your students’ faces when you tell them that you have adopted an open textbook. You have them at hello.

5. Although this post is about open textbooks, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the open research movement is a natural and strong ally, particularly when addressing faculty. Open access journals like PLOS ONE have become mainstream as researchers have come to appreciate the need for the fruit of their labour (and public tax coffers) to be shared with the public. In many ways, open textbooks are merely an extension of this same philosophy and permit faculty to live more closely in concert with their values.

Of course there are many remaining issues to work on before open textbooks can go mainstream. The sustainability of who will continue to revise and update the open textbooks is one such question. Government support and resource sharing agreements help a great deal. But ultimately I believe that it is institutional culture that will need to shift. A university’s strategic priorities need to include moving towards open education. From the president’s office down, open education initiatives need to be supported for these to develop and mature. This includes time releases for faculty adapting/adopting open textbooks, institutional recognition of this work, practical and regularly offered professional development workshops, and the consideration of the development of open educational resources in the files of those on the tenure-track.

I recently met a student from the University of Regina who spoke eloquently about why we should avoid pitting different stakeholders (e.g., faculty and students) against one another. I believe she is correct. There is not just one reason to consider adopting open textbooks. The benefits to students are obvious, the benefits to faculty can be highlighted, and the benefits to the institution (e.g., with recruitment) may need to be spelled out. Open textbooks represent a rare win-win-win scenario, the kind we do not see very often in post-secondary education.

To finish, I ask you to engage in a useful thought exercise: Imagine a world in which open textbooks, open research, open pedagogy, and open educational resources are the norm. In this future world, imagine that a representative from a for-profit publishing house approaches a faculty member in order to persuade them to adopt one of their textbooks. What would their pitch look like? And what could they possibly say that would convince faculty to adopt their product?

Asking for a Letter of Reference

I often get approached by students asking for a letter of reference. To be honest, merely being asked is often a wonderful validation of how the student in question perceives you. And writing a letter of reference (an art in itself) is a joyful exercise when you know the individual well and believe in their abilities. But too often the student is simply one name amid a class of 200. They might have done well enough in terms of their grades in the course, but often they have never visited my office hours, hung around after class for a chat, or even participated actively enough in class to stick out in my memory. What to do then?

In these cases I typically advise the student that, given our limited personal contact, any letter I write could only really discuss their performance in the course (interpreted via formal, summative assessments). Of course, I could include information also listed in their cv, but none of this amounts to the kind of reference they really need (or are hoping for). I believe the ethical approach here is to be open and honest with the student and then let them decide. A letter from someone who knows them well enough to comment on their character and performance over a longer period of time is far more valuable (having been on the receiving end of many letters of reference I can also attest that a lukewarm letter of reference is often rather damning). In short, the question they should ask me is not “would you please write me a letter of reference?” but instead “do you feel you could write me a strong letter of reference?”