tags: psychology, behavior, pedagogy, education, learning, teaching methods, model/rival technique, Avian Learning EXperiment, Avian Language EXperiment, ALEX, researchblogging.org,peer-reviewed research, journal club
ALEX the African Grey Parrot and Dr Irene Pepperberg.
Image: The ALEX Foundation.
Like anyone who has taught science courses, and probably like anyone who has ever taught anything to a classroom in the history of mankind, I’ve wondered how to motivate my students to really care about the material they are learning, beyond simply “studying for the test.” For example, I have used a group method of study where groups of 4 students are each assigned a specific task: to become an expert in a particular area and to share their knowledge with the other groups. This method is only partially successful since it is dependent upon good classroom rapport and careful management by the professor, otherwise, each group of “experts” can selectively withhold or misrepresent information that is important for developing a better understanding of the topic at hand.
Since after my postdoc funding ended, I was only occasionally hired as lowly and disposable adjunct with a very low tolerance for institutionalized bullshit, so my years as a professor of science ended some time ago, and I was not able to develop my ideas about teaching further. But a sweet little pedagogy paper was just published by Malcolm McCallum, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Texas A&M University-Texarkana. This paper describes a very interesting method for successfully teaching students how to read scientific papers. To my eyes, Dr McCallum’s teaching method looks surprisingly like the “model/rival technique” used to teach Alex the African Grey Parrot how to do all sorts of things.
Basically, the model/rival technique works like this: there are two trainers, one is a professor and the other is a “model student.” The “model student” models the desired student behavior, and is perceived by the student (in this case, the student was Alex the Gray Parrot) as being a rival for the professor’s attention. During each session, the “model student” and the student exchange roles so the student/parrot realizes that the process is interactive and flexible.
In this paper, Dr McCallum describes a common classroom situation: trying to get the students to actually read a scientific paper. You’d be surprised to learn that this is not as easy as it sounds, because reading and understanding a scientific paper is difficult. In these classes, the professor would assign a paper or series of papers and one student would act as the presentor of the paper while the others were the student “presentees.” To ensure that the “presentees” also read the paper instead of passively sitting in the classroom or texting their friends, the professor would either reward or force student questions and discussion. To do this, some faculty awarded points for each question asked. Others asked questions about the paper on exams. Frequently, “participation points” would be awarded to force individual participation.
“In fact, the many different angles used by professors in my many classes all ended the same way,” writes Dr McCallum in his paper. “Inevitably, a growing number of students did not read the papers unless they were the presenter.”
To engage all his students, Dr McCallum devised and tested an innovative method in the two-hour lab section for his senior-level environmental physiology class. The design worked like this: Dr McCallum brought two copies of 10 different manuscripts on critical thermal maxima. In this case, almost all of these manuscripts were by Victor Hutchison, and they were very similar except for the organism involved. Only one of the manuscripts was a review paper. In a classroom of 20 students or less, each student was given a different manuscript. Only a few students had a duplicate paper, so almost everyone was responsible for their own article. Then, the students were given roughly 15 minutes to read their paper in class. At the end of that time, Dr McCallum asked if everyone was done. If anyone was not done reading, they were given a little more time to finish.
After everyone had finished reading their paper, Dr McCallum randomly asked one student to briefly describe what their paper was about. After they had done this, Dr McCallum asked the other student who had that same paper if the first student’s iteration followed their understanding. Invariably, the second student had things to add or ask. Then Dr McCallum randomly asked a student with a different paper to compare what they read in their manuscript to what the other two students presented. If a second student had read the same paper, Dr McCallum then asked that individual if s/he had anything to add. Then, Dr McCallum asked the presenters of the first paper if they felt that the comparison was accurate and to explain why (or why not). Dr McCallum found that continuing this scenario through approximately four papers led to a fluid discussion where only an occasional question from the professor was necessary to stimulate further participation (Figure 1):
The result of this model was not only to circumvent many lazy student behaviors, but also to improve reading comprehension by familiarizing students with how to read, process, and evaluate complex scientific manuscripts in a short period of time. To test this hypothesis, Dr McCallum included a 10-point short-answer question on an exam that asked students to discuss the topic of the papers that were discussed in class. He found that almost all of his students had at least a working knowledge of the topic and 65% earned at least 7 points on this question. When compared to the more traditional “presenter-presentee” scenario used during the previous semester, only 33% of the students earned at least 7 points on a similar question.
But even more interesting was that Dr McCallum’s students’ GRE, MCAT, and ETS major field exam scores increased significantly. For example, the class averages for raw section scores in the ETS major field test in biology increased 12% from the previous year and 50% relative to students taking the same classes with other instructors within one year of introducing this technique. Additionally, the number of students entering graduate and medical school also rose.
So what does this have to do with Alex the African Grey Parrot and the model/rival technique for teaching? The way I see this, each student takes turns being both the “model” and the “rival” for the professor’s attention. Because the professor sets up a rapidly moving group-based model/rival scenario, it challenges each student to quickly assess and improve on their own personal techniques for successfully reading and reporting on a scientific paper, thereby attracting the professor’s attention (the reward). Further, due to the structure of this scenario, where only a few (two?) students have duplicate papers, and thus, everyone possesses an important piece of the puzzle, no one student can monopolize the professor’s attention — the damaging “teacher’s pet” scenario is avoided.
This is a really exciting paper and for the first time in years, I wish I had a classroom of my own so I could try this technique myself. Do any of you, dear readers, wish to volunteer to be in an online “classroom” to see if we can translate what was described in this paper to an online setting? If so, maybe we can work together to develop an online model of our own? (On the other hand, I’ve — unknowingly — been trying to develop a modified scenario of this for my mystery birds feature for awhile now. I think it time for me to rethink what I am doing there in the light of this paper’s findings).
McCallum, M. (2010). A Method for Encouraging Classroom Discussion of Scientific Papers. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 91 (3), 363-366 DOI: 10.1890/0012-9623-91.3.363.
The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots by Irene Pepperberg (Paperback) [Amazon: $21.79].