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Jan 20 2012 CAE workshop notes January 27, 2012

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, teaching.
Tags: , , , , , ,

These are some notes from a Center for Astronomy Education workshop run by Michael Lopresto at UMich on Jan 20, 2012. In a few places, ideas were mentioned and I have expanded on them. I’m sure there were also ideas I missed.

Learn more about the CAE, and get access to all sorts of great astro teaching resources at the CAE website: Astronomy101.jpl.nasa.gov

References for learner centered science instruction:

The first work in this area was done in physics.

Hake et.al showed dramatic results with collaborative learning: “Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses” http://web.mit.edu/rsi/www/2005/misc/minipaper/papers/Hake.pdf

Eric Mazur’s think pair share pedagogy showed remarkable improvement in understanding and retention or physics, but perhaps more interestingly, he showed an improved attitude about physics.  “Peer Instruction, A Users Manual” http://ajp.aapt.org/resource/1/ajpias/v67/i4/p359_s2

Astronomy Education Review, an online journal for astro ed http://aer.aas.org/

Specific references:

“A National Study Assessing the Teaching and Learning of Introductory Astronomy Part II: The Connection between Student Demographics and Learning” http://aer.aas.org/resource/1/aerscz/v9/i1/p010107_s1

“Using Visual Assessments and Tutorials to Teach Solar System Concepts in Introductory Astronomy” http://link.aip.org/link/aerscz/v9/i1/p010101/s1

“Seven Concepts for Effective Teaching” http://link.aip.org/link/aerscz/v10/i1/p010401/s1

“What Are They Talking About? Lessons Learned from a Study of Peer Instruction” http://aer.aas.org/resource/1/aerscz/v7/i1/p37_s1

Teaching and Learning Astronomy in the 21st Century http://www.mendeley.com/research/21st-century-teaching-and-learning-part-1/

How People Learn http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309070368

Comparing a lecture with a tutorial in introductory astronomy http://iopscience.iop.org/0031-9120/45/2/012


Lecture is still an important part of class, but students only retain 10% of what you tell them, so choose your lecture carefully. The average attention span is about 22 minutes – lecture 20 min (or less), then break out & do something else.

It is important to sell the idea of peer instruction to them. There will always be someone in a large class who thinks they are paying for the “sage on the stage” and they won’t really cooperate – don’t push them, you can’t force collaboration. However, most people will be willing to try if you can convince them that they will learn more, and it will be more interesting.

A side note on clickers – students get very upset if they think you’re making them spend $40 on a device to take attendance, so it is important to use clickers for more than that. Some profs (notably Ed Prather) use lettered flash cards instead, and skip the attendance. Whether you give them points or not, you need to sell them on the idea that coming to class and engaging is valuable.



Think pair share is a good technique for clickers:

  • Pose a question
  • If 2/3 to 3/4 give the correct answer, move on.
  • If less than that get it right, make them move to someone who voted different & discuss. The best results are achieved if you actually have them find someone who answered differently and discuss the answer, but the classroom and density of students can make this hard.
  • Listen in, when the conversation changes to other topics, take the vote again.

When grading the questions, you can set the clicker software to give points for responses only to the first question, then grade for the correct answer the second time. If you don’t need to re-pose the question, grade based on the correct answer the first time.

When deciding on how to assign points for clicker questions, consider the findings in “What Are They Talking About? Lessons Learned from a Study of Peer Instruction”  (too high stakes actually stifles conversation)

Suggestions for clickers:

  • Start the day with a couple of questions from last time, to check retention. Make these graded (more points for correct answers) but only do a think-pair-share if you really trip them up (like <50% answer correctly, or if the 1/3 that gets it wrong chooses the misconception.)
  • End with a question or two on the material for next time to check for misconceptions or previous knowledge. Make these low stakes (points for responding, not for correct answers)

One of the CAE’s major projects is building a bank of questions. They will also accept additions to bank if you have questions you want to submit. In the meantime, the book Peer Instruction for Astronomy has lots of good questions, and a CD you can copy the questions from.

Tutorials and Related work

Best practice seems to be not to collect and grade these, but to use them as the basis for exam questions and other high-stakes assessment (ie ensure that they will be a good study guide.)

Lecture Tutorials

Lecture Tutorials are supposed to be 5 min per page, 20 min per activity. You can get it packaged with any Pearson or Addison Wesley textbook, or have students purchase it separately (you can also get LT packaged with MastringAstronomy and a planisphere without a textbook, for about a third of the cost of a textbook.)

Students will take much longer than 20 minutes if you let them, so keep them moving along.

In many of them, there are questions where they are given statements by “Student 1” and “Student 2”. Ask a student to read Student 1’s statement out loud, then ask the class to discuss whether or not they agree with all or part of that student. Repeat or Student 2. There is a strong tendency for students to believe it is an either/or choice, so this works especially well if both Students are wrong (or right) in some way.

Ask questions they should be able to figure out based on the questions in the tutorial, but that aren’t quite the same as the question in the tutorial. For example, in the Blackbody Radiation tutorial, have them look at question 10, then ask them for everything that color can tell you.

Watch out for and address common misconceptions like the relationship between color and age (all red stars are old/evolved). Try t prevent these from forming. Questions meant to test for these misconceptions make great questions to start the next class.

Ranking tasks

Ranking tasks are available on CAE website and in MasteringAstronomy, but not in LT

These are activities that require student to put things in order (just like they sound)


Mike usually has assigned reading and requires them to turn in answers to questions before class. He spot checks for completion only.

CTools Test Center is handy for giving short reading quizzes

Using the material in class without spoon-feeding it to them is the best way to ensure they do the reading

Short activities:

See “Using Visual Assessments and Tutorials to Teach Solar System Concepts in Introductory Astronomy”  (LoPresto)
5 minute activities to access if they understood reading, replaces most of the lecture on a topic (if they can get it from the reading, you don’t need to tell them about it again.)

Students do the activity, then discuss the drawings. They share their drawings w/ each other, see where the differences are, figure out what the correct drawing actually is.

More gains in understanding than w/ lect only

Data shows that retention also improves with tutorials

inquiry based labs

CRLT has a course on inquiry based labs (best for smaller groups, like discussion section)

Students develop their own lab based on a few questions rather than following a recipe. They usually come up with something similar to the traditional lab.

look for Backward-Faded Scaffolding in literature.

All of these activities (actually doing things themselves) aid in the development of competences, especially quantitative skills

Some thoughts that don’t fit in elsewhere:

Establish course goals early in the planning stages.

  • Goals can be general, or specific: e.g “use astronomical concepts to give appreciation for the scientific method”, “do some astronomy”, “develop tools to be life-long learner interested in science” or “Learn to use a graph”
  • Make sure to also give yourself specifics that will show you that you/the students achieved these goals, e.g. “students are bringing news stories to your attention without being required to find them”, or “students complete a project that requires looking through a telescope.”

You will need to drop some stuff, but probably not as much as you think. Use the short activities and reading to replace some time you traditionally would have spent in lecture. Other examples: if you’re going to do an activity that includes a table with planet data, you don’t need to show them planet data in lecture. They are more likely to remember something they use than something they hear (see “Comparing a lecture with a tutorial in introductory astronomy”.) If you can’t add to what the book says, don’t lecture about it, have them use it.

Be cautious of the word “brightness” – it means different things to different people. Even if you “train” them that “brightness” = luminosity and “appearance” = flux, you could trip someone up on an exam because under pressure, they slip back to their original belief of the meaning of the word. Sometimes, it’s better to use the jargon.

The magnitude system may be antiquated, but if one of your goals is to get them to become amateur or professional astronomers, you may want to spend at least enough time to make sure they know the system exists and it’s kind of weird. However, if your primary goal is armchair astronomers (or just getting them through the class) and you don’t need magnitude for any activities, it’s a convenient topic to drop.

There are now many different concept inventories available. They can be used to assess student knowledge before stating a unit and again after completing the unit to check understanding, then latter in the semester to check retention. Since many of these are used at multiple institutions, it also allows a comparison of teaching techniques with large data sets. Many are available on the CAE website or through the AER,

Mike thinks children are born scientists, but data sets are so small they lose faith in the method. Part of our job is convincing them that the method is valid, and teaching them how to acquire a good data set.

Interesting warmup things, like today’s APOD, Science News, or CNN Science can get people oriented and focused before really getting into class, and gives them a few resources to become lifelong astronomy learners.



1. @polarisdotca - January 27, 2012

Sounds like a great workshop. Michael’s enthusiasm for teaching “Astro 101” is infectious – just listening to him, Ed, Gina and the other CAE folks is enough to get you excited!

Maybe you mentioned it and I just missed it but don’t forget about the terrific collection of ClassAction peer instruction questions at


There, you can also find ranking tasks


and the terrific, interactive simulations (think PhET for astronomy):


While you’re there, be sure to check the Mobile tab for Kevin’s growing collection of Javascript/HTML5 simulations that run on your smartphone. Yes, no flashfail! The HR diagram sim is very cool!


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