The Correlation Study Icebreaker: Learn about the tools of social science and break the ice in a single class!
Looking for an Icebreaker for your first social science class?
I've used a certain icebreaker exercise in my economics classes for years, and it never ceases to amaze me. I first go over the basics of how field studies and investigative science work: how scientists will propose hypotheses, gather data, identify correlations, and then attempt to explain causal relationships.
I then ask the students (alone or in groups, depending on the class size) to develop a hypothesis that they might be able to examine by just studying the students in our class. Each student (or group) must then interview each and every student in the class in order to collect the two variables that they wish to examine. Do their classmates have any siblings? How tall are they? Do they wear corrective lenses? Do they wear a watch? How many languages do they speak? The possibilities are endless.
The students plot the data they collect on a graph, and then present both their hypothesis and their findings to the class. The study / icebreaker portion of this exercise can take place in a single 80-minute class, and the presentations can generally be completed in the next class.
Google Spreadsheets Serve Up Excellent Scatter Graphs in Three Easy Steps
Google spreadsheets provide a particularly quick and easy way to illustrate a correlation between variables. If you have access to Google Apps in your school, then a Google spreadsheet can plot the data points and illustrate correlations in three easy steps:
ii) Highlight just the two columns of data (without any names), and then click on the "Chart Wizard" button. You will see a variety of chart options, but click on "more" chart options to find the scatter graph option. (You must select the "scatter" graph option to plot correlations between variables.)
i) Set up three adjacent columns: the first column being for the names of the students interviewed (so the interviewer can track who she has and hasn't interviewed), and the next two columns being for the two variables that are being analyzed.
iii) Click on the "Customize" tab and then scroll down to exercise the options of setting your chart title, naming your X and Y axes, and even generating a line of best fit. (The line of best fit is a particularly handy feature of Google spreadsheets that Google had previously been criticized for not including. As you can see, Google Apps are constantly evolving.)
These mini-studies are a great way for students to meet and learn about each other while also exploring the tools of investigative science. Every class will inevitably find themselves exploring issues of correlation, causality, sample bias, split effects, and even post-hoc fallacies.
Try this the next time you're looking for a way to break the ice in your social science course, and let me know how it goes.
Please note: While computers help, you don't need computers to do this exercise. I did this exercise for years before my school became a laptop school. You can download a PDF below that will facilitate a pen and paper version of this exercise.
Over the years, I've seen my students make so many amazing discoveries right before my eyes. For example, did you know that people who wear watches tend to enjoy greater academic success in school? How about this one: Did you know that blue-eyed people tend to wear corrective lenses less than brown-eyed people? Finally, would you believe that people who speak two languages tend to do better in school than people who speak one - or even three - languages? These are just a few of the incredible findings that my students have unearthed during this exercise. While these are just correlations, not causations, they are still pretty amazing discoveries.
Seven Habits of Highly Effective computers: Strategies for Getting the Most out of the Computers in your Classroom
This article is an oldy but a goody. I originally published this on my website at NewLearner.com in November of 2002. What's possibly the most surprising thing about this article is how relevant most of these strategies remain twelve years later. Notwithstanding the fact that this article doesn't really speak to the use of personal devices (even laptops were extremely rare in classrooms twelve years ago), the issues of thinking, student engagement, and blended learning are even more topical today than they were when this article was originally written. Give these strategies for maximizing the benefit of computers in the classroom a quick perusal, and let me know your thoughts.
1. Physical Placement: If at all possible, computers should be placed around the perimeter of a classroom as opposed to the middle of the room. A computer that is situated so that it is between the student and the teacher will always present a potential distraction for the students. This configuration should be avoided in any room other than an actual computer studies classroom.
2. Thinking versus Grunt-work: The computer should never be assigned a task that would see it doing the thinking for the student. For example, a spreadsheet shouldn't be used to teach a grade four student basic mathematical functions. However, if it is used to calculate figures within a financial statement for a Grade Eleven student, then a spreadsheet is perfectly appropriate. In such a case, the spreadsheet isn't doing any thinking beyond what the student is capable of doing for him / herself. Rather, it is just serving to save the student time. (Especially if that student needs to correct a mistake!) In general, computers should be used to perform grunt work. Computers assigned the task of crunching numbers or searching the web for relevant resources will enable students to accomplish more sophisticated tasks than would be practical without the use of computers. Yet, such applications will not interfere with the student’s cognitive development.
3. Computers Don’t Teach: Although there are a variety of instructional programs on the market these days, a teacher shouldn't be tempted to pass the student off to such programs. Although these programs have their place within a course’s reference material or within a remediation program, they should not be used as the primary mode of instruction. The computer’s greatest shortcoming is its limited ability to answer questions. It is difficult enough for a teacher to interpret a student’s question so that he/she fully understands the student’s point of confusion. A program, at this point in time, cannot do this. We are still years away from computers that are capable of this level of fuzzy logic.
4. Make it Real: The computer, coupled with the effective use off the Internet, is a gateway to the real world, and it should be used as such. If the computer is not bringing information into the classroom that is current, relevant, and meaningful to the students, then it is a waste of resources.
5. Getting Acquainted: The teacher should be as familiar with the computer as the students are when it comes to the applications required for a given course. If we accept that teachers should be facilitating the effective use of computers in the classroom, then teachers must accept a duty of care that didn’t necessarily exist ten years ago. Just as we wouldn’t expect to see students required to complete calculator applications that are beyond the capability of the math teacher, computers shouldn't be used in a class where the teacher isn't capable of performing the required tasks. Yes, young people certainly seem to be immersed in computer culture, and yes, they seem to learn faster than adults, but that is no excuse for adults to play dead when it comes to learning computer applications. The teacher should have a pretty good idea of where the computer is going to take the students before they get there.
6. Don't Rely on Computers to Excite the Kids: Teachers should never assume that material, presented via a computer, will be any more exciting than the same material presented by a human being. Computers are new and exciting to children for about a week. After that, they are about as exciting as a nightlight. In the long run, students would much rather listen to a dynamic teacher than gawk at a computer screen. In general, a computer should not be used to replace the teaching portion of a class. Rather, they should be used to augment the active portion of a class wherein students perform research, complete labs, produce a product, or perform a task.
7. Demand Higher Levels of Thinking and Inquiry: In an era where facts and information are so readily available over the Internet, assignments should not be structured to emphasize the attainment of facts. It is probably safe to assume that most students know how to locate, copy, and paste information from the web. Teachers should therefore shy away from structuring assignments that would encourage this style of Internet abuse. Rather, students should be asked to collect and synthesize information, and then develop opinions or draw conclusions based on this information. As essays require the writer to formulate and prove an argument, teachers should be developing sound essay-writing skills in their students. It goes without saying that teachers these days are far more impressed with the student who is able to develop and articulate an argument than the student who is able to gather and present facts on a given topic.
Obviously, it's always a good idea for teachers to be tuned in to the feelings and perceptions of their students. Moreover, it's extremely useful to be able to detect trends in student achievement whenever possible. As a qualitative analysis professor of mine once said, "The world out there may seem to be just a bunch of random chaos, but there are meaningful patterns in that chaos if we know how to look for them." I've learned to look for the patterns and trends in my classes by tracking data. This blog discusses three of my favourite approaches to collecting and tracking such data.
Online Class Surveys:
Early on in my courses, I launch and distribute a series of online surveys to see how my students are finding my classes. My survey questions explore topics ranging from how well I explain the overall objective of the course to how much I tend to emphasize thinking in the course. (To see a complete list of my survey questions, please see the attached text file below.)
I've enjoyed using this style of survey early on in the course because it's a lot easier to make subtle adjustments nearer the beginning of a course than nearer the end. In addition, if students are displeased with something about my course, my mode of delivery, or my teaching style, then it hasn't been happening long enough for them to be really upset, so the responses tend to be quite balanced and useful.
I use Survey Monkey (www.surveymonkey.com) to launch separate surveys for each of my courses. There are certainly other survey applications available on the web, but I can definitely vouch for the fact that Survey Monkey makes it quick and easy to set and launch surveys, and to then analyze the data. You can also use an LMS such as Blackboard or Desire2Learn to do something similar, but I think sites like Survey Monkey are a little faster and slicker - especially on the data analysis side of things. I should add, however, that Google Forms provide yet another powerful survey tool that teachers can readily use.
Online, Anonymous Suggestion Boxes:
Another terrific application for an online survey is to set up an anonymous suggestion box. All you need to do is set up a new survey with a single, open-ended, written response question, such as: "What thoughts, comments, or suggestions would you like to share regarding the CIA4U course at this point in time?" Make sure you select one of the "textbox" options for the question type, and you're off to the races. Then, from time to time, you just check in on the survey responses to see if you've received any new feedback. It's a good idea to share any input you receive - good or bad - with the class so as to highlight the fact that you do in fact read and consider the input that your students provide. (The only exception might be in cases where you receive sensitive or confidential information regarding activities that might be occurring in your classroom, such as bullying or harassment. In such cases, you may wish to deal with the matter in a more discreet manner.) Other than that, there's nothing else you'll need to do: you won't need to revamp or update your suggestion box survey for the duration of the course. Give this a try: it's quick and easy, and it can provide you with tremendously valuable ideas and insight.
Comprehensive Assessment Tracking - Spreadsheets:
For most of my career, I've used Excel spreadsheets to track data from test results, presentations, essays, exams, etc. I originally set up a spreadsheet to do this around twenty years ago, and I've simply been copying and modifying the same spreadsheet ever since.
I don't just use these spreadsheets to track test scores: I track the results for each question within a test. (Although I won't say I track each individual multiple choice question. I let the Scantron machine do that.) This allows me to quickly see how well the class has done on each question. It also allows me to compare class results from section to section and from year to year.
If you'd like to take a closer look, or even try this out for yourself, you can download a working example of an Excel file that I've set up as a typical test tracking sheet. (See the attached files at the end of this blog post.)
Points to Note:
The overall class results at the top of the columns are only looking at a pre-determined range of cells, so if you add more students or questions onto a given spreadsheet, then you may need to adjust the cell ranges to ensure that the spreadsheet is looking at all of your data.
I will also point out that you can easily copy and modify a worksheet within a given Excel file, allowing just one Excel file to contain all of the individual worksheets you may require for the various tests and assignments in a given course. (To copy a worksheet within a spreadsheet file, just right click on the tab at the bottom of the worksheet, then click on "Move or Copy," and then check the box that says, "Copy.")
This protocol may seem like a lot of work at the front end, but once the initial worksheet has been set up and populated with your class roster, then it's no work at all to generate subsequent tracking sheets. (Important Tip: Do be sure that your students are listed in the exact same order as they are found within your grades manager.) In the short to medium run, these tracking sheets will save you more time just in adding up the marks on the individual tests (which a spreadsheet does quickly and accurately) than they take to set up. The ability to track results across different types of test questions, as well as the ability to make year-over-year comparisons, are a pure bonus on your time investment.
If collecting class input and tracking data is something that you might be interested in exploring, then I hope you'll give some of these methods a try. I always appreciate hearing your feedback, so do let me know how it goes.
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Exploring the ever-changing, often challenging, and always controversial world of teaching.