December 2, 2020

Squirrels and tabs and momentum, oh my!

Let’s do a quick experiment! Since you are probably looking at this blog on an internet browser of some kind, you can follow along at home. If you look to the top of your browser window you probably have a few different tabs open. How many do you have open? 1? 10? 100? How recently have you looked at the content on your tabs? At my home office, I always have too many tabs open. As of writing this article I have 22 tabs open, ranging from social media to academic articles I will get to, “eventually.” When sifting through articles for a lit review, these tabs can reduce the number of articles I have to download and make my eventual workload smaller. Unfortunately, these tabs might as well turn into squirrels when I need to get work done.

As many dog owners will know, squirrels are a natural enemy of your furry companion’s ability to focus. In academia, our own metaphorical squirrels are natural enemies to our ability to focus. Multiple studies have found strong links between a lack of focus and poor-quality work in academia. This can manifest, for example, when we conduct literature reviews in which we cast a broad net looking for previous studies on our topic. When searching digital databases (e.g., Google Scholar or JSTOR) even specific author and title searches return dozens of links and citations. While there is an entire blog to be written on the issues of academic journal paywalls, a more fiendish enemy to our sense of focus often appears. When examining previous research on your topic of study, many articles sound too interesting to pass up on, no matter how tangential those articles’ topics may be. And so, you begin chasing after squirrels for hours by reading about these unrelated topics in unneeded articles. Luckily, academia has a few tricks to combat these squirrels.

One of these tricks relies on your professors, and their expertise in maintaining group focus through pedagogy. A study on learning in college pointed out that lectures encouraged the reproduction of previous knowledge and a lack of reflection on the context of any knowledge presented. In contrast, the same study alluded to the fact that seminars often encouraged reflection and production of new knowledge. The authors found “core” seminars, those covering broad topics applicable across subdisciplines of their field, followed a lecture format - traditionally applied to large survey classes - in a seminar context. In contrast, they found “area” seminars, those emphasizing specific subdisciplines within each field, followed a teacher-led discussion format in the same context. When discussing study results, researchers suggest issues found in the lecture format extend across all seminars taught using these pedagogical methods. To examine these issues, I’d like to discuss two examples from my own academic experience.

But first, a critical definition. The Socratic method is a common pedagogical method for teaching. This method relies on co-operative arguments and dialogue through questions and answers to encourage critical thinking. Through such arguments, participants discover and examine the presuppositions and ideas underlying the topic. The key lies in the dialogue. Classic examples from literature show this method used to great effect. Unfortunately, this dialogue can stall in an academic setting when one party, usually the student, lacks fundamental knowledge of subject matter.

As an undergraduate, one class requirement within my graduation plan included a pair of political science classes on federal and state governments. While the structure of the US government has changed little in over two centuries, state governments within the US were designed on ‘guidelines’ rather than rules. My class on the state government of Texas did little to disprove this. Our professor, a graduate student in the Political Science department, chose the Socratic Method to lecture over 200 Freshman students. This pedagogical choice requires focus from both professors and students. We’ll get into this momentarily. First, some additional information about my class. My Political Sciences syllabus explained the course pedagogy in two points:

  • Class sessions would be taught via Socratic method, the professor would ask questions to elicit a response from students, allowing the conversation to evolve organically; and
  • All 4 exams would be 50 true or false questions.

Ideally, the first point would provide a discussion to engage students, cover important topics, and cause reflection on the structure of the state level government within Texas. The second point, 50 true or false questions, was a crime against learners and shall never be spoken of again. While the questions asked within our class sessions were on topic and worth asking; a combination of class size, broad language, and unwillingness to stand out discouraged the participation of many students. In addition, the diversity of backgrounds across the students caused confusion for those participating. As a lifelong inhabitant of Texas, my state’s history had been drummed into me from an early age; however, my state’s government structure was only mentioned in passing around secondary school. I would gamble many of my fellow Texans have similar experiences in learning about the state’s government. At Texas A&M University, however, over 5% of students pay ‘out of state’ tuition. International students, included within this group, might lack the prerequisite knowledge of the US government, providing no basis of comparison for Texas’ state government.

Despite my professor’s use of the Socratic Method, the circumstances inhibited students’ reflection. The study I mentioned previously confirms my observation. While comparing the effectiveness of the lecture format against the effectiveness of the teacher-led discussion format, researchers discovered the importance of focus in both situations. Students lack the necessary knowledge to organize and manage seminars on their own, requiring guidance from a knowledgeable professor. The critical trait for the professor is the ability to notice a loss of focus in the seminar’s dialogue, and implement a pedagogical structure to mitigate any loss of focus. If students could maintain focus without pedagogical structure, they would not need the seminar class and could just research topics at their leisure. I believe focus can be especially difficult, however, in classes containing students excited about the topic matter. Excitement can decrease objective examination, encourage tangential discussion, and provide weak defenses against an invasion by the Squirrel Army.

In contrast to my Political Sciences course, an Architecture seminar regarding ancient sculptures and engravings was extremely successful, in my opinion, when using the Socratic method to convey important information. The professor leading this seminar preferred a more dynamic dialogue in her application of the Socratic method. Through this dynamic dialogue, the professor encouraged reflection in my other classes. But, how does this dynamic dialogue create a more effective learning environment? Dynamic dialogue, in combination with effective pedagogical structure, promotes increased focus in seminar classes.

Asking a group of students, “How many senators represent Texas in the US Senate?” seems straightforward and focused. The answer, two, is unambiguous, uses readily available information, and helps focus the following discussion. The following discussion, however, needs to increase momentum through this focus. In my Political Sciences class, the follow-up question was often one word, “Why?” Spending any time around small children will demonstrate the lack of focus in this ‘question.’ Why are they in the US Senate? Why are there only two? Why do they represent Texas? These squirrels escape, and the students are confused.

In contrast, my Architecture seminar had focused questions followed by additional focused questions. Discussing an example would begin with broader questions, “When you look at this carving, what is the first thing your eye is drawn to?” The broad question focuses dialogue through the use of a single example. This example is unambiguous, requires only immediate observations, and helps focus the following discussion.

Follow-up questions using other examples would bring up common elements, shapes, and themes. These examples were chosen based on the pedagogical structure prepared by the professor for each class. Though examples might come from the same location or time period, this pedagogical structure encouraged class dialogue to remain focused. As a result, our professor could add knowledge at an appropriate time within this dialogue and create contextual points for reflection. Through drawing out these elements, students’ observations evolved into focused questions. Through my professor’s use of dynamic dialogue, students generated their own knowledge in the form of questions. Students’ questions generated further dialogue and, through examination of the presuppositions and ideas underlying each question, my professor’s use of the Socratic method created an effective learning environment.

Why is focus so important? We have looked into two examples, both with different results. In the first example a lack of focus inhibited the learning environment. In contrast, the second example demonstrated the use of focus to increase momentum within the learning environment, encouraging the generation of new knowledge. Focus, when properly applied, is the first step in this chain of events. In research, however, we often make our own focus.

When beginning the research process, we look to previous literature for guidance. As I mentioned previously, this presents a battlefield for our attention. While there is no professor to direct your focus, your choice of literature and research question can give you direction. In my own research, this required me to abandon all preconceived notions regarding database searches. As a research community, we have come a long way since the days of the Dewey Decimal System. But, even with the benefit of digital searches, squirrel mitigation strategies are critical to maintaining focus!

After finding a few articles worth examination, I stopped using broad search terms in digital databases. If you examine the citations that follow academic articles, certain names become readily identifiable. For example, in my research on Durham Cathedral I kept seeing the name R.W. Billings. As an architectural historian, my research relies on sketches, renderings, and visual media; as most buildings don’t leave their site of construction. In addition, as I lacked funding to make constant trips to England for “data collection and incidental cultural sampling,” this reference to R.W. Billings became crucial to my research. Though his analysis of the then 650-year-old construction is dated, his drawings and representations of the Cathedral were perfect for my research. Rather than searching blindly, I began to add Billings’ name to my search terms. Through the changing of my search terms I changed the focus of my questions. Though my research focus had not changed, more focused questions gave me more focused search results. This created momentum in my search for more sources, and showed beneficial results similar to our second seminar class example. Without such momentum, I doubt I would have completed my thesis. I would have given in to the failures, fears, frustrations, feelings of futility, all because I lacked focus. Admittedly this is a lesson that I am still learning, but I am changing my tactics and trying to find new ways to stay focused.

When we have our weekly meetings at STEM-VRSE we use an agenda. A common tactic with larger business meetings, this creates a series of points that deserve focus and can maintain momentum in planning the next week’s affairs. In spite of this, the squirrel army is consistently on that list. We often have an entire section of our agenda devoted to squirrels. Some lead to future projects, others just steal our focus and we must get back on track after a good laugh. The agenda keeps us on track through holding ourselves accountable. In holding ourselves accountable, we keep ourselves focused. This allows us, as an organization, to increase the productivity of our limited time and energy. You can do this when working through your own graduate school experience. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have squirrels to fight, tabs to close, and momentum to keep.