Confirmation for “Uncomfortable, but Not Paralyzed”?

Since my first Digital History class in 2008, I’ve been telling students that I wanted them to be “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed” based on my sense that it was only when one struggled a bit that deep  learning occurred.  The concept has explicitly shaped much of my teaching since then.  Now the Mindshift blog at KQED is reporting that there are several studies that back up my reasoning.

In one study, published in Learning and Instruction, psychologists Sidney D’Mello and Art Graesser found “that even negative emotions can play a productive role in learning.”

Confusion, D’Mello explains, is a state of “cognitive disequilbrium”; we are mentally thrown off balance when we encounter information that doesn’t make sense. This uneasy feeling motivates us to restore our equilibrium through thought, reflection, and problem solving, and deeper learning is the result. According to D’Mello, engaged learners repeatedly experience “two-step episodesalternating between confusion and insight.” Back and forth, between perplexity and understanding: this is how the learning of complex material happens.

In fact, deep learning may be unlikely to happen without the experience of confusion, suggests a study conducted by another researcher, Arizona State’s Kurt VanLehn. The students in his experiment were not able to grasp the physics concepts they were learning until they had encountered, and surmounted, an intellectual “impasse.”

Still another study, this one led by Harvard physicist Eric Mazur, found that students who observed a demonstration in science class understood the relevant concept no better than before—unless the students were asked to predict the outcome of the demonstration in advance. When their predictions turned out to be wrong, the resulting confusion motivated them to consider the concept more deeply, and they learned more.

On a related note, Stephen Ramsey at the University of Nebraska has a wonderful post that eloquently makes the case that attitude is more important than (initial) aptitude in learning programming.

Nearly every programmer I know – and I know some great ones – started out not with a course, or a book, or a teacher, but with a problem that was irritating them. Something in their computational world didn’t seem right. Maybe it was broken, or maybe just missing. But being comfortable with not-knowing-what-the-hell-they’re-doing, they decided that getting a computer to do something new was more-or-less like figuring out how to get the chain back on the bike. They weren’t trying to “be programmers” any more than the parent determined to fix the kid’s bike is trying to be a “bicycle mechanic.”

All of these suggest that cultivating mental habits among our students (and ourselves) where we are okay with being unfamiliar with a subject, okay with struggling to master a concept or tool or problem, okay with working in new formats, okay with failure and trying again is important for intellectual and academic development in school and with the work done outside of school.

Confirmation for "Uncomfortable, but Not Paralyzed"?

Since my first Digital History class in 2008, I've been telling students that I wanted them to be "uncomfortable, but not paralyzed" based on my sense that it was only when one struggled a bit that deep  learning occurred.  The concept has explicitly shaped much of my teaching since then.  Now the Mindshift blog at KQED is reporting that there are several studies that back up my reasoning.

In one study, published in Learning and Instruction, psychologists Sidney D'Mello and Art Graesser found "that even negative emotions can play a productive role in learning."

Confusion, D’Mello explains, is a state of “cognitive disequilbrium”; we are mentally thrown off balance when we encounter information that doesn’t make sense. This uneasy feeling motivates us to restore our equilibrium through thought, reflection, and problem solving, and deeper learning is the result. According to D’Mello, engaged learners repeatedly experience “two-step episodesalternating between confusion and insight.” Back and forth, between perplexity and understanding: this is how the learning of complex material happens.
In fact, deep learning may be unlikely to happen without the experience of confusion, suggests a study conducted by another researcher, Arizona State’s Kurt VanLehn. The students in his experiment were not able to grasp the physics concepts they were learning until they had encountered, and surmounted, an intellectual “impasse.”
Still another study, this one led by Harvard physicist Eric Mazur, found that students who observed a demonstration in science class understood the relevant concept no better than before—unless the students were asked to predict the outcome of the demonstration in advance. When their predictions turned out to be wrong, the resulting confusion motivated them to consider the concept more deeply, and they learned more.


On a related note, Stephen Ramsey at the University of Nebraska has a wonderful post that eloquently makes the case that attitude is more important than (initial) aptitude in learning programming.
Nearly every programmer I know – and I know some great ones – started out not with a course, or a book, or a teacher, but with a problem that was irritating them. Something in their computational world didn’t seem right. Maybe it was broken, or maybe just missing. But being comfortable with not-knowing-what-the-hell-they’re-doing, they decided that getting a computer to do something new was more-or-less like figuring out how to get the chain back on the bike. They weren’t trying to “be programmers” any more than the parent determined to fix the kid’s bike is trying to be a “bicycle mechanic.”
All of these suggest that cultivating mental habits among our students (and ourselves) where we are okay with being unfamiliar with a subject, okay with struggling to master a concept or tool or problem, okay with working in new formats, okay with failure and trying again is important for intellectual and academic development in school and with the work done outside of school.

Confirmation for "Uncomfortable, but Not Paralyzed"?

Since my first Digital History class in 2008, I've been telling students that I wanted them to be "uncomfortable, but not paralyzed" based on my sense that it was only when one struggled a bit that deep  learning occurred.  The concept has explicitly shaped much of my teaching since then.  Now the Mindshift blog at KQED is reporting that there are several studies that back up my reasoning.

In one study, published in Learning and Instruction, psychologists Sidney D'Mello and Art Graesser found "that even negative emotions can play a productive role in learning."

Confusion, D’Mello explains, is a state of “cognitive disequilbrium”; we are mentally thrown off balance when we encounter information that doesn’t make sense. This uneasy feeling motivates us to restore our equilibrium through thought, reflection, and problem solving, and deeper learning is the result. According to D’Mello, engaged learners repeatedly experience “two-step episodesalternating between confusion and insight.” Back and forth, between perplexity and understanding: this is how the learning of complex material happens.
In fact, deep learning may be unlikely to happen without the experience of confusion, suggests a study conducted by another researcher, Arizona State’s Kurt VanLehn. The students in his experiment were not able to grasp the physics concepts they were learning until they had encountered, and surmounted, an intellectual “impasse.”
Still another study, this one led by Harvard physicist Eric Mazur, found that students who observed a demonstration in science class understood the relevant concept no better than before—unless the students were asked to predict the outcome of the demonstration in advance. When their predictions turned out to be wrong, the resulting confusion motivated them to consider the concept more deeply, and they learned more.


On a related note, Stephen Ramsey at the University of Nebraska has a wonderful post that eloquently makes the case that attitude is more important than (initial) aptitude in learning programming.
Nearly every programmer I know – and I know some great ones – started out not with a course, or a book, or a teacher, but with a problem that was irritating them. Something in their computational world didn’t seem right. Maybe it was broken, or maybe just missing. But being comfortable with not-knowing-what-the-hell-they’re-doing, they decided that getting a computer to do something new was more-or-less like figuring out how to get the chain back on the bike. They weren’t trying to “be programmers” any more than the parent determined to fix the kid’s bike is trying to be a “bicycle mechanic.”
All of these suggest that cultivating mental habits among our students (and ourselves) where we are okay with being unfamiliar with a subject, okay with struggling to master a concept or tool or problem, okay with working in new formats, okay with failure and trying again is important for intellectual and academic development in school and with the work done outside of school.

Re-Creating the College Classroom of the Past

I just sent the following email to one of my classes for the Spring.


Hello all,

Thanks for signing up for History 328: US Women’s History since 1870.  I wanted to give you a little preview of my plans for our class next semester because the research projects in the class are going to be a little different than that of other history classes (even for those of you who took HIST 327 this fall).

First of all, in many ways, the general structure of the class is going to be fairly standard.  We’ll have lectures on Tuesdays and part of Thursdays, and discuss readings on Thursdays.  There will be a mid-term and a final based on those lectures, discussions, and readings.

What’s different is that the rest of your grade, roughly 40%, will be based on a series of projects we’ll be working on in groups and as a class.  These projects will be based around researching Mary Washington College classes in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, & 1960s (including course topics, pedagogical approaches, majors, gender stereotypes, technology, and clothing).  As the class lectures and readings look at the experiences of women in the United States in the late 19th and 20thCenturies, our parallel goal will be to understand what college meant to women who came to Mary Washington in the four decades in the middle of the 20thCentury.

Each group of 6-7 of you will have a decade to research, using a variety of online and archival sources, as well as interviews with alums from these decades.  Rather than writing a traditional individual research paper, you’ll keep a research blog and  work with your group to create a research site collecting together the information that you’ve found.

Based on those sites, we will collectively decide (perhaps with the help of some alums), which decade we will then use for the final project, a re-creation of a course session or two from that decade.

Now, if this project is not the kind of thing you’ll be interested in working on, you may want to look for another class.  But I hope you’ll each at least be intrigued by the idea and perhaps even excited by doing something that is original, fun, and creative, while tying in to the themes we’ll be discussing more broadly for US women in the class.

Have a terrific break and I’ll see you in January.

Dr. McClurken

I'm very excited about this project, so any suggestions you have for the process, the approach, the research sites, or anything else will be greatly appreciated.

Re-Creating the College Classroom of the Past

I just sent the following email to one of my classes for the Spring.


Hello all,

Thanks for signing up for History 328: US Women’s History since 1870.  I wanted to give you a little preview of my plans for our class next semester because the research projects in the class are going to be a little different than that of other history classes (even for those of you who took HIST 327 this fall).

First of all, in many ways, the general structure of the class is going to be fairly standard.  We’ll have lectures on Tuesdays and part of Thursdays, and discuss readings on Thursdays.  There will be a mid-term and a final based on those lectures, discussions, and readings.

What’s different is that the rest of your grade, roughly 40%, will be based on a series of projects we’ll be working on in groups and as a class.  These projects will be based around researching Mary Washington College classes in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, & 1960s (including course topics, pedagogical approaches, majors, gender stereotypes, technology, and clothing).  As the class lectures and readings look at the experiences of women in the United States in the late 19th and 20thCenturies, our parallel goal will be to understand what college meant to women who came to Mary Washington in the four decades in the middle of the 20thCentury.

Each group of 6-7 of you will have a decade to research, using a variety of online and archival sources, as well as interviews with alums from these decades.  Rather than writing a traditional individual research paper, you’ll keep a research blog and  work with your group to create a research site collecting together the information that you’ve found.

Based on those sites, we will collectively decide (perhaps with the help of some alums), which decade we will then use for the final project, a re-creation of a course session or two from that decade.

Now, if this project is not the kind of thing you’ll be interested in working on, you may want to look for another class.  But I hope you’ll each at least be intrigued by the idea and perhaps even excited by doing something that is original, fun, and creative, while tying in to the themes we’ll be discussing more broadly for US women in the class.

Have a terrific break and I’ll see you in January.

Dr. McClurken

I'm very excited about this project, so any suggestions you have for the process, the approach, the research sites, or anything else will be greatly appreciated.

Info Age #4 — The Documentaries

[Be sure to check out the earlier installments of my discussion of my History of the Information Age senior seminar as well:   here, here, and here, as well as the class timeline and the list of the first set of projects to be placed in that timeline.]

Assignment #4 in this course was the group documentaries on some aspect of the Information Age.  I didn't give the students a great deal of direction, other than to say that they needed to show change over time, that they should be between 5 and 10 minutes, and that they needed to upload them somewhere where they could be seen (they all chose YouTube).  They had about three weeks to come up with a topic (related to the class discussions of the digital age), research, film, and edit the video.

Each group had a basic video camera, and they had access to the editing stations in our Digital Media Lab (with iMovie and Premiere).   Ultimately, only one group used Premiere, one used iMovie, and two used Windows Movie Maker.  
Although they had been given a brief intro to video editing at the start of the semester by DTLT, most of them were going to be doing video capture and editing for the first time.  I recommended that they test out their cameras, video files, and basic editing before they got too far into the process so that they could figure out problems in advance.

They presented the documentaries to the class and they were a great deal of fun.  Certainly, the videos aren't as polished as they would have been if I had spent more time in training them how to use editing software, or if they'd had more time in the semester to work on them (both points the students make in their after-project posts, linked below), but I'm quite impressed with the work they produced and their willingness to throw themselves into the projects.  

What's your take?  What suggestions do you have for future iterations of the assignment?

Info Age #4 — The Documentaries

[Be sure to check out the earlier installments of my discussion of my History of the Information Age senior seminar as well:   here, here, and here, as well as the class timeline and the list of the first set of projects to be placed in that timeline.]

Assignment #4 in this course was the group documentaries on some aspect of the Information Age.  I didn't give the students a great deal of direction, other than to say that they needed to show change over time, that they should be between 5 and 10 minutes, and that they needed to upload them somewhere where they could be seen (they all chose YouTube).  They had about three weeks to come up with a topic (related to the class discussions of the digital age), research, film, and edit the video.

Each group had a basic video camera, and they had access to the editing stations in our Digital Media Lab (with iMovie and Premiere).   Ultimately, only one group used Premiere, one used iMovie, and two used Windows Movie Maker.  
Although they had been given a brief intro to video editing at the start of the semester by DTLT, most of them were going to be doing video capture and editing for the first time.  I recommended that they test out their cameras, video files, and basic editing before they got too far into the process so that they could figure out problems in advance.

They presented the documentaries to the class and they were a great deal of fun.  Certainly, the videos aren't as polished as they would have been if I had spent more time in training them how to use editing software, or if they'd had more time in the semester to work on them (both points the students make in their after-project posts, linked below), but I'm quite impressed with the work they produced and their willingness to throw themselves into the projects.  

What's your take?  What suggestions do you have for future iterations of the assignment?

Digital History and Undergraduate Digital Literacy

As so many of my posts, this began as a comment on someone else's blog that grew unwieldy as a comment.... In this case, I was joining a discussion about teaching undergraduates digital history begun by the wise Mills Kelly at edwired and continued in the comments by Sterling Fluharty of PhD in History and others. Mills expresses concern about the lack of attention to the question of undergraduate teaching in a recently published panel discussion in the Journal of American History about "The Promise of Digital History" . [As Mills points out, it's quite a useful panel other than this glaring omission of teaching undergraduates.]

So, my comment (and now this post) is an attempt to explain from my perspective why digital history is important to teach to undergraduates.

My goal in teaching undergraduates digital history is to offer students new ways of approaching their own research and thinking and writing. Our department has agreed that "digital literacy" is core to our expectations for our undergraduates (along with critical thinking and reading, the creation of original ideas, the deployment of evidence to support one's arguments, and the ability to present those arguments in sophisticated written and oral forms).

Now, I know the notion of "digital literacy" has been overused and has multiple definitions, but I actually like the phrase for people's familiarity with it and for that very richness of meanings. So, I've viewed the goals of my undergraduate digital history course through some of those definitions.
  • One goal of my digital history course is to teach the most conventional form of digital literacy: How does one find and evaluate online materials for scholarly (and non-scholarly) uses? How does one begin to sift through the massive content that is available in an systematic and/or creative way? What are the pitfalls and perils, the promises and potentialities of the online information experience?
  • Another facet of digital literacy is the notion of digital identity: This is a class that, through individual and group online presence (often blogs and wikis, but many other tools are available as well), explicitly engages students in discussions of their digital identity. How should we present ourselves to the online world (personally, professionally, and intellectually, but also individually and in groups)? [In future iterations it might even encourage them to create their own centralized online presence that wouldn't necessarily be housed by the university (or restricted by a single course). We've been engaged recently at UMW in a number of discussions related to this notion of enabling students to take control of their digital identity. See Jim's post and comments for one take.]
  • Increasingly I have become convinced that a key, but often overlooked, aspect of digital literacy is a willingness to experiment with a variety of online tools, and then to think critically and strategically about a project and to identify those tools that would be most useful to that project. [Note that I'm NOT talking about training in a specific tool or even a set of tools. This is not an MS Word or Blackboard skills class. This digital history class offers students a "digital toolkit" from which to choose. There certainly needs to be some basic exposure and technical support, but part of the goal is to get students to figure out how to figure out how a new tool (system, software, historical process) works on their own.]
  • Broadening the previous point, one of my desires for students is for them to be comfortable with being uncomfortable as they try new things. Figuring how to deal with constantly changing technology is something we all are dealing with, yet in higher education we often put students in new situations only when they first begin. Before long, they've got the process and procedures down and can churn out 8-10 page papers in their sleep. Yet what kind of preparation is that for the larger world? I know, I know. There are much larger philosophical and practical and even political issues at work here. But my point is simply that it's good for college classes to shake students (and faculty) out of their comfort zone. Real learning happens when you're trying to figure out the controls, not when you're on autopilot.
  • Finally, I think digital literacy for undergraduates in history should encompass at least some exposure to the complex new approaches to research in the discipline offered by recent advancements in computing, including text-mining or GIS (if only because that those methods are influencing a new generation of scholarship that students will need to understand to assess). As they become more accessible and widely used, there will be more opportunities for students to also engage in the application of these tools in their own work.
Now, one of the issues raised by Sterling on Mills's blog post was whether the goal of an undergraduate history class was to train students for particular jobs. My response to that is both practical and pedagogical. No, I don't see this course as preparing them for particular jobs. However, I do see the class as preparing students to be adaptable citizens and workers, with a sound grounding in who they are (on- and off-line) and a willingness to try new things, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Having said that, I've had several alums of my first digital history class get jobs that were direct results of the skills (and portfolio of projects) gained in the class. In some cases it was because of a specific tool that they'd worked with; in others it was because of the package they were able to present to their potential employers. Certainly those students felt like the class had been worth it for them.

Finally, although I've been talking specifically about one class, aspects of these ideas have made their way into most of my classes, as well as those of several of my departmental colleagues, including that of our methods class for majors. Still, I suspect there will be a need for (at least) one class in my department that is explicitly focused on Digital History for a long time to come.



Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Digital History and Undergraduate Digital Literacy

As so many of my posts, this began as a comment on someone else's blog that grew unwieldy as a comment.... In this case, I was joining a discussion about teaching undergraduates digital history begun by the wise Mills Kelly at edwired and continued in the comments by Sterling Fluharty of PhD in History and others. Mills expresses concern about the lack of attention to the question of undergraduate teaching in a recently published panel discussion in the Journal of American History about "The Promise of Digital History" . [As Mills points out, it's quite a useful panel other than this glaring omission of teaching undergraduates.]

So, my comment (and now this post) is an attempt to explain from my perspective why digital history is important to teach to undergraduates.

My goal in teaching undergraduates digital history is to offer students new ways of approaching their own research and thinking and writing. Our department has agreed that "digital literacy" is core to our expectations for our undergraduates (along with critical thinking and reading, the creation of original ideas, the deployment of evidence to support one's arguments, and the ability to present those arguments in sophisticated written and oral forms).

Now, I know the notion of "digital literacy" has been overused and has multiple definitions, but I actually like the phrase for people's familiarity with it and for that very richness of meanings. So, I've viewed the goals of my undergraduate digital history course through some of those definitions.
  • One goal of my digital history course is to teach the most conventional form of digital literacy: How does one find and evaluate online materials for scholarly (and non-scholarly) uses? How does one begin to sift through the massive content that is available in an systematic and/or creative way? What are the pitfalls and perils, the promises and potentialities of the online information experience?
  • Another facet of digital literacy is the notion of digital identity: This is a class that, through individual and group online presence (often blogs and wikis, but many other tools are available as well), explicitly engages students in discussions of their digital identity. How should we present ourselves to the online world (personally, professionally, and intellectually, but also individually and in groups)? [In future iterations it might even encourage them to create their own centralized online presence that wouldn't necessarily be housed by the university (or restricted by a single course). We've been engaged recently at UMW in a number of discussions related to this notion of enabling students to take control of their digital identity. See Jim's post and comments for one take.]
  • Increasingly I have become convinced that a key, but often overlooked, aspect of digital literacy is a willingness to experiment with a variety of online tools, and then to think critically and strategically about a project and to identify those tools that would be most useful to that project. [Note that I'm NOT talking about training in a specific tool or even a set of tools. This is not an MS Word or Blackboard skills class. This digital history class offers students a "digital toolkit" from which to choose. There certainly needs to be some basic exposure and technical support, but part of the goal is to get students to figure out how to figure out how a new tool (system, software, historical process) works on their own.]
  • Broadening the previous point, one of my desires for students is for them to be comfortable with being uncomfortable as they try new things. Figuring how to deal with constantly changing technology is something we all are dealing with, yet in higher education we often put students in new situations only when they first begin. Before long, they've got the process and procedures down and can churn out 8-10 page papers in their sleep. Yet what kind of preparation is that for the larger world? I know, I know. There are much larger philosophical and practical and even political issues at work here. But my point is simply that it's good for college classes to shake students (and faculty) out of their comfort zone. Real learning happens when you're trying to figure out the controls, not when you're on autopilot.
  • Finally, I think digital literacy for undergraduates in history should encompass at least some exposure to the complex new approaches to research in the discipline offered by recent advancements in computing, including text-mining or GIS (if only because that those methods are influencing a new generation of scholarship that students will need to understand to assess). As they become more accessible and widely used, there will be more opportunities for students to also engage in the application of these tools in their own work.
Now, one of the issues raised by Sterling on Mills's blog post was whether the goal of an undergraduate history class was to train students for particular jobs. My response to that is both practical and pedagogical. No, I don't see this course as preparing them for particular jobs. However, I do see the class as preparing students to be adaptable citizens and workers, with a sound grounding in who they are (on- and off-line) and a willingness to try new things, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Having said that, I've had several alums of my first digital history class get jobs that were direct results of the skills (and portfolio of projects) gained in the class. In some cases it was because of a specific tool that they'd worked with; in others it was because of the package they were able to present to their potential employers. Certainly those students felt like the class had been worth it for them.

Finally, although I've been talking specifically about one class, aspects of these ideas have made their way into most of my classes, as well as those of several of my departmental colleagues, including that of our methods class for majors. Still, I suspect there will be a need for (at least) one class in my department that is explicitly focused on Digital History for a long time to come.



Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Speaking of Honor

I was honored to be asked to present the faculty perspective on our school's Honor Code at our annual Honor Convocation, a moment when all new students at the school are introduced to the Honor System and sign an Honor Pledge, committing themselves to that system.

I only had a week to prepare, so I turned to a number of colleagues and some fellow alums for ideas. Tim O'Donnell and Claudia Emerson were particularly helpful in shaping the direction of the speech.



Thanks to Anand Rao for recording and posting the video. If anyone's interested, I could post the text of the talk as well.

In any case, I think it went well. It was a real honor to stand up on that stage and start off the academic year in that way and represent the faculty perspective to the entering students.